Diversity lagging in Pa. craft beer industry, Pittsburgh's Fresh Fest hopes to change that
Pittsburgh's Fresh Fest was co-founded by Beaver resident Day Bracey. The festival shines a spotlight on Black-owned breweries & the lack of diversity in the craft beer industry.
This is the first year Fresh Fest won’t sell out. And the first year it can’t.
It’s a bittersweet feeling, said Beaver resident Day Bracey, co-founder of Fresh Fest, the country’s first beer festival devoted to Black-owned breweries.
The third annual Fresh Fest takes place virtually this Saturday, with participation from nearly one-third of the nation’s Black-owned breweries, such as Four City Brewing in Essex, N.J., the nano-sized Black Horizon Brewing. Co. of suburban Chicago, and Harris Family Brewing, which operates out of a warehouse with plans to open a taproom in Harrisburg.
COVID-19 nixed what promised to be a lively gathering of several thousand craft beer enthusiasts in Pittsburgh’s predominantly Black and redeveloping neighborhood of Allentown.
Those who bought a $10 ticket now get streaming access to live music and painting, brewing and cooking demonstrations, as well as forums and podcasts celebrating the hoppy, malty goodness of craft beer.
Finishing in second place two straight years in a USA Today poll of best beer festivals, Fresh Fest’s mission remains the same: To spotlight and support Black culture and highlight the lack of diversity in the vastly white-owned craft beer industry.
Bracey, a beer columnist whose expertise has been tapped by news outlets like NPR, Vice and The Atlantic, has identified 65 Black-owned breweries in the U.S., many of which don’t have brick-and-mortar sites.
“There’s about 7,400 craft breweries in America. So, it’s still less than 1 percent that are Black-owned,” Bracey said.
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Indeed, a 2018 study by the Brewers Association confirmed Black people make up only 1 percent of craft brewery owners.
Bracey blames that low number on systemic racism.
“It’s the same reason why most industries are ridiculously low when it comes to Black ownership. Or women ownership. Any kind of ownership that isn’t straight white male,” Bracey said. “You look at the fact we are the most disenfranchised group in America. You look at the fact banks are still red-lining. It’s hard to get property, it’s hard to get loans. There’s racism in the supply chains at times. A lot of the industry is kind of a hey-I’ll-float-you-these-supplies, you make your beer, you come back and pay me and we keep this thing going. It’s kind of a loose line of credit they have, where it’s not as prevalent and available to Black breweries.”
It’s about so much more than beer
The 2020 Economic State of Black America report shines a light on factors that make entering the industry so challenging for Black entrepreneurs: Put together by Congress' Joint Economic Committee, it states Black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers, and Black Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty.
The median net worth of white families is $171,000, nearly 10 times the median net worth of Black families, which was only $17,150 in 2016. The median Black net worth is less than one year’s subsistence at the federal poverty level for a family of three.
Most small-batch brewers begin their craft as a free time luxury, something not readily accessible to those in under-developed Black neighborhoods.
“So, if we want to experience it, we have to leave our neighborhoods, which can mean death or harm,” Bracey said.
“Just like white folks might drive through (historically Black) Braddock and roll their windows up because they’re afraid, it’s the same thing with Black folks,” Bracey said. “When we drive through white neighborhoods, we have to make sure everything is on point or else a minor traffic stop can mean the end of our lives. So, there’s danger in that. And when you do open up a brewery in our neighborhoods, it’s typically white-owned and that means gentrification is soon coming. So, while we may be there now, we won’t be there in a couple of years.”
Cleat Collins, retired as a schoolteacher, said he’s one of the few people of color when he enjoys a sociable beer or two at the Blank Monk Brewery on West 12th Street in Erie.
“At the Black Monk, it’s 97 to 3 percent. Sincerely, this is how bad it is,” Collins said. “I can sit here and name the four other (Black) guys who are in there.”
Collins, who prefers Belgian beer, typically ales known for their fruity yeast flavors, said a passion for craft beer is shared by few in the Black community in Erie or most other places.
“Diversity in brewing is currently not a thing,” said Jeff McCullor co-owner of Erie Ale Works, located a few blocks from the Black Monk.
“Mostly, it’s white guys everywhere,” he said. “Craft beer doesn’t seem to include those people who are diverse, Blacks, woman or otherwise.”
McCullor, of Erie Ale Works, said he and his partner, Steve Anthony, would like to take at least a small step toward changing the status quo when they hire a part-time bartender sometime soon.
“It’s going to be white dudes submitting applications,” he said. “I have seen enough white people. I would love to have a Black female working at our place.”
McCullor also looks forward to the day when his customer base is more reflective of the overall population.
“I really want to see the industry change,” McCullor said.
That’s likely to take time, business partner Collins said.
“I look at it as a matter of taste,” said Collins, who explains most beer drinkers in the Black community have a preference for what he calls CMB, short for Coors, Miller, Budweiser.
“I believe the reason for a lot of people not coming into craft brewing is that they never tried it, no one introduced them,” Collins said. “You have to bring people in slowly. To bring people (directly) to the beer I’m drinking now would be harsh for them. They are used to the world of CMB, which has no taste at all.”
The absence of a minority fan base for craft beer means there is a corresponding lack of minorities who aspire to own breweries of their own.
It would be unusual, Collins said, for a casual beer drinker to jump feet-first into the business of running a commercial brewery.
‘We are still in the throes of the civil rights movement’
J. Jackson-Beckham aims to bring more inclusion as the founder of Crafted For All and the Brewers Association’s first diversity ambassador. Last year she launched the non-profit Craft x EDU, which works for equity, inclusion and justice in the industry and offers scholarships and professional development grants.
For a sense of how we got here, Jackson-Beckham said look to the origins of the craft beer industry as the groundwork was being laid by California companies including Anchor Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing. It was a climate that saw the retrofitting and engineering of equipment because, as Jackson-Beckham explained, at the time “brewing equipment for the craft scale didn’t exist,” and required start-up capital.
The issue of representation and equality in the craft beer world is about more than beer – it’s about the American experience itself.
“The craft brewing industry does not exist in a vacuum,” said Jackson-Beckham. The industry is “part of the broader cultural and economic climate of the United States, and so if it has disparities, it’s reflecting disparities that are part of the greater culture. So, I think to some degree this isn’t about something special happening in craft beer, this is simply a place where we’re seeing some of the broader dynamics of the U.S. play out.
“We are still very much in the throes of the civil rights movement, people of color are not getting a bank loan in 1970 to start an unproven business model, red-lining is still happening,” she said. “So early adoption would have been nearly impossible, simply just given the kind of political and economic climate in the U.S.
“And I think the popularity of craft beer and the barriers to entry in terms of entrepreneurship and the places craft beer takes hold, if you look at their kind of demographic make-up what you have is, I think, just a kind of perfect storm if that makes sense for a kind of cultural disparity that’s going to persist.”
In addition to the efforts of Crafted for All, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, recently announced plans to launch the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilled, named after the late pioneering English beer and whiskey writer, not the late pop music icon. The fund will provide scholarships for Black, indigenous and people of color in the brewing and distilling industries.
Better listening, richer engagement
And then there’s the issue of what sorts of alcoholic products were marketed to specific demographics.
“In some regards, there’s also a bit of a history of beer as a specific kind of product in a lot of communities,” Jackson-Beckham said. “You also have, during the 1970s and 1980s, macrobrew companies very, very aggressively advertising and targeting malt liquor in 40-ounce bottles to urban populations. So, it’s not like there is no beer drinking happening; there’s just a large disconnect between certain populations.
Fresh Fest’s Bracey agrees that it’s a mistake the craft beer industry makes telling Black people what they should drink, rather than listening to what they want first, and showing them where opportunity is available.
“That’s how you get people to drink craft beer. You don’t just go into the neighborhood and say, ’Hey, can you drink my beer, because it’s better than the other guys?’ You say, ’Hey, do you want a job? Because we’ve got plenty of opportunity,’” Bracey said. “Because that’s how they got white people to drink craft beer.
“White people like the sense of community,’’ Bracey continues. “They know the brewer. They know that this money is going to stay locally. That brewer is going to support their softball team. Budweiser isn’t going to support your softball team. But ShuBrew (in Zelienople) might.
“In America, typically, when we pedal a product to the Black community, we just want the black dollars. We don’t want to actually give them jobs and opportunities,” Bracey said. “And with most industries, once we cannibalize the white dollars, they start seeking the women, the LGBT community and Black folks. And typically, it’s predatory. It has been for decades and centuries.”
Seeing the craft beer industry hitting that plateau, Fresh Fest advocates for the Black community.
“We’re saying, ’Hey, we know you’re looking for our dollars, but we’re not going to do it that way.’ We’re going to take the lessons that we’ve learned, find alliances, build our own tables and collaborate from there,” Bracey said. “Not, ’Hey, can you build a seat at your table?’’ We’re going to build our table and we’re going to collaborate equally.”
By going digital, Fresh Fest hopes to expand its reach. A certain upside was the creation of the Fresh Fest app that gives info on the 65 Black-owned breweries coast-to-coast. So if you’re traveling, you can pull out your phone, and with a few clicks learn if there are any Black-run breweries nearby.
“This app is going to be something that can connect the community in-between festivals, throughout the year, as events pop up, like speakers, collabs and various community-focused things that are happening,” Bracey said.
(Neil Strebig, Micaela Hood, Jim Martin, Rebecca King and Alex Biese all of the Gannett/USA Today network contributed to this story.)