The nation's first Black beer fest split in two amid lawsuits. It's coming back bigger.
After trademark issues, a worldwide pandemic and a contentious legal divorce between its founders, the nation’s first Black beer festival has split in two.
The founders of Pittsburgh’s 3-year-old Fresh Fest will instead run separate festivals devoted to Black-made beer. A rebranded festival, Barrel & Flow Fest, will continue in Pittsburgh in September. In October, Blacktoberfest will arrive in North Carolina, Los Angeles and South Africa.
The two festivals will continue a fast-growing legacy. Fresh Fest had became something rare in an increasingly saturated craft beer world: an immediate cultural phenomenon.
In 2018, co-founders Mike Potter, Lamar “Day” Bracey and Ed Bailey touted Fresh Fest as the country’s first and only festival devoted to Black-owned and Black-brewed beer, a watershed event in a craft beer industry not known for its diversity. Nearly 90% of craft brewers and owners are white, and fewer than 1% of brewers are Black, according to a 2019 report from the Brewers Association.
Many Black-led breweries that do exist are small and undercapitalized, said Bracey, and wouldn’t otherwise be able to ship beer to Pennsylvania in the quantities needed for a festival. Instead, Fresh Fest’s organizers had to cobble together a makeshift distribution system, putting together a series of collaborations between Black-owned breweries and established beermakers that include Trillium in Massachusetts and Other Half in New York.
Amid a tidal wave of national media notice, Fresh Fest quickly became one of the most well-known festivals in craft beer.
By its second year in 2019, the festival attracted 3,000 beer fans from all over the country; some traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to attend. It was voted the nation’s second-favorite beer fest two years running in an online poll by USA Today.
Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, one of the earliest Black brewers in America to gain international prominence and editor of the Oxford Companion to Beer, said he’d never seen a festival like it.
“It was the most diverse craft beer festival I’d ever seen. It was 30% of everybody else, but to see a crowd that was every bit as enthusiastic about craft beer as crowds at other beer festivals, but 70% or so African American,” Oliver said. “People were speaking to each other like family. People were bursting spontaneously into tears.”
The event included symposia on Black beer, live music by Black artists and dozens of Black-made beers that included a zesty wheat beer brewed in collaboration with Chardaé Jones, the mayor of majority-Black borough Braddock, Pennsylvania. The previous year included a hibiscus beer made with mayor Marita Garrett of Wilkinsburg.
"We figure that may be the first mayor-brewed beer in the country,” said Bracey.
A messy divorce
But last year’s virtual-only Fresh Fest will be the final beer fest under that name. The breakup of the festival came amid a slow-brewing dispute between two of its founders, which first became public in dueling social media posts last June.
Bracey took full ownership of the Pittsburgh festival last year in a buyout agreement with Potter. In April and October 2020, Bracey filed lawsuits against Potter in Allegheny County Court.
In legal filings, Bracey and Potter made claims and counterclaims over breach of contract and the disposition of tens of thousands of dollars in ticket revenues. Each claimed that the other had not fully disclosed festival finances.
Potter did not respond to inquiries, but told blog Good Beer Hunting last year that “it’s unfortunate that Mr. Bracey has placed himself in such a polarizing position” and that he would allow the courts to rule.
Bracey said he no longer expects the lawsuits to reach a conclusion. Though the October suit is still active, he said he’s eager to move forward with his new festival and put legal disputes aside.
In September, Bracey will continue the Fresh Fest tradition in Pittsburgh with a rebranded festival called Barrel & Flow. The festival will feature more than 50 beers, wines and ciders made by Black-led breweries or in collaboration with Black cultural figures that include hip hop artists Run the Jewels. Funk band Ghost-Note will both play at the festival and help brew a beer.
The rebranding was a necessity, Bracey said. Though Fresh Fest was named after a seminal 1984 hip-hop tour, a trademark search revealed that hip-hop producer Sean “Diddy” Combs owned the rights to that name.
“We decided to nip that in the bud,” Bracey said, adding that Combs had not asked them to stop using the Fresh Fest name. “Barrel & Flow” better reflects the festival’s mix of art, culture and brewing, he said.
During multiple weekends in October, Potter is promoting a festival called Blacktoberfest in three cities: Los Angeles; Durham, North Carolina; and Soweto, South Africa.
The festival, first held last year in a North Carolina parking lot during pandemic restrictions, promises a Märzen-style Blacktoberfest ale, as well as offerings from 17 Black-led breweries and distilleries.
“We invite you to join us for a month-long showcase of in-person craft beer, culinary and educational events throughout the month of October,” read the festival’s marketing materials. “One that's guaranteed to be the dopest, most impactful Black craft beer festival the country has seen to date.”
Creating diversity in beer
Whatever the differences among their founders, both festivals share the same stated goals: full participation among a diverse array of beer fans and brewers, in an industry that has long been dominated by the stereotype of bearded white men.
As the beer market becomes more competitive, craft brewers are also looking to sell beer to a broader customer demographic, Bracey said.
“There’s only so much beer that you can sell to bearded white men. We get that they’re coming after Black dollars," Bracey said.
What's important, he said, is to make sure the relationship is symbiotic, in contrast to the marketing of Colt 45 or St. Ides malt liquors to the Black consumer in previous decades.
"The purpose of these collaborations is to bring people from the industry and the Black community together in a beneficial way, a non-predatory way," he said. "You know, the brewing industry dropped malt liquor into the neighborhoods and said, ‘Peace!’ They offered Snoop and Billy Dee (Williams) some money, but the rest of us were out of luck.”
The founders of Blacktoberfest and Barrel & Flow stress circular economics, the idea that money coming from a community should also be shared by that community, not just extracted from it.
Bracey said at least two major craft beer companies who’d been accused of racism in their taprooms reached out asking to be included in Fresh Fest. He turned them down, he said. Meanwhile, he worked with local breweries such as Pittsburgh’s Trace Brewing to help increase diversity.
“Looking at Trace, it’s one the most diverse taprooms I’ve been in across the country,” Bracey said. “And that's crazy to say in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is one of the whitest cities in America.”
Bracey also called on logistics skills he learned while contracting with the military to help set up an alternate supply chain during the pandemic, connecting smaller brewers with a malt company that allows minority-owned breweries to delay payment for grains until after they’ve sold the beer.
“Isn’t that weird? It’s not what I set out to do,” he said, “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Here, let me help set up a supply chain for Black beer.’”
Fresh Fest has had another, perhaps unintended effect. It helped inspire Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver to set up a fellowship for aspiring brewers of color.
Oliver had initially been skeptical of the idea of a Black beer festival..
“I came up in the '60s and '70s,” he said. “And to me, this sounded like separate but equal, which is exactly what we didn't want. What I grew up with was, ‘We come to your thing, and make it our thing.’”
But when he arrived at Fresh Fest in 2019, he didn’t just see a Black beer fest. It was instead the first beer fest he’d attended that “looked like America.” He saw women, men, trans, gay, straight and people of every color.
“I came to realize, especially after Fresh Fest, that what I thought was going to be kind of a semi-weird, segregated-feeling beer festival was, in fact, the most inclusive beer festival I’d ever seen,” he said.
It caused him to wonder: Why, after 30 years in the brewing industry, had he never gotten a single brewing application from a Black American?
“I started to change my perspective on whose fault it might be that African Americans and other people of color were not showing up,” he said. His brewery required two or three years of experience, a high bar for people of color who might not have easy connections to the brewing industry or the money to pay for expensive schooling.
With seed money from Brooklyn Brewery and a host of breweries and distilleries across the country, Oliver founded a brewing scholarship program last year called the Michael James Jackson Foundation, named after the influential British beer writer Oliver said had been a force against racism in the beer industry.
In March, the Foundation announced its inaugural class of five aspiring makers of alcohol, who received scholarships to attend brewing and distilling programs. Oliver said some of the foundation's work involves no money: It’s just a matter of offering introductions to breweries that are already eager to hire more people of color.
"Sometimes that's all it takes," he said. "And it takes like 10 minutes. But it has to actually happen."
Go: Barrel & Flow Fest takes place at Southside Works, 424 S 27th St., Pittsburgh. 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (3 p.m. early admission) Saturday, Sept. 11. Tickets are $50-$75. $200 VIP tickets include Friday conference and beer share, and brewer's brunch on Sunday. Visit barrelandflow.com.
Go: Blacktoberfest takes place on multiple dates in October in Los Angeles; Durham, North Carolina; and Soweto, South Africa. Tickets for the two American festivals are $75-$85 ($200 VIP). Visit blacktober-fest.com.
Matthew Korfhage is a food and culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: email@example.com | Twitter: @matthewkorfhage. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.