Note: This story never ran in BeerAdvocate Magazine – but it was written for it (we had already recently profiled them and it was deemed overkill) – Here is my profile on them that never ran. Black Star also features prominently in my upcoming book.
Perhaps the most common expression amongst brewers is that they brew the kind of beer that they want to drink. At the Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery, it’s the other way around. They brew the beer that you want to drink.
Then again, they do a lot of things a little bit differently at Black Star, located in the Midtown Commons area of Austin, Texas. As one of the country’s few co-op breweries, Black Star’s first priority is to serve its customers – many of whom own stock in the company.
Other People’s Property
Steven Yarak is the founder of the 10-bbl brew pub, but there is no individual owner. He owns as much as brewer Jeff Young, and 1,000 other people around the country.
“It’s kind of like a corporation, kind of like an enormous partnership,” Yarak explained. “The main difference is that generally everyone owns one share of commons hop. You can’t come in and say I want to buy 1,000 shares of stock – you get one. You have one the same as everyone else does.”
That explains what the co-op is, but it doesn’t explain why it came to be. For an answer to that question, Yarak recalls the first meeting of Yarak and some of the area’s homebrewers in January, 2006 in which he proposed a community-owned pub that would give people in Austin a locally-owned place to drink.
“Austin has some good beer bars, but most of them don’t have many roots in the community. Even the local college bars generally have absentee ownership, or are owned by larger regional restaurant groups,” Yarak said. “You go there have a pint, maybe a meal, and your money is buying a new yacht for some guy in California. What we have done is closed the loop. The money you stay here stays in the community whether it’s buying pork from Richardson farms, paying our workers a living wage, or patronage refunds.”
Yarak’s vision was met with support from the community – possibly sold by the idea of “patronage refunds,” which redistribute profits at the end of the year to its members based on the amount of beer they purchased.
“What that means is everyone has equal opportunity to participate,” Yarak said. “We return the profits based on the percentage of your participation, not your ownership.”
Soon work was underway to boost membership, gain capital and start the process of building the brew pub. By the end of that year the co-op had its first general meeting, and by 2010 Black Star opened in downtown Austin.
“We started more from our principals, and said: ‘If we are going to build something, what would it look like?’ And this is what it came up with,” Yarak said.
It was a long process to be sure, but the result was something that the member-owners could be proud of with English pub fare, locally-grown food and a solid beer lineup that includes 4-6 house beers and 20 guest taps.
“We love doing what we do, but we know there is a lot of other people out there who do great things as well,” Yarak said. “We want to highlight our local producers as well.
“[There are] lots of up and coming breweries here in Austin. We started with fewer [guest taps] in the plans, but as more and more breweries started to open we added more.”
An Easy Decision
Yarak’s original vision was for a Belgian-style café in Texas. It was Young who first proposed that the bar should make its own beer. A homebrewer and chemist, Young was fresh from the homebrewer’s hell that was Alabama and was looking to get in on a brewpub in Texas.
“He argued passionately, both verbally and with product in hand, that the enterprise should be a brew pub as well,” Yarak said.
Young’s beer was good enough to change Yarak’s mind, and he has been head of brewing operations at Black Star ever since it got its 10-bbl system from Premier Stainless. However, Young isn’t the only one making the decisions with regard to the brewing. Through tasting panels and member meetings, the co-op collectively decides what beers to brew.
A bit of a math geek, Young brews two types of beer – “Rational,” and “Irrational.” While most of Black Star’s house beers come from Young’s own recipes, there is a lot of room with which to play in the Irrational series.
“One thing that we want to do, haven’t gotten to yet but we might get to it in the spring – is to have a forum for people to come up with a beer that is just a theory. For example somebody might say: ‘I think we should make a porter fermented with Trappist Ale yeast and lets add pears to it’ something along those lines, and the forum would come up with a bear with that level of detail, and Jeff will try to make that into reality and brew it,” Yarak said. “Then we’ll have a release and see how it works out.”
Black Star doesn’t do “normal” beers. Yarak points out that so many breweries make great examples of classic styles, and that there is no shame in admitting that you can’t make a better beer in the same style.
“We don’t’ want to do the things that are standard,” Yarak said. “We want to play with it, but at the end of the day it has to be drinkable. It has to be something that you would want to come back for.”
At Black Star, that translates to beers like Vulcan. Akin to an IPA, Vulcan is brewed with rye malt and copious amounts of hops. Weighing in at 6.5% ABV and with an aggressive hop profile, the beer is able to blur the lines a bit of what the IPA style is. For those who don’t like it, there are the guest taps.
“We don’t’ feel the need to just make an IPA because there’s plenty of great IPAs out there,” Yarak said. “We are able to experiment more with our house beers.”
Although Vulcan falls under the Rational category at Black Star, most of the real experimentation is done in the Irrational series of seasonals and experiments. There is Waterloo – which is similar to a Berliner Weisse and is brewed with Texas Country Peaches when they are in season early summer.
There are also the occasional wild ales, or barrel-aged products and, at some point in the future, beers designed by the members. However, Yarak doesn’t want the beers to get too far from the norm.
“I think the American craft beer movement has overcome the extreme,” Yarak said. “The ones who pulled it off definitely had an incredible product that I enjoy drinking from time to time, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that makes me want to come back and be a regular.”
Ultimately, it is all about the regulars. The beer and the food are key components of the brew pub, but the most important piece of the co-op is the people. They are the customers, owners, and brewers, and together they have created a truly unique operation with its roots firmly planted in the community.
Sean Lewis is a freelance journalist and homebrewer. He is currently working on his first book, Beer Road.