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Jason Alvey, right, owner of the Four Firkins in St. Louis Park, talks with customer and SCORE volunteer Dan Shidla of Bloomington about his selection of beer.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

From craft beer to crafting new laws

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • July 8, 2012 - 3:44 PM

Jason Alvey, already a craft brew expert as owner of St. Louis Park specialty beer shop the Four Firkins, also is gaining expertise at crafting legislation.

Alvey was the driving force behind two changes to Minnesota liquor laws, both signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton after winning legislative approval in April, that will benefit his shop and potentially every store statewide that chooses to take advantage of the new provisions.

One new law, the so-called apparel bill, allows liquor stores to sell self-branded clothing -- T-shirts, bike jerseys, hats and jackets, for example -- as long as it has the store's logo and name. That's a privilege, and revenue source, that breweries, bars and wineries already had.

Alvey is looking to apparel sales to help build his brand as the Four Firkins taps into a wave of growth fueled by its move into a new store last October and craft beer's continuing move into the mainstream.

The other new law allows liquor stores to charge customers to attend educational classes. The law previously required all sampling events to be free. While the Four Firkins will continue free samplings three or four times a week, Alvey said charging a fee will help offset the cost of bringing in experts once or twice a month for more-structured educational sessions on brewing.

The Four Firkins topped $1 million in sales last year. He's predicting sales of $1.5 million to $2 million this year, after moving into his new shop -- a highly visible location with parking that's more than twice the size, at 2,200 square feet, of the strip-center site where he opened in May 2008.

Alvey worked closely with Rep. Steve Simon and Sen. Ron Latz, both from St. Louis Park, to get the bills passed. He testified at committee hearings, worked behind the scenes and rallied the loyal following he has built for the shop, which has more than 8,600 subscribers to a weekly e-mail newsletter, including many of the metro's other liquor stores.

The effort paid off as the apparel bill, rejected last year on Alvey's first attempt to get it through, and the education bill both won easy approval.

"A long time ago I decided that if I ever left this craft beer industry, I wanted to leave it a better place than what it was when I started," Alvey said. "To that end we started to get involved in the legislative process. Having been involved now for two years, I can tell you why almost nobody does it: It's an astounding amount of work, it is extremely frustrating and it's not easy. But out of principle, we've decided that this is what we're going to do."

Made an impression

Navigating the political machinery would have been no easier in his native Australia than it was at the Capitol in St. Paul, Alvey said. Alvey has lived in Minnesota, his wife's home state, since 2001.

"Even if I had tried to do this in Australia I'm sure it would have been a learning process," Alvey said. "What you learn in school is not nearly enough to be able to come up with a bill and have it go all the way through.''

Others in the industry have sought and won new laws, including passage two years ago of the law that allows microbreweries to sell pints of beer on their premises.

Alvey made an impression on lawmakers, according to Simon and Latz.

"He is not only a talented business person but he's got a knack for advocacy too," Simon said. "Because of his presence on social media, his presence in the craft beer community, he was able to mobilize an unusually large number of people in support of these measures. He and his store have been real pioneers."

In launching the Four Firkins -- which takes its name from an old English term for a quarter-barrel of beer or ale (four firkins, then, is a full-sized barrel) -- Alvey relied on retail experience he had acquired in several industries in three other countries.

Alvey also got help developing his business plan and marketing strategy from members of the Minneapolis chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, where he also has received continuing business counseling. The nonprofit SCORE, in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, offers free online and face-to-face business counseling to small-business owners. Some classes and programs are available for a nominal charge. More information is at www.minneapolis.score.org.

The experts say: SCORE volunteers Roy Burns and Dan Shidla both said they supported Alvey's decision to mix business and politics.

"We thought it was a logical expansion of his business," said Shidla, who worked in corporate finance, planning, product introductions and commercial banking. "It was just a logical change to a very archaic restriction."

"He's building his brand," said Burns, a retired Dayton Hudson executive.

What could other small-business owners learn from Alvey?

"Marketing," Shidla said. "He knows his products, he knows his market and he knows how to deliver it."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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