Tonka Beer: Saving Minnesota lakes one beer at a time

Categories: Interview

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If there are two things on the mind of any Minnesotan during the summer months, they're beer and invasive species. It's impossible to go out to any of our local lakes without seeing sign after sign reminding us to check our boats for any would-be hitchhikers. There is, however, one Minnesota company that's setting out to deal with this problem in a new and unique way: by brewing beer. 

Tonka Beer is donating 100 percent of its beers profits to its other company, a nonprofit named Save Our Lakes. 

We recently sat down with Chad Mayes and Jason Landstrom, two of the company's three founders, to discuss their new ventures.

First, can you tell us a little bit about your roles in the company? 

Mayes: There's three partners: myself, Jason Landstrom, and Ryan Johnson. The three of us all kind of specialize in, if you will, the various aspects of running a business. Jason manages our relationship with our contract manufacturer on the brew side. Ryan manages everything on the distribution side. So he coordinates beverages. And I manage everything on the creative side; internal website development as well as working with our brand agency interims. 

What did you do pre-Tonka Beer? 

Mayes: We actually still all have day jobs. All of us are in business in one form or another. I'd say all three of us do, more than anything, business development. 

How did you come up with the idea to get into brewing beer? 

Mayes: It was really a joint effort. All three of us had a shared interest in it. We're all longtime friends. Jason and I are both Minnetonka high school alumni. Our kids play a lot of sports together, and so it was just through that common community. Our interest in the beer industry had been piqued for quite some time, and we kicked the idea around a lot. Then, last summer pairing it with Save Our Lakes, which is our nonprofit arm, the two entities just kind of grew from there. 

So Tonka Beer is a nonprofit brewery? 

Mayes: Tonka Beer is for profit. When we looked at it, we looked at how do we set this up to do what we needed to do. Tonka Beer is a standard corporation. It's a limited partnership. And then we set up our sister organization, Save Our Lakes, as a true nonprofit. So the designation allows us the most flexibility in how we want to run things and manage things, and then, you know, like we advertised, we'll donate 100 percent of our profits from Tonka Beer to Save Our Lakes. 

What sparked the idea for Save Our Lakes, and why get involved with this specific issue? 

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Save Our Lakes; Fighting Invasive Species on MN Lakes
Mayes: It just came from seeing what's going on with the local lakes and water systems. Like I mentioned, all three of us grew up here and spent a lot of time not only on Lake Minnetonka but also up north. We were up north a lot, Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters, and just seeing how rapidly lakes have been affected by invasive species. We really knew that we wanted to do something different with Tonka Beer and made it into an organization that could do some good as a nonprofit, and the lakes just really stood out for us. 

Landstrom: It's a huge topic. I'm sure you're reading about it, invasive species, and unfortunately it's not going away. It's good for our business of selling beer, I guess, but at the end of the day, we're going to have to continue to raise more and more money, because there's going to be more and more lakes that are going to get infected with the stuff, and it's going to cost money to deal with it, to eradicate it, and to do research, and unfortunately it's a growing problem. Hopefully our company grows so that we can try to compete with that condition. 

To what capacity is Save Our Lakes going to get involved? 

Mayes: It's primarily going to be a financial arm, through fundraising and through Tonka Beer. We also accept donations from other corporate partners and individuals alike, but then that money will be donated and managed basically through a foundation and granted to other organizations such as the University of Minnesota. They just launched an invasive species department that we've been in communication and meeting with, and even of a few of those organizations that we direct the funds too will help to get the word out. 

Can you tell us a little about your current beer options? 

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Big Island Shandy and Preservation IPA
Mayes: Because of the timing that we launched, we kicked it off with Big Island Shandy, which is perfectly situated for the hot summer months. Coming next month in August we'll be releasing our IPA, which will be called Preservation IPA. That's the next one on the docket, and then there will be more from there. 

Where is your brewery located, and how are you coming up with your recipes? 

Landstrom: The brewery is Minhas out of Wisconsin. We chose them for multiple reasons. One, they're the second-oldest brewery in the country and the 10th biggest, so we knew that they obviously knew a thing or two about brewing beer. The president of the brewery is actually from Minnesota, so when we met with him, he was extremely interested and passionate about what we were trying to do because he was very familiar with the issue of invasive species. So for everyone it was really a great partnership. 

We work with their brewmaster, and we've created our own recipes so that they are exclusive to us. Any beer that will be under the Tonka Beer brand label will be exclusive to us. We worked in conjunction with their brewmaster and said, Hey, you know, like our first beer was the Big Island Shandy; we knew we wanted a nice summer beer. So we asked what could we do to create a nice summer beer, leveraged their experience and what he knew about it. The next beer was the IPA, and we did the same thing there. We created a nice IPA that isn't super strong either one way or the other, it's just a really good-tasting IPA that we think is going to be very well received. 
   
Where can our readers find your beer? 

Mayes: You can find it statewide. We're in over 150 retail and restaurant locations now, and we're really expanding weekly. We've got a locator on Facebook and our website [tonkabeer.com], so people can find out where it is close to them. 

Landstrom: We're adding accounts every day, but right now I think we're as far north as Grand Marais, and I think we're as far south as Mankato. 

Anything else you'd like to add? 

Landstrom: We do have some events coming up. Twin Cities Brewfest is coming up on August 11th, and we've got a Duluth event this weekend.



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