Industry Issues

The Quest to Diversify the Craft Beer World

A new generation of craft beer professionals is working to broaden the industry’s overwhelmingly white workforce and consumer base

From left to right: Roger Apollon Jr., photo courtesy of Four City Brewing; J Jackson-Beckham, Ph.D, photo courtesy of Crafted for All; Eugenia Brown, Black Beer Chick; Latiesha Cook, photo courtesy of Beer Kulture

Not long after worldwide protests for racial justice began in May, first-generation Haitian-American Quentin Deveraine, a brewer and beertender at New Jersey’s Backward Flag Brewing, asked owner Torie Fisher if she knew of any Black brewery employees in the state, other than himself. Apologetic about saying no, Fisher queried a local beer journalist, who then asked two prominent local beer bloggers. They all returned the same answer: Not one.  

“It sucks to say, but I’m used to not seeing any other people of color at beer events and breweries,” says Deveraine. “They don’t really know about craft beer.” 

Though the number of Black craft brewery employees, owners, and imbibers has climbed since acclaimed brewmaster Garrett Oliver took the helm at Brooklyn Brewery in 1994, the Brewers Association (BA) trade group puts Black brewery ownership at one percent of the nation’s more than 8,000 breweries. Only 10 percent of brewers and 15 percent of craft beer drinkers are non-white, the BA reports

Without a diverse consumer base, it is challenging to attract a diverse craft beer workforce, and vice versa. Yet a growing group of BIPOC craft beer professionals are working to change the face of craft beer—those who make it, sell it, and drink it—and want to show other craft breweries how they can do the same.

The New Spotlight on Diversity

Over the past few years, the craft beer community has finally started paying more attention to its lack of diversity. At the same time, Black beer enthusiasts are raising their visibility.

Marcus Baskerville, the owner of Weathered Souls Brewing in San Antonio, launched an extremely successful—and much celebrated—global collaborative beer project, Black Is Beautiful. Participating breweries used a shared recipe to brew their own version of Black is Beautiful and donated proceeds to local social justice causes. Virtual conferences and webinars—like the Beer Culture Summit hosted by the Chicago Brewseum, and those hosted by the North American Guild of Beer Writers—are increasingly attracting BIPOC individuals to discuss topics of inclusion. Some beer publications, like Good Beer Hunting, which ran a three-part series on race and ethnicity in craft beer in August 2020, are intentionally publishing more BIPOC writers than ever before. 

Fresh Fest, launched in Pittsburgh in 2018 as the world’s first beer festival to spotlight brewers and drinkers of color, is credited as helping to foster the beginnings of a connected Black beer community. Fresh Fest more than doubled its ticket sales from 2018 to 2019 and sold 1,000 tickets for its first digital edition in the summer of 2020.

Fresh Fest producer Day Bracey says the series has pulled the blinders off the industry’s eyes and compelled some individuals to call for more BIPOC people in all corners. 

“No longer can breweries say, ‘I didn’t notice my staff and supply chain was all white,’” he says. “It’s dope. But there’s still work to be done.”

J Jackson-Beckham, Ph.D, principal of Crafted for All and equity and inclusion partner for the Brewers Association. Photo courtesy Crafted for All.

Despite the progress, some argue the BA is not setting a strong enough example. Critics fault BA president and CEO Bob Pease for only inviting BIPOC professionals to speak at events on topics of race and ethnicity. (Though these accusations were directed at Pease personally, the BA notes that all speakers are vetted and reviewed by a committee of industry members.)

In the fall of 2020, a contingent of stakeholders on social and traditional media directed ire at the BA for failing to release funds to named recipients of the organization’s annual Diversity and Inclusion event grants, which were announced in March 2020. Danii Oliver, who won a 2020 event grant for the Beersgiving event series, says she still hasn’t gotten her prize money or a firm timeline for distribution.

BA marketing director Ann Obenchain responds that recipients have been notified the 2020 grants were rescinded for lack of funds—the BA had to cancel most of its revenue-generating events due to COVID—but that they’ll get preference for an award if they hold events in 2021. In December, the BA’s board hired its diversity ambassador, J Jackson-Beckham, Ph.D, to a full-time equity and inclusion partner position to manage the BA’s existing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee and a newly-established Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department.

What Real Change Requires

Refusing to wait for the world to change around them, BIPOC brewery owners are working to bring new meanings to the notion of beer culture. For instance, Teo Hunter and Beny Ashburn—the Black partners behind the Inglewood, California-based Crowns & Hops—have made national names for themselves as contract brewers and expert speakers advising on how to bridge the beer diversity gap before they even have their own brick-and-mortar space.

North Carolina’s Morgan Owle-Crisp, the owner of Seven Clans Brewing, names her beers after people and stories important to her Cherokee community, such as Bended Tree Chestnut Brown Ale, a nod to the belief that bent trees on Cherokee lands are navigational markers. San Diego’s Mexican-American-owned Border X Brewing has teamed up with Mujeres Brew Club, an educational group for beer-loving women, to establish Mujeres Brew House, a non-profit commercial brewery and taproom that women own and operate, training others to do the same. 

But even as an owner of color, it can take effort to overcome barriers to achieving a diverse workforce. There simply is not a large pool of BIPOC applicants likely to see a job posting on the usual beer job boards, so savvy brewery owners know they have to actively seek out diverse staff members.

As a partner in one of just three Black-owned breweries in New Jersey, Four City Brewing cofounder Roger Apollon Jr. relies on his long list of friends, relatives, friends of friends, and colleagues who follow him on social media to share the word when he posts a job opening at his brewery in The Oranges. It’s worked: an impressive number of Black, Latino, and transgender beertenders currently work behind his bar. 

The four diverse owners of Hackensack Brewing in Hackensack, New Jersey marketed their brewery by outfitting their most sociable friends with brewery-branded T-shirts and instructing them to wear them out to crowded bars on St. Patrick’s Day a full two years before they opened. Now, co-owner Mike Jones says all it takes is word of mouth for a diverse range of applicants to appear for a position, and it has resulted in a more diverse customer base as well. 

For Burkina Faso immigrant Leo Sawadogo, the co-owner of Montclair Brewery,  recruiting more African brewery employees is personal. “To be alone, it’s like being the lonely child,” he says. “I want to be able to sit down and talk to someone who can relate to my brewing.”

Montclair Brewery, which is New Jersey’s first Black-owned brewery, has begun training a new generation of Black brewery employees by partnering with DIFFvelopment, a local program that teaches entrepreneurship to Black students.

Latiesha Cook revamped and relaunched the Beer Kulture foundation in 2019 to offer scholarships for professionals seeking the Cicerone certification. Photo courtesy of Beer Kulture.

Suburban Philadelphia’s Tired Hands Brewing, owned by white married couple Julie Foster and Jean Brouillet, has also worked to overcome recruitment challenges. “We believe this might be in part because the pool of diverse candidates with brewing experience is already narrowed by the many societal factors that result in limited opportunities for women and people of color in the brewing profession,” says Foster. 

To counter this, Tired Hands offers an in-house paid internship program for historically marginalized groups. The internship brings graduates of brewing degree or certificate programs onto the production floor to further train and channel them into jobs, either at Tired Hands or elsewhere. Since 2017, they’ve hosted two interns, both women; one went on to work at a brewery in New Jersey and the other got what Foster says is her dream job at a lab.

Removing Financial Barriers

Money and access are roadblocks to entry, so some brewers are finding ways to funnel more BIPOC talent into education. Last year, Brooklyn Brewery’s Oliver announced the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling to award scholarships to BIPOC applicants to attend technical education programs. 

The Beer Kulture foundation, revamped and relaunched in 2019 by Latiesha Cook, offers scholarships and financial assistance for aspiring professionals seeking the prestigious Cicerone certification. Cook added a job board on her website to form a “bridge between our backyard community members and the craft beverage community. No more separation.”

Eugenia Brown, a North Carolina beertender who goes by the Instagram moniker Black Beer Chick, has solicited money on her website since 2020 to pay for primarily BIPOC women to take the Cicerone Certified Beer Server exam. Almost immediately after launching her program, Brown had exceeded her original goal of 50 scholarships, a number that doubled when the Cicerone organization matched her contributions to create 50 more. 

“If I can help Black and brown people to level up, maybe breweries will give them jobs,” she says.

Brown is also fundraising for memberships to the international Pink Boots Society, a non-profit that formerly only supported women in the beer industry but has recently opened up to women in all beverage alcohol. “The change to be more inclusive in our membership will most likely increase racial diversity in the organization,” says Laura Ulrich, president of Pink Boots Society until December 2020, “even if the rest of the alcohol industry does not follow.”

Attracting a Diverse Consumer Base

Four City’s Apollon says the white craft beer world alienates Black consumers in subtle ways that signal they’re not welcome. Black beer lovers, he says, frequently report receiving discomfiting looks from white patrons or having employees assume they don’t know anything about craft beer when they visit a brewery or beer bar. 

“If there are no Black people in craft beer, craft beer is not going to attract Black people,” he says. “I’m tired of being the only one who looks like me.”  

Breweries can start with steps like expressing support for Black Lives Matter through social media and creating marketing materials that include people of diverse backgrounds. But the mere act of opening a brewery in a diverse district, like Apollon has, won’t necessarily translate to a more diverse consumer base or diverse set of job applicants. Lynne Weaver, who opened Three Weavers Brewing in the Inglewood section of Los Angeles County in 2014, says it takes a willingness to check one’s bias at the door. 

Weaver, an Asian-American brewery owner, learned this first-hand when she initially balked at setting up shop in the district she associated with the Rodney King race riots of the 1990s. Even though Weaver’s own family has suffered from oppression—the U.S. government interned her father along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans during WWII—the suburban L.A. native eventually realized she was unfairly holding onto fears from 20 to 25 years prior. 

“I am playing into this prejudice against this city without ever stepping a foot into it,” says Weaver. “I am part of this systemic racism problem. How do I change it?”

Weaver feels she’s successfully ingratiated her business with Inglewood residents, partially through becoming a visible face in local politics as an advocate for the municipality, and partially by actively contributing beer, sponsorship, and space in the tasting room to surrounding charities. 

This kind of growth mindset, coupled with active listening to the community, can make or break a connection, says Dr. Jackson-Beckham, who is also the principal of craft beverage equity and inclusion consultancy firm Crafted for All. “Diversity is saying, ‘You are welcome here.’ Inclusion is saying, ‘I made this space for you,’” she explains. 

Prior to joining Backward Flag, when a fellow veteran and employee of the craft brewery invited Deveraine to visit and took the time to explain the beers and the process of making them, Deveraine immediately felt welcome. He has now worked as a brewer and beertender at Backward Flag for two years, and he wishes he has more local Black friends to introduce to craft beer. More brewers of African descent, he hopes, mean more beers with global flavors.  

“There are tons of flavors I’ve grown up with that would be great in beer,” says Deveraine. “The more people of color we could have making it and serving it, the more people we’d have drinking it.”

Tara Nurin is the beer and spirits contributor to Forbes, the drinks columnist for New Jersey Monthly, a cohost of the What’s on Tap TV show, and a writer for publications like Food & WineWine Enthusiast, Vice Munchies, and VinePair. She is a BJCP-certified judge, teaches a for-credit university beer class, and leads beer seminars for institutions like the Smithsonian. The Camden, New Jersey, homeowner has won two first-place awards from the North American Guild of Beer Writers, founded the state’s first beer education group for women, and volunteers as the archivist for the Pink Boots Society.

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