Founder Shanai Matteson (left) and volunteers tend to the Water Bar's pop-up at the Minnesota State Fair. Submitted photo

A new kind of watering hole

The world’s first water bar moves to a new space in the Holland neighborhood

At one Northeast Minneapolis taproom, no money is exchanged for drinks, staff members are volunteers and what’s on tap has zero calories.

The Water Bar & Public Studio made headlines last year for being the world’s first water bar, a place where patrons sample free water from around the state. More than a year-and-a-half after opening, founders Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker, partner Jennifer Arave and their many volunteers have served tens of thousands of cups of water and are preparing a new home for the business.

Both an art project and a business, the taproom operates as a public benefit corporation, a private business with a mission to improve people’s lives. Even after some time, Matteson said, they’re still working to develop the taproom’s non-traditional business model.

“We’re definitely learning it as we go. … We didn’t read about [this model] and then do it. We’re doing it to learn about it,” she said. “What we’re doing here is developing a business as artists. So, if you imagine three different artists developing a business, it looks weird like this.”

The Water Bar works as a pop-up concept, getting paid to display at cities, festivals and events, serve various municipal waters and teach people about everything that goes into a glass of their water at home. Volunteers from municipal water agencies, local neighborhood groups and nonprofits serve as bartenders, serving Minneapolis and St. Paul tap waters, as well as those from other Minnesota cities.

At the Minnesota State Fair this past summer, volunteers from the Water Bar served more than 21,000 glasses of water, including some from Duluth. Patrons came out to the bar just to sample water from their hometown.

“It’s the kind of thing people get homesick for,” she said.

Matteson and Kloecker started Water Bar as an art project, but it has since turned into its own business. Kloecker is an architect, visual artist and filmmaker. Matteson, a writer by trade, said the concept is at the intersection of art, infrastructure, water advocacy and community building.

“My role has always been about how do you popularize these ideas. How do you get beyond the people who already care a lot or already know a lot so that it becomes something that’s for everybody?” she said.

The concept, which moved next door on Central Avenue just north of Lowry Avenue, also includes a studio component where artists will be able to show water-related work and, eventually, sell art. The Water Bar invites people to come in on Wednesdays from 6 p.m.–9 p.m. for open studio time to work on their own artwork.

They chose Northeast Minneapolis as a home for Water Bar because of its proximity to the Mississippi River and breweries. While not a traditional brewery, Matteson said she’d be thrilled if people came in on a brewery tour to sit at the bar and talk about water issues. Water is instrumental to the brewing process — just ask a brewer, Matteson said — so what they can teach isn’t a far-off concept.

“We want to get on the taproom tours. We want people to see us as another place they can visit for something completely different,” she said.

The Water Bar will begin open taproom hours in the new space at 2518 Central Ave. NE by January. Its first exhibition, “River Relationships,” will be on display and growlers of water, posters and artist-made projects will be available.

Matteson said she hopes the concept can make talking about water — what most people take advantage of every day — less of an exclusive conversation.

“We can all care for water and tend to water in our everyday lives. You don’t have to have a special background,” she said.