by Fair State Co-op CEO Evan Sallee
People often ask us why we started Fair State as a cooperative. However, in many ways that is a difficult question to answer. Nobody ever asks us, “why a brewery,” and yet from the beginning the two have been inseparable. Without the cooperative, there is no brewery. Without the brewery, there is no cooperative. Rather than dive deeply into the metaphysical underpinnings of Fair State, I think it would be instructive to simply tell our story.
In the spring of 2011, Matt, Niko, and I gathered in Austin, TX. We had been homebrewing partners in Minneapolis but had gone in our own directions in 2009. Niko was a brewer in Austin, at the Live Oak Brewing Company. I was in law school, and Matt was in grad school. Our spring breaks coincided with SXSW, and so Matt and I journeyed down to Austin to reconnect and enjoy significant amounts of both beer and music.
At some point over the week, Niko and I found ourselves at Black Star Brewing Cooperative, the country’s first cooperatively-owned brewery (or, at least, first since the 1930s). It was there that we found that first spark of inspiration that would lead to Fair State. Black Star, it seems, was aptly named. The concept of a cooperatively-owned brewery had a gravitational pull that proved too strong for us to ever escape. Having never heard of one, we had never seriously considered the idea of a cooperatively-owned brewery. But bringing the consumer-focused nature of a cooperative to Minnesota seemed like the perfect fit. Minnesotans love beer. Minnesotans love cooperatives. We had to tell Matt.
You will be hard-pressed to find a homebrewer who has not at least given some small consideration to the thought of opening up their own brewery, and we were no different. However, for myriad reasons, we never seriously considered the possibility. There were already many breweries making fantastic beer, and we did not feel justified in entering that fray unless we had something truly unique above and beyond beer that we could offer the brewing world. However, when the three of us got together later that day we brought up the idea of bringing a cooperatively-owned brewery to Minnesota. As soon as we started talking about it, we couldn’t stop. This is when we started to realize that we might actually be onto something.
We simply couldn’t get the idea out of our head. The next day we drove to Lockhart for Barbecue – more words were spent discussing starting a brewery than the brisket that was in front of us. I remember researching Minnesota cooperative law on my phone in the back of the car all the way back to Austin.
We had a number of unwise or downright silly ideas about what we could do with this business model. The idea spent most of its formative first few months as a hybrid homebrew shop, beer club, and brewery. Throughout all its iterations some core themes emerged – community, quality, cooperation. Throughout our years of being amateur beer geeks, we always lamented that there was not really an easy way to get more involved with our local breweries, few though they were at the time. However, here was a model that would quite literally make the consumer the owner. We could harness the power of democracy to build a brewery of the people and for the people.
And at its core, that has always been what being a co-op means to us. We wanted to build an engaged community of beer lovers of all stripes, and we wanted to build a brewery that would make beer worthy of their commitment. Beer and community for us are akin to the chicken and the egg, two inextricably linked halves of a singular concept. We firmly believe that businesses can and should be forces for good in our communities, that there is more to the bottom line than the bottom line. We strive every day to put this into practice, to live up to the potential that our cooperative has.
We’d love to have you join us in our collective perspective. A lifetime cooperative membership is $200, or $20 over 10 months. Visit fairstate.coop/membership to learn more.