Brewing For Charity's Sake
All photos provided by the breweries.
POTOSI, Wisc. – Amid the rolling hills and picturesque dairy farms of southwestern Wisconsin, a brewery has been reborn here after a 35-year slumber. It serves IPAs, amber ales, stouts and has a congenial restaurant with outside seating in nice weather.
But what makes Potosi Brewery unusual is not its beer or rural location a half mile from the Mississippi river. Rather, it’s the company’s tax status.
Potosi, founded in 1852, reopened in 2008 as the nation’s first nonprofit brewery. All profits of the brewery go to charity. So far, there have been few profits following a $7.5 million restoration of the brewery, which also houses the National Brewery Museum and a transportation museum. The nonprofit status has helped the brewery raise millions through government grants and private donations.
“Going nonprofit was the best way to save this building and save our heritage,” said Gary David, a local artist who bought the brewery building in 1997 with hopes resurrecting a landmark from Potosi’s past would help ensure its future.
And the town of little more than 700 people has seen its economic base widen with the opening of several new shops looking to take advantage of the 70,000 visitors to the brewery each year. “We would never have gotten the funding to meet the extreme cost of rebuilding the building were it not for the nonprofit status,” David said.
Potosi is one of a handful of new U.S. breweries set up with a charitable mission. If the concept of a food and beverage company giving away its profits sounds familiar, its because that’s what Newman’s Own, the gourmet foods company formed by actor Paul Newman, has been doing it since 1982. Newman’s Own has donated over $475 million to thousands of charities the past 35 years.
Save the World Brewing, based in Marble Falls, Texas and founded by husband and wife team, donates its proceeds to several charities. Dave and Quynh Rathkamp left their physician practices to set up the brewery that specializes in Belgian-inspired beers. Quynh said they’re able to donate money left over after expenses to charity since they have no loans, leases or investors to pay. The two pediatricians worked in Dallas area for about 15 years before moving to Marble Falls where Dave’s parents have a lake house in the Texas’ Hill Country northwest of Austin.
Dave was a home brewer and the couple had annually taken medical missions to poor areas of the world and wanted to continue helping the less fortunate. Says Quynh: “Dave came home one day from bible study class and said, “God gave me passion and I think I am more passionate about brewing and my mission work,” and we looked at each other and said, ‘let’s merge these two passions and make it a charitable brewing operation.'”
Unlike Potosi, Save the World Brewing is not a 501c3 nonprofit in eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. But it still donated all of its proceeds, which in the first two years totaled nearly $38,000 to charities including Food for the Hungry, Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity.
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive reception” to being a philanthropic brewery, a term which is printed on their beer bottles. Save the World, which opened in 2014, has three full time and four part-time staff. To save money, they self distribute beer around Austin, San Antonio and Hill Country.
What drives a couple to do such a thing?
“Dave and I decided we felt like we had everything we needed and did not need to make money for our use anymore, just enough for living expenses,” she said.
The couple doesn’t believe making beer will actually “save the world,” Quynh said. “We are hoping to inspire other businesses to do other intentional charitable giving,” she said. “We are working here because we love what we are doing and not do this to accumulate wealth,” said Quynh, who was born in Vietnam before emigrating to the United States as a young child.
Quynh said while her patients were sad she was leaving medicine, many of her physician colleagues were rather envious. Of course, shifting from medicine into beer still means the couple can apply their science education and training — just in a different way, she said.
In September, the company celebrated two years in business with the completion of a rooftop solar powered system. With 150 solar panels in place, Save the World Brewing says it will be able to offset 80 percent of the brewery’s energy requirements. That’s money saved that can go to charity instead of the power company.
In Portland, Oregon, Ex Novo Brewing opened in 2014 with the mission of donating all its proceeds to charities, said founder Joel Gregory. An electrical engineer by training, Gregory worked in the renewable energy sector before making the leap into craft beer.
Gregory explored forming his firm as a nonprofit, but the IRS told him serving beer and food was not a charitable function. Still, that hasn’t stopped Ex Novo from keeping its promise to be a charitable brewery
After over two years in business, Ex Novo has given away about $10,000 to four local and international charities including Portland-based Friends Of The Children and the Washington, D.C.-based International Justice Mission.
“We try to give a mix of local and global charities. Running a business aimed at helping others can present challenges. “Do we give money away or buy a new fermentation tank to produce more beer and more revenue so we can give more money away next year?” Gregory said. Last year, the decision went to buy a new tank.
While Ex Novo promotes its nonprofit status, it still wants to attract customers first through good beer, food, service and ambiance. While some corporations make big profits then form foundations to give away to charity, Ex Novo wanted philanthropy to be a core value from the outside of the brewery. “We didn’t want to give money away as an afterthought we wanted to do it first off,” he said.