Sitting with friends at Pizza Lucé in Uptown nearly seven years ago, Australian native Jason Alvey had no way of knowing on that day, and at that restaurant, one seemingly insignificant sip of beer would alter the course of his life.
Alvey recalls, “Somebody brought out a pitcher of Summit Extra Pale Ale, and I had never had anything like that before. I had grown up on bad Aussie lagers, and I didn’t know anything about craft beer until I moved to the United States. It just blew me away, and I remember thinking, ‘What is this? What is this flavor I’m tasting?’”
Excited about the new experience, Alvey immediately went home, and began looking up beers online. After finding a slew of local microbreweries, and as he calls it, a seasonal beer phenomenon, he grew increasingly excited about the local beer scene.
A few years later, a friend, Philip Nelson, approached Alvey to take part in a podcast, eventually dubbed whatalesthee.com, and it was then that the final inspirational spark took hold.
Fat Tire, an amber ale based in Colorado, was set to arrive, and a local store announcement that the first 100 people lined up to purchase the beer would receive a few free gifts sent buyers in a tizzy. That response motivated Alvey to take the next step.
As Alvey remembers, “We went down there to cover it as reps from whatalesthee, and we saw 400 frickin people lined up outside that store at 7:30 on a Thursday morning, and all they were buying was Fat Tire. So, when I saw that, I said, ‘We’ve got to stop wasting our time with this podcast, and set up a beer store, because there’s very obviously a market here in the Twin Cities that is not being tapped.’”
Alvey’s inkling was right.
After almost two years of work, which included obtaining a liquor license, and speaking in front of the City Council, Alvey opened Minnesota’s first specialty beer store, The Four Firkins, in St. Louis Park. (If you’re wondering, a firkin is a barrel that holds about eight to nine gallons of beer, and it takes four firkins to fill a full-sized barrel—hence the store’s name.)
“The whole time I was planning this store, I kept thinking, ‘Somebody is going to open one up tomorrow, and I’m going to miss out on being the first,’” Alvey recounts.
Luckily for Alvey, no one did, and the three-month-old store has attracted a larger and larger audience since it opened, with both beer enthusiasts and curious locals filling the cozy space to capacity.
Alvey explains, “There are two different groups of customers that I get in here. One of them is obviously your hard-core beer geek—beer enthusiasts who are going to drive as far as they have to get something unique. The other type of customer, and the most rewarding experience for me, are locals who don’t necessarily know much about beer. They see the sign; they say, ‘Four Firkins—what on Earth is a firkin?’; and they come in, and see all the beer. It’s like watching a flip switch in their head. All of a sudden, their eyes light up, and they look at the beer as though they are seeing it for the first time, and they can’t believe it. We are literally creating beer enthusiasts and it’s very rewarding.”
While its status as Minnesota’s first—and so far only—specialty beer shop means the store already stands out, Alvey notes that The Four Firkins is unique in several other ways.
“It’s a very intimate, very personal atmosphere,” Alvey shares. “I get a lot people in here who don’t know very much about beer, but they are excited to try some new stuff, and I’ll quite happily walk around, and make suggestions, and give them an idea of what they might like or not like—so very different from your average liquor store.”
The store is separated by styles of beer, including India pale ales, stouts and porters, meads, and Belgians, to name a few. Customers also can purchase brewery specialized glassware and make their own six pack of individual beers for only $10, one of the most popular features.
Alvey relates, “If I didn’t restock these tables all day long, every day, they’d be virtually empty every night. It’s always fresh, and I keep it interesting, too. It’s not just a bunch of dusty old bottles that I can’t sell.”
The Four Firkins is home to casual beer samplings every Friday and Saturday, the busiest nights for the store by far, and Beer Evangelist classes once a month, where those in attendance learn the history behind a certain beer style while enjoying its taste.
Alvey spends his days trying to find exotic and unusual selections. He’s in constant communication with local distribution companies to find out what’s being imported any given week. What makes it into his store depends on a few factors, but it’s important to Alvey that his products don’t come from macrobreweries like Budweiser or Miller.
As Alvey observes, “Generally, small microbreweries care very much about the quality of their beer, and are usually more interesting, and experiment with different styles and flavors, whereas a big macrobrewery, like Budweiser or Coors or Miller, is just pumping it out to the masses as fast as they can. So, I don’t stock any of that, and I tend not to stock stuff that you can find everywhere, like Corona. I’ve only got a certain amount of space, so I have to stock the good stuff.”
While Alvey’s life has been a blur since the store’s extremely successful opening, the initial struggles were worth it to be in a position to do what he loves: “It was an absolute battle to get this store open, but I would go through it again to have this. I just had this burning desire to do my own thing. There was a lot of determination, and I was convinced it was a good idea, and that it would work, so I wanted to prove that it was possible.”
For now, the hardest part for Alvey is perhaps trying to find time for himself to enjoy the variety of his own selection.
Alvey remarks. “I try as many as I can, but there’s always something new, and the difficult thing is, literally every single week, I get another 20 or 30 cases of stuff that I’ve never even heard of before in my life. I can’t be drinking every night, you know. I’ve got a business to run.”
The Four Firkins
8009 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park