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Brewing in America: The nation's craft beer industry has a diversity problem but it's trying to fix it

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/12/2020 Will Cleveland and Mike Snider, USA TODAY NETWORK
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A movement is brewing across the U.S. to boost the number of Black-owned breweries and attract more persons of color to beer, an industry that had been booming before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.

The craft beer world is dominated by white people, especially when it comes to brewery ownership. But the nationwide dialogue around police brutality and institutional racism is percolating through the craft beer industry, too.

The most recent review of the craft beer industry, a 2018 study by the Brewers Association, found that Black people make up about 1.8% of all brewery positions, ranging from 0.4% of production staff, such as managers, to 4.7% of now-brewing production staff.

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Just 1% of craft brewery owners were Black, the survey found. There about 60 Black-owned craft breweries out of more than 8,000 craft breweries in the U.S.

By comparison, that survey found that the population around breweries was about 12.2% Black. The U.S. Census lists Black people as accounting for 13.4% of the population.

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Breweries across the country have been increasingly stepping up to remove barriers in tasting rooms and beyond. This summer, more than 1,000 breweries from all 50 states and 20 different countries answered the call from San Antonio's Weathered Souls Brewing to collaborate on the Black is Beautiful beer project.

The project seeks to raise awareness about injustice and raise funds for organizations working for equality and standing up against police brutality.

“Initiatives like ‘Black is Beautiful’ have helped drive awareness to problems that plague the Black community," says Beny Ashburn, co-founder of Crowns & Hops, a Black-owned brewery scheduled to open later this year in Inglewood, California. "We want to build on that momentum and drive the conversation forward, specifically regarding racial equity."

This week, Ashburn and brewery co-founder Teo Hunter announced the 8 Trill Pils Initiative, a $100,000 development fund to help establish more Black-owned breweries. "The craft beer industry is a prime example of racial disparity in our country – Black people are vastly underrepresented in the business of brewing, creating a significant, untapped economic opportunity,” said Hunter, in a statement announcing the fund.

a close up of a bottle and a glass of wine: Black Is Beautiful Imperial Stout at Mortalis Brewing Company in Avon, NY, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. The brewery made 1,300 bottles of the beer that will be released later this week. © Shawn Dowd/Democrat and Chronicle Black Is Beautiful Imperial Stout at Mortalis Brewing Company in Avon, NY, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. The brewery made 1,300 bottles of the beer that will be released later this week.

The initiative gets its name from the Business Case for Racial Equity case study produced in 2018 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that suggests the U.S. could gain $8 trillion in GDP by closing the racial equity gap by 2050. That means addressing systemic racism in workplaces, health, education and incarceration, the study found.

Craft beer's disparity comes from inherent reasons, says Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, who recently announced plans to launch the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, 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.

Oliver noted Friday during a Facebook Live chat with Rebecca King, food and dining reporter for NorthJersey.com and The Bergen (N.J.) Record of the USA TODAY Network, that in 30 years as a brewmaster he had not had a single African American applicant for a brewing position.

"Technical brewing education is very expensive and people tend to know who they know and hire who they know," Oliver said. "So we as a society we tend to live more apart from each other than we think. As a result of this, people are either not exposed to craft beer or when they show up craft beer doesn't look welcoming."

These efforts currently ramping up seek to make the beer industry more inclusive, both for potential brewery owners and employees – and also for prospective customers. "What is sustainable that doesn’t have diversity?" said Latiesha Cook, who with husband Dom founded the nonprofit organization Beer Kulture in 2017 to promote inclusivity

"Simply put, we are much better when we are diverse and inclusive," Cook wrote in an email. "It opens up the talent pool, provides us all with new ways of thinking, increases our chances for success monetarily and spiritually and, let’s face it, provides a wide array of opportunities for more flavorful and delicious beer!" 

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What drives the disparity?

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 J. Jackson-Beckham, founder and inclusion and equity strategist of consultancy Crafted for All, offering consultation and training to members of the craft beverage industry.

a person sitting at a table: “The craft brewing industry does not exist in a vacuum,” said J. Jackson-Beckham, founder and inclusion and equity strategist of consultancy Crafted For All. © Courtesy of Crafted For All “The craft brewing industry does not exist in a vacuum,” said J. Jackson-Beckham, founder and inclusion and equity strategist of consultancy Crafted For All.

The industry, Jackson-Beckham said, 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.”

Mountains of statistics back her up.

The 2020 Economic State of Black America report, put together by Congress's Joint Economic Committee, states Black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Black Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white Americans.

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 net worth of Black households is less than one year’s subsistence at the federal poverty level for a family of three.

Jackson-Beckham launched Craft Beer For All, now known as Crafted For All, in 2018, the same year she was named the Brewers Association’s first diversity ambassador. Last year she launched the nonprofit Craft x EDU, which works for equity, inclusion and justice in the industry and offers scholarships and professional development grants.

How did we get here?

Jackson-Beckham said to look to the origins of the craft beer industry in California companies including Anchor Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. 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 that process required startup capital.

“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, redlining 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.”

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.

“And I think the popularity of craft beer and the barriers to entry in terms of entrepreneurship and the places craft beer takes hold ... 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.”

One element she said she doesn’t focus on is price point. “We’ve seen, particularly when you look at spirits, that people will pay for what they want,” she said. “So there’s a little bit of a mythology that people of color are out-priced out of craft beer, but if you look at more broad consumption patterns, I think that doesn’t really hold water.”

There are four barriers to greater diversity in the craft beer world that are context-specific – resource, cultural, geographic and social – meaning there are no quick fixes, Jackson-Beckham said.

Haley Balcomb fills cases with 1,300 bottles of Black Is Beautiful Imperial Stout as the beer is bottled at Mortalis Brewing Company in Avon, N.Y. on Aug. 4, 2020. © Shawn Dowd/Democrat and Chronicle Haley Balcomb fills cases with 1,300 bottles of Black Is Beautiful Imperial Stout as the beer is bottled at Mortalis Brewing Company in Avon, N.Y. on Aug. 4, 2020.

“I encourage people to look really closely at what’s happening in their location, in their region, in their cities or their neighborhood,” she said. “Start talking to people and get a sense of what those unique barriers may be. And then rather than trying to kind of bait people into your brewery by like, I don’t know, having a hip-hop night that nobody cares about, just focus on removing the barriers.”

Most small-batch brewers begin their craft as a free time luxury, something not readily accessible to those in underdeveloped Black neighborhoods.

“So, if we want to experience it, we have to leave our neighborhoods, which can mean death or harm,” said Day Bracey, co-founder of Fresh Fest, the country’s first beer festival devoted to Black-owned breweries, held in Pittsburgh.

“Just like white folks might drive through (historically Black Pittsburgh suburb) 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.”

Encouraging inclusivity 

This year, the Fresh Fest, founded in 2018 and being held all day Saturday, will be online only (at FreshFestDigifest.com; $10), with hours of speakers, music and demonstrations. Eight special beers were made by collaborating Black-owned breweries and they can be ordered through online beer delivery service Tavour.

"We brought in a lot of people from the black community, listened to what they like to drink, crafted beers behind that, and been able to make inroads into folks saying you know what maybe I do like craft beer," Bracey said on the recent Facebook chat. "Maybe there is some opportunity in this industry because even if I am not brewing, maybe I could do any of the multitude of other things that happen around the brewery."

Four City Brewing Company in Orange, New Jersey, collaborated with Zelienople, Pennsylvania's ShuBrew to create an Oreo cookie stout beer for Fresh Fest beer, made with Haitian Blue Mountain coffee from local, Black-owned New Jersey coffee roasters. 

Roger Apollon Jr., one of the Four City Brewing's owners, says the Fresh Fest helps local economies but also involves people from different backgrounds as way to create more connections and stronger communities.

The Fresh Fest smartphone app has details 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.

When they founded Beer Kulture in the Bronx in 2017, Dom and Latiesha Cook began spreading the craft beer gospel by simply buying beer and then giving it to Black people they encountered in the streets. They expanded their outreach through events, publishing a book that introduced historic beer styles, and then through partnering with breweries to raise money for different neighborhood organizations. 

"When you talk about reaching new fans, we were doing it," Latiesha Cook said. "Literally, converting people who have never even heard of craft beer to be craft beer lovers." 

Addressing the credit gap

Sofia Barbaresco, who chairs the New York State Brewers Association's inclusivity committee, worked in the beer industry for eight years before joining the association's board.

She agrees with Jackson-Beckham that the lack of diversity in beer is "a systemic problem" that isn't limited to just the beer industry.

"Throughout history, there has been discriminatory legislation that has impeded female and minority ownership and created a wealth, credit and trust gap that will be difficult to overcome," she wrote in an email.

“It boils down to funding,” Apollon said. “Black people in many areas aren’t as economically successful as the white majority.”

According to a 2020 Federal Reserve Bank report, small Black-owned businesses like craft breweries are much more likely to struggle financially than white-owned businesses.

a person cutting food on a table: Roger Apollon Jr. of West Orange, co-owner of Four City Brewing, labels and packages cans of beer at Four City Brewing in Orange, N.J. on July 21, 2020. © Tanya Breen Roger Apollon Jr. of West Orange, co-owner of Four City Brewing, labels and packages cans of beer at Four City Brewing in Orange, N.J. on July 21, 2020.

Black business owners apply for credit 10% more often than white business owners, but their approval rate is 19% lower, the report stated.

While many of the barriers are economic, there are many cultural hurdles, as well, Barbaresco says.

"It can cost millions of dollars in capital investment for build out, along with being a highly regulated industry that often faces scrutiny from local officials and requires a deep and nuanced understanding of local, state and federal ordinances," Barbaresco said. "It’s simply not an easy industry to break in to. There is a reason that there is a saying, 'Want to make a million dollars in craft beer? Start with two million.'"

A major way to alleviate many of those cultural barriers to entry is to create spaces that all people feel comfortable in, she said. Barbaresco cites her own story in the beer industry. She started working in a brewery taproom and discovered a sense of community. 

"But how is that community being cultivated? Breweries often don’t have advertising budgets, or even dedicated staff to develop outreach strategies," Barbaresco said.

Yet, Barbaresco is exceedingly hopeful. "We are just at the beginning of an era for craft beer – most breweries in New York state have only opened in the past five years, so we are still shaping that culture and deciding what it’s going to look like, and who is going to be included."

Through the NYSBA inclusivity committee, she is gathering input from member breweries and crafting conversations about what must be done to encourage change.

a person standing in front of a building: Dan Woodward, left, and Haley Balcomb, right, run a bottling line, filling 1,300 bottles of Black Is Beautiful Imperial Stout at Mortalis Brewing Company in Avon, NY, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. The brewery is located at 5660 Tec Drive in Avon. © Shawn Dowd/Democrat and Chronicle Dan Woodward, left, and Haley Balcomb, right, run a bottling line, filling 1,300 bottles of Black Is Beautiful Imperial Stout at Mortalis Brewing Company in Avon, NY, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. The brewery is located at 5660 Tec Drive in Avon.

Breweries concede they are falling short

On a local level, many brewery owners are brainstorming and instituting ways to reach new people. But the efforts are made more difficult by the reality of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the need to keep a business afloat while a portion of the economy remains shuttered.

Jen Newman opened Young Lion Brewing in New York's Finger Lakes region in June 2017. She said she followed the example of many women in beer to start a brewery, including Dawn Schulz, who co-owns Prison City Pub and Brewery at the other end of the Finger Lakes.

"I’m excited for the day that craft beer is as typical in a woman’s hand as it is in a man’s hand," Newman said. "We aren’t there yet, but we're making progress."

For Canandaigua's Young Lion, that means making the taproom experience welcoming. She said the brewery is also is working on strategies to connect with various community groups in an effort to expand the people it reaches.

"A diverse environment, just as in business and life, fosters better beer," Newman said.

Alex Biese, Micaela Hood, Rebecca King Jim Martin, Neil Strebig and Scott Tady of the Gannett USA TODAY Network contributed to this story.

Follow Will Cleveland and Mike Snider on Twitter: @willcleveland13 and @MikeSnider.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Brewing in America: The nation's craft beer industry has a diversity problem but it's trying to fix it

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