Monday, November 4, 2013

Interview With The Four Firkins' Jason Alvey!

Having become well acquainted with the fine folks from the Four Firkins, I thought it would be fun to do a series of interviews with these incredibly beer-knowledgeable people.  For the first installment we start at the beginning:  with the founder of the Firkins, Jason Alvey.  Alvey was incredibly accommodating in answering all of these questions in such a verbose and entertaining manner.  I was very interested to see his unique outsider's take on politics and the three-tiered system.  Without further ado, let us get to the interview!

EW:  Back in the early dark ages of technology and iTunes, I ran into a little local beer podcast called What Ales Thee.  I really enjoyed hearing about the local beers instead of just beers I couldn't find in Minnesota.  Turns out that one of the hosts was none other than yourself!  What got you into craft beer and interested in doing something like that podcast?

Alvey:  Ahhh yes. The old podcast. That was a lot of fun. Well, moving here from Australia I had never had much in the way of craft beer. I drank a great deal of beer down-under but not exactly good stuff. Once I moved to Minneapolis it didn’t take me long to become completely obsessed with the many different kinds of beer we have here. The podcast started as something fun to do with my good mate, Phil, but it turned into marketing for what would soon become The Four Firkins. We had thousands of people downloading and listening to our show. When we announced the Firkins beer store would be coming soon we effectively had a customer base of listeners before the store existed. Opening day was packed!

EW:  What did you do before starting the store?  And what made you take the crazy chance to open a beer-only store in Minnesota of all places?

Alvey:  I have always worked in retail. Here in the U.S. I worked for Erik’s Bike Shop for 8 years before I decided to open the Firkins. I had a good understanding of how customer service orientated retail should work. I didn’t see many liquor stores that were doing much in the way of that nor did I see any liquor stores that were focused on nothing but craft beer. I discovered that many of the liquor stores that we have here are second and third generation owned businesses. The owners are for the most part absent and they tended to run things in a very old fashioned way. 

I felt that because I was actually a craft beer customer and had experience in other aspects of retail I could do a better job than many of these old timers. After all, I was not born into it, I was a consumer and new exactly what consumers wanted! To me it seemed logical, obvious. I remember being baffled as to why nobody had tried to open a store like The Four Firkins already. 

As you can see we are still the only store in Minnesota that focuses entirely on beer. Our inventory turns over very quickly so it’s always fresh and our staff knows what they are talking about. Running an operation like this takes a lot of care and serious commitment. You can’t be an absent owner and have a store like the Firkins, it just doesn’t work. I do this and my employees do this because we all truly love craft beer. 

EW:  I imagine that you have some interaction with brewers/distributors, as well as customers. Have you met anyone really cool or interesting through your job?

Alvey:  Of course our customers are the most important part of all this. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be around! We meet really cool people all the time. We get a hundred people through here even on a slow day and most of them are awesome, happy and super fun people to chat with. I see where you’re coming from though and yes, we have had some pretty famous beer industry types visit us here at the store. Some of the more memorable ones were: Garrett Oliver and Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, Jim Koch of Boston Brewing, Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium, Doug Odell from Odell Brewing, Greg Hall of Goose Island, Dave Engbers of Founders and many more over the years. Doug Hoverson author of The Land of Amber Waters has done a couple of book signings with us. We even had the honor of hosting a bonafide Trappist Monk from the La Trappe brewery in Holland, Father Isaac. We get visited frequently by our favorite beer knight – Sir Lanny Hoff. He’s kind of a legend. Let’s not forget of course all the local brewers who are every bit as much rock stars as the out state ones who come through. Our local beer scene would not be booming like it is without all those guys and gals. We are lucky enough to say we know all the local brewers very well. 

EW:  What is your favorite beer event to go to in MN? Or elsewhere...

Alvey:  Well, I don’t really have favorites. You could say I guess, that Craft Beer is my favorite alcoholic beverage but that’s about as narrowed down as it gets. In life I think it’s best to try all kinds of different things. Having “favorites” is to limit yourself. As for beer events, I like small intimate events as much as I like large festivals. There’s a time and a place for everything. I really appreciate events that have an education element to them. Like the classes that BBS holds at the Republic or like the ones we now hold at the Firkins….

EW:  Tell us about a couple newer beers you would encourage people to try right now?

Alvey:  OK, I went back and forth for some time regarding my answer to this question. Rather than waxing poetically about subtle hints of leather etc and going on about all the amazing locally brewed beers we have here now, I’m going to simply give you a list. You’ll notice this list is all foreign and none of them are new. These beers represent some pivotal beers from my life and I think it’s good for people to remember that a lot of these foreign beers are just as amazing as the locally brewed ones. So here’s the list, in no particular order:
  1. Hanssens - Scarenbecca Kriek
  2. Williams Bros - Alba Scots Pine Ale 
  3. J.W. Lees - Harvest Port Cask edition
  4. Schlenkerla – Urbock
  5. Gouden Carolus – Classic
Just remember to buy these from liquor stores that actually have fresh product! 

EW:  Are there any cool tastings or events on the horizon for the Firkins in the next few months? I loved the Game of Thrones release!

Alvey:  Yes, there are always exciting things happening at the Firkins. Not only do we host free events like the one you mention but we also changed at state law so that liquor stores can now host actual classes. We do at least one per month and focus on all kinds of topics from beer styles and histories to discussions about the three tier system and even classes about antique beer bottles and other collectibles. We are very excited about what we do and love sharing it with as many people as we can. 

EW:  As one who watched the news and videos of the process, I'm interested to hear: Any thoughts on the future of your seemingly one-man-vendetta against prohibition of beer sales on Sunday?

Alvey:  It’s far from a one-man-vendetta. There are 14 liquor stores in Minnesota that want to be open on Sundays and clearly the majority of consumers want the convenience of Sunday liquor sales too. Every poll taken in Minnesota shows around 70% of people think Sunday sales is a good thing, there is even a consumer group, the MN Beer Activists who are spearheading the effort. So why can’t we make it happen? The opposition is simply too strong. 

There are hundreds of liquor stores here in Minnesota that passionately oppose the repeal of the Sunday trade restriction. They do not want to be open on Sundays (for various reasons that all boil down to laziness and/or fear of change) and they will do anything they can to make sure it never happens. Unfortunately for us they have the numbers and they are all members of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA) which is a large and powerful lobbying group. 

One senator told me earlier this year that he hears from the MLBA and its members every single day about how they don’t want to be open on Sundays. The same senator told me he never hears from regular people who want this repealed. 
That is essentially the crux of the problem. Most consumers agree that Sunday sales for liquor stores is a good idea but getting those people to go the next step and actually call their representatives is very difficult. Until the legislators at the Capitol start hearing from more regular consumers about the issue they are going to continue to do what the MLBA says. The Sunday sales restriction could stay in place for a very long time at this rate. 

We need to get the issue more media exposure and we need more people calling their representatives. We’ll try again next year!

EW:  Are there any other unusual loopholes (for good or evil) from the 3 tiered system of beer distribution that we might find interesting?

Alvey:  The entire thing, in fact, is fascinating. We are the only country in the world that has a legally enforced three tier system for distribution of alcohol. Growing up in Australia and having lived almost two years in London, England I have seen first hand how other countries operate with alcohol and I can tell you that what we have here is indeed unique. One can make a very strong argument that the craft beer renaissance we have today only exists because we have the three tier system. Without it we’d have “Tied Houses” like Australia and the U.K do and those Tied Houses really limit the growth of small breweries. 

A Tied House is the name given to a bar, tavern or pub that is either outright owned or sponsored by a single brewery. That bar will only sell the beers that the owner brewery produces. They won’t sell small independently owned craft beers. For them to do so would be akin to Burger King allowing The Blue Door to sell Juicy Lucy’s at B.K. It’s simply never going to happen.

Tied Houses exist in every other country in the world that allow the sale of alcohol. They don’t exist here in the United States anymore, but they used to, and it caused big problems. Tied Houses are considered a large part of the collection of problems that actually led to prohibition. Coming out of prohibition the federal government made them illegal here in the U.S.

If we allowed Tied Houses tomorrow, if Inbev-Bud and Miller-Coors were allowed to own and supply their own bars, the craft beer landscape that we know and love would virtually cease to exist. Inbev-Bud and Miller -Coors are two of the biggest beverage companies on the planet. Their cash reserves are vast. They could instantly throw up more Tied Houses than most people could imagine and put out of business many of the beer bars we know and love today. This would of course directly affect the sales of craft beer and the small craft breweries would begin to suffer. You can see how this situation could quickly lead to a bleak future for craft breweries. 

For comparison I’ll use Australia since that is where I spent most of my life before I came to Minnesota in 2001. In Australia many of the pubs I used to frequent only sold certain beers, the beers of the brewery that owned or sponsored that pub. It was to the point where we would have discussions about what brand of beers we wanted to drink (all mass produced garbage anyway so hardly worth any discussion!) and we’d go to the pubs that had those brands. When I was in my early 20s’ craft beer or “boutique beer” as it is now known in Australia, didn’t exist. No pubs would have carried it even if it did. 
Fast forward to modern day Australia and we have an only slightly improved situation. Australia has about 150 craft breweries compared to over 2400 here in the U.S. Australia has no second tier distribution network so almost all of those Aussie “boutique beers” are only available locally. After all, the big national breweries are certainly not going to carry those boutique beers on their trucks! There are some independent bars that now offer a small range of Aussie craft beer but they are limited and hard to find. When you do find them the beers cost twice to almost three times more than they do here in the U.S. Drinking craft beer in Australia is a very expensive hobby and they don’t have even a tiny fraction of the choice that we enjoy here in the United States. 

I’m not saying the Three Tier System is perfect but it does provide a number of very good things…

EW:  Thanks again for all the wonderful commentary and pointers, Alvey!  For our next Four Firkins interview I'll be getting together Michael Wagner over a craft beer and getting his take on the local beer scene!

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