Beer and community building go hand and hand, says Eric Wallace, founder and president of Left Hand Brewing Company. Over the years, the Longmont-based business has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for issues as varied as theater, flood relief, the YMCA and, most recently, Intercambio, an organization teaching English as a second language. In advance of the June 21 Culture Jam, an intercultural night of music featuring Ozomatli, Westword spoke with Wallace about his business, corporate social responsibility and how beer forms communities.
Westword: Talk about Left Hand Brewing Company's relationship to corporate social responsibility.
Eric Wallace: It started really early on. It was a natural evolution. We were coming to a town we didn't know. I was an Air Force brat, and I've lived all over the world. We ended up starting a business in Longmont. If we're going to live in Longmont, we need to become a part of this community where we're going to work. That was a starting premise for us.
We were about as broke as you can get for quite a few early years and we still would support all kinds of different nonprofit things: Colorado Shakespeare fest, various service clubs and organizations and the Colorado Brewers Guild. In our opinion, that's what you do.
Our goal was never, "We're gonna start a brewery and get rich and sell the company and retire gillionaires." It's good that wasn't the goal, because it's a really hard way to do that. There are a lot easier ways, in the end, to go out and start a company. A lot of the folks in business schools teach you how to do that. There is a lot of "maximize your return on investment."
There are friends of ours who are venture capitalists. Even early on, they never lent money to us: "Once you take money from us, we're going to make as much money on your company as we can, and you guys are going to get run over in the process."
It was about making great beer and changing the world and having an impact on the beer scene and our community. We don't look at success on a purely bottom-line monetary basis. We've had a lot of positive impact on our community, and we try to take care of the people that work here. Those are other important aspects of being a business to us. Of course, you strive to be profitable in the long run, or you perish, but that's just one of several goals.
Talk about immigration and where that fits into the philanthropy work that you're doing. Is there a political framework as well?
We try to stay apolitical on all issues unless they are directly beer-related. We have a wide variety of political opinion within our 96 people who work here. Our involvement in Culture Jam is not political. It's more community.
Do you see a relationship between community and politics in addressing the needs of immigrants in the region?
I'm sure many would say, yeah, there's a strong connection there. There is a lot of political activism around that issue -- but for us, it's more of a community thing. We do a lot of things to try to build a better community and unite our community and to get people to come out for our events.
We want to try to tap into all segments of the community and use beer as a unifying force. Good food, good beer and good music are good ways to get everybody together. You can create a lot of positive benefits and side effects by doing stuff like that. And we're able to raise money for a variety of really good causes. At the same time, we're going to get people to come out and have a good time and know that they are contributing to something that's supporting other agencies, whether it's basic needs or arts or flood recovery or whatever it is that we're supporting with those events.
Talk about beer as a community-building tool.
Beer builds community. Have you ever been up here to see our tasting room?
I can talk to you all day about it, but many years ago, when tasting rooms didn't really exist, we talked about how we wanted to get one going. We wanted it to feel like a pub. People can come in here and talk to each other. We're not going to have TVs. We're going to create almost a living room where people can get together and have a couple beers after work and talk.
We are a cross-section of our entire city with people who might not normally cross paths and meet. They do meet here. I've been on a few fishing trips with quite a few people that I have met and who have met each other through our tasting room. It leads to work collaborations. It leads to people hiring contractors. They might not normally hang out with different economic spheres, if you will, but they meet in a place like this.
There's one benefit knowing the various players in the city: We can help them. When something needs to happen, we can get involved when there's a crisis. Beer brings community. Beer was there at the birth of America during the revolution. Beer can be a force for positive activity and positive results. As long as people aren't abusing it, it can be used for a greater good.
Oktoberfest, we raised seventy-some-thousand dollars for flood relief. We'd been evacuated for four days. We threw a party and people showed up in force. It was a good time and we were able to put some money immediately into flood relief.
The idea for Culture Jam came from some of our different people involved in these organizations. We've been involved in the Y here. We've had people volunteer with Intercambio. Josh was like, "How can we tap into the east side? It's more Hispanic on the east side of Longmont. How do we tap into that? I don't see as many Hispanics coming in as they index in the population. What's going on with that, other than the pure economics of things?" We are trying to bring the town together.
We have a thing called the TC-Line in the Longmont paper. People can call in and make comments without leaving their name. Some of those comments are borderline or beyond. Trying to bring the community together is our game, trying to fight some of the racist forces that are out there. It's not political. We don't look at it as political. We look at it as the right thing to do, the cool thing to do. We just give it a shot.
Coors is trying to court the RNC. How do you see yourself in relationship to that political beer legacy in Colorado?
Are you talking about gay politics now?
Gay politics but also race politics.
I'm 52, so I remember that. Many friends of mine are gay, and they were commenting on how Coors is sponsoring the GLBT group at Stanford that belongs to grad students and how that was quite ironic in their history.
I think Coors recognizes some of those missteps in the past and they're trying to reconcile themselves with current-day reality. They are highly politicized. They are still a huge player in Colorado and have financial wherewithal. They're not afraid to speak their mind. As a public company, I think they need to be much more circumspect about it to keep their shareholders happy. It's tricky. Every company gets to run their company the way their board sees fit. There are other breweries around that are probably far more politically outspoken than we are. Everybody runs their business the way they want to and the way they need to.
Commenting on them, I support the RNC coming to Denver. I think it's great for Colorado. It's great for our economy and people to see how beautiful our state is. The more people we can bring, in the better. We get all kinds of beer tourists just here at Left Hand, hundreds and hundreds of thousands from out of state. Lots. And they're not just visiting us. A bunch of people are here from Texas today. Thirty people. They're up here visiting three Colorado breweries and are going to Vail. That stuff happens all the time.
In all those instances, they're of all political stripes. Beer drinkers cross the political spectrum. We are nondenominational as far as that goes. Beer unites and creates community and gives us a common ground where we can work on issues amongst many people with diverging points of view.
Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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