The Big Interview: Brewgooder founder Alan Mahon

On World Water Day last week, Brewgooder launched a social media campaign titled The Dirty Pint, putting a new spin on the drinking challenge, and recognising the estimated 800 million people forced to drink regularly from unsafe water sources.

Mahon wants Brewgooder to broaden its remit to become 'a beer that makes cool things happen'. Picture: contributed.

The video drives its message home by showing an elderly man in Malawi collecting water in a pint glass from an open source that is obviously unfit to drink.

It was inspired by one of founder Alan Mahon’s many trips to the country during which he visited a small community that had, with his enterprise’s help, had a borehole drilled to offer access to clean water for the first time.

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A village elder approached him, Mahon recalls. “He came over, and in the best English he could muster, just said ‘Thanks’. For me that was hugely powerful.” It dawned on him that any child born after that day would be able to take such a necessity for granted.

“That’s when you start to change the game for people – for generations, not just for a few months or years. If we can start to have hundreds of those a year, instead of ten or 20, then it’s just endless as to what you could achieve.”

Brewgooder has just reached its third anniversary, having launched on World Water Day in 2016, aiming to provide clean water for a million people via sales of what is billed as the world’s first “clean water lager” – and uniting the first and third worlds.

It sprang into life with its #DrinkBeerGiveWater crowdfunder, which closed after about three weeks having raised nearly £60,000, exceeding the £50,000 target and helping fund production of the first 200,000 cans.

Mahon was prompted to start the venture after contracting a waterborne illness from drinking water while volunteering in Nepal.

“I got really quite sick and when I returned to the UK, it was just a case of me going to the doctor, getting a prescription and doing some tests,” he explains. He returned to full health within a couple of weeks – but realised that was only down to the good fortune of living in the developed world.

“Somebody else born at the exact same moment as me somewhere else wouldn’t have that access and that luck, and I didn’t think that was something I could really, in all good conscience, live with.”

Politics graduate Mahon had already shown an interest in making a positive impact, having applied to join the Department for International Development and worked for Social Bite, the Edinburgh-based social enterprise aimed at eradicating homelessness.

Mahon’s time at the venture co-founded by Josh Littlejohn (who helped get Brewgooder off the ground) persuaded him that he could build “a brand that people wanted to drink, and wanted to interact with, and have an impact that was built into that as well”. He settled on craft beer due to its popularity.

As for the million-person target, he saw it as “something that would happen over a lifetime or a career… I thought that was something that I could definitely commit myself to doing”.

The original aim was to achieve that goal within the first five years (“that was pretty naive and optimistic,” laughs Mahon) but the plan now is to build the business to a position where it could comfortably take 100,000 people out of water poverty a year by the end of 2020.

Mahon also stresses that Social Bite – which has grown from sandwich shops to include a village for the homeless, Sleep in The Park events, and a visit from Hollywood A-lister George Clooney in 2015 that he and Littlejohn brought about – showed him what can happen when you build momentum.

“Once you get into a rhythm of knowing exactly what you’re talking about and making an impact… people want to help you get to that number. By the time we hit half a million then the next half a million might be an inevitability.

“As we grow the business we’re actually growing our impact alongside that.”

Rather than set up its own production facilities, Brewgooder hitched its wagon to Ellon-based craft beer giant BrewDog, which is led by James Watt and Martin Dickie and agreed to provide the lager at zero margin. BrewDog’s involvement proved a “crucial piece of the puzzle,” says Mahon, “and I don’t think they get enough credit for basically just saying ‘yes’, and letting us get on with it and showing the faith and trust that this is something that could actually make a difference to people.”

Brewgooder has now sold more than 1.2 million cans of its beer, and provided clean water to more than 64,000 people, although it is “still a start-up, I guess”, according to its founder.

“Every day is quite challenging, but it brings new opportunities, and I think if we look at how much we’ve done… we’re really pleased with how it’s going and how we’re shaping up.”

Brewgooder has grown its stockists to exceed 3,000 across the UK, and has struck deals with Asda, Aldi and Tesco. Its tie-up with the Co-op Well Dig across that supermarket’s 400-plus stores aims to sell enough four-packs to exclusively fund clean water access for the villages of Matipa and Waluma in Malawi. The country has recently suffered severe flooding.

Income has grown from £160,000 in the first year to £540,000 in the second, and is expected to hit £800,000 in the 12 months to April this year. “We’re targeting some hefty turnover figures in years to come,” says Mahon.

It has also signed up high-profile names at Glenfiddich parent company William Grant & Sons and Skyscanner to join its board and help steer the brand, which has a modest head count of seven and looks likely to reach £2.5 million in annual sales by the close of the financial year ending 2021.

Travel search engine giant Skyscanner is one of the firms to have signed up to Brewgooder’s Office Beer Club, a corporate subscription service for organisations who can use the beers for, say, drinks in the office on a Friday and count it towards their corporate social responsibility activity.

Amazon, Tesla, smoothie company Innocent and challenger bank Monzo are also on the list of about 100 organisations, ensuring the product is going into influential hands – Mahon aims to increase that to 1,500 subscribers within the next two years.

The venture crucially spreads the word about what Brewgooder does and stands for. “We think it is such a unique concept, that it is something that people can really get behind – it’s just a matter of how you tell as many people as possible,” says Mahon, adding that the firm could well seek further crowdfunding or some form of social investment at some point.

Brewgooder can also lay claim to being a Scottish EDGE winner, and has received backing from Sir Tom Hunter’s The Hunter Foundation.

“We’re distributed across the UK, which is great, but what we really need to focus on is that good commercial growth that underpins all the stuff we can do. To make that sustainable, you just have to tell the story in as many different ways as possible… and really capture people’s imagination.”

Brewgooder’s strategy dovetails with the growing trend for consumers to seek out a positive social impact when they make a purchase. Social Enterprise Scotland found that there were 5,600 such organisations north of the border in 2017 (with about 600 created in the previous two years) boasting an annual income of £3.8 billion.

Although that’s an impressive figure, Mahon believes to reach its full potential Brewgooder must broaden its remit from being a beer as a social enterprise to being “a beer that makes cool things happen”. That might be in Scotland, Malawi, or anywhere else in the world, he says.

But that doesn’t mean Mahon will ever become a conventional entrepreneur – even if he did win the top gong in the Scottish round of the Royal Bank of Scotland Great British Entrepreneur Awards in November.

“I’m one of a rare breed who just sees business as a means to a social end, rather than anything else. And I think that concept has only grown as entrepreneurs come into the world with different mindsets.”

Indeed, Mahon predicts that the familiar billionaire-turned-philanthropist will disappear as people build purpose into the very foundations of their business models.

Given his community-minded mentality, it is little surprising that Mahon is deeply attuned to politics, an area he says has “pervaded” his life. He says that anyone who has grown up in west Belfast, as he has, understands that politics “is literally on the corner of every street”.

In his view there is a lot of scope for people like socially minded entrepreneurs to help foster a better world with some kind of foray into the political arena. “Maybe one day I’ll do that – but I’m too busy trying to make a beer company work,” he says laughing.