alvey1Remember the pure joy, anticipation and excitement you had as a kid walking into an amusement park? That’s pretty much how I feel every time I visit The Four Firkins. Tucked away in a mini-mall off of Minnetonka Blvd. and Texas Ave. in St. Louis Park, the Firkins opened its doors early in 2008, and has since gained a loyal following and strong reputation as one of the Twin Cities best craft beer stores. On the numerous occasions I’ve been there, I’m continually amazed at all of the fantastic brews the proprietor, Jason Alvey, is able to offer up. 

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Alvey, and discuss his thoughts on craft beer, the Twin Cities beer scene, and how to handle pissed off Bud Light drinkers.

The Captain: First off, you don’t sound like your typical Minnesotan…where are you originally from and how’d you find your way to the Twin Cities? 

Alvey: You’re right. I’m not from around here. I hail from Australia. I met a lovely young American girl called Heather on a trip to Ireland in 2000. We got along so well I moved here to the states and married her. I’ve been here almost eight years now. I love the Twin Cities, so much going on and such a good beer scene. 

TC: When and how did you get the craft beer bug?  

A: Sitting at Pizza Luce on Lyndale Avenue in 2001 somebody bought a pitcher of Summit EPA. I’d never had anything like it before. Couldn’t believe how tasty it was. That was it, I have been hooked on good beer ever since. 

TC: Your craft beer store, The Four Firkins, has been met with much fanfare here in the Twin Cities. What sparked the idea to start your business? 

A: Long story. I had been working for Erik’s Bikes since I moved here in 2001. That’s my other passion, road bikes, mountain bikes, all kinds of bikes. I discovered that mountain bikers in particular tend to like good beer. I can’t tell you how many times we watched the sun go down in the parking lot at Lebanon Hills after a day of mountain biking with a variety of craft beer. Everyone would bring something different.  

Eventually one of my fellow mountain biking mates, Phil, asked me if I’d like to record a podcast with him. Phil was a computer guy and wanted to record a podcast for fun, about anything. We eventually decided to do a podcast about beer as I thought at the time I knew enough about said subject to host a show. I was very wrong… 

The podcast was called “What Ale’s Thee” and is still up on the site. You can go to www.whatalesthee.com and still listen to the shows if you like. Be warned the first few are pretty bad. We really didn’t know what we were talking about at that point. 

After a ton of emails telling us exactly that, I decided to really start studying beer and that’s where I learned most of what I know today. 

When we recorded the show about New Belgium Brewing coming back to Minnesota, we saw that huge line of people outside of Surdyks all lined up to get Fat Tire and realized there was a huge, virtually untapped market here in the Twin Cities for craft beer. 

Soon after that I decided to quit the podcasting and begin work on this store. 

TC: Did you run into any challenges opening the store?  

A: Many challenges. I’m not even sure where to begin. Liquor licenses, location, zoning, city officials, politicians, banks and bankers, the list is endless. I would say that getting this store open was without a doubt the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It seems like everyone is against you and every little step is a battle. It really blew my mind, if I had known beforehand how difficult it would be, I maybe would not have pursued it. Luckily I was very naive about such things, as this is my first business, so I put my head down and did whatever I had to in order to make it work.  

TC: How many different brewers, or beer making regions of the world, are represented on your shelves?

A: About 750. That doesn’t seem like much, however that is 750 craft beers or European imports. You will not find ANY “Budmillercoors”, Corona, Stella, Blue Moon or anything else mass produced with zero love. 

TC: How do you source some of the beers in your store? What is your criteria for offering a particular beer, or saying no to some others?

A: All my beers are sourced through Minnesotan distributors. This is the law. Very often I get asked if I can get New Glarus or Dogfish Head, or some other beer that is not currently distributed to Minnesota. The answer is I cannot. I have to buy beer that my distributors already have.  

Having said that, there is a LOT of beer available here in Minnesota that other liquor stores simply CHOOSE not to stock. They either think there is no market for expensive beers or just plain don’t know what the stuff is. Because of that I have a ton of beers here that you won’t find anywhere else. 

My beers have to be brewed with care. That’s the only prerequisite. 

TC: What beers are you asked most about by customers? And what beer would you love to have in your store now, but are unable to get? 

A: Number one without question is Dogfish Head. I get emails every week about that brewery. The next most often requested beer is New Glarus, followed by Russian River, O’dells, Alaskan Brewing, Deschutes, Great Lakes, Oskar Blues. I would love to carry all of them, but alas, I cannot. 

I get a ton of crazy requests too. It’s quite amazing what people come up with. For example, “My husband and I were in France back in 1976 where we visited a little mountain village. It was very remote at the end of a ten mile long dirt road, I think. Anyway, they had a local guy brewing beer there in a mud hut. I can’t remember what the beer was called but it was the best beer I’ve ever had, it was so smooth! The man who brewed it had a beard and red pointy shoes. Can you get that beer?” 

Seriously, I get requests like this almost on a daily basis!

TC: Anyone ever ask where you keep the Bud Light?

A: Yup, it took a while. It doesn’t happen very often because I don’t have a huge sign on the building screaming “Liquor store!” But it did happen just recently. 

The guy came in about 7 p.m. and by the look of him he’d already had a few. He asked where I keep my cases. I said “cases of what?” and he said “Budmillercoors” or something like that. I told him I was sorry I don’t stock any “domestics” but he could buy a case of pretty much anything he liked in six packs. 

The guy screwed up his face, clenched his fists and literally screamed “Fuck!” as loud as he could. I couldn’t believe it, I was so stunned I didn’t know how to react. He stormed out the door, so luckily I didn’t have to say anything. Pretty funny.

Usually if people tell me they like “Budmillercoors” I show them a good pilsner and explain to them the differences. I certainly don’t try to be elitist about it. I want everybody to enjoy good beer!

TC: Aside from screaming Bud Light fans, what’s the mix of customers like…mostly beer geeks, or your average Joe that may not know the difference between a Saison and a Schwarzbier? How do you work with both ends of the spectrum?

A: We get a huge mix, hardcore beer geeks make up about 20% of my customers I would say. By far the majority are just regular people who want to try something different. It’s a lot of fun working with them and hearing feedback as to what they liked or disliked last time. Listening is the key. It’s very simple really, I just listen to what they tell me they like and I suggest beers based on that.

TC: In designing the physical set-up of the store, were there any considerations you took in ensuring an optimal environment for beer display and storage? 

A: Yes, we only have about 500 square feet in here for display space so we had to be very creative with the layout. Beyond that we put UV filters on all our lights so that we reduce the chances of beers getting skunked or light struck. We also keep the store cold. Even in summer, if you’re going to be in here for more than a few minutes you better have a jacket! 

TC: What’s been the impact on business given the economic downturn?

A: Almost none. People love good beer and they seem to like this place and how we do things.

TC: Any lessons learned, unexpected surprises, or interesting experiences you’ve had along the way in opening and operating The Four Firkins?

  • Don’t ever assume that just because somebody holds a position of authority or power that they will be honest and professional.
  • If you have a good work ethic, don’t mind working extremely hard and are not afraid to go outside your comfort zone, you can achieve pretty much anything. 

TC: If you had to pick, what are a couple of your all-time favorite beers? Or styles?

A: Surly Furious, Flat Earth Belgian Pale Ale, Cantillon Kriek, Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza, Victory Brewing Prima Pils, St. Somewhere Saison Athene.

TC: When not talking about beer, what other things are you interested in or passionate about?

A: Bikes and cycling. Traveling. Any intelligent conversation on religion, politics, the universe and why we’re here. Ignorance and blind faith is very dangerous.

TC: What’s your take on the beer scene in the Twin Cities?

A: The beer scene here is amazing! I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. and I have to say we have it pretty bloody good here in the Twin Cities. I’d go as far as saying we have one of the best beer scenes in the world, right here!

There are more micro breweries in the U.S. today than has ever been in any country of the world, in the entire history of humanity. We have access to these amazing beers, as well as most of the European classics.  There aren’t too many other countries that can say that.

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