‘Beer Is Black History’: How Black Brewers Are Working to Reclaim Beer as Part of the Cultural History

published Feb 25, 2022
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Beer is Black History
Credit: Fulani Jabri

Stout, ale, or lager — whatever your choice is, there’s no denying beer’s impact on American history. While there are conflicting stories about who actually invented beer, if you ask any member of Atlanta’s Black craft beer community, they’ll all agree on one thing: Beer’s first recipe came from Black people. And if you ask Branden Peters, co-founder of the lifestyle brand Draught Season, he’ll be sure to note that it was “particularly Black women.”

The discovery of the lesser-known history of beer’s invention being traced back to both Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt with a tie to African people is exactly what inspired Peters and his partner, Kevin Irvin, to launch a capsule collection in 2021 aptly named “Beer Is Black History.” Emerging from their involvement in the growing community of both craft beer aficionados and brewers in Atlanta, the Draught Season owners found it fairly easy to get their concept off of the ground. Tapping Christina Hughes of Craft Women Connect, Monday Night Brewing’s brewmaster Peter Kiley, as well as famed rapper and entrepreneur Killer Mike, the team of creatives — along with local designer Sean Falyon — introduced the apparel collection that’s simply emblazoned with the impactful statement.

According to Irvin, the collection serves as a great conversation starter to highlight the history of Black people in the world of beer. And that conversation includes acknowledging the fact that African Americans are recorded to be the earliest brewers in the United States.

“This is an industry that we should be benefitting from and capitalizing on,” says Fish Scales — member of the iconic southern rap group Nappy Roots and part-owner of Atlantucky Brewing (other owners include the remaining members of the group). “A lot of breweries are being built in our old neighborhoods. The joke is that breweries sometimes are the first thing you see before gentrification.”

Although breweries may be one of the first new businesses seen in areas of Atlanta being gentrified, unfortunately they are not owned or operated by Black people. In fact, Toast reports that by the end of 2020, only 1 percent of the 8,884 craft breweries in America were Black-owned. And of the 138,371 jobs created within the craft beer industry, just 4 percent are held by Black workers. Believe it or not, that is a vast improvement from what those figures looked like just a decade ago.

Seemingly confirming that notion, Down Home Brewing C.O.O., William Moore, recalls a time in Atlanta when people of color at beer-centric events were few and far between. Much of what has grown to become the Black craft beer community in the city actually began in 2012 when Lenox Mercedes — founder of High Gravity Hip Hop — developed a series of events with the ambition to unite beer festival culture and the feel of HBCU homecomings. And for Mercedes, it’s a cultural mix that has proven successful.

In the 10 years since, craft connoisseurs like Moore, Mercedes, journalist Ale Sharpton, and others have been able to pique the interest of a generation of hip-hop fans who had only been courted by big brands like Heineken and Bud Light; or who were still turned off by the marketing around malt liquor in the ’90s. A lot of that work has been centered around educating Black consumers and helping them break their preconceived notions about beer.

“There are more flavor profiles in beer than in any other alcoholic beverage [and] a lot of people don’t know that,” Irvin explains, admitting that his own journey into the craft beer world began with the same thought process. “People think craft beer is just IPAs, but it’s [encouraging to] get into stouts if you like coffee, or get into sours if you like wine-like flavors.”

This willingness to teach and encourage newcomers arriving into the space is reflective of the collaborative energy that exists among brewers and the professionals who support them. Draught Season, for example, prides itself on being able to help local breweries reach national attention. 

“Beer distribution is extremely regional unless you’re a huge company,” Peters says. “So a lot of times you’ll be very successful in your state, but people in other states won’t even know about it because they can’t legally get it.”

Their latest “Beer Is Black History” collection proves to be a reflection of their efforts, as it features collaborative brews with Black Calder Brewing in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Hella Coastal out of Oakland, California; and Atlantucky. The latter of which was built with community in mind with its 6,000-square foot location in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood, also doubling as an event space open for other brewers to use for hosting and pouring their product.

Even with all of the new efforts put in by the community of brewers in Atlanta and throughout the nation, however, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that only 1 percent of all craft beer breweries in the U.S. are Black-owned. But, that’s something the entire community vows to consistently work to change.

“The biggest obstacle is still funding and also distribution,” says Atlantucky co-owner Skinny Deville. “Here in Georgia, it’s a three-tier system to where you can’t distribute your own product, you have to have someone else do it for you. You can’t sell it if you’re making it. And, they have a big chokehold on who can do what. Our white counterparts are having a problem with that, so you can only imagine how it is for us. Can you imagine if we had access to our own distribution infrastructure? There are opportunities that are just not accessible to us, no matter how good our beer is.”

Regardless of these obstacles, however, Black brewers continue to make history in the under-represented space: Georgia’s first two Black-owned brick-and-mortar breweries — Hippin’ Hops and Atlantucky Brewing — both opened in the last 12 months, bringing the total cross-country number to 14. And although that number may still seem small when looked at in comparison to white-owned breweries, with the ambition to reclaim a space that the Black culture originated, you can expect to see that number increase sooner than you think.