Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery

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A Cooperative Business Model Takes Flight
BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY NIKI DESAUTELS

 

The story of Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery’s birth is a home brewer’s dream: Start brewing beer in your garage as a hobby. Decide one day to turn it into a business. Invite people around the city to partake in the fancies of your culinary imagination.

That’s exactly what went down with one of Seattle’s newest craft breweries.

“As a home brewer, you make a batch of beer and think, ‘Man, I wonder if I could do this for a living,'” says Tim Dery, a Flying Bike board member and, at his day job, a Validation Engineer at Intel Corporation.

Flying Bike’s short history shows that transforming a hobby into a business, especially a business with big pieces of expensive equipment and nasty things like permits, is not as easy as talking about it with your buddies.

The name they chose for their business reflects that challenge. “The name was born out of a moment of frustration,” Dery says. “A flying bike doesn’t exist and you can’t build it,” reflecting the seemingly insurmountable challenge of opening a brewery. When the founding members crunched the numbers and saw the financial challenge they were facing, they got creative, turning to the co-op model.

“With the cooperative idea, there are a lot of people involved and invested so it spreads the work around,” Dery says. He cites Black Star, a co-op pub and brewery in Austin as one of the only existing co-op breweries in the U.S. If it could work in Austin, chances were it could work in Seattle, Dery says.

Though the co-op idea is a new one for breweries, it’s long been used by other businesses, like grocers. Shoppers and supporters can purchase a membership, which makes them part-owner; those memberships can come with nice perks. They also provide the co-op with a built-in revenue stream.

Flying Bike has over 450 members, each of whom has paid $150 for a lifetime membership. In return, they’re able to run for a spot on the nine-member board of directors, vote for board members, attend meetings, have a say in the direction of the business, and participate in brewing competitions. Members may be called upon to help with big projects down the line, like bottling or painting, for example. Surprisingly, not every member is a home brewer.

 

“We want people who love beer, whether a home brewer or not,” Dery says. “Our members come from all different backgrounds and bring a lot of strengths to draw on.”

Flying Bike’s founding members agreed to start small and expand as revenue allows. But as soon as the craft brewers of Seattle got wind of the new business, membership skyrocketed. The business had its first meeting in June 2010 and attracted over 300 members within that first week. “It was incredible,” Dery says, “And also sort of, ‘Holy cow.’ Part of the challenge is taking a few breaths and figuring out how to leverage this.”

Flying Bike doesn’t actually have a brewery yet and Dery admits things are moving slowly, in part because there are a lot of factors to consider. They’re still in the process of looking at potential locations and crunching the numbers on equipment purchases.

 

One option is to brew their beer under contract with another, established brewery, though eventually they’d like to have a bricks-and-mortar space. “The idea is to have a brewery and a tap room full-on brew pub with food,” Dery says. “With that said, we’re looking to start small with just a brewery, where members can come and hang out. At this point there are still a lot of unknowns.” Either way, they look to other local craft breweries that have started small and grown slowly as they learned the business and built a following, like Fremont Brewing Company and Two Beers Brewing Company.

Though they’re not yet a licensed brewery, the group held a members-only home brewers’ competition last fall. It’s an event they hope to replicate once a quarter. Any member can participate, and a panel of judges picks the best beer, which is then released to the public. Members agreed the first contest should be among India Pale Ales (IPAs), a generally hop-heavy style of beer popular with Seattleites.

For the first competition, Flying Bike enlisted the expertise of Beer Panel Certification Program judges, along with a handful of board members and co-op members. Winner Mike Kilpatrick worked with Jeff Smiley at Three Skulls Ales to produce his beer, creatively named Fly-PA.

“Part of the idea is that this is the first beer that is member-sourced. It’s a great way to get our name out there,” Dery says. “We want to have a way to share our love of beer, to educate people on how beer is made and the different styles.”

Three Skulls produced seven barrels of Fly-PA, which translates to about 14 kegs. The beer was on tap at a few locations around the city, including Pillager’s Pub in Greenwood, where this curious writer went for a taste.

Fly-PA turned out to be one of the milder IPAs I’ve tried, with a thirst-quenching hint of late summer and without the hoppy aftertaste that usually turns me away from these beers. It was tasty, and likely a good sign of things to come from Flying Bike.

And with the ever-growing craft brewing scene and Seattle’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for craft liquor of any kind, Dery and the other board members hope their entrance into the market will go down smooth as a cold one.

 

 

*You can follow Flying Bike’s progress online at flyingbike.coop or on their facebook page.

Megan Hill is a freelance writer and a rockstar grant writer. You can find more of her work online at www.meganhillfreelancewriter.com.

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