Co-op Breweries in Small Town America: Fostering Community One Beer at a Time

The Business of Beer by | May 2016 | Issue #112
Bathtub Row brewer Hector Santana, board president Amy Engle, brewer Jason Kirkman and general manager Jason Fitzpatrick. | Photo by Rachel Woolworth

Less than a year ago, only two bars served a wide variety of craft beer in the small town of Los Alamos, N.M.: Pajarito Brewpub and Smith’s Marketplace—a combined food and drug store owned by the Kroger Company where locals can buy spinach, a bike and a pint of ale or lager all in one trip.

But that changed in April 2015 when local residents, sick of relying on the supermarket chain as a community gathering place and the only source of good beer in Los Alamos, worked together to open Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op. Unlike the community-supported brewing model, in which customers purchase beer shares at the beginning of a calendar year or season, brewery co-ops like Bathtub Row are actually owned and democratically controlled by their paying members.

Though such co-op breweries have grown in size and number over the last decade, most are located in urban areas, far from the towns that might benefit more from a community-oriented brewery. For proponents, co-op breweries have the ability to bring neighbors together for a common purpose.

“For-profit bars and brewpubs structurally exist to extract as much profit from their patrons as possible, which is a significant barrier to cultivating a sense of authentic belonging,” notes Matt Cropp, board president of the recently organized Full Barrel Cooperative Brewery and Taproom in Burlington, Vt.

And while having a smaller pool of potential members might pose a challenge for some small town co-ops, growing a member base wasn’t a problem for Los Alamos’ Bathtub Row. On the contrary, fewer people meant less competition and an extremely dedicated base of members. “Community members were buying into a dream,” says general manager Jason Fitzpatrick.

In fact, by the time Bathtub Row’s taproom opened, the co-op had 300 members. Membership fees and a member loan program that brought in sums ranging from $500 to a whopping $75,000 helped the group reach its fundraising goals. “There are a lot of people here with a disposable income,” says Fitzpatrick of the town, which is home to the famed Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research facility with more than 10,000 employees. “They wanted to invest in a place where they will see a return.”

For co-ops, financial capital is dependent on membership; raising the question whether it’s better to have a healthy membership before opening a full scale operation, or to start off in an incubator space and grow membership from there.

Bathtub Row made the decision to prioritize the physical location and opened its taproom with guest brews on draft. The strategy appears to have paid off; the co-op now has 971 members, more than tripling membership in less than a year.

Yet Bathtub Row’s eagerness to open limited them from the start in one respect. The co-op is already brewing at capacity and has no room to expand in its current location. For now, dreams of larger bottling runs and additional experimentation will have to wait.

The situation isn’t necessarily a dire one, however. While growth and profit are essential to any business, co-op breweries are equally interested in creating social capital and fostering community. Both breweries have hosted a variety of public events such as Full Barrel’s hop harvest and “Learn to Brew Day,” and Bathtub Row’s “Peeling Party,” during which members peeled hundreds of local cucumbers and green chiles to use in seasonal brews.

“A substantial minority of our members are people who are new to the area, for whom joining the co-op has been a good way to meet people and get more integrated into the Burlington community,” says Cropp. “Even at a small scale, it’s clear we’re already having a significant positive impact on the level of social capital in our community.”

According to Bob Walsh, a longtime homebrewer and lifetime member of Bathtub Row, “young people didn’t feel like they had a place in Los Alamos before Bathtub Row opened—in the short time the brewery has been open, it’s changed the town a lot. The co-op and its management have created a community-focused space where all ages are welcome [to gather], from high school jazz players to those in their 80s.”