The Surprising and Untold Story About Some of Indiana Craft Beer’s Most Important Assets

The Surprising and Untold Story About Some of Indiana Craft Beer’s Most Important Assets

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

I got my license to pour beer last year. I thought it would be cool to pour for anyone who might need help for an afternoon or evening, and there are many festivals that put out requests for volunteer pourers. You work a part of the fest, and then are free to go sample for a couple of hours.

For the most part, the volunteer thing works well at festivals. The pluses for the volunteer include access to a festival they might not otherwise have been able to attend, and the chance to talk to a lot of brewers and patrons. The plus for the festival and the breweries is obvious, you can have their beer, but don’t have to have their personnel on hand to pour the beer. Of course, this can also be a negative.

Brewers are particular about their beer, and this includes how it is described and presented to patrons. Remember what the purpose of a festival is for a brewer – get people to come to you or buy your beer in a pub or store who might not otherwise have done so without a good first experience. So, brewers or regular brewery employees often like to be on hand to make sure that first impression is an accurate and good one. Volunteer pourers are sort of hit or miss, some know beer like a cicerone, some like Coors.

Volunteers are the heart of most festivals. GABF was last week in Denver; they rely on hundreds of volunteers. But a volunteer-staffed brewery? That’s different. photo credit: Great American Beer Festival

And of course, volunteers sometimes don’t work out so well. The Shelton Bros. Festival won’t return to Maine (2013) for many reasons, but one is that state laws for their permit wouldn’t allow for a brewery employee pouring, so they relied exclusively on volunteers. Many didn’t show up for shifts and some were caught drinking while on duty – oh, and a group of them stole some rare beers from the tents on Friday night. This is a sad tale, but most volunteer experiences are positive for both brewer and volunteer – and then there are those volunteers that go way beyond the call of duty.

I would like to say that my knowledge of craft beer and the craft beer industry in Indiana led me to pursue a volunteer pourer’s license – but really, I had no idea it even existed before one particularly interesting conversation I had at the 2nd anniversary party for Wabash Brewery in Indianapolis. Matt and Nick clued me on something that I hadn’t realized before – their taproom staff are all volunteers.

This was an amazing revelation to me – people willing to work, week in and week out, for a brewery just because they believe in what they are doing. The break on beer would have to be amazing to make it worth all that time, so it had to be something more. Northwest Indianapolis has fewer breweries than some other parts of the city, and maybe this played a role. What I found out went much further – not all does Wabash have an all volunteer staff, so does New Corner Brewing in Muncie. I decided that it would be important to sit down and talk with these folks to understand why they give so much time to a craft brewery.

I talked to the volunteers at both places en masse – they were even willing to show up on days they weren’t working just to plug their home brewery. The Wabash folks were many, and I want to get all their names in because they deserve to be recognized: Christina Hunter, Karmen and Kerry Horton (of the soon to be open Between Brews food establishment in Wabash), Peach Eckhart, Tyler Walker, Mark Broderick, Slocan Shockey, Mike Hausladen, Alec Toomes, Kristen Straser, Lindsey Bledsoe, Jeff Lewis, and Jeff Egert.

No matter who pours you a beer at Wabash – they’re a volunteer. image credit: Trip Advisor

Of all these people, only Kristen Horton knew the owners before Wabash opened, so the rest of them were drawn to volunteer after becoming Wabash patrons. Some live close, some work close, but they all responded to the small sign on the door that said Wabash was looking for volunteers. Christina already worked in food service, so to take on a volunteer role in the same industry meant to me that Wabash had to be offering something special. It’s a true team that came together on its own, this group was not assembled by anyone.

A few of the volunteers came to work with the guys after their first visit (Alec), but most were regulars that just expanded their role from ambassadors for the brand to working behind the counter. I asked what could be so great about a brewery that you would give your time to them – no one has enough time nowadays. Some talked about how the beer made them true believers, but most talked about Nic, Damon, Dave and Matt. They all just really like the guys, the beer, and the vibe. Liking the guys is pretty much all that counts. Of course, Peach told me that her husband said she should get out do some volunteer work, so to honk him off, she volunteered at a brewery – but that’s just how Peach is.

The volunteers work out the schedule for the front of the house all by themselves. If someone can’t make a shift, they put out the word and someone picks it up for them. They all like talking to the patrons and can describe the beer, but to a person they said the hardest part of the “job” was cleaning the popcorn machine – not a bad gig. Nic, Damon, Dave and Matt readily admit that the taproom wouldn’t be possible without their volunteers, and they certainly wouldn’t be expanding as they are (see this article) without their loyal helpers.

They also volunteer at events on the weekends, which calls for more of them to be working at one time. Many festivals will provide volunteer pourers, but Christina told me, “We don’t like other people pouring our beer.” In exchange for their time, they can get a growler filled every once in a while and have discounts on beer. The owners also throw a volunteer party where they do bottle shares and such, but it still doesn’t really compensate them for their time and effort – and that’s OK with them.

New Corner takes volunteer services to next level. Their brewing, merchandising, sales, and marketing all use volunteer power. image credit: New Corner Brewing

Like I stated earlier, I thought this would be a one-off situation – how many places could find enough volunteers to pour every minute they are open? So of course, I was wrong. While at the Savor Lebanon Festival earlier this year, I talked to Sean Brady from New Corner Brewing in Muncie. He told me that not only are their pourers volunteers, but almost everyone at the brewery other than him was a volunteer.

As with Wabash, I sat down with all the volunteers at New Corner on a Wednesday afternoon – they all showed up, even if they had other full time jobs or school. Their names – Mark Watson, Angie Brady (Sean’s mother), Joyce and Steven Hearst, Chris Ammon, Dave Fecenko, Will Ollier, and Nathan Byers (he’s a paid employee, but volunteers more time as well). The responsibilities they take on are varied and sundry.

Steven is the assistant brewer for Sean, but Sean told me straight out that Steven’s vast knowledge of brewing really helped him improve his beers I the early days of New Corner, and he still plays a vital role in recipe development and execution. Steven’s wife Joyce is charge of swag – she designs the T-shirts and other merchandise, and makes sure that the orders are placed and inventory is kept.

Two Ball State students (maybe they have graduated now), Chris, Dave, and Will, do more technical things. Chris is in digital marketing and runs the social media and digital presence for the brewery, while Will travels when he isn’t in class to make sales calls and deliver beer to accounts. Everyone has a niche at New Corner, and it all works only because they are good at what they do and do it for free.

As opposed to the situation at Wabash, New Corner is not the closest brewery to the vast majority of the volunteers. Therefore, it isn’t a proximity thing that drives their activity, and no one (with the exception of his mom) knew Sean before they became fans of the brewery. Heck, Mark Watson has an engineering job a hundred feet away, and it took a while for him to realize that New Corner was even there – but after he did, he was hard to keep out of the place.

The Fair Labor Safety Act – good idea, but doesn’t apply to volunteering at breweries. credit: public domain

Very similar to Wabash, the folks at New Corner told me that any discounted beer or swag don’t really factor into their decision to volunteer, they like the people at New Corner and like knowing that their efforts are appreciated. Sean said that he knows the beer and the patron’s experience would suffer immeasurably if the volunteers weren’t there, and he gives them credit for the success that they have had.

In both cases, its people who just love the brewers, the owners, the atmosphere and the location so much that they decided that the best way to ensure their success was to be part of the machine. They volunteer their time in order to keep the thing that they love alive and succeeding. You might ask if this is even legal – are the owners exploiting their volunteers. I can tell you this is a definite no, both according to the government and in a moral sense.

No one is being asked to do something they don’t readily want to do, and the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) doesn’t apply here for many reasons (see the definition of an employee here). Sean was a human resources specialist in the US Army for more than twenty years, and doesn’t hesitate to say that the volunteers don’t violate any part of FSLA. Even the federal government says that FLSA was not intended, “to stamp all persons as employees who without any express or implied compensation agreement might work for their own advantage on the premises of another.”

It’s unfortunate that we even have to consider this as a possibility, I think it detracts from the special gifts that these people are giving to craft beer. Time is the most precious gift we have to give, and these people are giving it willingly to help craft beer in Indiana and to be a part of a group that they feel close to. This is the height of generosity and what craft beer is really all about. Now that I have stoked you up, get out there and help the breweries you love.

 

Walters Words of Wisdom – I know my Earth, Wind, and Fire. Just sayin’.


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