Stillwater brewery launches festival fundraiser for organ donation

Ten years ago, Harmony and Brian Carlson turned to organ donation after losing their newborn son. This summer, they are using their new River Siren Brewing Company as a launchpad to raise money and awareness for the cause.

Brian and Harmony Carlson, owners of River Siren Brewing in Stillwater. (Courtesy of River Siren Brewing)

The Carlsons’ late son, Van, was diagnosed with a rare disease during pregnancy, and was not expected to survive full term, much less past birth. Knowing this, they reached out to LifeSource, a Twin Cities nonprofit dedicated to organ and tissue donation.

“People don’t like to think about infant death, and it’s a hard thing to talk about. But we tried to make it positive,” Harmony Carlson said.

Van ended up surprising everyone – not only did he make it full term, but lived five days after delivery. When he passed, LifeSource was able to complete a rare infant organ donation.

“This summer would’ve been his 10th birthday. We thought that since we have a platform with the brewery, we could start raising awareness,” Carlson said.

The Carlsons bought what was formerly Maple Island Brewery in July 2021. After nearly a year of building renovations and revamping the beer menu, they’re finally ready to open their doors to the community. Sunshine Fest is a way to kick things off, Harmony Carlson said.

On Saturday, June 18, Sunshine Fest will celebrate with food trucks, live music and a raffle. The festival will feature a new beer created in honor of Van, called the Sunshine Baby, and the brewery will donate $1 from every pint sold to LifeSource.


River Siren Brewing’s vision for the festival came at a good time. In 2021, Stillwater became the first Donate Life City in the nation and made a communitywide commitment to support LifeSource.

“LifeSource, and organ donation as a whole, gets a premier spot in our city. We give them signage, social media posts and we support them at events,” Stillwater city council member Larry Odebrecht said.

Odebrecht has personal ties to the cause as well, with family members who both donated and received organ donations through LifeSource in recent years. When the Carlsons came to him with their fundraiser plan, he was happy to see the Donate Life mission spreading already, he said.

Over 2,000 Minnesotans are on the waiting list for organ donation this year, according to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. While only 1 percent of people qualify to donate, just one donor can affect up to eight lives.

The Carlsons want to make the Sunshine Fest fundraiser a yearly tradition, and continue to turn the loss of their son into an opportunity for hope.

“Organ donation can be a really beautiful gift during someone’s darkest hour,” Harmony Carlson said.

For more information about Sunshine Fest, visit the Stillwater events calendar.

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