Beer and Black History

It’s officially Black History Month here in the United States, and I wanted to shed a light on something very noticeable about the craft beer industry: how very homogenous it is.

When the average person thinks of craft beer, they probably don’t immediately think of the 60+ craft breweries that are black-owned and operated. They probably think of a white dude in his late 30’s or early 40’s, and probably bearded, standing over a mash tun or posing with a glass of hops or malt. Which is certainly not a false picture but it doesn’t reflect the deeply colorful history of beer.

This blog is somewhat inspired by the Beer School Tony held on January 31st and driven by my own curiosity.

Let me take you back a little ways. White Europeans weren’t actually the first people to make beer! It’s speculated that the people of Mesopotamia, people of color, were the first to discover beer. When civilizations began popping up, and nomadic life became agriculturally based, women became the beer makers for the home, and – in later centuries – the entire neighborhood or village. Those TV or movie scenes of pubs crammed with men while a woman holds four tankards of ale leave something important out – that woman probably made that ale.

When America was colonized, and obviously through the late 1800’s, white women delegated the task of making beer to the house slave women, while field slaves cultivated the hops used to flavor that beer. So, once again beer-making was in the hands of women (and people) of color.

Fast forward to prohibition, which was partially rooted in racist sentiments: painting saloons and pubs as places of sin and immoral activity, where only the most degenerate would spend their time (much like the treatment of the opium dens of the West Coast). When the 21st Amendment finally passed, big, white-owned beer corporations were quick to snatch up a large portion of the beer-making industry. Unfortunately, those corporations also held racial bias and racist sentiments that kept a lot of black Americans from working in the beer industry through the Civil Rights Movement.

So, it’s no wonder that at last year’s All Women Brew Day here in New Jersey, there were only a couple of non-white women present. The beer industry, while also being an expensive endeavor (this is a whole other discussion on systemic racism), hasn’t exactly been welcoming to black Americans. Not only was it noticeable there but at every festival I’ve worked there was a distinct lack of people of color in attendance or behind the booths.

One undisputable fact, since the discovery of it, is that beer brings people together. It’s a bridge across cultures, across time, across continents, and across oceans. I would love to see a more diverse craft beer industry here in the States, and I hope someday it will be. We have a long way to go on breaking down walls and ceilings (see: Annie Johnson) but the future is diverse. The future is bright. The future is colorful.

A list of black-owned breweries in America (as of 2020) is a good place to start looking at what’s in your region if you’re curious. Supporting these breweries is but a small step we can take to support diversity in our industry.

Happy Black History Month and cheers!

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