Charity Brewery Turns Craft Beer into Food for the Hungry

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Charity Brewery Turns Craft Beer into Food for the Hungry

Jacquie Berglund doesn’t know much about beer. Brewing was never her first love. Her passion is barstool philanthropy — the idea that beer can be a means and not just an end.

Berglund started Finnegans Brew Co. in 2000 as the country’s first charity brewery. The five-person operation takes no profit, distributing the majority of its earnings to food shelves throughout the Midwest, and they’ve become the second largest social business in America behind Newman’s Own. Using its 2,000-plus volunteers and fleet of reverse food trucks, Finnegans is projecting to surpass $1,000,000 in donations in 2016.

“I think I’m just hardwired this way,” Berglund says. “I just want to leave the world a better place than when I got here.”

There are several other non-profit brewers in America, including Portland’s Ex Novo and Potosi Brewing in Potosi, Wisc., as well as Two Fingers Brewing in the U.K., but in 1998, when Berglund came up with the idea of selling beer to benefit hunger, no one had broken ground on a non-profit brewery. For her, it seemed like a perfect way to give back to the people who inspire her.

“My dad was a janitor, my mom was a waitress, and we were definitely working poor,” she says. “I was lucky enough to move out of that economic class, so the working poor are really who I’m passionate about.”

Initially, the beer — then known as Kieran’s Irish Ale — was only sold at the Local, the Irish pub where she worked. The proceeds went towards eradicating homelessness and poverty as well as helping at-risk youth. The beer outgrew the Local, and she purchased the rights from bar owner Kieran Folliard for $1 in 2000. Gradually, she focused her brand on solving hunger, which is a chronic problem in the rural Midwest.

“I came across this brochure for the Harvest for the Hungry program, which was purchasing fresh produce from local farms and delivering it to local food shelves,” she says. “They pay a dollar per pound for organic produce in Minnesota, and it clicked that we could buy a pound of food for every dollar we make, and all of a sudden, it was our mission — trading beer for food.”

Finnegans now provides 95% of the total donations that Harvest for the Hungry receives. They also support the National Multiple Sclerosis Society via the MS 150 bike race and take donations via their reverse food trucks, which take in donated food while also tapping pints of Irish Amber, Blonde Ale, and Dead Irish Poet Stout. But they still don’t brew their own beer.

In 2003, after five years at James Page, Finnegans took up a contract with Summit Brewing in St. Paul. Summit are true believers in Berglund. All Finnegans’ beers are developed by the Finnegans team and Summit head brewer Damian McConn, who tries to keep their styles in line with the blue-collar Irish aesthetic they’ve had since their days at the Local.

In two years, Finnegans will move into their own space — a three-storey complex built into a hotel in their current neighborhood of Elliot Park — and hire a staff to brew on premises. Berglund is hoping that the space, which also includes a social business incubator, will become a Mecca for other charity-minded entrepreneurs. A place where they can inspire new charitable ventures, all over a pint of non-profit Irish ale.

“When I look at it from my perspective of being a social business, it absolutely makes sense,” she says. “I believe that a few people sitting around a picnic table drinking beer can solve the world’s problems.”

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