Brewer Profile: Niko Tonks of Fair State Brewing Cooperative

G: Fair State Brewing is a cooperative with a host of member-owners. What drew you and the other co-founders to that business model?

NT: Matt, Evan, and I were all homebrewers together back in 2007–2008, and like many aspiring brewers we always wanted to be more involved in the brewery world. Short of doing what I eventually did (working full-time for free), there weren’t a whole lot of options for people like us. The cooperative model appealed to us initially as a way to allow beer enthusiasts to be involved in the formation of a brewery. People really care about their local breweries, a rare and wonderful thing in a world of globalized capitalism, and I think it makes the brewing industry a natural fit for the co-op model. If you can solve the funding issues, that is.

I’m also just a bit of a co-op fanboy—I really like alternative modes of thinking about how commerce is and can be done, and ways we can revise corporate governance to make it more open and equitable. I don’t totally love the idea of committee meetings, but I know I should.

G: Does the co-op model influence your brewing in any special way?

NT: We’re hoping to roll out a few things early in the new year that will get our membership involved with the brewing side of the business. First and foremost we’re planning on doing what we’re calling Member Design beers, where interested people can sign up for brainstorming sessions in which we collaboratively design a recipe to be produced on the 15 bbl scale. I’m hoping we can do that at least semi-annually, if not quarterly. We may also have homebrewing days where I’ll brew a batch of wort, people can sign up to bring in an empty carboy and I’ll fill them all right out of the heat exchanger. You take it home, ferment it/dry hop it/barrel age/add crazy stuff to it as you see fit, and we all get together a couple months later to taste the results.

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G: What are your other passions in life? Do they influence your brewing?

NT: These days I’m kind of a one-trick pony, which is to say I don’t get out much. I enjoy cooking, which has obvious parallels to brewing, as well as gardening (which I am less good at), and I’m a big fan of bicycles. If I had the space, I think I’d probably be getting into curing and fermenting meats. Call that an aspirational passion. I also enjoy sitting around and doing not very much at all.

G: What would you be doing if you weren’t brewing professionally?

NT: Best case scenario, I’d be doing what I was doing right before I got hired at Live Oak, and working in the area of foodways research and documentation. I was lucky enough to do an audio project recording oral histories with craft brewers all over Texas and spent some time at the Southern Foodways Alliance in Mississippi, which was an eye-opening experience.

G: Who has been your biggest individual influence in brewing?

NT: A few people: my friends and former co-workers Dusan Kwiatkowski and Spencer Tielkemeier, and the dynamic duo of Swifty Peters and Amos Lowe at the ABGB in Austin.

G: What keeps you inspired?

NT: Trying to refine our style and offerings to more accurately reflect the vision I have in my head. Constant and incremental improvement. Sounds boring, totally isn’t.

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G: Where is your favorite place to put one back?

NT: It’s a tie between Grumpy’s NE and the Draught House in Austin.

G: What is the biggest misconception about your line of work?

NT: That we all just sit around and get drunk all day. That only happens sometimes. Also that brewers are beer snobs. I have pretty much found that the more time you spend in the brewhouse, the more pale lager you end up drinking.

G: What is the most gratifying part of your job?

NT: Achieving, in some small way, the articulation of that vision I had in my head for a beer. Seeing people enjoying the fruits of our labor. That, and hitting my gravities.

G: Is there a beer that changed your perspective on what craft beer could and should be?

NT: I’ve had a number of experiences with beers that changed what I thought craft beer could be—superlative sour beers, unexpected combinations of ingredients that actually work, but the beer that really altered my thinking on what craft can and should be was Live Oak Pilz. It’s the epitome of a simple thing done well—one malt, one hop, painstaking attention to process. Brewing pilsner beer is one of the most difficult and technical things a brewer can do, and also one of the most satisfying.

G: What’s the philosophy of your brewery?

NT: We’re still evolving and I think our philosophy may well crystallize more meaningfully in the coming year, but for now I think we’re working towards a few different things: 1) Make as many lagers as we can, just to show people “lager” isn’t a dirty word; 2) Do experimental stuff—we’re doing a number of things with sour beer and kombucha right now that keep me up at night thinking about sanitation; and 3) Keep it simple. I believe strongly in simplicity in recipe design, and a focus on process and quality ingredient sourcing.

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G: What do you see as the “next big thing” in the craft beer world?

NT: I think we’re seeing a really interesting archival turn in brewing—the brewer as historian, so to speak. You see previously dead (or almost dead) styles like Gose, Lichtenhainer, and Grodziskie making comebacks, and people playing around with the historical record to make new and interesting variations. I’m not a big believer in getting dogmatic about brewing history, but I think pulling inspiration from the past is an important move for American craft beer.

G: What about beer means so much to us as a society?

NT: The social aspect of beer, and of fermented beverages in general (I’m including coffee and tea), is often undersold these days. Blame it on that damn temperance movement. I think we’re still, honestly, feeling the after-effects of Prohibition and not just in the form of silly liquor laws. I will try not to get all nerdy about this, but beer’s position as the working person’s beverage is a real cornerstone of our industry and one that I do my best to take seriously.

We build social capital by meeting over and enjoying a beer together, and that process imbues the product itself with meaning. The bar, itself, has been a space for the formation and re-formation of cultures and communities for the last few hundred years, and I think we shouldn’t ignore the role that physical space plays in the meanings we ascribe to beer. That has become increasingly clear to me over the last year and a half. Getting to know so many of my neighbors and being a bigger part of my community has been one of the most rewarding parts of working the bar at Sociable, and of opening the Fair State taproom on Central Ave. Come say hi; I bartend Fridays and Sundays.

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

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