BY ROLAND FLEMING
It’s been nine months since the doors opened, the beer is still flowing and together they are still bitter. Together We’re Bitter (TWB) Co-operative Brewing is a craft beer brewery that opened in February in downtown Kitchener. The business is different than most, as it is owned as a co-op. There are six equal owners who all take equal shares of the profit.
Culum Canally, who has a PhD in rural tourism development, and also works as the brewing co-ordinator, hopes to build the business to a point where anyone who works there would start at a living wage of $17 an hour. Most service sector jobs pay near minimum wage. TWB’s business model promotes a more equitable share in both the profits and decision-making of the business.
Walking in the front door there is a wide selection of unique beers on tap. The workers at the co-op are happy to offer free samples of their wide variety of flavours. The Wobbly Wheel, which has become a mainstay, has five different hops in it that are added at nine different points in the brewing process. Some other interesting concoctions include a coconut stout using fresh coconut flakes and a Belgian Wit beer.
Just as diverse as the beers they brew are the owners themselves. These six owners all pitched in at the beginning and together were able to start the business debt-free. Between the six of them they have brewing experience, administrative talents, and skills such as welding, plumbing, electrical work and graphic design. This dream team hasn’t had to hire much outside help. They dug concrete trenches, painted everything, put up the insulation and did the electrical work.
“It’s our blood, sweat and tears all over here, but you know cleaned up and sanitized of course,” said owner Alex Szaflarska
As you walk past the front bar, the remainder of their small space is occupied by the brewing equipment. Patrons are free to walk about, as everything is out in the open. Transparency is highly valued by the owners, with each other and with the community. They welcome any questions about their brewing process and work co-operatively with other brewers in the area. In everything they do, it seems the spirit of community shines. Even the bathroom is a display of community. The walls, made of chalkboards, are littered with the scribblings of the people.
On Sundays owners bring in local talent to bring the house alive with a variety of music stylings. Recently, they had the Ever-loving Jug Band bringing back the 1920s. The brewery itself becomes the stage as spectators squeeze in around the fermenters. TWB tries to make the brewery a hub for local creative talents.
The business itself is a community in a sense, with the six owners all heavily involved. The business model is a worker-owned co-op which means that to buy into the business you must actually work at the business. Each owner’s cut in the profits is directly related to the number of hours he or she puts into the business. New employees also have the option of buying into the business after a year of working there.
Szaflarska and Canally are currently working full time at the brewery while the other four owners are working part time. Business decisions are decided democratically among the owners, meaning that they are taken to a vote.
“It is difficult sometimes with all of us at the table, but we have found … it has led to better decision-making,” said Szaflarska.
Canally said, “We put it in place hoping we’d be a demonstration that this business model is effective at making good jobs and being more democratic, more transparent.”
In Quebec there are many co-operatively owned breweries, but TWB is one of only two currently operating in all the rest of Canada. Szaflarska said current legal structures make running a co-op easier in Quebec then in Ontario.
The team hasn’t yet reached their goal of each worker earning a base wage of $17 an hour, but while the beer remains bitter these entrepreneurs are not. Their community of customers continues to grow and the beer keeps flowing.
The brewery is located at 300 Mill St. in Kitchener and is open Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.