Fair State Brewing Cooperative, a new northeast Minneapolis brewery -- and Minnesota's first co-op brewery -- is in the final stages of preparation for a late-summer opening. The fermenters are filled, the beer is aging to perfection, and the paperwork is being filed. It's now a waiting game for those final licenses and taproom touch-ups before the co-op members can get their first taste.
The Fair State cooperative currently has around 300 members and an elected board who will made key business decisions. Fair State will focus on the local community, with the taproom as a hub for co-op activities. The co-op will also ship beer to nearby bars and restaurants.
Head brewer Niko Tonks was at Sociable Cider Werks until this June (one of his beers made a cameo at the recent NE Brewer's Block Party under the Fair State name) and was previously with Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, Texas. The Hot Dish caught up with Tonks to talk about how the co-op works, what beers he enjoys, and what we can expect from the new brewery located near the intersection of Central and Lowry Avenues.
Hot Dish: What beers will be ready at your soft open?
Niko Tonks: We're hoping to have four ready for the soft open, and the grand opening will fall roughly around the time that our lagers will be ready, so you can expect to see potentially double that many. Initial offerings will include a very dry/pale West Coast style (I might call it Texas style) IPA, a couple hefeweizens (four different ones, ultimately, but two to start), and a stout. We have a few other ales planned for the immediate future and, as quickly as possible, a number of different lagers -- our flagship American hop lager, a German-style schwarzbier, a festbier, and a rauchbock to start.
You've mentioned making 3.2% beers. What is involved in getting onto grocery store shelves?
Basically, you need to get your beer certified as containing less than 3.2% ABW (alcohol by weight), which equates roughly to 4.0% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is generally how we measure alcohol strength. All of which is to say, that 3.2 Bud Light really isn't so very different from the regular stuff. Either way, the 3.2 discussion was born not because we saw a hole in the marketplace and thought we'd design a product to fill that hole, but because we were tossing around recipe ideas and some of them ended up under 4% ABV, simply because we like session beers. There may come a time when you'll see us on a co-op grocery store shelf, but at the moment our volume is limited enough that it's not likely to happen anytime soon.
What's your favorite commercial beer right now?
Speaking of clean, simple beers, I am at heart a pilsner drinker. It kinda violates the terms of the question, but my all-time favorite beer is the Live Oak Pilz, a real-deal, decoction-mashed Czech pilsner, which I had the good fortune to brew for a number of years. I am not without range, however. Sometimes I like a German pils as well, and my go-to there is the Hans' Pils from Real Ale in Blanco, Texas. In terms of local beers (since I don't live in Texas anymore), my most frequent order is a Day Tripper. I also just had the good fortune to have an absolutely killer batch of the Harriet Wodan Weizen. I kind of like continental style beers, I don't know if you could tell...
How does co-op voting work? Will new beers or seasonals be approved by the board?
Once a year, we have a board election: Any member is free to run, and all are encouraged to vote. The only wrinkle with us is that we are organized under an innovative statute that Minnesota has put into effect (it's 308B, for all those interested) that allows new cooperative businesses to split the ownership of the company between a traditional co-op member-ownership model and a more traditional equity investor model. In our case this was immensely helpful, because brewing is a very capital-intensive industry, and it is difficult, to say the least, to raise the startup money needed via the methods traditionally available to cooperatives. Our member-ownership controls a majority stake in the board, and the remaining board seats are voted in by the member-ownership and the investor members, based on ownership stake in the company.
The board is tasked primarily with long-term and strategic thinking, and is not intimately involved in the day-to-day production of the brewery.
How much of your brewing will be based on your own tastes versus the tastes of the membership?
What we brew is ultimately up to me. We have two year-round beers, the Hoplager and the IPA, and we have a slate of beers that will stick around for a few months at a time, but the rest of our offerings will be on a one-off basis, at least the first time around. Popular ones will most likely reappear on an annual (or more often) basis.
Like I said earlier, the board doesn't tell the brewers what to make, but we do want the membership to be involved in the production process when possible. We're hoping to institute a process whereby we designate slots in the production schedule to be "member design" beers, and have sessions where the brewing staff can collaboratively develop one-off beers with the membership. It's going to be an interesting lesson in consensus-building, and we are obviously constrained by certain things, but it's a process we've seen work very well at places like Black Star co-op in Austin, and we think it's an excellent way for people to get involved.
How many co-op brewers are in the country?
I think we're slated to be number three. Black Star was the first, and there are a number of other co-op breweries attempting to get off the ground. We feel so fortunate to be among the first, and to be the beneficiaries of all of the goodwill and cooperative spirit floating around in the Twin Cities. Hopefully we don't disappoint.
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