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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spotlight: High Five Co-op Brewery

What in the world is a co-op brewery? Former Siciliano's staffer and current Buzz columnist Wes Eaton gets the 411 from Dallas McColloch, official spokesperson for GR's cooperative beer movement.

By Weston Eaton

High Five Co-op Brewery is an unfolding story. Just a few months ago twenty-five-year-old Grand Rapidian and cooperative spokesperson Dallas McColloch pitched his vision to Grand Rapids 5 x 5 Night and won. His vision? Begin a brewery whose goals include inclusivity, an opportunity for participative learning, a diverse range of craft beers, and an institutionalized democratic ethos wherein profits are divvied between workers and members—not shareholders and profiteers. By the time we finished our pizza lunch at Harmony, I was ready to join in. And the great thing is, anyone can.

What does it mean to be a part of High Five? Most prominently, becoming a member means actively participating in decision-making processes. This is the democracy aspect. While some members may have the capacity to provide different levels of resources to the co-op, the nominal membership fee entitles all members an equal vote. The inclusivity component means anyone can spend time learning about and performing the tasks and duties it takes to run a brewery. McColloch gave the example of the brewing process itself being a place where greenhorns would be welcomed to learn some of the brewing essentials, such as sanitation and other brewhouse necessities.

In terms of organization, cooperatives are member run and member financed. The term “member” is another word for owner, and, as stated above, anyone can become an active member for a nominal fee. Voting means democracy—and democratizing conventional entrepreneurial models—which for McCulloch is the whole point. No matter your station in life, or financial resources, each member gets one vote. How does the organization operate? Members can join one of three working groups or “committees”, the Hu$tlaz' (Marketing and PR), the steering committee (essential by-laws and operational ends), comprised now of NGO and non-profit savvy individuals, or the brewing committee, which collectively discusses and arranges beer recipes, methods, and menus.

What’s so neat about this organization is that one’s skills can clearly be linked with others in a democratic way. New ideas are introduced to the “floor” at member meetings (intentionally thus far kept under an hour) or at committee meetings and everyone takes an equally critical look at their merit, leading to a majority rule vote. Remember, like membership, participation in these committees is open and encouraged—the only question is, what might you add to the group?

Tying existing High Fivers together (there were forty-five attendees at March’s meeting) is of course a love for craft beer. McColloch’s own connection to craftbeer is one that runs parallel with his vision for a cooperative organization. Raised in Battle Creek on Arcadia Scotch Ale and skater punk music, a career supporting touring musicians afforded many opportunities to travel to Europe and taste the great classics Germany and Belgium have to offer. Familiar story right? Tales of New Belgium’s Jeff Lebesch bicycling across Europe and experiencing “good” beer for the first time come to mind—but that was over twenty years ago. Legends such as Lebesch as well as Michigan’s own Larry Bell, John Haggerty, Joe Short, Nathan Walser, Ron Jeffries, etc., have helped reshape our local beer landscape to such a degree that Michigan is now one of the best places in the world to find diverse craft beers. Such was the environment that McColloch and his generation found when they first began developing their tastes and standards. 

But like so many increasing numbers of others, drinking professionally brewed beer was not an end in itself. Rather, McColloch wanted to brew his own. While this is a familiar story, it’s important to remember that the rising tide of massive popularity in home brewing is a new part of its history. Since the late 1970s when Charlie Papazian first organized the American Homebrewers Association and penned The Joy of Home Brewing, the number of home brewers has boomed exponentially. More precisely, the past five years alone has seen huge growth—just take a look at Siciliano’s recent expansion. For example, I remember not being able to find a hard cider recipe just over seven years ago, and nor more than a handful of folks who knew the basics. While this might be saying more about those in my personal network—i.e. generation—the point is that today McColloch is one of countless others who can site countless sources and methods for brewing ciders. The culture has spread, and with it the diversity of understandings of this practice.

So while home brewing means many things to many people, for McColloch, the meaningfulness of this hobby (lifestyle? culture?) developed hand in hand with his interactions with cooperative organizations—examples being credit unions, Kalamazoo’s food co-ops, co-op restaurants visited while on tour in Europe and especially Western Canada, as well as more collective efforts here in Michigan such as Grand Rapid’s downtown restaurant Barter Town. The result is a specific and tangible value system that sets the importance of people above the indelibility of profits. In other words, his motivation, and that of High Five, is for a redefined localism and community based organization of beer brewing. As explained by McColloch, the cooperative model is the best means to include people as it is inclusive by its very nature, and therefore more concerned with people than with profit. 

What does a redefined or re-appropriated localism and community ethos mean? The topic came up at the end of our discussion when McColloch invited me to a High Five event, a “trash free” tasting party. The co-op extends its aim to minimize exploitation-via-a-collectively-arranged-financial-organization to its impact-on-environment-via-nonessential-waste. So, for High Five, community means higher standards of respect and appreciation and a recognition that undue strains on people and things on multiple levels are wholly unnecessary.

While this is all good, I think McColloch would have folks first start with the more tangible components of High Five. To crystalize this cooperative brewery, its essential uniquenesses are in organization. To most its distinctiveness will be judged not on its social values but on its beers, something I’m sure McColloch will be happy with. So beyond the philosophical elements, McColloch envisions a diverse range of beers, especially often overlooked classics like milds and middle strength scottish ales. His medal-winning Sixty-One minute IPA (Siciliano’s home brew contest 2011) is sure to get a spot on the line-up, at least temporarily. You too could be on tap! Each month the co-op plans to hold a homebrew contest of its own, with the winner upscaling her batch and having her own release party—all part of the co-op’s vision for building an egalitarian learning community.

In the immediate future, High Fivers will be traveling to the only other brewery cooperative in the nation, Black Star in Austin, TX, where plans and lessons will be shared and translated. Look out for High Five in upcoming months, check out their facebook page, and ask yourself, what might I contribute to my brewing community?

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