Known as the Napa Valley of beer, home to 425 craft breweries and the Brewers Association (BA), not to mention the Great American Beer Festival, Colorado is virtually awash in suds. But out of those 425 breweries, only three are owned by Black people: Hogshead Brewery, Novel Strand Brewing Company, and Outworld Brewing. Where are all of Colorado’s Black brewers?
Stephen Kirby, co-owner and head brewer at Hogshead, answers that question with a question: “You’re familiar with Colorado, right?” Demographically, he has a point. According to the 2019 Colorado census, 83.7 percent of people in the state identify as white, compared to the 4.2 percent of people who identify as Black. But with Colorado coming in second for having the most craft breweries in the country—California takes the number one spot with 907—and ranking fourth in breweries per capita, it’s unfortunate that local tasting rooms, festivals, and brewery staffs remain relatively homogeneous.
The lack of diversity in Colorado’s beer scene follows an overall domestic industry trend. According to the BA’s 2019 brewery diversity benchmarking survey, 88 percent of brewery owners nationwide are white, while only 1 percent are Black; 3.7 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native-owned, 2.4 percent are Hispanic/Latinx-owned, and 1.9 percent are Asian-owned. Meanwhile, just .06 percent of brewers are Black compared to 89 percent who are white. In fact, there are 60 Black-owned breweries in the entire country, out of more than 8,000.
Tamir Danon, co-owner and head brewer at Denver’s Novel Strand Brewing, says the industry’s lack of diversity is symptomatic of a larger issue: racism. “Don’t ask how craft breweries can improve society,” says Danon. “Ask how you can improve society so that craft breweries reflect society. It’s not that the craft beer industry needs to have this grand awakening and all of a sudden not be racist—it’s that American society needs to have a grand awakening and not be so racist. And then craft beer will reflect that, by necessity, as an aspect of society.”
Nonetheless, the domestic beer industry is ripe for a reckoning. A few examples: In 2018, a former employee at Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co. sued the brewery alleging a “racist internal corporate culture”; a settlement was reached late last year. Locally, Coors has a long history of being boycotted by organized labor, racial minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community; boycotts began in 1966 over discriminatory hiring practices and continued for decades sparked by anti-union actions on behalf of the Coors family. And in Denver, while there are 13 breweries located in the historically Black neighborhood of Five Points (including the gentrified areas now dubbed RiNo), not one is owned by a Black person.
“A lot of breweries are in white neighborhoods, visited by white folks, and they’re mostly gonna be white folks. That’s fine,” says Day Bracey, co-founder of America’s first Black beer festival in Pittsburgh, Fresh Fest Digi Fest (formerly Fresh Fest). “But there are a lot of breweries in metropolitan areas that have Black people around them. There are a lot of breweries in metro areas that play Black music and ship out beers with can labels with Black people on them, but they don’t have any Black people anywhere in the supply chain. They’re not getting the hops from Black people. Their shipping companies aren’t Black. Their managers aren’t Black people.”
Barriers to opening a brewery can shut out people of color. According to Nerd Wallet, purchasing the equipment alone can set a brewery owner back $100,000—and that’s before factoring in other costs, such as location, rent, construction, staff, and ingredients. All of which leaves Black Americans at a significant disadvantage. The gap between the finances of Black and white people is wide, and has remained as wide as it was since the implementation of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Systematic racism including Black codes and Jim Crow laws, exclusion from government programs like the GI Bill, and redlining have stunted Black Americans’ ability to build intergenerational wealth. And Black business owners are disproportionately rejected for business loans at a higher rate than white entrepreneurs.
“This history connects to African-American ownership of craft breweries the same way it relates to Black owners launching any small business today,” writes Mike Jordan in a recent article for Good Beer Hunting. “Stolen wealth and systemic, intentional disenfranchisement have kept Black people from participating in capitalism at equal levels, thereby perpetuating white supremacy hundreds of years after slavery and Emancipation—and well into the future, unless something changes—in a way that’s hard to logically deny.”
Even the physical act of brewing, which many brewers humbly start in their garages, is often steeped in privilege. “I’ve always associated [the beer industry] with similar things like skiing and hockey. Those activities require a certain level of privilege, right?” says Ayana Coker, co-founder of Novel Strand. “They require expensive equipment, time, training, and exposure that typically doesn’t exist in minority communities. The same goes [for] the craft beer industry.”
While there is no simple or quick fix to these myriad barriers, important figures in the craft beer scene have begun working to actively dismantle them. Renowned Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver recently launched the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, which will provide scholarship dollars and mentorship opportunities for budding brewers and distillers of color. Alongside her consultancy Craft Beer for All, Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham—an equity and inclusion strategist for the craft brewing industry—founded Craft x Edu, a nonprofit working toward creating a more inclusive and equitable brewing industry through professional development and education. Black-owned, California-based beer brand Crown & Hops started the 8 Trill Pils initiative to provide funding for Black-owned breweries and taprooms.
The BA is also taking steps. To measure the diversity of the organization, its members, partners, and beer lovers nationwide, the BA launched its Diversity Committee in 2017, hiring Jackson-Beckham as the organization’s first-ever diversity ambassador. In 2018, the BA created the Diversity and Inclusion Event Grants program, which, to date, has provided funding to 21 local and regional events that raise the flag on diversity, including Denver’s own Suave Fest, which highlighted Latinx-owned craft breweries from around the nation. Additionally, the association waived prerequisites for its board of directors this year to widen its candidate pool and will launch a mentorship program to support diversity in beer later this year.
The BA has made changes publicly and internally but the association has also been criticized for having no process through which to remove problematic members, including those who with allegations of sexism or racism leveled against them.
“There’s no real penalty or no class to rehabilitate,” says Bracey of Fresh Fest Digi Fest. “I’m not saying we should have a cancel culture mentality, but there should be some kind of admonishing or action [from the BA] to say, ‘We don’t stand with this.’” The BA declined to comment for this article, but the organization did announced in July that it was updating its bylaws and setting up an ad-hoc group of board members and committees to review such complaints.
Colorado breweries have also begun taking steps toward inclusion in recent months. In August, 27 Centennial State breweries produced beers for the national Black is Beautiful initiative, a collaborative effort to bring awareness to the injustices that people of color face in the U.S. In partnership with Regis University, Park Hill’s Station 26 Brewing Co. established the For You For All Diversity in Craft Beer Scholarship in July to provide financial backing for budding “underrepresented” brewers; to date, the initiative has raised $16,722 of its $50,000 goal.
Patrice Palmer, diversity and inclusion specialist at New Belgium Brewing—the only such specialist in the brewing industry—and director of social and cultural inclusion at Colorado State University, launched the first Inclusion Summit at the College of Business at CSU with Jackson-Beckham as the keynote speaker. According to Palmer, inclusive practices in the brewery, and beyond, should be central to the industry-wide conversation.
“It should be a line item,” said Palmer. “It’s hard for folks to be able to do, especially now with a pandemic. Everyone’s strapped in different ways. However, when it’s something that has to happen, we’ll find [a way]. The bottle line goes down, we gotta get that back up and running because we know what the benefit is. Folks have to recognize the benefit of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”