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Tap Talk: Fair State Brewing Cooperative

Over the last five-plus years, the craft brewery movement has grown exponentially in Minnesota. The Associated Press says licensing records show two-thirds of Minnesota breweries have opened just since 2010. So, we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. Next up, Fair State Brewing in northeast Minneapolis. 

Here in Minnesota, we're practically known for our plethora of grocery co-ops, but how about brewery co-ops? Not so much.

Well, that's precisely what Evan Sallee brought to the Minnesota market when he and his fellow co-founders – Niko Tonks and Matt Hauck – opened Fair State Brewing Cooperative along northeast Minneapolis' Central Avenue in September of 2014.

Fair State Brewing 2
(credit: CBS)

The whole idea for the brewery was hatched when the three founders visited the first brewery cooperative in the country -- Black Star Brewing Cooperative in Austin, Texas.

"We were sitting at this co-op brewery and thought 'this would be a great way to bring something unique to Minneapolis, bring something unique to the brewing world,'" Sallee said. "Because, even now, we're the only one of four brewing cooperatives in the country, so it's a pretty unique model. And Minnesota has more co-ops than any other state in the country."

So, what exactly does a brewing cooperative bring to the Minnesota market?

"Our consumers actually own the brewery, or at least have a stake in it on an individual basis. We've got over 700 members right now and they get to vote for the board of directors, run for the board of directors … everyone serves a three-year term," Sallee said.

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A board showing members (credit: CBS)

At times, cooperatives have been called "investments", but it's not really quite like that.

Related Link: Become A Fair State Member

"Members get a share of the profits at the end of the year assuming that they're distributed, you know, based on what they spend at the brewery. It's a refund," Sallee said. "You're not gonna become a millionaire … but what it does is it allows you to share in the profits of the brewery and helps support us – and get something back in return. You get some actual democratic control over the place that makes your beer."

The main point: a democratically controlled brewery is something that Minnesota hasn't quite seen until now.

Now, just over a year after its soft opening, Fair State Brewery is still going strong, helping to revitalize a portion of Central Avenue that often goes overlooked, but actually is home to some really great restaurants and other establishments.

"Central Avenue is amazing. We're surrounded by some of the best food in the city and nobody knows about it. They are starting to."

For more on Fair State and their second annual Co-Optoberfest, check out the interview with "President & CEO; Chief Holder of Fancy Titles" Evan Sallee below!

Fair State Brewing 1
Evan Sallee (credit: CBS)

When you started out, did you know you would be the first cooperative brewery in Minnesota?

Yes. At the time we thought we would be second in the country, but then we got beat out by a couple months.

What advantages does a cooperative model have over other brewing models?

From our perspective as running the business, I think it brings something unique to the market. It provides a way for people to get involved with us that they wouldn't necessarily be able to with other types of businesses. It's just a more fair and equitable way of doing business.

It (also) helped us get off the ground. We had 250 members before we opened, giving us $200 apiece. We had underground beer tastings where we'd throw parties … and let them taste samples of what we were making and show them that we knew what we were doing. We also got some publicity … and people saw that and really responded!

How'd you decide on this location?

This is actually owned also by a co-op. So, Northeast Investment Cooperative is the name of our landlord and it's collection of essentially local people who wanted to find a way to really help spur the revitalization of Central Avenue and the community. So, everybody invested a $1,000 or more into this entity, this cooperative, with the idea of finding a really good location and bringing businesses to the community that they wanted to see in this community. With the focus being on what the business would do to the surrounding area, rather than what's going to generate the most returns. And we had had some prior connections with them, and the whole co-op connection made a lot of sense to us.

We love the people. It's a great community. People know each other. So, it's perfect.

So, why beer?

There are a lot of reasons. Obviously, it tastes delicious. That's the biggest part, but I've always enjoyed the way beer brings people together. It's fundamentally different to other alcoholic drinks to some degree – the way people treat it. It's treated as something that's really, really social. I've become friends with so many people over beer.

Fair State Brewing 6
(credit: CBS)

What's the "philosophy" behind your beers?

Excellent question. So we essentially focus on three things: German stuff, pale, hoppy things and sour things. So, at the end of the day, that ends up being relatively broad … but they are all three styles that we're very passionate about.

As far as brewing goes, is it an anything-goes type situation or are there certain beers that you shy away from?

Really I think it boils down to our particular taste … really what we try to do is stick with what we like. Obviously, not everyone here has the same idea of what that is, but we do stick with beers that are really drinkable. We don't try to brew a ton of 12 percent (alcohol) beers that you can't actually drink with your friends all night because you'll be stumbling home.

We also try to keep the beers drier. The drier the beer is, the easier it is to drink with friends, in our opinion.

What's your flagship beer?

Our most popular beer is definitely our IPA. It's almost hard not to be. IPAs make up, you know, over 40 percent of the craft beer market nationwide. Especially for people who have never been to a certain place, it's their first pick.
The Festbier is also selling like hotcakes, which we weren't expecting so we just threw on a new batch.

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A look at the brewing system (credit: CBS)

Do you serve anything other than beer?

We have non-alcoholic drinks. House-made kombucha, some cold press coffee on nitro from the coffee shop down the street, we've got a house-made blueberry crème soda and then a ginger beer made by Spruce Soda and a house-made Ernie Palmer, it's carbonated and really good.

Can you tell me about the second annual Co-Optoberfest on Oct. 10?

We officially opened our doors on Sept. 6, 2015. It was kind of a soft open. We had irregular hours for about a month/month and a half. We did our official grand opening on Oct. 17 last year, so we'll be celebrating our 1st anniversary and our Octoberfest party on Oct. 10.

So, we're having a big blowout. We're doing a member election and then at 2 p.m. we open it to non-members. We'll have food trucks, we got a barbeque food truck coming with brats, sausages -- and pretzels from Aki's (BreadHaus) next door. We'll be doing a lot of special tappings of beers we've been holding onto … at an almost hourly basis. It's gonna be a big, fun day.

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A look at the back patio -- it's dog-friendly (credit: CBS)

If you had any advice for home brewers wanting to make that next step, what would it be?

Yeah … it's tough. It is tough. It's very tough. (laughs) And it really depends on where you're at and what you're thinking. If you're next step is to open your own brewery, that's gonna be very different advice if you want to quit your job and become a brewer.

It's almost easier to start your own brewery than become a brewer these days. It's very competitive industry. There's not a whole lot of openings and you almost have to know somebody. Unfortunately there are people who work for free and if you're a person who needs a paycheck, you can't really work for free. And that's one thing we kind of try to battle here. We don't have any volunteer labor here.

If you're trying to start your own brewery, you gotta know how to brew on a professional system. It's very different from learning how to brew at home.

The biggest piece of advice is: talk to as many people as you can. Learn as much as you can. There are a lot of great resources out there.

It all depends.

Fair State Brewing 8
(credit: CBS)

Talk about your co-founders.

There are three of us that founded Fair State. Our head brewer, Niko, he and I went to college together. Friends for a long time. We met Matt (Hauck) through rugby. Rugby is one of the great sports where you hang out with the team and drink beer afterwards.

We ran into Matt again after college, started hanging out and then started home brewing together. And that's kind of how the whole thing developed. And that was 10 years ago.

Our talents and our viewpoints really contrast and complement each other in really good ways. We all have relatively different backgrounds and skills that we bring.

Niko brings the brewing, obviously. I'm a lawyer by trade and so I bring that angle to it. Matt comes from the nonprofit side has a decent amount of management experience there. So it's really a great trifecta of talents and skills.

What does the future have in store for Fair State?

Right now, we've been rolling out our bottled product and cans, and trying to push that out a little more.

I think this year it's going to be about tightening up our offerings. In the first year, we brewed 46 different beers. We're not going to brew 46 different beers this year probably (laughs). We're going to bring a much heavier focus on sours … push that boundary a little bit. We're going to see how the market responds to that.

Lastly, what's your favorite "guilty pleasure" beer?

Schlitz!

Nice. Thank you for your time!

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