Garrett Oliver had planned to spend the spring flying to Brazil, Sweden, Japan and three other countries for book promotions and beer events. But the coronavirus shutdown grounded Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York, and left him flush with free time.
He rebuilt the rooftop garden of his Brooklyn apartment, and as protests for racial justice filled the streets below, he thought hard about the industry he works in.
“I’ve been sitting in the brewmaster’s chair for more than 30 years, and I’ve never seen a single African American applicant for a brewing job,” said Oliver, 58, one of the few professional Black brewers in the country.
He found his next quarantine project: In July, he started the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, named after the influential British beer and whiskey writer, who died in 2007. A GoFundMe campaign has already raised more than $97,000 for brewing and distilling scholarships for Black, Indigenous and people of color working in the industry — attaching a “rocket booster to them,” Oliver said, by supplying technical education to help them advance professionally.
The beer business in America is overwhelmingly white. Although Black people are about 13% of the nation’s population, they comprise less than 1% of brewers, according to a survey by the Brewers Association, a trade group that represents more than 5,400 small, independent brewers in the United States.
But as voices rise in protest of racial inequality, the industry is taking some first steps to address those disparities, both the country’s and its own.
“We want to make the brewing industry represent the real world,” said Kevin Blodger, a founder of Union Craft Brewing, in Baltimore, and the chairman of the Brewers Association’s diversity committee. In 2018, the association hired its first diversity ambassador, Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, and last month it announced a new code of conduct for member breweries aimed at eliminating workplace harassment, bias and discrimination.
Like Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery, several companies are creating educational programs or apprenticeships to bring more Black people into brewing.
In June, Orpheus Brewing, in Atlanta, introduced its Leadership Diversity Program, a six-month paid internship, with health insurance, that provides a “full view of what it takes to run a brewery,” said Jason Pellett, its brewmaster and chief executive.
The first recipient is Jade Briggs, 31, who has worked at several Atlanta breweries. “I had such a limited vision of what I could be until I found beer,” said Briggs, who is Black.
Her ultimate goal is owning a brewery, helping to close a vast gap. Of the more than 8,000 breweries in the United States, only about 60 are Black-owned. One, Thunderhawk Alements, in San Diego, closed in June after a disagreement among its owners.
Fremont Brewing, in Seattle, plans early next year to offer a six- to eight-week internship, with a room-and-board stipend. “We can open doors and introduce people to opportunities,” said Matt Lincecum, a founder.
Constellation Brands, the importer of Corona and other beers, is trying to address the racial disparity with its Focus on Minority Founders program, announced in June. The company’s venture capital division will invest $100 million in Black- and minority-owned alcohol beverage businesses over the next decade.
“Unless we have more breweries, where are those brewers going to get a job?” asked Beny Ashburn, a founder of Crowns & Hops, a Black-owned beer brand that brews on other companies’ equipment. (It plans to open its own brick-and-mortar brewery in Inglewood, California, by 2022.)
In August, Crowns & Hops began the 8 Trill Pils initiative to provide money and support for Black-owned breweries and taprooms. The name of the development fund, which started with a $100,000 grant from BrewDog brewery, refers to a 2018 study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that said racial-equity efforts by American businesses could add $8 trillion to the nation’s economy by 2050.
“The more successful Black-owned breweries that there are out there in the country, the more we all stand to benefit economically,” said Teo Hunter, a founder of Crowns & Hops.
On Sept. 8, the brewery, with the support of BrewDog, will release its new 8 Trill Pils pilsner in the United States, Britain and Germany, and send all proceeds to organizations working for racial equity.
It’s part of a broader push in the industry to support nonprofit groups with the release of special beers. Marcus Baskerville, the head brewer and an owner of Weathered Souls Brewing, in San Antonio, built the Black Is Beautiful project around an imperial stout. Participating breweries will riff on his recipe, then donate all proceeds from sales of the beers to organizations supporting inclusion, equality, police reform and legal representation for those who have been wronged.
Baskerville had hoped that perhaps 200 breweries would join in; so far, more than 1,100 breweries in 50 states and 21 countries have committed.
“It’s grown exponentially,” Baskerville said. “Inequality and injustice aren’t going anywhere.”
Finback Brewery has created a double IPA called Breathing: Conversations, with discussions about race printed on the beer’s label in an effort to foster dialogue among drinkers. “It forces someone to be reflective about their perspective,” said Basil Lee, a founder of the brewery, in Queens and Brooklyn.
Finback released the inaugural can in early August, and about 50 breweries have signed on. Finback asks those brewers to follow its lead and donate proceeds to organizations, like the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, that advocate equality and racial justice.
“Hopefully the can art and the label become part of the conversation,” Lee said.
But putting well-intentioned messages on beer labels can backfire. In June, the Bronx Brewery announced a beer called Defund the Police, urging that “a significant portion” of police budgets be reallocated to support community programs. The move was cheered by many, but as with other calls across the country to defund police departments, angry messages deluged the brewery’s Instagram and Facebook pages.
“People couldn’t get past those three words,” said Damian Brown, the head brewer and a founder, then noted the other three words on the label: Fund the Bronx.
The backlash, and threats of violence, prompted the brewery to cancel the beer. “We missed the mark in terms of how to effectively engage people in conversation,” Brown said.
Dixie Beer, the 113-year-old brewery in New Orleans, announced in June that it would retire its name, which evokes the South of the Confederate era. “We don’t want to have a brand that anyone feels is against them,” said Jim Birch, the general manager.
He spent several weeks fielding calls from irate customers. “People were like, ‘Let me talk to someone who can make a decision,’” Birch said. “‘Well, you got him. Please unload.’”
The brewery did not back down, and will announce its new name in October. “We want to be around for the next 100 years making a product that everyone loves,” Birch said. “Beer is something that’s supposed to bring people together.”
There are no fast fixes for fostering inclusivity, checking a box and getting back to business as usual.
“It takes nothing to do a one-time act,” said Latiesha Cook, the chief executive of Beer Kulture, a newly organized nonprofit group in St. Petersburg, Florida, that brings people of color into the craft-beer world through charitable and educational efforts. Only 19% of Black beer drinkers drink craft beer, according to a 2018 report from Mintel, a market intelligence agency.
“Your brewery is not going to be diverse and inclusive tomorrow,” Cook said, “but the work you put in today is going to effect that change five years from now.”
Oliver, of Brooklyn Brewery, sees the Michael James Jackson Foundation, which has drawn support from breweries including Other Half and Burial Beer Co., as one step toward creating a mentorship network. “There’s no association of Black brewers,” Oliver said.
He said he did not view himself as a “savior of diversity in craft beer,” instead crediting others who have pushed for change. But, he added, he can help, and right now people are paying attention.