When Dale Katechis, the founder of craft beer company Oskar Blues, found out about the Flint water crisis, he decided there was only one thing to do in response: stop making beer.
For eight days, Katechis had his Longmont, Colorado-based brewery switch from beer-making to canning clean, filtered water. All told, they filled 100,000 cans of water, destined for Flint, Michigan.
The city of Flint has suffered through a water crisis since April 2014, when the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to Flint River, which is more corrosive. The switch was to save money, but the more corrosive river water began to damage old pipes, which leached lead into residents’ drinking water. Almost two years later, even though the city is back on Lake Huron water, it’s still not safe to drink. The federal government declared a state of emergency and an outpouring of support has flooded Flint with water, money, food, and goods.
“When Flint’s water crisis happened, we all thought the same thing: How the hell does something like this happen? You can’t even believe it. You don’t think about if you should help, it’s about how quickly can we help,” Katechis says.
Oskar Blues teamed up with the Ball Corporation, which donated the cans, and got to work. On Jan. 11, Oskar Blues started canning 50,000 units of water in its Brevard, North Carolina, brewery and did a second run of 50,000 cans on Jan. 25 in its Longmont brewery.
On Thursday, Jan. 28, Katechis loaded his private plane, a Pilatus PC-12, with pallets of canned water and coolers filled with chicken and piloted it from Colorado to Flint. When Katechis and a few of his employees landed, they threw a fundraiser at a local watering hole called Torch Bar & Grill, where they gave out water and cooked dozens of beer can chickens.
Over the eight days it took to can water, the brewery could have produced $3 million worth of beer. But Katechis says he didn’t think about lost revenue until he was asked to calculate how much the donations cost his bottom line.
“We all strive as an organization to do things bigger and better than making a buck. Sure, in the early days when we didn’t have a buck, we weren’t able to do the things we can do now. But as we grew, we wove giving back into the culture of the company,” he says. “Now we all know why we’re here: if you can make a buck, you share a buck.”
Can’d Aid, the nonprofit arm of Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery, flew to Flint to bring 100,000 cans of water and dozens of beer can chicken.
In 2013, Katechis started Can’d Aid, Oskar Blues’s nonprofit arm, in response to the 2013 flood along Colorado’s Front Range, which killed eight people and caused $1 billion in damage. Can’d Aid raised $700,000 for Colorado families and businesses and has since donated 200,000 cans of water and a total of $1.8 million for people in need during the floods that hit South Carolina last October and the tornado that hit Texas in December.
But Oskar Blues, which is a $100 million business, isn’t the only company that has donated money and supplies in Flint. Since last summer, Walmart, has sent 14 trucks of water and 2,000 water filters and says it will send 6.4 million bottles of water in total. Coke has donated almost 80,000 bottles of Dasani, and Nestlé has already donated 200,000 bottles.
Celebrities are also pitching in. Hip-hop artist The Game partnered with water company Avita to donate $1 million, Cher gave 200,000 bottles of water, rock band Pearl Jam donated $300,000, and the list goes on. Flint native and filmmaker Michael Moore has been in his hometown volunteering and calling for the arrest of Governor Snyder, calling Flint an active “crime scene.”
Tim Herman, CEO of Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce says there are so many pallets of water that it is causing a logistical problem. “We don’t have enough warehouses to store it all,” he says. “It’s coming from all over the country, people are donating thousands and thousands of bottles of water.”
While bottled water is needed and appreciated, it doesn’t solve the problem. The old pipes leaching lead need to be replaced, which will cost millions. Until then, residents with old pipes will not have safe drinking water.
For now, volunteers and organizations keep stepping up and the semi trucks continue to bring bottled water, filters, and goods into Flint. Diplomat, a specialty pharmacy chain based in Flint and $3 billion public company that is a five-time Inc. 5000 company, has promised to help in cases of long-term health issues related to lead exposure.
Looking back at his decision to put beer-brewing–and profits–on hold, Katechis pauses to reflect.
“You think of the lady who has three kids in Flint and you feel cheated by the system. You can’t put a price on that,” he says.