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Michigan's first-ever co-op brewery set to launch investment campaign to buy Grand Rapids facility



Congregating in Eastown backyards, Grand Rapidians began to dream of the city’s first beer co-op years ago, and, over many a home brew, they envisioned an egalitarian venue that could introduce more diversity into the city’s flourishing beer scene, from the racial and socioeconomic makeup of its members to the kinds of drinks they pour.

“We talked about a brewery that could be owned by the community and be democratically run so it benefits everyone equally,” says Josh Smith, the director of the brewery’s board.

The High Five Co-op Brewery was born after founder Dallas McCulloch, inspired by the Blackstar Co-op Pub and Brewery in Austin, Texas, pitched an idea for the business in 2011 at a 5x5 business competition. He was awarded a $5,000 prize for the idea, which, following the brainstorming sessions in Eastown and other community organizing efforts, has gone on to land the support from many a resident and local business. More than 130 people are members of the co-op (to become a lifetime member, you pay a one-time fee of $150), and High Five has worked on a number of collaboration beers with other local breweries, including Harmony, The Mitten, Rockford Brewing Company, Grand Rapids Brewing Company, White Flame, Final Gravity, B.O.B.’s Brewery, HopCat, and Gravel Bottom Brewery.

Now, after garnering community support and navigating the way through the myriad paperwork and approvals from the state, High Five is about to launch an investment drive to raise money for the down payment on a physical space and brewing equipment, allowing it to become one of a handful of co-op breweries in the United States (there are now six such businesses, with about seven in the planning stages).

"The group of people who've  dedicated the last few years to build Michigan’s first cooperative brewery are excited about the  future,” says Laura Barbrick, president of High Five Co-op Brewery. “We feel that this is the right time to raise the capital needed to start our new cooperatively-owned brewpub in Grand Rapids.”

The investment launch party will be held on Friday, March 4 from 6-8pm at 1111 Godfrey Ave. SW, suite 250. Members hope to raise about $250,000, with the minimum they’re aiming to land being $100,000. The investment campaign will continue for one year, after which Smith says members will be looking to purchase a facility somewhere within Grand Rapids' city limits.

When it opens, the brewery will be much like other business co-ops — imagine, say, a co-op grocery store, but with beer. This means the group is entirely owned by its members — that translates to every single member getting a vote in the direction of the brewery. While the membership roster now hovers at a little more than 130 people, Smith says he hopes that number will significantly expand to something more akin to Austin’s Blackstar, which has several thousands members. And, Smith says, he’s hoping their model could inspire other business co-ops to flourish in Grand Rapids.

“We’re definitely pro-co-op business in any form,” says Smith, who now works as a kitchen manager at HopCat and is wrapping up his business degree from Davenport University. “We love the idea of local food co-ops, and any other type of industry or business that could utilize this model. We feel strongly about how positive of an effect it can have on the community.

“We’ll probably always keep the membership open; we’ll never cap membership,” Smith continues. “We’ll do our part to support any other local co-ops.”

For the members, part of the draw of a co-op model is the ability to have a greater say in what their business does and stands for, including equality.

“We’d like to have more racial diversity in our members,” High Five board vice president Jorel Van Os recently told Draft Magazine. “That’s something the beer scene in general lacks, and we’d like to make more of an effort in marketing that. Even just having bathrooms that are trans-friendly, that’s important to me and a lot of other people on the board.”

In addition to being a more diverse and inclusive group, Grand Rapids’ first co-op brewery will focus on supporting the city’s home brewers, including featuring members’ home brews on tap.

“We envision the High Five Co-op Brewery space as a sort of brewer incubator,” Smith says. “There are tons of super talented home brewers in this town that make incredible beer that no one gets to try out. A lot of those home brewers aspire to break into the brewing industry and make a career out of home brewing. The problem is, it’s extremely difficult to get a job brewing on a commercial system without experience.”

To help brewers break into Grand Rapids’ beer scene, the co-op will “bridge that gap and provide home brewers with a place to gain experience brewing on commercial systems,” Smith explains.

If you’re interested in learning more about the co-op, you can check out its website here. All members of the public are invited to the launch party, which will take place on Friday, March 4 from 6-8pm at 1111 Godfrey Ave. SW, suite 250. At the party, there will be mainstay and specialty beer samples from the High Five Brewers Committee, as well as an informal presentation from the Board of Directors. For more details, visit High Five’s Facebook page here, and register for the launch party here.
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