By Hollie Stephens
We at Equity Brewing love discovering other organizations that are promoting equity and inclusion in the beer industry. We hope that by highlighting some of these organizations, we will help build a strong community of advocates working to make the industry more diverse and welcoming to all. The more we support each other, the stronger we all become!
To conclude the “Diversity in Brewing” blog series, beer writer Hollie Stephens returns to focus upon the issue of race and representation within the beer industry, with insights from New Orleans based brewmaster and CEO Jon Renthrope.
When established in 2011, Cajun Fire Brewing Company became the first Black-owned brewery in the state of Louisiana, and the fifth Black-owned brewery in the entire country. CEO Jon Renthrope is a Black American, and a Registered Tribal Member of the United Nation of Houma Indians 11740. He attended the University of Florida, and initially intended to enter the culinary industry, but pivoted to the world of beer once he moved back to New Orleans. Today, Cajun Fire Brewing Company plays a critical role at the heart of its community. Through collaborative endeavors, the LLC has raised more than $700,000 for local philanthropies and non-profit organizations in the Orleans Parish community. Jon emphasizes that embracing the local scene is important, and notes that the Mardi Gras event which takes place in the city has been a big boost for business. “By proximity, I was able to get the product into thousands of people’s hands.” Jon is the Lead Project Manager of the New Orleans East Cultural Hub, an initiative that places beer and food at the center of a 10-acre commercial development that will create new jobs.
Jon is candid and honest about the immense challenges that he has faced as a Black member of the beer industry. “I was always a unicorn when I walked into a different room” Jon says. He talks about the struggles that he has faced to be respected as a business owner. “I get all kinds of negative attacks just for operating successfully.” According to the 2010 census, 32.8% of Louisiana’s population is Black American. This is the second highest Black population per capita of the contiguous 48 states (behind the state of Mississippi, with a figure of 37.6%). Jon shared data sourced from the Brewers Association, which shows that fewer than 1% of the owners or staff members of the 900+ individuals that 35+ breweries operating in Louisiana directly employ are of Black/African American descent, which demonstrates a substantial underrepresentation of Black Americans in the beer community.
This issue is, of course, not specific to the state of Louisiana or the beer industry. The 2018 Annual Business Survey found that 124,004 US businesses were Black-owned as of 2017. This accounts for just 2.2% of the 5.6 million employer firms in the country as of 2016 (based on data from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs, as summarized by the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council).
I’m keen to hear Jon’s views on what is to come for inclusion and diversity in the world of beer. “I hope people can be empathetic” he says, thought admits that he thinks that expecting fast changes within the industry is wishful thinking. A resounding message from the beer industry figures I’ve spoken with throughout this ‘Diversity In Beer’ blog series is that beer fans must themselves work to promote inclusion by having a zero tolerance attitude to prejudice. Jon acknowledges that customers vote with their dollars. “I think people are doing a better job than before”.