African-American Craft Beer Brewers Unite To Host A Festival Of Their Own

To tell how the nation's first black beer festival came to be held in Pittsburgh, you might start with a beer.

Maybe it was that introductory Sam Adams Boston Lager that longtime Michelob and Heineken guy Mike Potter drank more than a decade ago. "It had a completely different profile, a completely different taste, you know, completely different aroma," he says. "It just elevated my curiosity."

Or maybe it should be the bottle of Blue Moon that Day Bracey tipped shortly after he got out of college, thanks to $1 specials at a now-defunct bar in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood. "That was the first time I drank anything that tasted relatively decent," says Bracey. In college, he and his friends drank "Natty Ice and Vladimir [Vodka]."

In any case, their tastebuds ultimately led them to found Fresh Fest, the first-ever beer festival for breweries owned by African-Americans, along with stand-up comic Ed Bailey.

A dozen such breweries will visit Pittsburgh's North Side at Nova Place on Saturday for the daylong festival. Fresh Fest's purpose is to celebrate black brewing talent and emphasize that craft beer, long implicitly seen as white territory, needs to get more diverse.

"There is an overrepresentation of white folks on both the production and the consumption side," says J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a professor at Randolph College and an expert on diversity in craft beer.

Brewing beer has always been a white space in the U.S., and craft beer, an industry now four decades old, followed suit: Its product is mostly made and drunk by affluent white people. Yet after years of double-digit growth — the number of craft breweries doubled between 2013 and 2017 -- the industry remains surprisingly monochromatic.

African-Americans are 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. But surveys cited by the Brewers Association say that some 85 percent of craft beer drinkers are white, leaving just 15 percent total for black, Latinos, Asians and Native American drinkers. (However, one recent survey found that blacks make up 12 percent of craft beer drinkers.)

Even more pronounced is the disparity among makers of craft beer: Potter, who founded the group Black Brew Culture, estimated that out of more than 6,300 independent U.S. breweries, only about 50 are black-owned. That's less than 1 percent — and there are none at all in the Pittsburgh region.

"That's not a good number, especially when you consider again the consumption side of it, how many people of color actually purchase these beers," says Potter.

Potter wants to change both sides of the equation. After his revelation years ago with Sam Adams, the Pittsburgh-area native found his way to East End Brewing, one of the region's longest-running craft breweries. He describes the brewery's staff as beer mentors.

"I had no idea of what some of these beers were like," says Potter. "They started breaking down about stouts and porters, Belgians, different kinds of ales, IPA." He got into home-brewing and considered starting his own microbrewery.

He learned it wasn't so easy. Potter is an entrepreneur — he runs a print shop in Homestead, a small former mill town just east of Pittsburgh — but still felt he lacked the funding and know-how that successful craft brewers possessed. And all the ones he knew of were white. "So that led me to start kind of searching around for anybody else of color that is doing this," he says.

Potter founded Black Brew Culture in 2015 and learned that others were out there, including Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver and a handful of black-owned breweries.

Some of them are making a go of it. Chris Harris, of Toledo, Ohio, founded Black Frog Brewery in 2014. On July 31 of this year, he quit his day job with the Social Security Administration to run his brewpub and fledgling distribution network full time. "I'm hoping within the next year to maybe have a small production facility," he says.

Day Bracey was similarly taken with craft beer. He and fellow stand-up comedian Ed Bailey are in the third year of producing Drinking Partners, a popular podcast combining comedy, talk and beer appreciation that each week sets up in a different bar or brewpub.

So why isn't craft beer catching on faster among African-Americans as a whole?

The answer isn't mysterious, but it is complex.

Poverty among African-Americans plays a part, because craft beer is typically two to three times as expensive as bigger corporate brands. That's one reason Bracey cites "systemic racism" as a main factor in the lack of diversity in the industry's customer base. He also notes racial segregation, which keeps people from trying bars in neighborhoods where they might not feel safe or welcome. "I mean, if you get pulled over in the wrong neighborhood, like, that could mean a lot of bad things for you," Bracey says.

Other observers emphasize the role of the brewing industry, which decades ago began marketing cheap, potent malt liquor in primarily African-American and Latino neighborhoods, says beer scholar Jackson-Beckham.

"There is a pretty strong association of beer within black culture with malt liquor," she says. That association is strengthened by advertising as well as by hip-hop's embrace of malt liquor as a cultural signifier.

"If you were to go into any carryout in the inner city, you wouldn't see any craft beer being sold there," says Harris. "It's not the demographic [craft brewers are] going after."

In addition, when craft breweries launch in poor neighborhoods, as they often do, other tensions can arise.

"Breweries, craft breweries in particular, are seen as a gentrifying force," says Jackson-Beckham.

Then there's a simple matter of taste. Like drinkers from any demographic, some black drinkers have a firm idea of what beer tastes like. Potter notes that he has friends who "just can't get into the taste of" craft beer. But craft beer advocates say that can change with exposure.

The barriers to becoming a brewer, however, are notably higher than those for drinkers. Affluent whites, for instance, are much more likely to have grown up with parents, cousins or friends who home-brewed. And even those who, like Potter, get into the hobby find that acquiring credit, capital and know-how can be difficult.

"That kind of entrepreneurship is definitely a place where women and people of color have had a harder time getting a foothold," says Alice Julier, director of food studies at Chatham University.

Craft beer advocates are well aware of these issues. In April, the Brewers Association, based in Colorado, hired Jackson-Beckham as its first "diversity ambassador." Jackson-Beckham, it should be noted, doesn't have a merely academic interest in beer: She is a prolific writer who gained prominence in the industry with her blog about these issues titled "The Unbearable Whiteness of Brewing"; she is also a home-brewer herself.

To many, Fresh Fest seems like a significant development.

"For there to be an all-black brewers' festival, it is just a huge milestone," says Black Frog's Harris, who will be offering his brews at the fest. "It would show a lot more people, you know, that there are people of color that [are] interested in craft beer."

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