By: Lauren Hodges
To my left is an old-fashioned poster that reads “Co-ops: Sowing World Friendship.” To my right, two men in rain boots tend to a whirring conglomeration of brewing equipment, the metal tanks separated from the restaurant floor by a layer of glass. In front of me, there’s Vulcan, a deliciously hoppy, dark IPA that’s brewed on-site. I’m camped out at Black Star Co-op, one of Austin’s most established and beloved brewpubs. As a co-op kid and devoted beer drinker, I’ve come to learn more about how Black Star has married cooperative principles and craft brewing to create a thriving destination for beer enthusiasts from all walks of life. I sat down with Jodi Mozeika, Black Star’s business team leader and one of the hundreds of member-owners who sustain the cooperative. Throughout my conversation with Jodi, accompanied by a couple of pints and a heavenly avocado club sandwich, I was continually impressed by Black Star’s principled, innovative approach to every facet of its operations– from the kitchen to the brewery to the business team. In a city that feels saturated with breweries, brewpubs and craft beer bars, Black Star truly stands out from the rest.
Black Star has been a staple in the Crestview neighborhood of North Central Austin for nearly six years now. The co-op began as all good things do – with friends hanging out in their backyards, drinking beer. This loose coalition of brewers, chefs, and beer enthusiasts soon banded together to transform their regular “beer socials” into a business, but not your average bro-y brewpub. Black Star is Austin’s only cooperative brewpub, and one of two cooperative breweries in town.
A cooperative, or co-op, is a democratically-run, member-owned entity that distributes profits fairly among members or invests them back into the cooperative. In Black Star’s case, members make a one-time investment in the co-op in exchange for a voice in the cooperative’s decision making and other perks, like discounts on food and beer. Most Black Star employees – otherwise known as the Worker Assembly – are also owners of the co-op. This unique hybrid structure allows Black Star to effectively balance the needs of both its staff and its customers. And since one of the primary principles among co-ops is, justly, cooperation, Black Star is constantly looking to other local cooperatives for both community and guidance. Last year, they hosted a launch event for 4th Tap Brewing Co-op, a local worker cooperative founded by a former Black Star brewer.
Aside from my general affinity for cooperation, I’ve long admired Black Star for its commitment to being a top-notch employer. The brewpub is known for great pay and a comparatively non-hierarchical working environment – both of which aren’t exactly the norm in the service industry. Jodi explains that every Black Star employee is paid a living wage and given access to benefits like health insurance and paid time off. The company also doesn’t allow tipping, and with the broader debate over tipping and its potential link to sexual harassment, eliminating tipped wages in favor of a living wage is a progressive and refreshing step.
This unique hybrid structure allows Black Star to effectively balance the needs of both its staff and its customers.
After a year of employment, Black Star employees can become full members of the Workers Assembly and owners of the co-op. Aside from the financial benefits, as Jodi explains, Black Star offers an unusually democratic work environment. In accordance with the cooperative principle of democratic member control, Black Star’s workspace is “non-hierarchical,” giving each employee a significant degree of both autonomy and authority. In Jodi’s words, this is “because we try to encourage leadership; right away you can take on as much responsibility as you are interested in.” In a sense, there’s room for advancement that’s somewhat unusual in the service industry, but Jodi tells me that there isn’t so much a desire for advancement as there is a collective sense that this job is what you make it – the more work you put in, the more you learn and gain experience.
The growth of craft brewing in Austin has the potential to create good jobs, a tight-knit community, and an active beer scene to rival cities like Denver or Portland. Black Star, as well the worker-owned 4th Tap Brewing Co-op, are setting an example with their commitment to economic equity and justice – which is especially important in a service industry where problematic payment practices are often the norm. Operating a cooperative can be difficult in its own way- Jodi notes that keeping price points accessible is a constant challenge – but Black Star’s commitment to its principles has earned the co-op over 3,000 members and counting. Since its early backyard beer social days, Black Star has shown that the cooperative model can work for craft brewing- and can turn a craft brewery into a community asset.
“We’re kind of a staple in the Crestview neighborhood,” Jodi explains. Though the building it calls home, part of a transit-oriented mixed-use development called Midtown Commons, looks new, Black Star has been in the same spot for the past 6 years. Its packed picnic tables and bright string lights activate a public space that would otherwise be quiet, despite the fact that it’s adjacent to the Crestview stop on Austin’s Red Line rail. True to its social, community-oriented roots, Black Star hosts special events on the regular, from group bike rides to fundraisers for local nonprofits. The co-op also makes an effort to support local artists, sprucing up its simple interior with paintings and photos by Austin artists like Ted Cheavens, who runs a gallery just across the street. And, as its thoughtful proximity to public transit implies, Black Star boasts significant achievements in sustainability. According to Jodi, the brewpub only throws away about a bag of trash each day, with much of its waste being diverted through composting and recycling.
I wouldn’t be doing Black Star justice if I only praised its cooperative values and strong employment practices. After all, what’s a brewery without thoughtful, unique, and seriously tasty beers? From the brews I sampled, as well as from Black Star’s impressive slate of awards and honors, I’d say they’ve got a pretty good grip on the beer thing, too. Vulcan, which came highly recommended as one of the brewpub’s most popular, is a smooth, dark IPA that’s heavy on the hops but surprisingly drinkable. Vulcan is one of Black Star’s “rational” beers – think of them as straightforward, well-crafted staples. “Irrational” categorized brews, on the other hand, allow the brewing team some room to experiment, with results that tend to be a little more unpredictable.
Before settling on Vulcan I sampled Waterloo, a slightly sour wheat beer fermented with watermelon. According to Jodi, the brewing team’s affinity for experimentation is one thing that sets its beers apart. Another is Black Star’s effort to source locally whenever possible. Even when needed ingredients like hops, which don’t tend to grow well in Texas, are unavailable, Black Star is still committed to sourcing ingredients and supplies for both the brewery and the kitchen from small, sustainability-focused businesses. Responsible sourcing aside, Jodi explains that the brewing team’s foremost goal is to constantly improve its products, creating a lineup of beers that’s both distinct and egalitarian, appealing to any and every beer drinker who pulls up a seat at the bar.