When I first heard the news, after returning from a vacation on the west coast, my initial reaction was that of someone in shock. “This couldn’t happen to a store that was ahead of the curve on the Minnesota craft beer explosion,” I thought. The sad reality is, that this is what happens when consumers choose to base their purchases on one factor: price. Of course, the likes of Total Wine and MGM will always have a place in the market, but the consequence of their pricing is often devastating to the person down the street looking to make a living. This is a lesson in economics and the importance of shopping local.
Obviously, The Four Firkins was never going to be a place where you could find an awesome deal on the latest beer to hit the shelves. Jason Alvey and his staff of “Beer Geeks” instead focused on quality and the buying experience—a forgotten aspect of retail in the age of price wars. So, why would someone shop there if they knew that prices were going to be a little higher? For one, you could walk in and enjoy a conversation about a certain beer style, or get advice on which beer to pick up for your mother or father on their birthday. A family atmosphere greeted those who came in regularly, which is the sort of thing you’d expect from a taproom, not a beer store. It was a gathering place, as opposed to a convenience store.
Consumers alone are not to blame and, to be clear, this post is not about pointing fingers. It is a small celebration of a culture that was born in a western suburb; a gathering place for those who call craft beer their hobby. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into their first location on Minnetonka Boulevard, where I was met with a smile and offered a sample of a Belgian beer I hadn’t seen anywhere else in the Twin Cities. This was the place. This was where I needed to go if I wanted to find something rare, something adventurous.
I’ve covered this scene for a number of years now, and I can honestly say I know very few people like Jason Alvey. People will criticize him for the Indigogo campaign last year or the more recent gift card controversy, but what those people will never know about him is the size of his heart. This is a man who paid his employees a fair wage, paid for their Cicerone certification, and adopted them into his family. Ask anyone in the industry if they know a better guy and most will tell you no. The hours he puts into STEP (a community organization in St. Louis Park) and advocating for Sunday Sales are immense and would be unbearable for most.
I owe much to the Firkins family: for my knowledge of beer; where it comes from; how to properly store it; what styles are in; how to properly identify flavors; and most of all, the joy that comes with enjoying a brew among friends and family.
While the business of the Four Firkins has met its demise, its spirit will live on—footprints scarred into the hearts of Minnesota beer geeks and neighbors alike.