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Craft Faces Racism

When Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a now-former Minneapolis police officer, members of the US craft beer industry, like most Americans, could not look away. Floyd’s death fit a painful pattern and freshened old wounds and rifts that many in the industry know can not be healed by a single beer, toast or post. The unrest that continues to shake many corners of the country, its causes and its effects, can not be ignored. Protests and curfews have certainly disrupted business in recent weeks. And the systems and patterns that Black Lives Matter activists work to highlight, upset and undo also certainly contribute to this persistent fact: the US beer and craft beer industries remain overwhelmingly white.

The Numbers: 75-90% White  The only numbers attempting to discern the diversity (or lack thereof) of the craft beer industry come from a Brewers Assn benchmarking survey conducted in 2018, published last summer. It’s based on a few hundred responses. About 88% of surveyed craft brewery owners identified as non-Hispanic white. Between 76% and 89% of other staff, whether production or service, managerial or not, was also white, according to these respondents. Just 63% of the total US population is non-Hispanic white. 

So What Are Ya Gonna Do About It Now?  Not all members of the US craft beer and beer industries agree that finding ways to develop a more diverse and inclusive industry is warranted or necessary. In recent weeks, some industry members made that abundantly clear in both personal and professional social media posts. New accusations of racist actions and statements, as well as sexual misconduct and abuse, continue to come to light. But many companies and associations, large and small, committed to some form of action here in the last few years. Diversity has often been a topic seen thru the lens of “category health.” Simply: it makes good business sense to welcome more folks to the table for a beer. 

The events of the last few weeks kicked off a new round of activism within the industry in the same way it did among many outside the industry. Breweries across the country and especially in the Twin Cities stepped up. Breweries like Modist offered respite, food, water, first aid and financial support to protesters, as Brewbound highlighted. Last week, Surly donated 100% of proceeds from taproom sales to 10 local charities, marketing veep Bill Manley shared with Craft Business Daily. Sites like Porch Drinking rounded up social media posts from brewers in MN and beyond. It reveals that many small breweries feel deeply bound to their communities, but that recent events force them to face difficult questions about which communities they support and how. 

Engage, Engage, Engage  Beer bizzes that felt compelled to speak up and show support of BLM protests faced another set of questions. What to say? How to say it? Social media missteps can cost businesses dearly. “Part of the reason they may say the wrong thing is that most brewers cannot draw on personal experience in moments of racial injustice, because they are white,” Dave Infante wrote for the Charleston Post and Courier. Note that Dave won a James Beard media award for his “There Are Almost No Black People Brewing Craft Beer. Here’s Why” piece published back in 2015 by Thrillist

His piece in the Post and Courier untangled many of the complicated threads that small brewery owners in Charleston faced early last wk. The global #blackouttuesday movement that took over Instagram on June 2 provided an easy, clear opportunity for many breweries to show their support. Easier, perhaps. But better? If posting a black square on Instagram was somehow compulsory, how authentic was it? Answers varied. “As African Americans we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, so I don’t really appreciate the breweries seeing it as just one day as a day to speak out,” local blogger and beer enthusiast David White Jr told Dave in Charleston. When, then, was it okay to post about beer again? Answers varied. 

Black is Beautiful  One way breweries got back to beer was by supporting an effort spearheaded by San Antonio-based Weathered Souls Brewing. It launched the Black is Beautiful collaborative beer campaign, offering up a base imperial stout recipe and asking other breweries to make their own versions. Participants were asked donate proceeds “to local foundations that support police brutality reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged” or other local charities aimed at supporting “equality and inclusion,” according to the project website. Of course, ensuring those donations happen, in the same way that other such efforts like All Together and even Sierra Nevada’s Resilience campaign, is another issue altogether. 

“I’m a Black business owner and someone who has experienced police abuse,” Marcus Baskerville, the Weathered Soul’s founder and head brewer told the San Antonio Current. “This experience happened in my early 20s, but that stuff lingers with you. Interactions with law enforcement change after an experience like that.” As of today, 635 breweries from all 50 states and 13 countries signed on to make Black is Beautiful. Other breweries are working on similar projects on smaller scales, releasing beers that raise funds for local charities or organizing fundraising drives and events for community organizations committed to equity and inclusion. 

Fresh Fest Digi Fest  The last few weeks also brought new attention to longer-term efforts to diversify the US craft beer biz, like Fresh Fest, the nation’s first beer festival celebrating Black brewers, brewery owners, artists and entrepreneurs. Like so many other beer fests, the 3rd annual Fresh Fest recently shifted to a digital-only concept for 2020. Held on August 8 this year, the live-streamed fest will feature hours of music, art, discussion and presentations from all over the world, tho much of the programming will be broadcast from the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the in-person fest had been scheduled. The fest’s first 2 iterations were widely acclaimed for their ability to reimagine what a craft beer event can look and feel like, who it can attract and what it can accomplish. Its goals and activities reach well beyond a single annual event too. Fresh Fest is “a community initiative that seeks to economically empower the Black community by promoting and providing access, opportunities, and representation in a $79B industry with less than 1% Black ownership or employment,” organizers explain on the event’s website. Tickets go on sale next week for just $10 apiece. 

Lessons Learned: Language is a Tangled Web  Some small breweries have learned and shared valuable lessons about branding, employment and community engagement as well. Currahee Brewing, with bases in NC and GA, learned the hard way about the care that needs to be taken when naming and marketing beers. Apparently unaware of the word’s recent use by an alt-right hate group, the co named its new imperial stout “Boogaloo,” thinking it meant “to object to oppression and potential government overreach,” according to NC’s WLOS. But the word is now a “code to white nationalists,” a Western Carolina University professor and local NAACP prexy Enrique Gomez told the outlet. The brewery pulled the beer from the market, apologized for the “severely unintentional” oversight and is donating all proceeds from the beer “to civil rights organizations and to help families affected by the unjust killings” currently being protested across the US and world, per WLOS. 

Lessons Learned: You are Your People  Rochester, NY’s Fairhope Brewing learned that a business itself can pay the price for employee action even when that employee isn’t on the clock. The brewery received backlash when a video depicting one of its employees tearing down Black Lives Matter artwork around town went locally viral. The brewery apologized and made a donation to the nearby charities supporting Black Lives Matter. This weekend, a group of “Beer Nerds Against Racism” will rally at a church across from the brewery “in protest of the stark lack of diversity in brewery workers across the region and country,” Rochester City Newspaper reported

Lessons Shared: Visibility Matters  “Diversity means creating a space where regardless of color, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, everybody is literally welcome here and we’re just celebrating each other’s differences and each other’s cultures, and hopefully learning from them, learning from one another.” So said Jessica Fierro, co-owner and brewer at Atrevida Brewing in Colorado Springs, CO to the city’s Gazette recently. They’re words the co lives by and why it hangs a large “Diversity, it’s on tap,” banner outside the brewery taproom. It’s also why it creates and names beers in honor of Juneteenth/Freedom Day, Dorothy Heights and Dolores Huerta: to start conversations with people about the holiday celebrating the Emancipation of slaves, the civil rights leader/activist and the labor organizer, Jessica explained. Following one of those recent conversations with a patron that stopped in her taproom, “we said ‘Cheers’ and it’s a good day, you know. That’s really what it’s about for me, and I really enjoy that factor of my business,” she said. 

When Past Isn’t Prologue  These events take on different weight in “such uncertain times,” as so many have repeated recently. The country slowly begins to reopen after months of pandemic-related restrictions on biz and movement. It also faces concern about a second wave of the coronavirus and another round of shutdowns. How will civil unrest and the possibility of a summer of demonstrations and rallies impact the pandemic’s trajectory? Then too, the onset of COVID-19 quickly raised questions about potential, especially the potential to upend long-held beliefs about how to regulate alcohol. It forced folks to question how they do business and why they do it that way. While most changes to alc bev laws have been temporary, many see the opportunity for longer, larger change. Will the industry see the same kind of potential, reach for the same kind of opportunities to change in other ways?

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2020
  • Volume: 11
  • Issue #: 56
Read 518 times Last modified on 06/19/2020

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 Craft Update 2021

By Beer Marketer’s Insights
Presented by Chris Shepard & David Steinman,
the Editors of Craft Brew News
March 3, 2021 - Part 1
April 28, 2021 - Part 2
1pm Eastern Time
90-minutes including Q&A

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