By Andrea Bearce
Photography by Aimee Wenske
How does an idealistic gang of mathematicians, physicists and chemists develop a loyal following of hardcore beer nerds? They offer them free beer, of course. Or they did, starting in 2006, when Steven Yarak dreamed up a plan to open the world’s first community-owned, member-managed brewpub—a dream now realized in Austin’s Black Star Co-op.
Yarak began campaigning for the grassroots project by holding beer socials in his backyard.
The informal gatherings, replete with an array of free beer samples, helped create a sense of community, and people slowly warmed to the idea of a one-time membership fee. Within a few years, Yarak and his team were hosting socials for more than 1,000 people and had raised more than $500,000 to begin construction on the Black Star brewpub.
“The beer socials were key,” says board president Mark Wochner. Beer enthusiasts such as himself were easily lured by the opportunities to taste innovative, garage-brewed craft beers. “There aren’t many events happening outside of South by Southwest where people are just giving away free beer, so people started to pay attention to us when we had a beer social,” Wochner says.
Also key was the development of a functioning cooperative structure. Wochner explains that Black Star works somewhat like a corporation, in that people buy shares to gain a piece of the company. But in a co-op environment, each member can only purchase one share.
“A lot of people go to a brewpub three or four times a week and they know everyone and feel like they own the place—but they don’t,” Wochner says. “At Black Star, you actually do own the place, with a really minimal investment.”
Memberships are available for $150, and include equal voting rights to all business decisions, access to members-only events and eventual benefits from profit sharing once earnings are made. Members also elect a group of nine volunteers who act as the board of directors to oversee policy governance, as well as the self-managed workers’ assembly—the group of employees who run the day-to-day restaurant and brewery duties. By allowing the employees an elevated level of autonomy, the board of directors hopes to encourage personal accountability.
“They all have a say in things that have a direct bearing on their livelihood,” Wochner says. “The idea is that when you are given that much power, there’s a sense of ownership and a sense of pride—people stick around longer and do better work.”
Black Star chef Johnny Livesay notes that self-management has made the kitchen team more collaborative. “There’s a lot of democratic control, and that’s something that you don’t get in most restaurants,” Livesay says. “We know what we need to do, and when we don’t agree on things we talk about it and come to a solution, hopefully by consensus.”
Livesay insists that this new level of commitment and continuity allows for better service, food, and beer, and the opportunity to pay all employees a living wage—alleviating the need for customers to tip. “Every day the majority of our customers are going to be members. They already own the business; they are already paying our wages,” he says. “We can set the wages higher because of that, and because of that, we don’t have to take a tip from them.”
Kevin Jolly, a Black Star member and frequent patron, says participation offers him the opportunity to influence how the business is run, and to ensure that all decisions are made with ethical intentions. “I’m proud that I’m a member of an organization that pays a living wage and provides health insurance for employees,” says Jolly. “Not many bars serve the self-satisfied feeling that you’re doing the right thing along with your pale rye ale.”
Jolly also says he enjoys the wide selection of craft beers rotating in and out of Black Star’s 20 taps, some of which come from Black Star’s new brewery. “They turn around the guest beers so quickly, so there is always something new to try.”
A mathematician at heart, brewer Jeff Young divides Black Star’s house-brewed beer menu into two distinct categories: rational and irrational. The rational beers stick to traditional methods and flavorings, while the irrational beers play with things like wild fermentation and local ingredients such as wildflower honey and Texas peaches.
Great emphasis is also placed on other small breweries—especially Austin crafters like Jester King and Thirsty Planet. “One of the values of being a co-op is to support local interests, so we are going to support as many local businesses as we can,” Wochner says.
Livesay, formerly the produce manager at Wheatsville Food Co-op, extends the local philosophy to the Texas pub grub he serves to hungry patrons. Using meat from Richardson Farms, chickens from Gonzales and redfish from Lonestar Aquafarms, he ensures that the proteins used at Black Star are from humane and environmentally responsible sources. “We are just trying to keep it as local and sustainable as possible,” he says.
Of course, membership in the co-op isn’t required to patronize Black Star; members and nonmembers alike are welcome to enjoy a pint, kick back in the spacious, loft-like setting and nibble a bite on the sun-bathed patio. By remaining dedicated to quality and consciousness in every aspect of the business, the Black Star team is gaining more followers and more members each week.
“It’s become my wife’s favorite place for a quick dinner, and she’s not even a beer nerd,” Jolly says. “It really has that pub feel—local, friendly, comfortable.”
Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery
7020 Easy Wind Dr. Suite 100