Co-op Breweries: Craft beer in the new economy

February 25, 2013

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Fermented beverages of one sort or another have played a part in every civilization. The evolution of fermentation by human hands has been a diverse one, too. From what is arguably the first fermented beverage, mead, found in ancient Greek, Egyptian and even Sumerian records, all the way to today’s micro-brewed extreme barley-based ales like Imperial India Pale Ales and 21% abv Stouts. However, the next step in this evolution comes not in the changing of flavors or styles, but the organization behind its creation: behold the grand idea of Cooperative Breweries!

The economic landscape today is a precarious one. We face numerous ecological and financial challenges that are reshaping the framework of our economic belief system. While some industries are faltering or completely failing, the brewing industry is moving forward, changing and evolving to keep up with the developing tastes of its patrons and the new shape of the economic landscape. Cooperative breweries are a small, yet growing, mark of the new economy blossoming in the remnants of the decaying old economy.

This last year, the United Nations even encouraged co-ops, raising awareness about the co-operative business model by declaring 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives. This kind of international recognition and support was welcomed by the millions of co-operative members worldwide, as well as the many people who have been writing and speaking about collective ownership models for years.


Brewing Up A New Cooperative Economy

To date there is only one fully operating cooperative brewery in the United States. Black Star Brewing Company of Austin, Texas has been open to the public since 2010 and is a local favorite. Fostering the ideals of a cooperative, Black Star encourages community involvement and is worker and member owned and operated.

Let’s quickly talk about cooperatives. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) defines a cooperative (co-op) as follows:

“A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

The ICA goes on to list the 7 Co-operative Principles:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic Participation
  4. Education, Training and Information
  5. Autonomy and Independence
  6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
  7. Concern for Community

You can read the full description of these principles and more on their site.

Bringing In The Local Flavor

As a lover of both craft beer and homebrewing, not to mention an advocate for strengthening local economies, I was overjoyed to hear about a new cooperative venture in my hometown of Seattle: The Flying Bike Cooperative. Officially “going live” and accepting members last April, Flying Bike boasted the first 300 founding members, dubbed “The Thirsty 300,” within the first few weeks. As of last count they have a strong and enthusiastic body of nearly 600 members. For those of you keeping score at home I am member number 81.

What does membership in a cooperative brewery get you? An ownership stake in the operation, for one. More importantly it grants inclusion in decision-making meetings, the opportunity to have your homebrewed concoction made on a larger scale through brewing competitions and, of course, exclusive bragging rights. For those only interested in the drinking end of the process, there is the chance to hand pick from a plethora of beers made locally and propelling your favorites into the limelight.

While you’re waiting for Flying Bike to open its doors you can find it on tap (thanks to partner breweries making their beer for local distribution). If you can’t find it on tap, there are plenty of small- to mid-sized privately owned, local micro-breweries that would be happy to serve you, too. And some of the best may be harder to find.

An Incredibly Brief History of Craft Beer in America

The history of craft beer in America is, in fact, incredibly brief. Lisa M. Morrison begins her book on craft beer with the lines, “From the end of Prohibition until about three decades ago, beer in America meant only one thing: a fizzy, pale, nearly flavorless liquid that was best served ice-cold. It was the cheap white bread of the wider beer world.” Craft beer is just one small example of a cultural shift back from quantity to quality and from an impoverished notion of ‘value’ that looks at nothing beyond the number on the price tag.

Like many threads of American history, this one runs the backside of the tapestry eastwards over the Atlantic to where it weaves through countless scenes even before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his mother’s eye. Evidence of beer production dates back several thousand years BC to settled communities with grain-based agriculture such as ancient Mesopotamia and Rome. Predominantly a household activity for centuries, brewing re-emerged as an artisan practice roughly around the turn of the previous millennium. At this time the closest equivalent to today’s craft brewing was often conducted by monasteries.

The Germanic peoples started international trade of beer in the 13th century, and by the so-called “Age of Exploration” hops had been introduced as a natural preservative (and as a means of rebelling new taxes on traditional herbal ingredients), allowing beer to be shipped over longer distances and stored in warmer climates. IPA, short for India Pale Ale, owes its origin to British imperial expansion. (For that matter, so do many of us who find ourselves drinking beer in North America, the hot-bed of extreme IPA lovers.)

New Belgium Brewing Co., est. 1991 in Fort Collins, CO, is among the more widely recognized craft breweries in America. Its history is overtly tied to Old World tradition and a journey of (re)discovery. New Belgium’s signature beer is Fat Tire Amber Ale, which refers to founder Jeff Lebesh’s European cycling tour that inspired its creation. Read more about that and New Belgium’s employee-owned business model and environmental conservation efforts here.

A favorite of mine and a triumph of homebrewer-gone-pro, Dogfish Head Brewing out of Delaware takes the concept of craft ale to the extreme. Their award-winning beers are “off-centered ales for off-centered people.” I’m particularly fond of their IPAs, which have ranked the highest in homebrewer-based polls for years.

National recognition and masterful brewing, however, are not directly related. Upsizing can have its costs. Plenty of microbreweries and regional craft brews are content to focus more on the artisanal quality of their work than on the scope of their market, which just adds to the fun of discovering local varieties. It increases the enjoyment when I only find a certain beer at this pub, or that co-op, or when I’m visiting a particular town. More importantly, the diversity of many sized breweries only strengthens the industry and encourages more people to branch out from the bland, big breweries of post-prohibition era beer factories.

The idea of good beer as we know it may be imported but the beverage itself no longer need be. American domestic (both national and household) craft brewing has been coming into its own, with distinctive beers and small-scale enterprises appearing all over the place. The Pacific Northwest is especially vibrant in this regard. Maritime Pacific, Hale’s Ales, Diamond Knot, Big Time, and Rogue are among the many excellent beers one can enjoy should one find oneself in the upper left of the United States. To learn more, check out John Parkes’ Home Brewing Self-Sufficiency (for the aspiring artisan), Lisa M. Morrison’s Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest (for the aspiring connoisseur), and various other works filed under 641 at your local library.

The New American Dream Requires Good Beer

After the seemingly eternal domination of American beer by the big three of Bud, Coors, and Miller, the re-ignited micro-brewing industry starting the in late 1970s was a major step towards re-establishing the local brewpubs that used to populate nearly every city in the nation. We’ve come a long way towards repairing the long-lost public asset of local beer. It seems to me that the cooperative brewery is the next step in returning our nation to a community-based beer production.

And, of course, it’s not just breweries and beer drinkers that are benefiting. The co-operative model is playing an extremely important role in the transition from a monochrome, corporation-dominated economic landscape, painted in broad strokes, to one dotted with colorful, innovative local businesses.

As these alternative business models and ideas of collective ownership set the stage for a new economy, local communities become ever-more resilient. Transition Initiatives are quintessential examples of how localizing creates a self-supporting, diverse economy and, in turn, the ability to withstand external shocks to the global economy. Just as diversity is important to a healthy ecosystem, so is diversity in a healthy economy.

What better way to herald the new, local economy than by raising a pint of community supported cooperative-brewed beer?

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons by lindseygee

Tags: co-operatives, craft beer, local economies