beer

Owner of Queer, Black-Owned Brewery Says 'White Supremacy' Led to Its Closure

During its six-month tenure, Black Star Line Brewery faced death threats, numerous break-ins, and complicated financial woes.

Beth Demmon

“White supremacy shut us down,” Black Star Line Brewing Company founder L.A. McCrae says. “Our world has been rocked.”

Black Star Line was started as a beacon of resistance against the status quo of craft beer, McCrae explains. As the first black, queer female-owned brewery in America—and in North Carolina, no less, a state with an uneasy relationship with progressive issues—it hoped to symbolize what the future of craft beer could look like.

But less than six months later, that dream is over. Black Star Line was evicted from its Hendersonville space this past Thursday in what McCrae describes as “the most extreme, most malicious, hateful option that would permanently affect us.”

Initially, the only information publicly available about the eviction was through a short announcement on Facebook last week that read, “Thanks for the love, Hendersonville. At this time, we will no longer be operating on 131 3rd Ave W. We'll let you know about updates as soon as they are available. Thank you.”

The brewery later updated its Facebook page on Monday, questioning the motives of the shutdown.

“Less than 72 hrs after celebrating King Day with a group of radical POC queers and community members, #BSLB was shut down and police were called to a community space that center [sic] being and liberation for all people. White loan officers called the police on a group of 8 POC Downtown Hendersonville. Why?”

In its own words, Black Star Line Brewing Company fought for social justice for “marginalized, disenfranchised people… through collective economics” (which was, in the brewery’s case, beer). The Brewers Association has long lauded the steady increase of women in craft beer, but those numbers remain overwhelmingly white and still a fraction of the industry.

Almost immediately after opening its doors in Hendersonville, a small community (with a population that is more than 80 percent white) in the western region of the state, the brewery started receiving threats. McCrae (who uses they/them pronouns) shared screenshots of profanity-laced emails with the public. Many contained racist and homophobic slurs, and even death threats. McCrae also recalls “eight or nine” break-ins spanning the brewery’s short lifespan before its sudden closure. Ekua Adisa, a member of Black Star Line’s Advisory Council, corroborates that number, mentioning there were “more than five.”

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I spoke with McCrae a few days after the brewery’s eviction. They recounted the numerous struggles they faced from day one, describing their shutdown as “intentional” and “systematic.” It started with an inability to secure traditional funding, forcing them to turn to a community development financial institution called Mountain BizWorks, from whom they procured a $50,000 loan, which McCrae says was insufficient from the start, as the brewery had requested a loan of at least $100,000 to get up and running.

According to its website, Mountain BizWorks’ mission is “to build a vibrant and inclusive entrepreneurial community in Western North Carolina by helping small businesses start, grow, and thrive… We have a particular focus on working with businesses unable to access financing from banks and other traditional sources, as well as low-income, minority, women, and immigrant entrepreneurs, and businesses that operate within the local food system.” McCrae describes a much different experience than the one Mountain BizWorks promotes.

“[Mountain BizWorks] knew that we didn’t have any capital from the start,” they explain, which made getting cash imperative in order to secure ingredients for brewing. Their supplier, Asheville Brewers Supply, extended them additional credit, during which time McCrae claims that they made numerous attempts to contact the financial institution.

“That’s when it started going into a free fall.”

Between the hateful messages, numerous break-ins (“we stopped reporting the break-ins because the police didn’t care,” McCrae says), accusations of illegal operations (which were deemed false), an overdraft fee with the brewery’s supplier, and what McCrae describes as an inability to get in touch with Mountain BizWorks despite repeated attempts, McCrae reached a point wherein their landlord told Black Star Line that “our mission no longer matches their vision for the building.” MUNCHIES has reached out to Mountain BizWorks for comment, but has not yet received a response.

The brewery’s MLK Week events was meant to celebrate Black Star Line’s place as a welcoming hub for marginalized members of the community. Instead, McCrae says, the brewery’s staff was locked out of their space and denied access to anything inside, even personal items.

“There are eight of us, all people of color, the only business of color downtown, and at this point we’re completely humiliated,” says McCrae. “They won’t let us get anything inside. No one is communicating with us.”

Later that day, McCrae claims Mountain BizWorks contacted her to arrange a time for their employees to retrieve their belongings from the now-shuttered brewery. When the time came, McCrae says, they were greeted with police in tactical gear. (MUNCHIES has reached out to the Hendersonville Police but has not yet received a response.)

“This was all avoidable,” McCrae tells MUNCHIES. “Had Mountain BizWorks just called us back, we have the landlord on record saying that all we have to do is pay the back rent and we’re cool. Instead, they ignored us and chose the most aggressive route they possibly could.”

McCrae believes that Black Star Line wasn’t just another small business failure statistic. They point to a larger conspiracy, naming it “externalized cultural effects of white supremacy.” In their eyes, it was a setup from the very beginning. Hope for the future of Black Star Line Brewery still exists among its founders and fans, but morale is another story.

“They’ve criminalized us. Dehumanized us,” says McCrae. “Even the detective assigned to the investigation of another break-in after we were unlawfully evicted was quoted saying that he’s 90 percent sure that we did this to ourselves for sympathy on our way out. How can we trust him?”

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Black Star Line Brewing is without a home for now, but perhaps not for long.

“We’re exploring partner brewing relationships in Hendersonville, and have an opportunity to have a small brewery in West Asheville for free. We always intended to be an international brand, so really we’re just trying to figure out what’s best for the community,” says McCrae.

While disappointed and upset, McCrae says that they are not surprised by the outcome.

“This is what happens when we show that we’re a strong, resilient community. We were the safe place for the people who are most ostracized. And now, being outside that bubble is dangerous.”

UPDATE—1/25/18 :

MUNCHIES spoke with Herbert Blake, the Police Chief for the city of Hendersonville, who refutes some parts of McCrae's account of the police presence at the brewery on Monday, January 15 (Martin Luther King Day).

"It's my understanding, after speaking with one of my officers, is that Ms. McCrae initiated the call for service," Blake said, adding, " They called and wanted to make sure an officer was present." He said that he would need to check the report in order to confirm this.

In regards to McCrae's assertion that the police were in tactical gear, Blake said that "I know one officer on duty at the day and time of incident is a K9 handler—he's an acting supervisor of the team that worked that day. He has a bloodhound that we use if we need to track someone—a missing child or some sort of criminal. So he dresses in a utility-type uniform. There’s a difference between that and tactical gear. No one wears tactical gear. But we do allow K9 officers to wear a utility uniform."

UPDATE—1/29/18:

Patrick Fitzsimmons, executive director of Mountain BizWorks, provided MUNCHIES with the following statement regarding the brewery's closure:

"Mountain BizWorks was pleased to be able to provide Black Star Line with funding and business coaching that enabled them to open the business. Obviously we were invested in their business success. It is disappointing that their lease was terminated by their landlord due to non-payment of rent. Mountain BizWorks staff never called the police and our account of the situation is the same as that of Police Chief Blake."