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Minister working to make vision of nonprofit brewery a reality

Hospitality and Tourism
Travis Boland
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Seth Gibson is an ordained Lutheran minister with two passions, and he wants to share them with the rest of Columbia.

Gibson’s love of people and of craft beer led him to found Ex Gratia Brewing Co., which he hopes will be the first nonprofit brewery in South Carolina.

“Many people that get into the nonprofit world have a cause but spend the majority of time fundraising because they need money to survive,” Gibson said. “That doesn’t give them enough time to the do the work they set out to do.”

He envisions a brewery where customers choose a charity from a list of selected nonprofits to receive the net profits from their tabs. Customers will also be able to donate additional money to the selected organizations.

Gibson said he has filed his 501(c)(3) documentation and is waiting to hear whether his proposition will be granted nonprofit status. He said the process could take six weeks or six months. He is unable to start fundraising until he is certified.

In the meantime, he has started looking for possible locations, mentioning a spot in West Columbia he recently toured.

Gibson, a Lexington native who most recently pastored Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Columbia, says he believes in giving back to the community. One way he intends to do that is by paying workers above the minimum wage and providing health insurance and benefits. “That lives out our passion of what we’re trying to give to the community,” Gibson said.

A long-term goal is to start a training program in the brewery’s kitchen to teach those needing jobs how to work in a restaurant setting. Gibson said he would love to partner with Oliver Gospel Mission or any other organization to create a pipeline with restaurants and provide a valuable workforce.

Gibson said he pondered the idea for a nonprofit brewery for two years before seeing a news story about the Oregon Public House in Portland, which bills itself as the world’s first nonprofit pub with the slogan, “Have a Pint, Change the World.”

The pub’s website says it has contributed $161,930 to social justice, community and environmental charities since opening in 2013. It chooses six nonprofit partners from an open application process for a period of 5 1/2 months, and customers vote via their transactions on how to divide profits among those organizations.

The story struck a nerve with Gibson.

“We were sitting around, having a beer, and began to wonder what it would look like if a brewery and a nonprofit had a baby,” Gibson said. “That’s when the lightbulb went off. We interviewed a handful of brewers in South Carolina about stepping into the business and what it takes.”

Gibson said response to his idea has been encouraging, with people wanting to help contribute to the greater good.

“I’m a pastor. That’s my job,” Gibson said. “As a pastor, I constantly hear about needs in the community and the approach to give to social ministries. I started seeking a better way, thinking there has to be something different. I’ve always loved craft beer and realized it brings out a community in a space, whether it’s a tap room, a man cave or someone’s garage.”

The brewery’s name, Ex Gratia, is a take on another nonprofit Portland brewery called Ex Novo, in business since 2014. It is also a term meaning a payment made or action taken out of moral obligation or kindness rather than legal necessity.

Joel Gregory, founder and owner of Ex Novo (translated from Italian as the beginning), recalled getting his business off the ground.

“We didn’t go the fundraising route; rather, we raised capital through private loans,” Gregory said. “Most of those loans came from friends and family, but there was some hesitation.”

Gregory said he knew little about brewing beer, coming from an engineering background, but he had a mission. With help from the community, he put his vision into action.

As time went on, Gregory realized he wanted to the change the company from a nonprofit to a benefit company. In Oregon, a benefit company is a corporate status for companies that aim to make a positive impact on society and the environment in addition to earning a profit. Oregon's law includes corporations and limited liability companies. ​​​​

In 2012, South Carolina became one of 33 states, as well as the District of Columbia, to allow the benefit corporation designation.

​Gregory’s original Oregon mission remains the same — donating 100% of the brewery’s profits to its four original charitable partners: Friends of the Children, International Justice Mission, Impact NW and Mercy Corps.

“We still let people know what the mission is, but we see ourselves more of a brewery than a nonprofit,” Gregory said. “We’re not ashamed of what we started. We just didn’t want to become a flash in the pan. We want to be the best brew pub in Portland.”

Gibson finds inspiration in such a business model.

“Ex Novo’s story is about coming from nothing, and that’s my story, too,” Gibson said. “I couldn’t take their name, so we settled on Ex Gratia, which in Latin mean ‘from grace.’ It’s more of a legal term meaning it’s like a bonus where there is no legal standing to give this money. It’s above and beyond.”

Reach Travis Boland at colanews@scbiznews.com.

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