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Black Star Co-op Interview Part Two

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  •  SY: I'm kind of tired of being so accommodating, customers ask for so much stuff! 
  •  NT: You're on tape now. 
  •  JL: Well it's true though, and even though we're on tape now - Dan Gillotte from Wheatsville posted this thing on Facebook and linked to an article from the New York Times about chefs that are hard-lining their restaurants and he was like we believe in full service at Wheatsville, and it was this kind of shitty thing, and I wanted to go back on there and it took all my fucking willpower to not bite at the bait, all these people were like yeah, they’re douchebags and they want people to eat what they’re making and on and on, and I wanted to be like look, if you’re an artist and you drew a picture a certain way and you sold it to somebody and they were like well, can you change this, would you do it? I mean, if you’re a chef and you really want someone to eat the food the right way, the way they prepared it – it doesn’t have to be at every restaurant, you know. 
  •  SY: Can you make me a special HB 660? I want the same grain bill but I want it with a different yeast. 
  •  JY: Come back in 3 weeks. 
  •  JL: I get the point of what he’s trying to say, but also saying that is pretty glib, and not understanding that like when you go eat really amazing sushi and the guy’s been doing it for 45 years, and he serves it to you and you slather it with wasabi, he’s crying inside, you know? 
  •  SY: I think it’s also funny – that is kind of contrary to what Wheatsville’s success has been derived from – less choice? 
  •  JL: Maybe I should write a big essay and put it in his comments, you know, "here's an essay on this, I think you're wrong!" But I got like really viscerally upset about that, and I was like "no!" 
  •  SY: The most upsetting comment I saw on the New York Times article you are describing is that that is essentially specialization. You don’t have to have a Chili’s that’s every restaurant when you’re in New York city. You can have a tiny restaurant that’s just like country French. And that’s it. And if you want country French, you go there. There’s 8 million people in the fucking city, you don’t have to worry about customers. Somebody’s gonna want that every day of the week. 
  •  JL: That’s a perfect segue into this. 
  •  NT: Yeah, more or less. So like I said, I’m playing around with the idea of terroir, and I know – and this is really speculative and I have mixed opinions about this, but off the bat, I wanted to know whether you guys thought that that plays a role in beer, specifically. 
  •   I know people like Sam from Dogfish head are on record as saying that it does, but I also know that he is prone to hyperbole, so just I’m still trying to figure this out, so I was wondering what you guys had thought about that.JY: With brewing, it really doesn’t play a big part. It’s unfortunate, you know, it’s not as simple as that, because our biggest ingredient is water, and that is one of the local things, but we treat the shit out of it because just brewing with tap water is not awesome. So even then it’s doctored. None of the ingredients, the main ingredients, come from anywhere near here. We still get as much American stuff as we can, but there are German malts over there and most of the hops are – terroir, no. Not really.  NT: Yeah, and that’s sort of where I’m at with – I don’t know, do you guys have anything else to add?  JL: My only thing would be probably not from a production basis, as far as ingredients go, because you’re just never going to get that – north Texas might do some barley but not to the extent that you’re going to need to malt, but in sense of style, maybe. I mean, like the northwest has a style of beer and they fucking hop the shit out of everything.  SY: Yeah, you can go to a brewpub in Portland that has 3 different IPAs.  JL: That’s about it, that’s all I can think of. It’s the style, you know?  JY: The style, yeah. And we do use a lot of – well, we’ve got the round rock honey, and I try to find molasses that’s ---  JL: I’m already working on your peaches.  JY: And peaches, that’s a big one. So when we can, we do, but you know, it’s not anywhere close to how the food is doing this.  SY: I think it’s kind of an onward march of technology, isn’t it? Because my understanding of the history of brewing is that you get stout because of things like the way that the shale, the water came through the shale in Ireland was amenable to the roasted malts and that those flavors just come out in those kinds of situations, and I mean, and where everyone would go is probably to wild fermented beers, and those are definitely the kind –  JL: In that instance yes, I mean, you can only produce in the 150 square mile the certain wild, airborne yeast, you’re not going to get that beer anywhere else, you know?  SY: Except you can capture it.   JL: But it’s not going to be reproduced.  SY: It’s kind of like the – I was hanging out with a friend who is in the sciences, and she said you know, no one deals with anything that’s alive anymore, because it’s always a crapshoot whether your experiment is going to work or not, but on the other hand, the fermentation sciences, as they apply to production-scale industrial beverage making, are fairly well refined, and you could capture that yeast, you could grab it out and you could do things with it, and I mean even with Sam, when he goes to Egypt and captures wild yeast, he then sends it to Belgium to be refined, you know, so he gets a pure strain out of it that he can brew with.  JL: And then he slathers it on his sweet guns.  JY: So the only way it really could be an example of using your terroir is to have your water, using it raw water, untreated, but even then, back in the day, it wasn’t like – my understanding is it wasn’t that they decided to use these roasted malts – it was more of a natural emergence of like these are the beers that taste the best –  SY: Taste good with our water.  JY: With our water, yeah. So all the other ones died out while that one survived, and they just brewed from there.  JL: What do you think the water table is under the brewery? Let’s just dig a well.  SY: Did you hear the place is on top of a chemical thing?  JL: Oh yeah, it’s on top of a remediated brown field. (laughs) Forgot about that. Well, it’s not – I guess this is something we just don’t really – it’s not applicable like it is with wine, but like New Zealand is trying to establish terroir. .... there’s that very subtle difference (in wine), but you just don’t get that, you get style, you have that.  JY: can you use that term in a sense that locations like the northwest have certain styles of beers, not because the ingredients, it’s the culture.  SY: It’s culture.   JL: They might be able to use it because of cascade hops. I mean, that might be an applicable term, and maybe they actually have beer terroir. But we don’t. You know?  NT: So if I can cut you off, because you started to get to the next thing I was going to go to, so I just read this book which is called the taste of place, it’s written by a woman named Amy Trubek, and she got – became obsessed with terroir when she was living in Vermont and talking about cheese and working in a culinary institute. I mean, cheese is definitely something you can talk about terroir with, but the idea of this book is to try to figure out how French ideas of terroir map to America. And so like I said this is the point where I talk at you guys, so just deal with me, but, so she translates it sort of loosely as what she calls it taste of place, so in France it’s rooted deeply in tradition, preservation, codification, so the AOC says you can only produce this wine in this region. So it’s tied to authenticity and link to one’s roots. So in the USA guys like Randall Grahm who ran Bonny Doon winery until he sold it, his attitude was that people in America has the opportunity to be synthesizers, to be bricoleurs, which is the idea that you’re pulling from what’s around you and making new things, so there are “tinkering with what we have, imagining what’s possible and borrowing from many ancestral pasts.” So you get pale ales from Burton and you get stouts from Dublin and you get lagers from Pilsen, so she sees the taste of place in the US as emerging from local restaurants, and farmers and vinters – she leaves out beer, so this is where I’m going – she positions it at a response to modern conditions, focused on rooted local thinking which inspires local actions. So it’s an evolving model that combines social values with entrepreneurial activities, so she stretches that. So she says according to this alternative model, the central perception of how food is sourced and made shifts from either a monolithic autocratic capitalist system or the invention of a nostalgic pre-capitalist tradition. So those are her two ways – you either have agrarian utopia or you have globalized mass production. SO networks of people, farmers, chefs and others, combine the quest for economic livelihood with the goal of a sustainable food system. But for these people the quest is also sensory, they want to create food of high quality, they are pursuing a business, a mission, and a craft. So my question is, and furthermore she says that community is central to this process, says that terroir, taste of place, in America is built on people as much as it is on land or geography, so my question, and this might be hitting the nail way too much on the head, by reading all that to you guys, but do you think that that’s reflected in anything that you’re doing here, or things that you see in Austin in general, or things that you saw at Wheatsville or whatever.  JL: I’d like to start on that. I think a lot of what our messaging around what our beers are geared towards is something that’s drinkable in Austin. We don’t want a lot of heavy fucking beer in the summertime, you know what I mean, and I think Jeff’s been – that’s been at the forefront of his mind the entire time period here, so maybe we’ll let stew-y over here talk, but…  SY: I don’t have anything – I guess I do think the author kind of presents a false choice in what you’ve read, that you either have this like agrarian –  NT: Her idea is that, just to be clear, her idea is that this thing that she’s talking about is essentially a third way.  SY: Ok, ok. I would say we’re probably a part of that, because without a doubt brewing is an industrial process. It’s something that – and hell, commercial kitchens are an industrial process, and I don’t think that there’s any denying that, but I was actually thinking of the AOC when you read that, I guess that bit about it, and I really just started to say what – I’m utterly dismissive of the French, because I think the only real honest analysis of the French pride, and I have no problem with pride, but the AOC and the terroir is – it is prideful in kind of the sinning way, but it’s also about money, right? It’s just like you can’t make camembert because when we make camembert, and we’ve passed a law that says only people that are in camembert can make camembert, and until the – what was it, the 1970-something blind tasting of American wines the French just believed the only people on earth that could make wine were the French, that it was some kind of god-given right that they had. So I don’t – in some ways that makes me want to discredit the entire concept of terroir, because it’s just like what the fuck – you know? It’s really just born of an egotism, and I think – I don’t think I’m at all alone as an American that bristles under that, and – but she is right that that bristling has led Americans to be innovative, and what I think was interesting in the past decade that we’ve seen is the old world coming back and looking at America, that you now have Belgian breweries brewing with American hops, taking American styles and doing their own thing, saying like whoa, these guys are making innovative shit, what can we do with that?   JL: I agree with that, however, I still think there is some truth to terroir.  SY: Yeah, I’m not dismissing the entire thing, I’m just saying that I have kind of a visceral reaction ---  JL: Cheese being one of the things that definitely what you’re going to see there in Vermont, Wisconsin, is that these people that have these creameries, they are only letting their cows eat grass, and the grass gives a distinctive flavor to the milk. Now if you get milk from a grain fed cow, it doesn’t have that flavor, so the terroir really does play in that field, you know, Vermont cheese tastes amazing, Wisconsin cheese tastes amazing – if I blind taste tested them, would they be comparable to French cheese? Maybe, but it’s the same idea – it’s the idea behind it and that’s really where it comes into play, and its like we only eat our cows eat the grass that grows here.  SY: Yeah, and you taste with your brain. This is psychology.  SL: So, beer, no.  SY: I completely agree with that. There’s a kernel of truth in it, it’s just not…  NT: So what – so yeah, so terroir, dead.  SY: Yeah, I’m sorry, I was just stewing on it.  NT: No, I think that’s totally true and I have the same reaction to that, but so what of the idea – and we’ve already addressed this a little bit – but what about the idea that it’s a worthwhile thing, like the thing the French have with the AOC is something that may be worth chasing, in terms of owning place and not necessarily being protected, so what of the idea that it’s something that is translatable, something you can mess with so that you can make your own.  SY: See, I think that the AOC is sort of dated in that regard, and I would look more towards like the creative commons, which is something that we’ve talked about many times, and you know, and we get emails – a couple weeks ago a guy asked for the recipe for one of the beers, moontower maybe, and Jeff sent it out to him, here’s our recipe for it. I think the AOC is all about control, and what we have in the 21st century is the re-mix, it’s the take it and play with it.  JL: Mash it up.  JY: It’s something I used to say a long time ago, but when we started talking at beer socials and everything is that the vision that I have for our beers initially is something that had to naturally emerge from the culture which, now in this case we’re kind of saying is paramount to the actual terroir, it’s more important for us what the culture is here, and that’s something that deals with a relevance to a time and a place. And --  NT: Note for the record, he’s pointing towards the house brown.  JY: But here being in Austin we’re going to make beers of a certain style that the consumers want, and in time they could change their mind. Terroir, like you can’t really change the conditions of the sun and the moisture of the hill that you’re on, but we have the benefit of that if tastes change, if people all of a sudden start really liking hoppy beers, then we can start making hoppy beers, so we have that benefit, but its’ all about the relevance of and the connection to our membership, who ultimately we are making beers for, and they are a fickle bunch and we will continue to change for them.  JL: It’s like the membership is the terroir.  JY: Yeah, it’s like they are the terroir.  NT: That’s an interesting way to put it.  SY: Yeah, our roots are sunk there.  NT: Yeah, we can leave it at that, that’s a good sound bite. Do you think, so do you think our relationship – and this is my last question about this, do you think that relationship is more one way in terms of their influence, or do you think it’s a mix, or do you think it’s producers laying out what it is and consumers picking up the…  JL: For us, or in general.  NT: Well, let’s talk about Austin and then for you.  JL: I don’t think Austin is unified enough to really have that sense. There’s a lot of competing factors as to what Austin is trying to do, I think, food and beer wise, I don’t think that people even know what they want yet, and that’s to moving to us, I think we kind of guide our patrons’ hands a little bit, and have always guided the membership’s hand or mouth or whatever, hand to mouth, with beer, and – but they don’t, they’re not angry about that, they still feel like they control that, and I think that’s the point, whether they do or not, they still have that sense that this is their thing and we are doing it for them, even if we are like this is what we want to do, we’re doing it for them, ultimately, I think that they have that sense in their mind and this is done for me, and that I did this, you know?   JY: Yeah, I can see it is as definitely a give and take, and we were looking at our numbers today for what beers go quickest and the beers that are being consumed the most are our lighter ones that, you know, aren’t that complicated but they are not the ones that really bring people in, when we say we have moontower and HB 660, it brings people out, so that kind of influences – when I saw where the hype comes from with these beers then I realized that I need to kind of have a hyped-up beer here and there, so they influence how I – what kinds of beers that I make, but then again, I come back with my interpretation on it, and I think, and I would hope just like any other brewery that kind of influences what people are drinking, yeah, it’s what available.  NT: So going on the back of that, and sort of moving into talking about community more directly, you said that, I mean that obviously Austin has kind of a – it likes to think of itself as having a strong local first thing, like keep Austin weird, and the fact that there’s local businesses at the airport, you’re presenting a face to the public when you come to Austin, it’s an Austin thing, but as you said, it’s still fragmented to the point that people don’t know what they want, so I’m just curious what you guys think about the local first attitude that seems to be at least ostensibly present.  SY: I don’t think the fragmentation and not knowing what they want are necessarily coming from the same place. The fragmentation, I think, is emblematic of the fact that Austin is big –  JL: And it’s diverse.  SY: It’s diverse – there’s people here who want different things, and that’s a great thing, you know.  JL: There are still republicans here.  SY: We’re not going to get everyone to love craft beer, we’re not going to get everyone to love our food. Fine. There are plenty of other Austinites.  JL: There’s plenty of other places for the people who don’t like it to go.  SY: Yeah, we’re not the only place out there.  JL: Yeah like the people who said we weren’t greasy enough bar food, they want to go to Billy’s when they want bar food.  SY: Who said that?  JL: Some yelp review. It’s like for bar food, I want to go Billy’s and that’s exactly the point that I made, that level of fragmentation say well, it’s too greasy, for other people it’s not greasy enough.  NT: Yelp is an interesting version of the commons, if you can put it that way.   SY: But what you’re asking about guiding people, right, not knowing what they want, I mean, I think that – if there is a common thread in those two things, it goes back to that whole thing about specialization, because on the one hand you’ve got specialization, here’s our product, there’s 800,000 people in Austin now, they can choose their thing. It’s also specialization – we spend 8 hours a day thinking about what we’re going to do. What we’re going to sell. We think about it way more than the 30 seconds a customer spends in line wanting something, or even those esoteric beer nerds – well not the most esoteric, but your average – the snobbery factor is not putting anywhere near as much time into thinking about beer as Jeff is, or anywhere near as much time into thinking about local produce as Johnny is, and that’s where it’s kind of – I mean what Johnny was talking about, we put something out there for the members, what I really think is we’re kind of the leadership. We’re putting – we’re asked, and we’ve taken responsibility to go out on a limb and say this is what we think is good, and if they don’t think so, they’ll let us know really fast. But so far we’re batting pretty well.  JL: I think – working at wheatsville opened my eyes up to this a lot, and it sounds glib or reductive to say this, but people don’t know what they like, and they don’t know what they want. They think they do, but when they get it they are often disappointed, or it meets or exceeds expectations, and the fact that it happens so much just goes to show that people are really going into the ether to figure out what it is that they like, and I think that that’s good, and ultimately it’s a growth-based process, but people might think they like this, and they might think they like a pale ale and they come here and they try a pale ale and they say oh, I didn’t like that. It wasn’t hoppy enough, or it was too hoppy, or it wasn’t too pale enough, it was kinda dark and there’s like – and this, I think, I guess I’ve never thought about this before, but that’s where what we do with the beers and not naming them – not assigning a style kind of helps in that once you attach a name to something people instantaneously get that in their mind and you like a pale ale and you come in here to get our pale ale, which we don’t have a pale ale, you judge it through every filter of every pale ale you’ve ever had. If you come and get a “deep and malty”   JY: Full bodied.  JL: Full bodied and malty, that’s right, brown ale, and it’s got a pretty aggressive IBU amount and it’s pretty aggressively hopped, and it’s nice and you’re expecting that, you know, instead of like I’m getting a brown ale. And I think that’s where that perception and the reception and reality gap starts to be apparent is where people are like I know what I like, but then when you have something that’s not the same representation of what you like, you don’t like it, even if it is better or whatever.  SY: It’s just different.  JL: It’s just different, you know?  SY: And we see that all the time with the food reviews. It’s like your chili is terrible, or this is the best burger I’ve ever had.  JL: Why did you put curry in the chili? That’s my favorite.  SY: This beet salad needs more arugula or it needs more spinach.  JL: So there’s things like that. There’s perception and then there’s reality and there’s that massive gap in between and I think people – I said, I think we are kind of the leader in that. People – you start to have a certain sense of credibility at a certain point. Wheatsville’s produce department had a sense of credibility. You went there for local produce, and it’s local because it’s local, and what is local? Is it 150 miles, is it 10 miles, is it from the yard behind Wheatsville which we did get some basil from there before, what is local? And they want “local,” and at that point, to me, Texas is local. It’s regional, really, but it’s from where we are, and where we’re from, and it makes a lot of sense, you know, and I don’t think consumers, I think we’re all consumers and I think this applies to all of us, and I don’t think people are really educated enough to know what it is that they’re getting, and I think that’s the downside, and as a co-op, one of our primary charters is to educate people about what we are doing for them, and I think that’s something that we are in a unique position to do, where other businesses, they’re just selling you a product, and they’re selling you foie gras from Hudson valley in New York, and it’s foie gras, and you know what foie gras is, and you like it and whatever, I mean, anything. You can apply it towards every single thing, and when you’re a co-op and you’re member owned like we are, there’s that moment of truth where it’s like ok, this is what we’re doing, even like we talked about way earlier, no one might know what Richardson’s farm is, but we’re still putting it out there. We’re going to put it out there until you know that that’s from Thorndale, and that’s the best pork you can buy in this area. I’m kind of meandering a little bit, but people don’t know what they want, so you’ve got to sell it to them in a manner that’s not exploitative to them or ourselves.  SY: And I think that actually ties back to the co-op, because we’re not – we have occasional times where we say we have a new special on tonight, why don’t you push it, but we’re not like your big chain restaurant that says this appetizer has the highest margin, I need all my servers to be salesman where they are pushing that appetizer, and people buy that stuff, because when you – because like he said, they don’t know what they want. If you tell them oh, this is the best appetizer, it’s so good, they’ll buy it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bowl of shit on a plate.  JL: You’re the person behind the counter with credibility. You’re the waiter, you’re the hand. You’re kind of guiding them.  SY: But generally we do a pretty good job of asking people what kind of beers do you like, what kind of food do you like, and trying to find things that we serve that are going to make them happy.   NT: And so that sort of – the question about beers gets into sort of my next maybe second last question about beer, because we might be tired by now, although you probably think about it a lot, so we are already talked about Austin boomtown maybe being a bubble town, but so I’m wondering about the internals of local beer, what might be the politics of tap choice, like local beer, I know you have an emphasis on being local and being Texas owned, but how does the craft brewing community of businesses, not people, play into business here at the co-op, if that makes any sense?  SY: Well Chris could probably answer that question the best. All I could really answer is maybe from hearsay from what he says about things, and I know that we generally have had every local brewery have at least one tap, there have been occasional gaps.  JY: He likes to throw the new ones a bone and any new one that came out, we put two of those on there. That’s one of those things like with the food, everybody gives us really high marks for our draught selection, and it’s fucking intimidating to me as a brewer because its like let’s just take the best beers from all around the country and then compare them next to Jeff’s beers.  (laughter)  JY: We want those beers there, but –  JL: There’s two bigfoots up there right now!  NT: No I was just going to ask –  JL: One thing that I keep thinking about is more through synthesis, more through how we got here, how our reception has been, now we’re doing something for them. This is the turn of play, and it’s happened.  NT: Them being new brewers?  JL: New breweries, yeah. In the beginning it was like us going to Ty and asking if we could have some yeast, we need some yeast, can you help us out? And we were met with, I think, very indifferent.  SY: Ty was the biggest supporter.  JL: Ty and the guys at Real Ale, I would say that they were all on board, like that’s a good idea.  JY: But there was a lot of skepticism back then that does not exist anymore.  JL: Josh was really skeptical about us. I think he met us with a high level of cynicism.  SY: I think the most skeptical at Real Ale is no longer there and we fired him as well.  JL: But I think we were met, coming out of the gates, with that’ll never happen – Josh straight up told me that’s never gonna work. Draught House Josh. And I think that’s fair from his perspective, we’re competition, much more idealistic, more social justice roots, and he’s a bar. He doesn’t want some people coming in and stomping on his parade, even though we met as his place, gave him money, did a lot of things where we were trying to be a part of that community and help and he was like that just isn’t going to work.  JY: But to his a lot of stuff has worked since then, and you see all these breweries popping up from people that just like roll into town and I’m a homebrewer, I’ll start up a place, and then they do it, you know, there have been a lot of people, but I like to say back when we were first starting and we were talking to him, that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t any precedence where this has happened before, even with just normal opening of breweries.  SY: Part of it is that they’ve seen it come and go. It’s a jaded view that well, yeah, Waterloo was here Copper Tank was here.  JL: And they come and go, but now we’re – I think we didn’t have commercial suicide for a week or so, but Jester King, we’re one of their top moving places, and that starts to show the full circle-ness of this at this point, and the question for me is well, I think we were met with a level of skepticism, true believers in the product, ty, Real Ale, they were like, this can work, you’ve got a community of people behind you, you’ve already got patrons, you start thinking about it like that, you’ve already got people that are going to come, no matter what.  SY: Honestly, the people who bought that quickest, though, have always been restaurant people. Like I’ve been at conferences and restaurant people, when you tell them – we had 400 members at the point that I met this guy at the worker owned conference in new Orleans, I think we had about 400 members, and even at that point they just – the first words out of this guy’s mouth were that’s a lot of butts in the chairs. They know what that market is like, the retail, turn tables, getting people – you’re renting tables. Get them in, get the food on, turn it, move on.   JL: Guaranteed patrons is something that people don’t have. We’ve been unique in that, but I think the people that didn’t think about it like that were thinking inside of the box. I think that’s sort of the thing and maybe that’s the point to this is like the people that were willing to step outside and say that’s gonna work because that’s a good idea, and wow, why didn’t we think about that really turns into this kind of support system, and then in turn, now, five years later, we’re the support system and the retail outlet for people who are doing the exact same thing that we were trying to do then.  JY: And you’re saying the hops and grain guy was here closing investments.  SY: Yeah, I mean I was sitting at the bar right next to him as he was getting someone to sign a contract. I had forgotten about that – that was a kind of real first full circle moment.  JY: And having brewers in here, we’ve trained some of the brewers that are now at some of the other places.  SY: I think that’s really a difference that says a lot about us, that we’re immediately ready to pay it forward, because I remember in the early days of black star, Debbie was good friends with the Independence folks, Rob and Amy, and that there was some rumor going around about us that selling beer without a license or something like that, and she said – and I’d emailed Amy about getting a keg of their Jasparilla which was their special at that time for beer social, and Debbie’s words to me were well, Amy says no one helped them so they’re not going to help anybody else. That’s a big difference between us.  NT: So that, I mean that sort of leads into my next question: does local beer, and obviously you guys are limited by the legislation that’s in place now, but does local beer need to stay local, can it stay local and stay in business? What are the tradeoffs between staying local, like a place like Live Oak that’s been in business for a long time but they only do more or less, only do local distribution versus a place like Southern Star, for example, that starts canning the minute they open and they’re looking for distribution in other states, so what are the trade offs between staying local, pushing out, is it possible for everyone who’s in Austin now to stay in Austin, can Austin support that?  SY: I think Austin’s a big enough market to support us staying local. I think Southern Star is a big contrast because they’re in Conroe, what the hell’s in Conroe, it’s like 50,000 people.  JL: I think one thing too is dilution of quality. I can remember the first time I ever had Fat Tire, and it was like 1998, and I thought it was the most amazing – I was 17, and I thought it was the most amazing beer I’d ever had. It was so delicious, and my dad’s girlfriend at the time had brought it back from Colorado, all right, brought it back from Colorado. This was a long time ago, right? And then Fat Tire magically hit the shelves in Texas and it was crap, it did not taste the same as that bottle, it changed. There was – it was like a scale thing, it was like people used to – people still say that Shiner used to be good. Shiner used to be really good.  SY: Yeah but there’s a certain element to that that’s just Austin, I mean –  JL: Is it?  SY: Yeah, what’s the joke about Austinites putting in a light bulb? One to put it in and nine to complain about how the old lightbulb was better?  JL: Well, the fat tire in a can tastes like the old fat tire that she brought, the first time I had one of those, I was like this was what it tasted like. It was just a difference –  JY: They have to, production-wise, you do have to do more fine filtering, you have to make something that is going to last over that amount of time and sit on the shelf, and it does alter the product for sure, and it’s probably – it’s supposed to be pretty fresh, I mean we’re not talking Bud Light born on date kind of stuff, but you take a place like – I’m just thinking about New Glarus, one of the best breweries in the fucking world, does not distribute outside of Wisconsin, from what I’ve heard from them it’s just like why would we when we have so much here, and I think another part of that is why dilute your brand just kind of over in different markets just try to squeak out a little more profit.  SY: And the ultimate example of that is Westvleterin, you have to show up at the monastery on this particular day and then you can buy a case. And that’s it.  JY: But I think – I would say, so when I was in Alabama, that would have sucked for me because you couldn’t get any good beer there, so the only thing we could get were those world market craft beers from around the world, and you know, they weren’t the finest examples but they were something that opened my eyes, but then if you take a place like Austin here that has a good variety, then why not stay as local as you can, the more you support the local people the more they’re given the liberty to make cool Belgian beers or things and push the envelope there, so then – and beer advocate, the magazine, they, Jason and Todd, always push for – I think they say you should really only drink beer within 60 mile radius of your home, they put some number on it like that, and I like that idea, just the fact that you should have some pretty good beer around where you are, you should have good examples – but there are certainly places that don’t have it.  SY: And I think that there are examples of really fine beers that travel well. I mean, you travel anywhere in the united states and have a sierra Nevada, and it’s fucking delicious. It’s just a go-to, you’re in a bar that’s got nothing but Coors Light, and you see sierra Nevada bottle up on that shelf, and you know that it’s going to be a fine beer.  JL: And what this makes you think about is when we were in Kalamazoo, and it was at the same time that Larry Bell was pulling out of Chicago, and that’s kind of the same idea, right, it’s like oh, I have a falling out with my rep, in one of the biggest cities in the country –  SY: Well, it was his biggest market, it was like half of his market.  JL: And he’s going to be like fuckit, I can sell this beer in Wisconsin and in Michigan, and to them, that’s regional, but it’s local, you know, that’s – I don’t need those people, I can do this because we have such a strong base, and that’s kind of the thing, right, is with local anything, you have to have a strong base. If you don’t have that strong base, it doesn’t matter.  SY: To put that in perspective, that’s like Southern Star pulling out Houston.  JL: That’s a big move but he knew that he could recoup any losses through ---  NT: And New Glarus used to distribute in Chicago, and they pulled out for more or less the same reasons. They pulled out a few years before Bell’s did, Bell’s is back in Chicago.  JL: Oh really? That was four years ago.   NT: Yeah, he sued a lot of people. But – I moved here from Minnesota, and we used to drive across the border to buy New Glarus.  JL: Summit!  NT: Yeah, summit, and Surly. So yeah that, more or less, is the end of that question, and the last four questions that I want to ask you guys, and thanks for this time, this is going long here, is about the co-op model. So first, in general, what was attractive to you guys about the co-op model, and do you think that it’s necessary for a city to have a co-op, should it be necessary, is it just kind of a luxury?  SY: I’d go farther, in my personal opinion, I think that all private sector enterprises should be co-ops. Should be. I think it’s a better way to do business, and that we’ve had problems in the United States cooperative movement with – I guess we’re going back to the movement question, I do think co-ops are a movement that is very different to craft beer or something like that, because it is explicitly tied to people, to values, to an ideal. I think that we’ve suffered some really huge blows, especially during the Red Scare under Reagan where cooperatives have been basically tied to communism or socialism or whatever ism was the problem of the day, but like Glenn Beck conflating Stalinism, Marxism, Nazism just like it’s all the same thing, it’s just different. These guys are the ones who are really focused on their particular craft, I’m – when I come to work every day I come to work because I feel proud of the fact that we are a cooperative, and that’s what really motivates me.   JL: I’m right there with you. Not to interrupt but I didn’t know shit about coops until 2002 when I started working at wheatsville, and I think – I don’t think there’s been a single life-changing event – well yeah, there have, but like life changing event from social movement, social justice, or economic justice perspective that I’ve ever had, to see like why isn’t this the dominant paradigm? Why do people need to make so much money? Why is that the motivation? Why is that the factor, instead of helping people have good jobs, helping people have equity, helping a community have equity in a business. That’s a big thing, I mean we – I think we’ve talked about this before, too, is like we’re not an ownership culture. We rent. We are transient, we don’t give a shit about things anymore.  SY: Small groups own.  JL: And I think that’s the thing is like when you tell somebody – and it goes back to that questions what’s in it for me – you own it. That’s not enough, and that’s a problem. That’s always been a problem for me, since before I met you, since I really got into co-ops, that’s a problem for me, and that’s like, owning it isn’t enough? That’s the end! It doesn’t go any further than that, you own it. That should be enough, right? People don’t care about that, they’re like well, what do I get? You get the place, you get the ownership. That’s a lot.   SY: I think in my mind, as far as – and we’re going to be a different situation because we have consumer ownership and we have the worker ownership, and that has certainly proved a source of tension probably more in the past year than it ever has, with the rise of actually having a worker’s assembly, you know? But in my mind, if I were to sum up the cooperative in one phrase it would be you get out what you put in, and I think that applies to a whole lot of – I mean, to both sides of our operation, for sure. We had a worker’s assembly meeting this morning. People that don’t show up, they don’t get to participate. They don’t get to say anything. On the other side we also had a comment on our facebook – I posted a picture to facebook yesterday of setting up that thing out on the patio with the cocktail tables.  JL: Can we get some umbrellas?  SY: No, today the post was great, all we need is table service and we’re set. And it’s like no, sorry. Stand in line. You put in a little bit, you’re going to get out great food, great beer, at a reasonable price. And I haven’t responded to that person yet because I haven’t figured out a way to do it tactfully, but –  JL: Do not engage. Let it die.   SY: But you get out what you put in, I don’t think that – we just had a good friend of mine, a work colleague, really, from Portland. Portland has an enormous quantity of breweries, well it also has an enormous quantity of cooperatives. But Portland does not have a cooperative brewery and Todd was just really – he really was broken up about that fact. He was like Portland does not have a cooperative brewery! We do. And that kind of sets us apart, because we’re the only people right now, in a nation of 300 million people.  NT: Do you guys know of other people that are trying to start?  JL: Oh yeah. Two, or three right now.  SY: Milwaukee has a public house, not a brewery, Seattle has the flying bike, which is probably the farthest along, Portland has a group, northern Vermont has a group, the Tuskegee –  JL: Those people from Carolina who were here…  JY: Apparently there’s some Houston people coming in to do something.  SY: See, Houston is much more like easy to help out, but…  JL: We once had this conversation – I kinda want to talk about this a little more, but we had a conversation back in the day, this was – we used to have a lot of conversations about this kind of stuff, and we were talking about strike teams, basically. If we get to the point where our operations are sound we can uproot people from our community to these other communities that want this, and be like boom, plug it in. Because what we had to do is write the book, and that’s really hard. It’s a really –  SY: We still haven’t written the book, we just have the knowledge to do it.  JL: Yeah, but just meaning there wasn’t somebody we could email and be like how did y’all do this? It was how are we going to do this, you know? And here we are, so we did something right, but it’s still a lot easier to just call on somebody and just ask them, and I think anybody that comes up now has that opportunity, and that’s unique because we didn’t have that. We’re only five years old and we didn’t have that, and that’s something that’s really powerful, and if we inspire any of those people, or they had the idea themselves without even knowing about us, awesome. But if we inspired them that’s even more powerful.  SY: I think when you’re talking about the cooperative there’s a real problem of definitions. What are you actually talking about? And the problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many different kind of organizations identify themselves as cooperatives, and the fact that the cooperative model is so flexible doesn’t do itself any services by that. That you can have land o lakes as a cooperative, no one has any idea where they buy their butter, or Ocean Spray, or hell, Nationwide Insurance is technically a mutually owned insurance cooperative, but Nationwide you cannot identify, it’s just like a hydra, that’s got a publicly traded arm, called Nationwide Financial Services, and Nationwide Investments, it’s got hundreds of for-profit subsidiaries, so it’s just like what does that organization become anymore?  JL: Credit unions are even more skirting the line. It’s a bank.  SY: Yeah, to the average credit union customer, it’s just the place that you bank. And it really is different, and the credit unions I think are actually coming around, I mean, I had a fair amount of work with the credit union movement over the last year, that they are recognizing at the institutional level that the key to their success is re-embracing their cooperative roots, because they see banks doing it, and they’re like if investor owned banks are doing this and we’re running away from it, what does this say about us?   NT: Do you guys have a relationship with the university credit union, I know wheatsville does.  JL: We used to have a really good one, but –  SY: Yeah, they burned that bridge. Yeah, that was really frustrating. We had – the loan that bought this equipment is with the first state bank central Texas, basically a rural small town Texas bank based out of temple, and the university was not interested in making the loan to us, A+ was really interested – the credit unions were really interested in our business for the opportunity to market to our members, because they want to see those people as new members.  JL: See, now’s the time to write a letter to the UFCU and be like…  SY: We had – I mean I have a fantastic relationship with middle management at UFCU. Their upper management sees things entirely differently.  JL: They want to be a bank, I guess. But I think, going backwards, when I first saw the first flier for the meeting, it was a modest flier, a black and white with a star and it said black star pub cooperatively owned brewpub, or beer bar. Cooperatively owned beer bar, and I saw it in the bathroom at wheatsville – someone had gotten it somehow and hung it up there, and I was like there’s no such thing as a cooperatively owned beer bar, what the hell is this, I have to go to this meeting and see what it’s all about – because I was in that mode where I was like oh yeah, I know everything about coops, I gotta go to this thing, and there was that spark, there was enough that you could say this needs to be coop and it could be a coop, and I think that it was primed for that, and I think that it just made sense, if you want a community owned anything, this is the way to do it. You can be state-controlled and be a 501c3, and that could work, but I don’t think that’s ever going to apply for a retail organization.  SY: Yeah, I mean 10,000 villages is fair trade non profit –  NT: They’re non profit?  SY: Yeah, there’s no owner, there’s a board, who knows how the governance actually works for who gets on the board – is it better than Amy’s ice cream? Absolutely. Amy ain’t there.  JL: I met Amy.  SY: Not to say anything personal about her.  JL: She came to a wheatsville big meeting, the board.   SY: But is it as good for the workers or is it as good for the consumers? I don’t think so, not at all. I had a very humbling moment at one of our beer socials when Scott Kelly, of all people, was talking to someone else who was maybe a prospective member, about the foundations of the cooperative. What are the economic and philosophical implications, and I was just like whoa, this is crazy, I mean, this is just ordinary people having this conversation, and I called Melissa, the director of the worker coop federation, I had a phone call with her a couple of days later, and I told her the story and her mind was blown too, and she just said well that’s the power of a consumer cooperative, having that connection that you can actually get people to engage with it.   JL: You see thousands of Wheatsville bumper stickers and they’re probably not members, and that’s the thing, even if you’re not a member, you still have a sense of place, like, that’s my place, I go there, that’s what I do. I think that with our structure, particularly, being a hybrid of having a consumer arm and the worker self-managed side of it, it’s a little bit more confusing ofr people, consumers don’t – some consumers really care that we have the worker self-managed part of it, and some consumers couldn’t give a shit because they just want a beer. But at the end of the day, not to use clichés, but at the end of the day, we’re still paying a better wage, and we’re still able to do things that a normal business can’t do, because our members want that.   SY: Or at least they’re not objecting. It’s not necessarily that they want it, because it’s like we were talking about, they don’t know what they want, but they feel good about it. If, somehow, black star were paying every single one of our employees 300,000 dollars a year, I think we might see some objections, you know?  NT: You might have crossed into the oligarchy at that point. I will say that I live 2 miles from here so I come here all the time, but everybody that I’ve brought here, the most shocking thing is always that there is no tipping. And that’s always the thing, that brings it home, if you don’t have to tip people for them to make a fair wage, that’s – that jogs something in your brain.  JL: And that was born out of a meeting at spider house. That was something that we fundamentally thought was right for a member-owned business. Five years ago. That’s not anything new, that’s something that we, probably the same day as the mission statement, I think, is when we came up with that idea, we shouldn’t take tips. We’re already being paid by the membership, we do they need to pay us more, and that’s how we can really – and I think we’ve talked about this too, five years from now if we’re still successful and we’re going to be this viable business, it starts to be at that point a challenge for other businesses.   SY: I hope so.  JL: Why are you exploiting your workers and making your patrons pay them? You make a lot of money off that $18 plate of quail that has one quail on it, and you’re paying 2.13 an hour, because you need to make money to pay your rent, but if you would have shared the burden by being a cooperative and making the community’s responsibility to share that, you don’t have to pay that bill. The community has already paid that bill, and that’s where I really think it starts to be that challenge, and we’re not there now, by any means.  SY: We get applications for people that are looking for jobs and they’re listing their current employers as restaurants I like to go to, and then they say they’re making 8.50 an hour at that job, that’s their current wage, and my initial reaction is that I like that restaurant a little less now, you know?  JL: Because those people have to make their money to pay all their rent. We’re paying a lot of rent.  JY: They’re not paying as much rent as we are.  JL: That’s true, but we’re in the position to try to make this succeed and make it be a model that we can do, that we can show that it works, to show that there can be more justice in the workplace, that there can – we’re still a workplace, there is still day to day drama, it’s lots of moving parts, that’s the way that it works, but at the base of it, there’s a greater sense of responsibility on all of our shoulders than I could think of – I mean I’ve worked at restaurants, nobody at any of those restaurants I’ve worked at gave a shit, because it wasn’t our money, it was the owner’s money, and he was an asshole. So, why did it matter if we broke a plate or drank a drink or whatever, all these things that you do to slowly steal from your employer, but when you are your own employer, you don’t want to do that. It helps to create a sense of retention that you don’t see at normal places, especially in the service industry, that we’re really trying to achieve, I mean, coops make sense, and I think it makes sense to people that know about it, and that’s the downside of it. I don’t think there’s enough education around it. There’s like two colleges in the united states that even have a program at this point. Maybe one. It might just be Wisconsin, and Canada has two, Saskatchewan and St. Mary’s right? That’s pretty awesome.  NT: But those may well be mostly large scale industrial coops, I mean, upper midwest, I bought my gas from the coop in Northfield, Minnesota.   JL: And Texans use coops and have forever.  SY: I think Minnesota and Wisconsin are different animals.  NT: It’s continuity, the old school coops.  SY: Yeah, where you have the democratic farm labor party. Those guys – it’s a different story. I love all my friends in Wisconsin who are in the coop scene, and they’re in very different coop scenes, I mean, the people who drive cab at Union cab in Madison, have, you would think have so little in common with the engineers at Isthmus engineering, and you see these guys at conferences and you see how little they have in common, and yet they hang out every week. They see each other every week, and then you see how disparate industries can be, that I’m like riding the street car in New Orleans and this straight as an arrow engineer from Madison Wisconsin who is wearing like jorts and his company polo is sitting on a bench seat next to a stripper from San Francisco at the lusty lady, and they’re having a conversation about productive meetings. I mean, you can’t get more polar opposite than that, you know?   JL: I guess that’s the thing is like, we went to – and I haven’t had a chance to go to one of the worker’s coops things, and I know the solidarity there is very strong, worker coops, there’s that sense of just like, we own this, we own it, we all own it, but we also have 2500 people that are consumers that own it, and that’s awesome, because they can help foot the bill, and that’s really something that’s unique to what we are doing, but I know that in those cross sectors you have these totally random people coming together and getting it that at the end they are still the same. We went to a consumer cooperative management association, food coops, basically food coops, and it’s that same thing, its like you’re in this room, there are 500 people, and they’re all on the same page. There’s a couple outliers for the most part, but –  SY: Like us.  JL: Yeah, but we’re there selling t-shirts or something and they’re like whoa, what the fuck, but they still all care about the same thing, they want good product, going to their end user and responsibility, and not to exploit them. I think that’s – the worker, for us, is tied into it to.  SY: A couple weeks ago we were doing menu price adjustments, and you said you didn’t want to have a dollar go up on the chicken, because that would be gauging – how many other restaurants in Austin do you think would have said that?  JL: That’s the cheapest piece of meat we sell is that chicken breasts. The pot pies pay for those chickens, but we don’t need to charge 12 dollars for that, that’s an 11 dollar dish. It’s potatoes, vegetables, and a chicken breast that we get for 1.12 a pound, before we cut it, then it’s more like 1.40 at most, and that’s nothing, and we can sell that for a cheap price.  NT: So that gets me to my next comment, or question, so a lot of the literature, so I’ve been reading a lot of literature about coops, trying to get ready for this paper, so a lot of the literature is pretty ideological, and that goes with a lot of the things that you guys are saying, so my question is do you think incorporating as a coop, being a coop is in any way a comment on capitalism or on the state of the market? And is there an overt ideological element to black star?  SY: I’ve always looked at it, and actually it was my father who brought this to my attention, he’s a historian at Texas A&M, so this was kind of an academic perspective, but I was talking to him about the history of coops, and coops have always been about necessity, right, Lyndon Johnson founded perdenales electric cooperative because investor owned utilities didn’t want to run 10 miles of line to service just one farm. There’s no way they were going to make a return on investment, so the farmers had to get together and form an electric coop, Rochdale pioneers founded their consumer coop because they couldn’t get honest weights. They couldn’t get honest product. What I think is different about us is that it clearly can be done without being a coop, and that’s the sort of late 20th early 21st century difference, is that everyone you see doing it this way is doing it because they want to do it this way.   JL: Yeah, we’re not a need, we’re a want. People want craft beer, you don’t need craft beer. You don’t need fish and chips.  SY: Well and you can get craft beer from a non-coop. You can get it from California, you know?  NT: So just one last quote that I want to read to you guys, this is the last question I have for you, so John Curl, who is a historian/coop activist guy, he wrote in his book that came out in 2009 that coops are a response to a situation, and the situation is always in flux, each new generation creates structures to serve its needs, not mimicking some ideal form, but always in an intensely practical relation to the actual situation on the ground. So do you agree with that, a, and b, if so, what is the situation on the ground that you think black star and other coop businesses that are starting up now, what’s the situation that you’re responding to?  JL: Can I back up one second? I think it’s also important to point out participatory economics. That was, at the beginning, a base, from where a lot of the ideological knowledge came from. Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel – it’s something to look into, a lot of – I think –  SY: There’s some texts on it are really dense, economic models and some of them are really disguised –  JL: There’s a book called parecon  SY: That one is almost fluff.  JL: It’s a lot of disputing existing models.   SY: The structure of our organization certainly comes from a lot of those ideas, I like that quote in the sense that it abstracts the need into a response to a situation. Because I think that it is certainly more versatile than a specific need would be, right? So what is the situation? I don’t know, for wages, a group that’s called WAGES, in California, that does housekeeping cooperatives for illegal immigrants, what they are responding to is exploitation of undocumented workers, almost always women who don’t speak English who live well below the poverty line. That’s the situation that they are responding to. I suppose in our case when we’re talking about a movement of the affluent, what we’re responding to is choice. We want to do it this way, and then I am certainly – I mean, I am without a doubt among the affluent who have the time to do this, right, I mean the first year of black star, year and a half, and pretty much the reason why I was able to keep doing it that time and why we’re here today is because I had savings bonds from a late aunt and my parents were still paying my rent.  JL: And you worked in my house.  SY: yeah, and without that level of affluence, we wouldn’t be here today.   JL: The rest of us had to keep a job, but it afforded him the ability to do some hard work.  SY: I think, you know, what situations I’d like to respond to, Johnny addressed it early on with your comment on in a few years, making people ask the question why am I tipping, why are these people getting shit wages? The situation I’d love to address is Austin I feel has this divergent economy where in another 10 years or so you’re either going to work at home or you’re going to work in the service industry. I mean you’ve got this – the tech sector that doesn’t really need offices, you’ve got the state, which isn’t going anywhere but isn’t setting any fires anywhere either, and then you’ve got the service industry, and then I think in the macroeconomic condition in our microcosm, that’s sort of the path that’s going forward. There’s not going to be a whole lot of – there’s only so many utility lineman you need who are going to have high wage blue collar jobs.  JL: And now if you’re going to have to work in the service industry, it better be worth it, and is it really worth it to cow tow to somebody that’s making more money than you will every day of your life so you can get your 15 to 20 % from them for your money that your restaurant’s gouging, or is it going to be something that’s more responsible, and people are going to start to buck up and do it themselves, and see that they can do it and not have to go work for other people, and I think tha’ts the other thing is that we don’t have a boss. We’re our boss. We know what we need to do, and that’s a lot more of a motivating factor than knowing that I’m going to be held up if I don’t do what I need to do, that we know every day when we come to work that there’s an end result that has to happen and it has to be achieved, but no one is telling us to do that, so it’s other people, like you say in 10 years, you work from home, that’s what you do already, if you’re service industry, your main motivation is fear, and you have to get tips, that’s pretty much it, and if you can somehow erode that, then we’ve done something right. I mean, I think that’s a new way to look at it, if the job – I mean, my family in the Bahamas, they’re all service industry jobs, that’s all there is. Tourism, that’s it. They don’t make shit, you know? But that’s what they have to do, and you think about that, if a couple people have the ideology behind them and the time, they could start something different, but they don’t, they have to work. But here, people are smart enough and they have the time, and they can create that time while still working their normal jobs to make that viable, something that’s not just going to benefit us.  SY: The tourism connection reminds me too of – I think one of the principal advantages of having the consumer ownership – we don’t know exactly what % of our gross revenues comes from members, because we haven’t started tracking that yet. It’s been kind of an ongoing project, but we are building that capacity, and it’d be nice to but the difficult thing with tourism is people’s fickle tastes, and it’s certainly the same thing with service industry. If you go down to – let's imagine a world in which you walk 6th street one Saturday every 6 months. How much turnover occurs down there? The reason is that the model for business down there is to finish a place out, make it the new place, make as much money as possible as quickly as possible, once the crowd moves on, re-do it, start again, right, and you have to recruit that investment, and that, I think, is a testament to the strength of our consumer ownership that I do think that when we find ourselves on the rocks, we have a life line, we can call on people to step up, and going back to the wheatsville example, when central market opened their North Lamar location two miles from wheatsville they made a concerted call to the membership saying please do your primary shopping at wheatsville. You don’t get that option if you’re not a coop. Wheatsville would have been – if they had been cash and carry or whatever that building was beforehand, it would have been gone. Central market would have buried them.   JL: Yeah. It makes sense, you know. It really does. Starting a business is hard, starting a business by yourself is hard, sharing the burden is even harder. You’d think that it would be easier to share the burden, but you really have a lot more constraints, being a coop. it doesn’t necessarily make that much sense because you can’t get a loan and all of those things, but the end result is way more powerful in what you want.  SY: and I’m pretty sure you can find some academic research showing that the average cooperative business lasts longer. 
 
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Title:Black Star Co-op Interview Part Two
Related:Black Star Co-op Interview Part One
Description:Oral history interview (part 2 of 2) conducted with Steven Yarak, Johnny Livesay, and Jeff Young by Niko Tonks at Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery in Austin, Texas, on behalf of Foodways Texas as part of the Craft Brewery Project.
Country:United States
State:Texas
City:Austin
Date:2011-03-07
CreatorYarak, Steven (interviewee)
Livesay, Johnny (interviewee)
Young, Jeff (interviewee)
Tonks, Niko (interviewer)
Source:Foodways Texas Oral History Collection
Language:en
PublisherDolph Briscoe Center for American History
Subject:Oral history
Foodways
Brewing industry--Texas
Original Format:MP3