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Check Out These Five Employee-Owned Craft Breweries

Labor Day. The holiday we tip our hats to the many people before us who fought for our right to a shorter 40-hour workweek, the establishment of the weekend, and for basic safe working conditions for every worker in this great nation. As the Department of Labor puts it, the day "is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers."

Whether you toil in an office, on a farm, or in a factory or warehouse, we hope you enjoyed your Monday off. Except for those emergency-room nurses and retail employees who kept their fellow Americans alive and shopping (hopefully, at time-and-a-half rate).

But as long as we're celebrating the American worker, let's take a look at some American craft breweries (this is a food blog, after all) that have gone down the unique path of employee ownership: the organizational structure that allows every employee in a company the opportunity to directly own portions of it and reap the benefits of their own labor in a unique way that simple wages do not allow.

Harpoon Brewery - Boston, Massachusetts 

August 1, 2014, is the date on which Boston's Harpoon Brewery transitioned into an employee-owned company. The brewery, famous for its IPA and UFO White, made headlines when it changed over after 28 years.

"Last night, we all gathered in the Beer Hall at our Boston brewery to toast each other as the new owners of the Harpoon Brewery," Dan Kenary, cofounder and CEO of Harpoon told his employees. "It was a fantastic moment... This reflects the outstanding people we have here at Harpoon and our commitment to each other and our beer. It also reflects the enormous support you have given us. Thank you!"

Forty-eight percent of Harpoon’s shares went to form the employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP

New Belgium Brewing Company - Fort Collins, Colorado

The brewery, which was founded in 1991, joined in the employee-owned fun in 2000 with a partial ownership plan. Then, in 2012, it went full-throttle.

"New Belgium Brewing is excited to announce that the company’s Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) has purchased the balance of company shares, making it 100 percent employee-owned," a news release at the time proclaimed. 

“There are few times in life where you get to make choices that will have multigenerational impact – this is one of those times. We have an opportunity to write the next chapter of this incredible story, and we’re really excited about that,” New Belgium CEO and cofounder Kim Jordan told employees. “We have always had a high-involvement ownership culture, and this allows us to take that to the next logical level. It will provide an elegant succession framework that keeps the executive team intact, ensuring our vision stays true going forward.”

The deal was completed on December 28, 2012, with a companywide announcement made during New Belgium’s annual winter retreat on the January 14. All 456 employee-owners were present for the celebration. Up to that point, the employees of New Belgium owned 41 percent of the total company.

"As of December 29, 2012, the employees own the whole shebang. New Belgium is now 100 percent ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan)."

New Belgium was ranked as the fourth-largest craft brewing company by the Brewers Association in 2015.

Odell Brewing Company - Fort Collins, Colorado

Another popular Colorado brewery made the transition into employee ownership in July 2015 when Odell Brewing Co. CEO Wynne Odell announced the changes to his employees. 

"Now that we’ve achieved far more than our modest goals, we’ve been thinking over the last few years about when we should start pulling back from the brewery and what we would need to put in place to make that both possible and palatable. Maximizing our payout was not on the list: Leaving the brewery financially stable was. Selling to a group that might sacrifice our beer quality to grow our sales as fast as possible was also not on the list; finding partners who would continue our thoughtful, sustainable growth trajectory was. The one attribute of our brewery that we ultimately realized was most important to our legacy was the powerful culture that had grown around us: it defines us.

"So who better to hand the reins to than the people who helped build this vibrant culture? Our long-tenured managers and every coworker have earned the right and opportunity to shepherd Odell Brewing into its next era. Together, they are exactly the partners we were looking for."

In 2014, Odell was ranked the 34th-largest U.S. craft brewing company by the Brewers Association.

Deschutes Brewery - Bend, Oregon

This Northwest United States staple, which was founded in 1988 and is best-known for its Black Butte Porter, became employee-owned in 2013. "Twenty-five years ago, Gary Fish founded Deschutes Brewery as a small brew pub in downtown Bend, Oregon, and has since grown to be the fifth-largest craft brewery in the nation," a brewery representative shared with BeerPulse at the time. "This success can be attributed in great part to the dedication and pride the company’s employees take in their work.

"Providing ownership in the company to its employees was the perfect way to help the brewery celebrate its silver anniversary this year and enable employees to share financially in Deschutes Brewery’s continued success."

Though the brewery offers employees an opportunity to share in the ESOP, the company is still majority-controlled by founder Gary Fish and various family members.

Left Hand Brewing Company - Longmont, Colorado

Joining in the 2015 trend of employee ownership, Left Hand Brewing Co. out of Colorado (there must be something in the water out there!) transitioned to the ESOP model in July.

Under Left Hand’s new employee ownership plan, the brewery will contribute stock to the ESOP trust, with each eligible employee receiving an annual allocation. “Our intent is to reward employees and foster an ownership mentality, encouraging team members to contribute to and participate in Left Hand’s long-term success,” commented Eric Wallace, cofounder and CEO.

The brewery hopes the ESOP will help to cultivate long-term service, promote responsibility and trust in all relationships, and create a sense of pride in the workplace. Not a bad mantra to have for a business, beyond the whole "make money" part. “It’s not about maximizing immediate financial return. We have a longer view. Money is only a tool to serve our greater mission,” states Wallace. “Left Hand is about brewing great beer, giving back to our community, and perpetuating a participative employee culture. With the implementation of the ESOP, it is our resolve to keep our vision alive and prosperous.”

Doug Fairall is a craft beer blogger who focuses on Florida beers and has been a homebrewer since 2010. For beer things in your Twitter feed, follow him @DougFairall and find the latest beer pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.
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Doug Fairall
Contact: Doug Fairall