Finnegans: turning beer into food for 12 years

As more Minnesota breweries are born, identifying each brand's niche is a key element. Finnegans has known this all along. Currently the fifth largest beer producer in the state, the twelve year-old company runs on the unique business model of a for-profit non-profit. The company sells its beer and subsequently donates profits to a non-profit sister company that provides food for the hungry. More directly, all of Finnegans' sales go to the local community. Through the Emergency Food Shelf Network, beer profits in Duluth go to the local food shelf to purchase locally grown produce--likewise in other cities, and even in other states where the beer is sold (through a different charity in each state). At the heart of three booming scenes--the social entrepreneur, craft beer, and local foods movements--Finnegans is brewing more barrels every year.

The company has seen phenomenal growth, average around 30% each year and spreading the giving momentum through partnerships with companies such as Green Mill restaurants and Chicago-Lake Liquor, and through pro bono support from local advertising, public relations, and law firms. Founder/CEO Jacquie Berglund explains, "Any bar and restaurant that sells our product, you're helping your community just by selling this product." The company's mission is very simple: "Our mission is turning beer into food," Berglund summarizes.

The business has been an outstanding corporate citizen in the community, but most talk focuses on their good deeds rather than their beer. The Hot Dish wanted to know about the beer. Sure, it's contract brewed at Summit with plans to release cans soon (courtesy of the Third Street Brewhouse in Cold Spring), but how are the recipes developed and how does Finnegans fit into the Minnesota beer community? Seated on a pair of couches in their Elliot Park office, The Hot Dish discussed the business's growth not only in neighboring states, but reaching into Ft. Myers, FL this spring (the spring training home of the Twins), and roster additions of their Blonde Ale and suggestions of a new fall beer.

[jump] Hot Dish: The company came about through your work with Kieran Folliard at The Local. Is the current Amber Ale recipe the same as the Potato Ale that you'd made while working for The Local?

Jacquie Berglund: When we originally developed the recipe we called our non-profit company The Spud Society. Kieran being Irish, we thought it would be fun to add a dash of spuds to the recipe. So we had just a dash of spuds, literally, and people would start saying, "I can taste the potato in your beer." Gosh, there's nothing there to taste. Then we changed The Spud Society to the Finnegan's Community Fund so that piece didn't connect anymore and we got rid of the potatoes. But it's the original recipe: less the dash of spuds, it's exactly the same.

HD: How do you define yourself as a brand: as a charity or as a brewer?

Berglund: At the end of the day, our number one economic engine is beer. We've got to make awesome beer that people like and want to buy. That's the number one thing because if I don't profit and I'm not making a good beer that's competing in the marketplace, I have no charity.

We run this very much like a business and the beer is the most important part of what we do. As a part of that thinking, we came up with our Finnegan's Blonde Ale as a limited release last year. We're bringing that back February 1 to be a year-round product. We're also going to be coming out with 12 ounce, 12 pack cans. If everything goes well, we're going to come out with a seasonal for the fourth quarter of 2013. Kind of an autumny, winter beer. So I'm taking the beer very seriously.

Jacquie Berglund

Jacquie Berglund

HD: How do you develop the recipes?

Berglund: It's one of my favorite parts, it's so fun. When we did the Blonde Ale, I worked with Damian McConn. He's now the head brewer over at Summit Brewing Company. He's an Irishman who used to work at Guinness. Basically I sat down with Damian and [Summit owner] Mark Stutrud and described what I wanted to make. It's almost like when a singer talks to a songwriter about the story and then the songwriter writes the words. They have to get inside your head to understand what you're trying to do and then they go and they create that.

We did three test brews on the Finnegan's Blonde Ale and each time we tweaked it a little when we did the tasting.

HD: So Summit plays a big role?

Berglund: I pay them to formulate the product but we craft what we're looking for.

They are a great beer partner. I can't tell you enough good things about Summit. The one thing I never worry about in running my business is the beer. There are a lot of things I could be worried about in running the company, thank goodness for Summit that beer isn't one of them.

HD: So you're pretty content with contract brewing and you see that as the direction you want to follow?

Berglund: It's a tough question because when you get to a certain volume--next year we're going to be hitting over 10,000 barrels, that's our goal--once you hit that mark people start to look seriously: do you do your own brewery? I won't say I'll never do it, but we are running the numbers. The board wants us to look at all our options, of course, as we grow. I think we'll continue to explore those options but I'm very happy at Summit; we have a great relationship.

HD: It obviously costs a lot more money to own your facility.

Berglund: Exactly, you've got to factor all that in and, then, do you really want to run a brewery? That's a different thing. I run a sales/marketing organization, primarily. I'm not physically brewing the beer, so that's a whole different thing.

HD: How does expansion work, given the two sides of the business?

Berglund: It took me two years to get Wisconsin set up, and then you have to meet with the non-profit. And we're absolutely focused on produce so, then, how do we get the farm network set up? How do we get the food shelf? It takes us longer to expand the beer side because I need to already have the non-profit side already in place.

HD: What is your view on the local brewing scene right now?

Berglund: I think it's so exciting and I think it's about time. I love how people are becoming so much more educated about beer. They're so much more exploratory. They're trying different beers; they're talking about it; they're making beer at home--this whole thing, kind of what happened with wine 20 years ago--and it's so fun to see the local piece happen.

We look at states like an Oregon or Colorado where they've got 15% market share and you look here and we've got maybe 4% so we have a lot of room to grow. It helps the economy, it helps us hire jobs, it just helps in so many ways to do local. And there's some damn good beer here, and it's fresh. I think it's wonderful.

HD: The general consensus in speaking with brewers has been the same thing: that it's not so much a competition.

Berglund: I have so much respect for all these new breweries. It's a risk and it's hard work and you don't make money for a long time, but everyone is so passionate and it creates a good energy. We all get that if we grow the Minnesota beer market, we all win. If we get more people drinking Minnesota beer, we all win.