America's First Black Craft Beer Festival Was a Success. Will the Industry Pay Attention?
“I love craft beer, and I’m in breweries all the time... and you know what? It’s still not comfortable for me. These are all-white crowds.”
A couple of Saturdays ago, an events space in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania hosted a lively craft beer festival featuring a roster of talented brewers from across the country, live music, and food trucks to sop up all the suds. And while this type of beer festival is nothing new, Fresh Fest was a definite shakeup in the genre: Billed by its organizers as the country’s first black beer festival, the event shone a spotlight on brewers of color from around the US and explicitly sought to promote their creations to a black drinking populace that, they said, has been left out by a white-dominated industry that tends to market its brews to bearded, flannel-outfitted dudes instead.
Conceived of by Day Bracey, a comedian and podcaster, and Mike Potter, a craft beer enthusiast and beer blogger, Fresh Fest sought to raise awareness of a still-nascent black brewing scene and help brewers get their products to drinkers who might still be exploring craft beer. In September, following up on the huge success of the festival, Potter will launch Black Brew Culture, an online magazine that will highlight the black beer scene and the creators that populate it. The men, both Pittsburgh natives, told MUNCHIES that both the festival and the magazine aim to right a historic wrong: the exclusion of people of color from the hugely profitable craft beer industry, a sector that generates about $70 billion annually.
“We want to highlight as many black brewers that influence this culture as possible,” Bracey said.
The black brewing culture in the US remains tiny, he said, made up of only about 50 black brewers total. Naturally, that means that such brewers are missing out on the massive amount of marketing—and drinkers’ dollars—generated by conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken, which produce “craft” favorites such as Goose Island, Blue Moon, and Lagunitas, respectively.
“No black people are involved in the making or profiting of that beer,” Bracey said.
With both the festival and the website, Bracey and Potter hope to get those brewers some more exposure, leveling the playing field in the beer industry and ensuring that beer drinkers exploring new styles know about breweries that are not only small and independent, but also owned and operated by people of color.
“On a national level, with the black brewers and owners, we want them to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, here’s my brewery, here’s my beer; taste it, come by when you’re in town,’” Potter told MUNCHIES.
It’s an idea that both men say they didn’t have access to growing up and starting to drink; they had to figure out what they liked for themselves. The craft beer industry does not devote much of its dollars towards marketing to people of color; just as Tecate and Corona target the Latino population, malt liquor brands such as Olde English and Colt 45 hone in on the black population; growing up, Bracey said, he thought malt liquor and beer were one and the same.
“Olde English has been marketed to us,” he said. “We thought, ‘if you don’t like that, you don’t like beer.’”
Because of this issue, Bracey said, many black drinkers who might love an independently produced hoppy ale or a bright witbier might not get to taste those products: if they’re not for sale in their local markets, they’re probably not going to go straight to a brewery, where likelier than not they’ll stick out like a sore thumb, to taste such beer at its source.
“I love craft beer, and I’m in breweries all the time,” Bracey said. “I know a lot of people in there—and you know what? It’s still not comfortable for me.”
“These are all-white crowds,” he continued. “I may seem comfortable, I do a great job, but I’m not comfortable. I’m always on edge slightly. And that’s a hard mindset for a community to break out of. You can die going into the wrong place.”
One of the primary aims of the festival, therefore, was to create a fun, low-key environment for drinkers of all kinds—from die-hard craft beer obsessives to total noobs—to get together, taste, and enjoy a variety of beers in a diverse, low-pressure setting.
"Minorities as a whole are underrepresented in the craft beer industry, and this seemed like an opportunity to shine some light on the fact that there’s more of us drinking craft beer than what most people think."
“We wanted to give people a safe space to have conversations, talk to the brewers one on one,” Bracey said. “It’s all about access and education—that’s the first step towards changing the industry.”
Bracey was quick to clarify that although Fresh Fest billed itself as a black beer festival, it was all about inclusion, not exclusion. Because the pool of black brewers around the country is so small—and because there are exactly zero in Pittsburgh, where the festival took place—Bracey and Potter invited 25 local, white brewers to participate in the event as well. Each local brewer worked in collaboration with a black artist, musician, or entrepreneur to create a signature festival beer; Pittsburgh rapper Dr. HollyHood, for example, worked with Butler Brew Works to create a milkshake-inspired pale ale brewed with Muscovado grapes, vanilla, and lactose.
“Collaboration is the key to evolution,” Bracey said.
To fill out the festival bill, Fresh Fest also hosted ten black breweries from around the country, including Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing, New Orleans’ Cajun Fire Brewing Company, and Washington, DC’s Sankofa Brewing Company, makers of West African-inspired brews. One such brewer to attend was Chris Harris, owner of Toledo, Ohio’s Black Frog Brewery, who started brewing beer in his garage in 2011. Harris told MUNCHIES that when Bracey and Potter told him about Fresh Fest, he was immediately struck by the festival’s unique nature.
“To my knowledge, I don’t think there's ever been a festival of that kind,” he said. “I thought it was very important. Minorities as a whole are underrepresented in the craft beer industry, and this seemed like an opportunity to shine some light on the fact that there’s more of us drinking craft beer than what most people think.”
As one of only a handful of black brewers in the country, Harris said he has grown accustomed to sticking out in a white-dominated scene. “I do feel like a unicorn. It’s just not something that you normally see.”
"Hopefully the people in the industry will see that there’s more people of color drinking craft beer than they thought, and maybe they need to start targeting those people... It could only be beneficial to them."
Harris said he hadn’t met any of the other black brewers prior to the festival, but that when he did, he immediately felt a sense of camaraderie among them. “When we all got together, it was like meeting long-lost family,” he said.
Fresh Fest was wildly successful, attracting about 1,200 visitors when Bracey and Potter expected 700, tops. Both organizers say that they’ve received incredible feedback about the event, and that they’ll definitely follow up with another festival in Pittsburgh next year. And along with the brewers and collaborators, they hope that the festival’s impact will demonstrate that there’s an essentially untapped craft beer market.
“Hopefully the people in the industry will see that there’s more people of color drinking craft beer than they thought, and maybe they need to start targeting those people,” Harris said. “It could only be beneficial to them. It’s all about dollars and if they want to increase revenue, that may be an avenue that they want to consider.”
“The more diversity, the more minds, the better the industry is and the better that culture becomes,” he said. “This is about providing access to a billion-dollar industry, letting them know that we drink just like everyone else.”