By Kerri Shadid
Equity Brewing Co. is dedicated to helping build a more diverse craft beer industry, one that is welcoming to and supportive of all. Recently, we asked ourselves what this year of intense change could mean for the future of diversity in the industry.
Let’s start by taking a step back to recognize, again, that the craft beer industry is not as diverse as it should be. And that’s putting it mildly.
“Diversity in brewing is currently not a thing,” said Jeff McCullor, co-owner of Erie Ale Works, in the article “Diversity lagging in craft beer industry,” published in August of 2020. “Mostly, it’s white guys everywhere. Craft beer doesn’t seem to include those people who are diverse, Blacks, woman or otherwise.”
Moreover, the Brewers Association’s first report on brewery employee diversity data was released in 2019 – and the findings are bleak, both for women and people of color. Only 7.5 percent of brewers are female. Of the breweries owned by a single individual, only four percent were owned by a woman. (And this despite the fact that brewing has traditionally been women’s work.) Eighty-eight percent of brewery owners are white. Among non-brewing production staff, only seven percent are Hispanic and only 3.5 percent are Black.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic may be exacerbating the lack of diversity in the brewing industry. Because COVID-19 has led to the closure of Black and Hispanic owned businesses at higher rates than white owned businesses, we can only imagine how many breweries owned by people of color may close by the time this is over.
Yet, a number of individuals and organizations have been working tirelessly to make craft beer more diverse, both before and during the pandemic. And we believe their efforts have not been, and will not be, in vain.
In 2017, the Brewers Association created a Diversity Committee and in 2018 it appointed its first Diversity Ambassador, J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham of Crafted For All (who was named Imbibe Magazine’s 2020 “Beer Person of the Year”).
Fresh Fest Beer Fest, the “country’s first Black beer festival,” has been instrumental in raising awareness about Black owned breweries and celebrating diversity in the industry. The James Beard Foundation’s blog “This Beer Festival Is All About Inclusion” tells the story of how comedians Day Bracey and Ed Bailey (who started the podcast Drinking Partners together in 2016), along with Mike Potter of Black Brew Culture, founded Fresh Fest in 2018. They did so with three guiding principles: representation, building bridges and local collaboration. The festival, which started as a one-day-long event, grew to a three-day festival featuring 35 Black-owned breweries; white-owned brewers who had invested “in the career of a Black artist, entrepreneur, or politician;” and performances by Black artists and entertainers. For two years in a row, Fresh Fest came in second in USA Today’s poll of best beer festivals.
Fresh Fest is a reminder that creating a more equitable craft beer culture and industry takes work. As founder Day Bracey said, “It’s not just [putting] up a black square and forget[ting] about it, doing a can of beer with somebody and forget[ting] about it, put out an application and be like, ‘Nobody applied’ and forget[ting] about it. You have to be actively finding ways that you could be a better neighbor, finding ways you can mutually benefit individuals of oppressed groups, whether that's the LGBTIA+ community, women, Black folks—because it's not charity. Fresh Fest showed the power and the need for diversity in the industry.”
The article “Diversity lagging in craft beer industry” lamented the fact that this is the first year that Fresh Fest won’t sell out because of COVID-19. The organization had said that the third annual festival, which was scheduled to take place in the predominately Black, redeveloping neighborhood of Allentown, Pittsburgh, would “be even more inclusive, extend our reach further into underrepresented communities, and become accessible to a greater number of people.” Then COVID-19 nearly led to the cancellation of the third Fresh Fest. However, Bracey said that he felt they needed to hold the festival for the good of the community. They were able to modify the event into Fresh Fest Digi Fest, which took place beginning on August 8, 2020. The virtual event included over 54 hours of diversity-oriented content as well as a FreshFest app with swag and more information about collaborations and Black-owned breweries across the nation. In our recent blog “The Future of Beer Festivals,” Jeannine Boisse talks about her experience attending the virtual version of Fresh Fest.
A benefit of holding Fresh Fest online is that it is able to reach a broader audience. Bracey says that the festival will have a digital component from now on so that they can maintain that broader reach. In fact, this may be an unforeseen benefit of many beer festivals going digital: all really are welcome. Individuals—whether women, people of color or LGBTQIA+ individuals—who might have felt like outsiders surrounded by white men at an in-person festival can feel at home—literally—when attending remotely.
We were sad to hear of Bold Missy Brewing, the first woman-owned brewery in Charlotte, closing in February after being in business for three years. (Back in 2018, the first black, queer female-owned brewery in America, Black Star Line Brewing Company, closed after only six months due to white supremacy, according to its founder.) But as we searched for information on the women- and Black-owned breweries that have shut down because of COVID-19, we were surprised and inspired to find more news of breweries that were opening rather than closing.
Woman-owned Greenwood Brewery opened in Phoenix in July. Although COVID-19 has delayed plans, Harris Family Brewery, the first Black-owned craft brewery in Pennsylvania, is set to open soon, with nearly 700 donors donating more than $40,000 so far to its GoFundMe campaign. (Although their opening was not without its struggles, as the owners recount running up against racism and other hurdles along the way.) Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter, co-founders of Crowns & Hops Brewing Co, are building Inglewood’s first Black owned brewery. They also recently launched the 8 Trill Pils Initiative, a $100,000 brewery development fund that includes research and backing from BrewDog to support Black craft brewers and help close the color gap in craft brewing.
Craft Beer’s article, “Outspoken Advocates for Diversity in Beer Enter 2020 Cautiously Optimistic,” looks at the #IAmCraftBeer movement; Jackson-Beckham’s Craft x EDU, which provides grants and other opportunities to support inclusion, equity and justice in craft beer; Beth Demmon’s Diverse Beer Writers Initiative; and Ren Navarro’s Beer. Diversity. as evidence that craft brewing is on the verge of becoming more diverse. The new Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling funds technical education and career advancement for Black, indigenous individuals and people of color in the brewing and distilling industries. Several groups, including Beers Without Beards and The Pink Boots Society, are working to help women feel more welcomed at the craft beer table and increase the number of female beer professionals.
Several media outlets have published stories highlighting women- and Black-run breweries this year. In January 2020, New York Magazine’s Grub Street ran a profile on Talea, the “Woman-Owned Brewery That Even Beer Haters Can Love.” A recent Thrillist article entitled “These Black-Owned Breweries Give Us Hope for the Future” told the stories of how several Black brewery owners made their way into the industry, often with the support of other breweries and members of the beer-drinking public. In June 2020, Wine Enthusiast profiled 10 Black-owned breweries that “make great beer.” In August 2020, the New York Times ran a piece, “The Beer Industry Looks for Ways to Help Black Brewers,” that focuses on a number of individuals, breweries and organizations that are taking action to bring more Black individuals into the industry, and make it a more welcoming place for them.
Currently, 1,140 breweries in all 50 states and 21 countries are participating in the Black is Beautiful initiative. Marcus Baskerville, co-owner and brewer at Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in San Antonio, started the project, which invites breweries to make their own version of the Black is Beautiful beer (an imperial oatmeal stout) and donate the proceeds to local foundations supporting equity and inclusion or putting an end to police brutality. (While we are unable to participate given we are still building our brewery, we are happy to say that 15 brewers in Oklahoma signed on!)
Therefore, despite the recent setbacks caused by the pandemic, which should not be minimized, we still believe that the long-term future of craft beer is one that is more inclusive and diverse. Change takes time, and it’s not realistic or helpful to expect the craft beer industry to go from one percent of breweries being Black owned to ten percent in a single year. But the tide is turning, and all of the above breweries, people and initiatives give us great hope. Even if COVID-19 presents a temporary setback, the growth of diversity in craft brewing, which has been needed for far too long, cannot be stopped. We—and many, many others—are certainly working to make diversity and inclusion in the beer world a reality.