Can a Brewery be a Non-Profit?

Picture of all seven trappist beers

Picture of all seven trappist beers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wait, no. I mean intentionally a non-profit organization? I’m sure there are plenty of brewer/owners out there that would readily admit that their business is currently a “non-profit.” I mean, in the legal, tax-status sense.

And the answer is: maybe.


Classic lawyer-speak, “maybe.” What I really mean is that maybe you could, but I don’t think you would want to. But here’s what goes into the analysis:

In order to be a non-profit organization, you have a “charitable purpose.” You can fill out your state paperwork to incorporate as a non-profit corporation (for example, in NC) and be an “entity.” But then, to get the tax benefits, you need to apply for tax exempt status at the IRS. NC, like many states, simply follows the Federal decision on whether your company is tax exempt or not. And, here’s the kicker, a main goal of your company cannot be “to make money.”

If I can’t make money, why would I start a company? – I hear you ask. Well, the answer to that is, generally, you wouldn’t.

Non-profits Generally

But, there are those that want to give back to the community, help out the less advantaged, etc, without assuming all the personal liability or to go after serious fundraising. I work with several non-profits that focus on everything from providing job training to at-risk youth to providing a home for abandoned children. That’s what the non-profit business structure is made for and where it works best.

Well, can’t I make a little money? – Aha! Sure enough, there’s an entity called an L3C or Low-profit Limited Liability Company.


Many states allow L3Cs, such as NC, but many states do not, so you need to be sure of what your state does and doesn’t allow. L3Cs, generally, are sort of a hybrid between non-profits and for-profits. For an L3C, the state expects you to (1) have a business that makes money and (2) have a “charitable purpose” that uses the money that the business makes. A good example might be a church or community thrift store. No one opens a church thrift store thinking they’ll retire to the bahamas in a few years. It’s meant to be low-profit. An L3C, just like a non-profit, can pay employees and raise funds. What it can’t do is “intend” to make money for the sake of making money or for the sake of the owner(s).

But what about breweries?

So, how does all that relate to a brewery? Well, as a start-up, a brewery (at least typically) has a long, tough slog to get to being profitable. Could a brewery be a non-profit during that time to ease the expenses (especially the taxes). Answer: No.

The State, and especially the IRS, are going to say that you don’t have a charitable purpose as the goal of the business – so you won’t get your tax-exempt status. Even if you did get your tax-exempt status, you’d lose it eventually as you paid the owners more and more over time, then the IRS might come after your for tax fraud (remember, it brought down Capone!).

Could a brewery be an L3C? Well, yes, actually.

Let’s take the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus of Westvlateren as an example (assuming that Westvleteren was in North Carolina – aside: wouldn’t that be AWESOME?!?). The monks at the Abbey have often been asked if they’re going to increase production. They’ve replied (I’m paraphrasing here) “We brew beer so we can afford to run the Abbey and be monks, not the other way around.” This attitude and set-up would be a perfect model for an L3C: a business tightly linked to a charitable purpose where there is little or no excess profit.

But, Westvleteren is a special situation. After all there are only 7 Trappist breweries in the world. It would take a very special set of circumstances for a brewery to want to be an L3C organization and for an L3C to fit the business plan/model.

So, I’ll end this the way I started, I think a brewery could be a non-profit or an L3C, but I’m not sure that a brewery would want to.


  1. There is another route, which I feel you may have overlooked. Potosi Brewing in Wisconsin is owned by a 501c3 ‘private foundation.’ Rather than being a charitable organization itself, which for a brewery would likely mean being a pilot brewery rather than production, they provide grants to meet a charitable need.

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