Toast Ale: An interview with Tristram Stuart

Root talks to author, campaigner and food innovator Tristram Stuart about the origins of Toast Ale and gets his perspective on the argument of extending shelf life vs over-packaging.

Tell me a bit about your background and what led you to create Toast Ale?

I’m an author and campaigner on the environmental and social impacts of food production. I founded the charity Feedback to drive out waste at every stage of the food cycle, Feedback’s campaigning work includes challenging the supermarkets’ cosmetic standards that result in produce being left unharvested on farms.

It was during a visit to Belgium that I met the guys behind the Brussels Beer Project. One of their beers is brewed with surplus bread – named Babylone because brewing with bread is an ancient way of preserving the calories in bread, from a perishable product to one with a relatively long shelf life. I’d previously visited a sandwich factory discarding 13,000 slices of bread every day and was acutely aware of the scale of bread waste. I was inspired that beer could be a brilliant way of involving people in a positive solution – literally drinking away a problem whilst funding systemic change (all profits go to Feedback) – and that we could spread the rev-ALE-ution by leveraging my network of food waste activists globally. Toast was launched in the UK in January 2016. We’re now in the US, and preparing to launch in South Africa and Iceland.

Have you encountered any barriers to the value proposition of the product due to it being ‘leftovers’?

Feedback has completely changed the landscape – we’ve galvanized the public behind the issue of using high profile media campaigns to demonstrate that most of the food being wasted is perfectly edible fresh food.

At Toast Ale, we don’t talk about the bread we use as ‘waste’ because it isn’t. We use the heel end of loaves that are not used in the production of sandwiches because consumers don’t eat packaged sandwiches made with crusts. The sandwich producer segregates this part of the loaf and delivers it to the brewery as part of its usual distribution route. The bread goes into the brewing process hours before you’d be eating the sandwiches made from the same loaf. As bread is the most wasted household item, it’s highly symbolic. Our customers love the fact that they can enjoy a quality beer whilst doing their bit.

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Research shows that Millenials are much more passionate about behaving more responsibly. Do you think this is a big factor in the success of the brand gaining traction in the market?

Millennials are conscious consumers, and willing to spend more for better quality, sustainable products. This is partly because they have access to a huge amount of digital information and so are conscious of and able to be critical of ethical and environmental issues throughout a product’s lifecycle – from responsible materials sourcing through to sustainable production. They demand information about the products they buy and make purchasing decisions that are informed by more than just price – whilst the big food giants have been competing largely on this basis.

Toast Ale has a compelling model for Millenials. We use a quality ingredient that would otherwise be wasted and give all profits to charity to tackle a global problem. We’re completely transparent about our entire process and we stand for the same principles of ethical and environmentally sustainable practices. We also offer something else that’s compelling: Millenials favour convenience and having a beer is the most simple way of doing good.

We’ve also been successful at appealing to another growth market. Craft beer is booming and, in particular, we’re seeing more women drinkers engaging with our brand.

How important is the role of packaging design in preventing food waste?

Packaging has a role to play for some products, but it’s role in preventing food waste has been over-egged, and often in irresponsible ways. The business model for packaging companies is dependent on growth and therefore on wrapping more products with plastic. However, with Western products already packaged, the growth areas are in the continents of Africa and Asia, which lack the infrastructure for recycling (and often even landfill). If packaging waste isn’t managed properly, it ends up being consumed by birds and animals and contaminating our food, with endocrine disruptors found in fish products all over the world.

By claiming packaging reduces food waste, companies are attempting to make it more acceptable to the public, who are now more aware of the negative impacts of food waste. The claim tends to be that plastic packaging increases the shelf life of perishable products, but there’s insufficient research to prove this.

What are your thoughts about the circular economy – is it high level strategic talk or a tangible strategy for brands to apply to their business and products?

Encouraging people to envisage and move towards a more circular economy must start not with complaining, but by showing a better option. Toast Ale is primarily a really good beer that people enjoy drinking, but also based on circular economy model: using and adding value to bread that would otherwise be wasted whist displacing other resource inputs, and pouring all our profits into changing the system. If we assign value to and repurpose the existing outputs of our food system, there would be no waste and we’d reduce the burden on natural resource inputs. It’s a strategic change to the entire system but it can start with individual brands leading the way with innovative approaches to closing the loop.

For anyone reading this article, what 3 things can they do today reduce food waste?

Drink Toast Ale – it’s a pint-sized solution and a great-tasting way of doing your bit to fight food waste

Ask questions – ask supermarkets to publish data on their food waste so that entrepreneurs can use this information about inefficiencies in our system to find solutions

Change your own habits – buy ‘wonky’ local, seasonal produce, freeze or preserve surplus food in your home and don’t throw packaged food away just because it’s past the best before date (it has nothing to do with food safety).

 

To learn more about Toast Ale visit www.toastale.com

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