Brewer Profile: Niko Tonks of Fair State Brewing Cooperative

Fair State Brewing Cooperative’s head brewer gives us a fair hearing. 

Photos by Aaron Davidson

Name: Niko Tonks
Hometown: Yarmouth, Maine
Works at: Fair State Brewing Cooperative
Turn-Ons: Fermentation.
Turn-Offs: Christmas music. Temperatures over 90. Dogma, man.

The Growler: What’s in your fridge right now?

Niko Tonks: It’s Christmas [at the time of the interview], so things are kinda stocked up: Sierra Nevada Pale, Hottenroth from The Bruery, a couple Jolly Pumpkins, a Cuvée René, Green Flash Citra Session, Bell’s Oarsman, some assorted Brewery Vivant cans. Normally, though? Prost Pils and Schlitz.

G: What’s your favorite music to brew to?

NT: I know it’s supposed to be metal, but it’s usually not. I do love The Sword, though. I prefer instrumental things that involve horn sections—think Budos Band, Brownout, etc.

G: Favorite beer and food pairing?

NT: Pils and a Sub-Marino/Big Shot/Christian (ask for it) from Marino’s. Yup.

G: What are you reading right now?

NT: Just started Midnight in Siberia by David Greene.

G: When did you decide you wanted to brew professionally?

NT: Around the time that I realized it’s more or less impossible to get a job as a PhD in the humanities. And that if I had gotten one, it would have driven me completely nuts.

G: How did you get your start in brewing?

NT: I had a summer in the aforementioned graduate school career with no commitments, and I just started cold-calling (or emailing) breweries across Texas. I got one response from Southern Star in Conroe, TX. I ended up commuting from Austin to Houston every week for most of that summer and I didn’t regret it one bit. That turned into an internship-type deal (read: putting labels on bottles and cleaning stuff) at Jester King, which turned into a job at Live Oak Brewing in Austin.


G: Sound like you were pretty in tune with the brewing community in Texas before moving to Minnesota. How would you compare the two brewing scenes?

NT: Probably fairly similar—Texas didn’t legalize taprooms until right as I was leaving, so that element of beer culture wasn’t as prevalent as it is here. The city did start its brewing renaissance a few years before Minneapolis-St. Paul did, so from a brewer’s perspective there were just as many new and interesting things to keep track of down there. I think, overall, people in Texas gravitate more towards drier, hot-weather beers, and people in Minnesota have a bit more of a sweet tooth, but you see a lot of the same trends popping up in both places. They also don’t have quite as much of a beer festival culture as we do, for better or for worse, and the German influence on Texas craft beer is a bit more apparent than it is here in Minnesota.

G: During the startup phase for Fair State Brewing Cooperative you were brewing beer at Sociable Cider Werks. How did that come about? 

NT: Jim and Wade and I all went to Carleton College in Northfield around the same time, so I knew them both prior to working at Sociable. It was a mutually beneficial (I hope) arrangement. I knew I was moving back to Minneapolis to start Fair State, and I knew that it’d be 8–12 months before I could actually be brewing there. I also knew Jim and Wade were launching Sociable, but I didn’t know they were planning on brewing beer as well as cider until I called Jim one morning. Things fell into place pretty quickly after that, and it was an excellent experience.


G: Did you learn anything brewing at Sociable Cider Werks that has transferred over to the brewhouse at Fair State?

NT: I learned a ton over at Sociable. It was a great testing ground for some of the things we hope to do more of at Fair State—kettle sour beers, primarily. Making beer two barrels at a time (moving down from a 30 bbl system, especially) was a real shift, and brewing 45 different beers in a row made it clear to me what I do and don’t like, what works, and what doesn’t. Hopefully everyone didn’t mind drinking my stream-of-consciousness beers over there too much.

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About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.

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