Every once in a while, you meet a True Believer. A hardliner. The type of person who glows from within with a laser-like intensity. The type of person who, if struck down in the course of his duties, would unquestionably return as a ghost to complete what he'd left unfinished.
For Jason Alvey, that would probably mean reappearing as a luminous specter enthusiastically hawking a Belgian dark ale brewed in honor of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. As proprietor of the newly opened specialty beer shop the Four Firkins, Alvey combines an encyclopedic mental beer database with the passion of a new convert. Australian by birth, Alvey had his first major brew revelation after moving to Minneapolis in 2001.
"I remember going to Pizza Lucé over on 32nd and Lyndale, and somebody bought a pitcher of Summit Extra Pale Ale," Alvey recalls. "And I drank that, and I remember thinking: 'Oh, my God, what is this? This is amazing!' I'd never tasted that sort of hoppy flavor before."
"That was the beginning of a wonderful relationship between beer and myself," he adds. "And here I am seven years later with the [Twin Cities'] very first specialty beer store."
Competitors—Surdyk's and Blue Max leap to mind—are bigger. The Four Firkins, a cozy (and spotless) little Hobbit hole in St. Louis Park—has enthusiasm and an eclectic approach to beer-purchasing on its side. Historic beer tchotchkes decorate the shop; custom-built wooden shelves house a collection of beers that a fan of good brew will recognize as upscale, local, organic, specialty, totally unknown, and seductively exotic, depending on the bottle.
"I'm ordering stuff that [bigger buyers] may be afraid to get," Alvey says. "I'm a destination store—people are driving up from Iowa to see this. I can stock the weirdest, the craziest, the most expensive stuff I can get my hands on, and it flies out the door."
Among the crazy and expensive things on hand: Dark Island Reserve, a dark, complex, robust Scottish stout aged in whiskey barrels. It goes for $45 a bottle. The bottles are large, but this is still beer we're talking about, not single-malt Scotch.
"This is something other places wouldn't stock," says Alvey. "They don't have the people who are trained to sell something like this. They don't perceive the market to be there, but they're absolutely wrong."
Within a few weeks of opening, Alvey had sold two of his three cases, leaning on his knowledge of—and contagious enthusiasm for—the product.
"There has been a lot of research," he says. "I do have certain prerequisites. I don't want to stock anything you can get at Target or Cub Foods. I have limited space, and people are coming here to buy something interesting." Those people are unlikely to leave disappointed. Among other new arrivals at the shop: a sophisticated raspberry lambic ($20 for a 750ml bottle) by Cantillon, which nearly failed to clear customs due to a risqué label. Also likely to turn heads: a brew called Ola Dubh, which means "Black Oil" in Gaelic; it's a Scottish Ale described (favorably) as "gloopy and viscous." It's about $20 for a boxed 11.2-ounce bottle.
And what about the store's name? What exactly is a firkin? "It's an old-school measurement of beer that's eight or nine gallons, depending on who you talk to," says Alvey. "Four of them make up a full-sized barrel of beer."
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