Watch the startup story of Finnegans, a craft beer brewing company that donates a portion of its profits to charity. (Video by Sue Williams.)

Jacquie Berglund always wanted to create change, but just could never figure out how. And then, one day, over two decades ago, it came to her: Beer.

While working as the marketing director for a bar in Minneapolis, Berglund had traveled to Washington, D.C., where she heard a keynote speech by Billy Shore, the founder of antihunger group Share Our Strength. He spoke about using for-profit activities as a revenue stream for his charity – part of a burgeoning new field called social entrepreneurship. “And I was in the audience thinking, ‘what a brilliant idea!'” Berglund recalls. “It was like my hair was on fire.”

Today, Berglund is the founder of Finnegans, a craft beer brewing company (motto: “Beer That Gives Back”) that has spent much of its 21-year existence operating like Newman’s Own, donating 100 percent of its profits to charity. Finnegans began as just one beer – an Irish amber with a malty finish – that Berglund made with the help of contract breweries and sold via distributors. In 2018, she was able to open a 4-story headquarters for Finnegans in downtown Minneapolis, complete with its own state-of-the-art brewery, taproom, courtyard and event space.

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Since it began, Finnegans has developed over 100 beers sold throughout the Midwest, generating $2 million for its main cause – hunger alleviation — and worked with a network of food bank partners in all of its markets plus local farmers. A more recent creation is a dark Cork-style stout called Dead Irish Poet Caribou Coffee Stout, a collaboration with Midwest coffee chain Caribou Coffee. “That’s flying off shelves,” says Berglund. “That’s a great problem to have.”

Running a pub during a pandemic has not been easy, however. While Finnegans distributes its beer to restaurants and stores, it relies primarily on sales of draft beer at its taproom to fund operations. When Covid-19 first hit, Berglund was forced to temporarily close down and lay off staff on March 17, 2020. It was “the saddest St. Patrick’s Day ever,” she says. 

Berglund received funds from the government’s Paycheck Protection Program – “it saved us,” she says – but the unpredictability of the virus, combined with social unrest following the killing of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner, led to repeated openings and closures. “It’s just been brutal,” she says. “Brutal, brutal, brutal.”

This past August, working with new investors, Berglund restructured the company, shifting away from the 100 percent donation model for the first time in Finnegans’ history. “If you’re donating 100 percent of your profits but you’re not profitable, you’re not doing anything,” she says. Finnegans now donates a portion of its profits, which Berglund says allows for more growth and, ultimately, more impact. 

The company also has a new chief operating officer, allowing Berglund to focus on her core strengths of marketing and strategic partnerships rather than overseeing operations. “I’m just so much happier now that we’ve restructured,” she says. “We are very focused on mission.”

Berglund is now looking forward to what she calls St. Patrick’s Day “season,” which is her busiest time of the year, and new collaborations, including an upcoming vegan wheat beer with popular UK brand Wicked Kitchen. “We have high hopes of hitting 2019 numbers,” she says. “I just call it miraculous.” ◼

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