From Beer to Infinity
A gold star for Black Star Co-op
When I first heard their plans, I thought they were crazy. I still think they might be.
But with the securing of an actual physical location late last year, those idealistic nuts at Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery have taken a major step toward proving me wrong and establishing the nation's first-ever cooperatively run brewpub.
"This week, it's become much more real, just because we've moved up here, so we're actually looking at it every day," said Black Star founder Steven Yarak in December at the co-op's new office at Midtown Commons, the new mixed-used development at Crestview Station (Airport and North Lamar). We were chatting just a few days after an event unveiling the site to its approximately 1,200 members and the media – and hopefully, just a few months before its June grand opening.
"I still have the same level of confidence, it's just that the kind of work we're doing has shifted," Yarak said. "There's so much inertia now that the kinds of work we have to focus on are more specific. Just grow the membership, raise the preferred shares, get the contracts negotiated. It's more about execution than planning."
"I think after the unveiling event," added head brewer Jeff Young, "it turned from this thing where I was wondering: 'Is this going to happen? How is this going to happen?' to 'Oh my gosh, we better do this well! This is definitely happening!'"
In case you've missed it – and if you have, then you're probably not an Austin craft beer lover – bold plans have been brewing since 2006 to open a new brewpub in town. It's not the brewpub part that's bold – restaurants and bars making their own beer have been coming and going in Austin since Texas first legalized the practice in 1993 – it's the "member-owned" part. The idea first took root in Yarak's head in late 2005 and has been growing quickly ever since. (The "Black Star" name comes via the flag of the nation of Ghana – the College Station-raised Yarak's father teaches African history to Aggies.)
"The idea that I originally had was to have a beer bar that was owned by the regulars," said Yarak. "I took this idea and did a little bit of organizing to the homebrew club on the Zealots list [an e-mail listserv of local make-your-own types] and a couple of fliers in coffee shops and Wheatsville. And then at the very first meeting, which was January of '06, Jeff was there, and he said: 'Hey, I'm a trained brewer – professionally trained – I'm here to look for a brewpub project. If you want this to be really community-oriented, we should have our own house beers as well.'
"Also at that meeting was Johnny Livesay, who was then on the board of Wheatsville, who said, 'Hey, here's the Texas cooperative statute, so here's the legal avenue to get the framework of what you're describing.' So that was really the genesis, and it was just total serendipity that all three of us were in one place at one time, because if it hadn't come up that way, we'd have never come together in quite the same way."
But why a co-op? Cooperatively run businesses are a difficult undertaking, especially competing in the retail world, where for-profit businesses don't have to mess with democracy and can make snap decisions through a more efficient command-and-control model. Austin's Wheatsville Food Co-op seems like a famous and firmly established business today, but in its early years, it had to be sustained with numerous fundraisers.
Neither Yarak nor Young seems to worry about such clunkiness at Black Star. For starters, they have a loyal fan base already built; they smartly grew the membership through monthly beer socials – events that outgrew their own backyards, then moved to a space behind MonkeyWrench Books, and eventually exploded to fill up Kenny Dorham's Backyard, the large outdoor performance space in East Austin next to the Victory Grill.
Plus, the co-op idea just seems to fit with their concept of what a pub is all about. "In a pub, you have a natural gathering space in a community, built on a business model of repeat customers," said Yarak. "You have a model in which this community is putting their resources into it, and yet a lot of times you have this disconnected or absentee ownership of it, and so the resources of your community really are being funneled out of it. So my vision there was, let's just close the loop. Let's make it so that's being reinvested back into the community in a variety of ways, whether it be better jobs for the work force or investment in expansion or improvement of the current assets you have or refunding excess [profits] back to the membership."
"And on the brewing side of things, when I left Alabama to come here looking for some sort of brewing job, I had all those similar ideas, but for brewing it's kind of like a lot of breweries have absentee brewers," said Young, who fled the restrictive laws of his home state (homebrewing is illegal in Alabama, although some homebrew shops operate openly there). "They basically make a product behind closed doors and ship it out to the shelves, and that's very impersonal. So you take it to the next level and you have a brewpub, which is a little more personal because it happens on-site, but once you add the co-op factor, you're really making the beers for your owners. You have a much more intimate connection with the owners."
But how can it work? Well, it won't be quite the hippie free-for-all that one might envision. There will be structure – there is already a nine-member board of directors, selected by the membership, setting policy and guidance for Black Star. But the day-to-day operations will be handled by a staff, aka the "Workers' Assembly," which currently stands at just three: Yarak, Young, and Karinne Thornblom, a Texas State grad who founded Clementine Coffee Bar (which eventually became Thunderbird under different ownership).
Eventually, that staff will grow to about 15 full-time equivalents, including chefs Michael Holland and Johnny Livesay. The menu will be "local and seasonal pub fare," said Yarak. "Simple, rustic food that's one cut above eating at home, not going for, like, the fine-dining aspect, but not just burgers and baskets, either."
Although they've moved beyond the members-as-labor idea that some co-ops idealize, that doesn't mean volunteer contributions aren't welcome. "The skill set of the cooperative" has already come into the mix, Young says. "That floor plan," he says, pointing to the layout sketches in their office, "came about because we had a design team of architects and graphic designers from the co-op that we got together and they volunteered their time."
Similarly, former board member Debbie Cerda joined not only because she's a homebrewer and founder of the Austin Women's Beer League but also thought she could help the organization deal with governmental bureaucracy – a good skill anytime the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is involved.
"I felt that with my day job working for a state agency, and actually working with state regulations, I could sympathize with dealing with the regulatory community," the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality employee said. "So I felt I could bring that to the table, as well as years of experience working with nonprofits."
Okay, if you've read this far, you probably are one of the aforementioned craft brew nuts – and by now you're probably pulling your hair out and screaming: "What about the beer? Enough about the mechanics; get to the beer!"
Well, I've already gotten to the beer – and it was tasty. With help from members, Young has created a 10-brew menu of house beers for regular rotation (see "Black Star's Beer Menu," below). He let me sample a couple, the High Esteem and the Double Dee.
The former is what they expect to be their flagship, what they call their most "conventional" beer. That description didn't inspire much confidence in me – I expected a watered-down lager; many brewpubs keep one on their menus for those who just can't get beyond their light beer comfort zone. Instead, I was rewarded with a pale ale-type drink punctuated with flavorful dry-hopping and, Young notes, a touch of rye and a dash of honey. If this is their mainstream brew, then they're expecting an adventurous mainstream.
The Double Dee was a nice foil to the High Esteem and perfect for the chilly day we tried it, a dark brew with a nice dose of malt, a nutty taste, and, Young points out, "a hint of raisins."
The beer menu will be divided into distinct halves – in a nod to his math-major background, Young calls them the "Rational" and "Irrational" beers, as in the concept of rational and irrational numbers. "The Rational beers satisfy more of the year-round beers that you're more accustomed to," Young said. "A hoppy beer; a light, crisp beer; or a darker, malty beer. Generally a little bit lower alcohol.
"The Irrational beers are the ones that are more seasonal; they might be higher alcohol; they might have a Belgian characteristic."
Irrational numbers, for you nonmathematicians (like me), are numbers that can't be expressed as a fraction – pi being a well-known example. "Basically, the reason I started thinking of them as irrational is because the flavors that you taste are not constructed from the ingredients that you put in there – the yeast, the barley, the hops. When you put all these together in one of the Irrational beers, you usually get something more than the individual ingredients. You don't put plums in a Belgian beer, but a lot of times you taste plums, or banana."
Young also plans an "Infinite" series, barrel-aged brews often with high alcohol and intense flavors – "our most ridiculously expensive beers," he says, including Aleph Null (yes, more math), a wheat wine made with Hill Country grapes.
As said, Young had help – like any good co-op. And like any good brewpub, he'll sometimes rotate beers into the lineup, using member input. "I'm really excited to get members involved in the creation of the beers, so it basically starts with them and ends with them," Young said. "Two of the ideas we're working with now – one is, basically, once or twice a year, getting the owners together in some kind of forum where we have basically a brainstorming session. We just come up with a beer. It could be appropriate for the season, or somebody might want some sort of fruit beer, and we basically just sit around for a while and try to come up with a beer that the co-op wants to drink. So I'll take that, put in my format, brew it, and when they come back, they can sit down at the bar and say, 'Hey, this is one of the beers that I made.' Or if we have a new beer come out, we'll have a tasting panel and invite out some of the member-owners and get their feedback on those beers, and in the next iteration, make some changes.
"And we've already done those two things on a much smaller scale. That's how we now have 10 beers – they're all the product of the member-owners. Now we'll just beef it up a bit and do it for more owners."
Sitting in their temporary office and looking out at where the pub eventually will be, it's easy to believe that this thing will actually work. Yarak and Young certainly do. "I never lacked for confidence," Yarak says. "The first three years or so, the first year especially, were mostly about figuring out what it entailed and how to go about it – because you can't just take a book off the shelf for something that's never been done before."
Black Star's Beer Menu
Descriptions excerpted from the Black Star website, www.blackstar.coop.
High Esteem: "[A]kin to a pale ale with a few twists. A touch of rye, a dash of honey, and generous dry hopping."
Double Dee: "Rich and malty ... toasty and nutty with a hint of raisins."
Vulcan: "[A]n aggressive rye ale made with a boat-load of hops."
Recalcitrant Dockhand: "complex maltiness with notes of molasses, vanilla, and roasted coffee."
Waterloo: "[R]efreshingly and slightly sour (think lemonade) wheat ale made with the addition of fresh Texas Peaches ... brewed in the early summer when the peach harvest comes in."
Cul Sec: "A spicy beer ... features tart and refreshing flavors. A touch of extra hops gives citrus notes."
Rover: "A golden ale fermented with Belgian yeast... made with oodles of local wildflower honey added in the fermenter."
Moontower: "[F]eatures liberal use of rich and roasted malts, and is aged in darkly charred oak."
Aleph Null: "Wheat wine aged with grapes in a syrah barrel with a secondary fermentation with a Belgian strain of yeast."
Epsilon: "Scotch ale made with peated malt and aged in a whiskey barrel."
Lee Nichols blogs about beer at www.i-love-beer.blogspot.com.