Pittsburgh Hosts Nation's First Festival For African American Craft Beer Brewers

Aug 9, 2018

To tell how the nation’s first black beer festival came to be held in Pittsburgh, you might start with a beer. 

Maybe it was that introductory Sam Adams Boston Lager that longtime Michelob and Heineken guy Mike Potter drank more than a decade ago. “It had a completely different profile, a completely different taste, you know, completely different aroma,” he said. “It just elevated my curiosity.”

Fresh Fest runs from 1-9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 11. at Nova Place, 100 South Commons, North Side.

Or maybe it should be the bottle of Blue Moon that Day Bracey tipped shortly after he got out of college, thanks to $1 specials at a now-defunct bar in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. “That was the first time I drank anything that tasted relatively decent,” said Bracey, whose college buddies’ adult beverages of choice were “Natty Ice and Vladimir [Vodka].”

In craft-beer lingo, Potter’s Sam Adams and Bracey’s Blue Moon are “gateway beers” – brews that usher drinkers into the world of small, independent breweries, with their adventuresome techniques and flavors. In this case, they also ultimately led to Potter and Bracey, along with Ed Bailey, founding Fresh Fest, the first-ever beer festival for breweries owned by African Americans.

A dozen such breweries will visit the North Side’s Nova Place on Sat., Aug. 11, for the day-long festival. Fresh Fest’s purpose is to celebrate black brewing talent – and to emphasize that craft beer, long implicitly seen as white territory, needs to get more diverse.

“There is an overrepresentation of white folks on both the production and the consumption side,” says J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, a professor at Randolph College, in Virginia, and an expert on diversity in craft beer.

Brewing beer has always been a white space in the U.S., and craft beer, an industry now four decades old, followed suit: Its product is mostly made, and drunk, by affluent white folks. Yet after years of double-digit growth – the number of craft breweries doubled between 2013 and 2017 -- the industry remains surprisingly monochromatic.

African Americans comprise 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. But surveys cited by the Brewers Association say that some 85 percent of craft beer drinkers are white, leaving just 15 percent total for black, Latinos, Asians and Native American drinkers. (However, one recent survey found that blacks make up 12 percent of craft-beer drinkers.)

More pronounced is the disparity among makers of craft beer: Potter, who founded the group Black Brew Culture, estimated that out of more than 6,300 independent U.S. breweries, only about 50 are black-owned. That’s less than 1 percent – and there are none at all in the Pittsburgh region.

“That’s not a good number, especially when you consider again the consumption side of it, how many people of color actually purchase these beers,” said Potter.

Fresh Fest co-founder Mike Potter (right) visits East End Brewing in Pittsburgh's Strip District.
Credit Chris Sands

Potter wants to change both sides of the equation. After his revelation years ago with Sam Adams, the Pittsburgh-area native found his way to East End Brewing, one of the region’s longest-running craft breweries. He describes the brewery’s staff as beer mentors.

“I had no idea of what some of these beers were like,” said Potter. “They started breaking down about stouts and porters, Belgians, different kinds of ales, IPA.” He got into homebrewing and considered, as many homebrewers do, starting his own microbrewery.

He learned it wasn’t so easy. Potter is an entrepreneur – he runs a print shop in Homestead – but still felt he lacked the funding and know-how that successful craft brewers possessed. And all the ones he knew of were white. “So that led me to start kind of searching around for anybody else of color that is doing this,” he said.

Potter founded Black Brew Culture in 2015 and learned that others were out there, including Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver and a handful of black-owned breweries.

Some of them are making a go of it. Chris Harris, of Toledo, Ohio, founded Black Frog Brewery in 2014. On July 31 of this year, he quit his day job with the Social Security Administration to run his brewpub and fledgling distribution network full-time. “I’m hoping within the next year to maybe have a small production facility,” he said.

Day Bracey was similarly taken with craft beer. He and fellow stand-up comedian Ed Bailey are in the third year of producing Drinking Partners, a popular podcast combining comedy, talk and beer appreciation that each week sets up in a different bar or brewpub.

So why isn’t craft beer catching on faster among African Americans as a whole?

The answer isn’t mysterious, but it is complex.

Poverty among African Americans plays a part, because craft beer is typically two to three times as expensive as bigger corporate brands. That’s one reason Fresh Fest co-founder Day Bracey cites “systemic racism” as a main factor in the lack of diversity in the industry’s customer base. He also notes racial segregation, which keeps people from trying bars in neighborhoods where they might not feel safe or welcome. “I mean, if you get pulled over in the wrong neighborhood, like that could mean a lot of bad things for you,” Bracey said.

Other observers emphasize the role of the brewing industry, which decades ago began marketing cheap, potent malt liquor in primarily African-American and Latino neighborhoods, said beer scholar Jackson-Beckham.

“I’m 40, so my age and perhaps 10 years [of people] on either side there is a pretty strong association of beer within black culture with malt liquor,” she said. That association, she said, was strengthened by advertising as well as by hip-hop’s embrace of malt liquor as a cultural signifier.

“My whole life, all I saw was malt-liquor bottles,” said Potter.

Such commercial segregation continues to this day, said Black Frog’s Harris. “If you were to go into any carry-out in the inner city, you wouldn’t see any craft beer being sold there,” he said. “So that’s the first thing, is that’s not the demographic [craft brewers are] going after.”

In addition, when craft breweries launch in poor neighborhoods, as they often do, other tensions can arise.

“Breweries, craft breweries in particular, are in many ways, in many spaces, seen as a gentrifying force,” says Jackson-Beckham.

Then there’s a simple matter of taste. And like drinkers from any demographic, some black drinkers have a firm idea what beer tastes like. Potter notes that he has friends who “just, quote, can’t get into the taste of” craft beer, he said. “They just call it ‘nasty-ass beers,’ my buddy Grant says. So yeah, not everybody can get into it.”

Jackson-Beckham adds that the affluent African-Americans who might be expected to try craft beer instead often opt for premium liquors. “The malt-liquor connection really has left, I’m not trying to be punny here, but left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” she said. “If you talk to a lot of folks who really don’t have a lot of exposure to craft beer, I think there’s a tendency to kind of lump it all together.”

But craft-beer advocates say that can change, as it did for them, with exposure. “I think it’s just time and experience and also the willingness to want to move in that direction,” said Byron Nash, a Pittsburgh-based musician who as a bartender takes pride in introducing drinkers to new craft styles.

The barriers to becoming a brewer, however, are notably higher than those for drinkers. Affluent whites, for instance, are much more likely to have grown up with parents, cousins, or friends who home-brewed. And even those who, like Potter, get into the hobby find that acquiring credit, capital and know-how can be difficult.

“That kind of entrepreneurship is definitely a place where women and people of color have had a harder time getting a foothold,” said Alice Julier, director of food studies at Chatham University.

That was the experience of the men working to start Pennsylvania’s first black-owned brewery. “You gotta have a lot of upfront capital to afford that bigger equipment,” Tim White, of Harris Family Brewery, told WITF, in Harrisburg. “I have not gotten approved for any loans yet, so we’re funding this project on our own right now.”

Craft advocates are well aware of all these issues. In April, the Brewers Association, based in Colorado, hired Jackson-Beckham as its first “diversity ambassador.” Jackson-Beckham, it should be noted, doesn’t have a merely academic interest in beer: She’s a prolific writer who gained prominence in the industry with her blog about these issues titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Brewing”; she’s also a homebrewer herself.

To many, Fresh Fest seems like a significant development. It is almost surely the first black beer festival: Neither Potter, Jackson-Beckham nor Brewers Association economist Bart Watson could name another.

“For there to be an all-black brewers’ festival, it is just a huge milestone,” said Black Frog’s Harris (who'll be offering his brews at the fest). “It would show a lot more people, you know, that there are people of color that [are] interested in craft beer.”

Fresh Fest will have a community feel, thanks largely to the “collaboration beers” that are a staple of beer festivals. Organizers paired visiting and local breweries alike with local African-American drinkers to produce some two dozen innovative brews. Bartender Byron Nash (one of whose bands will performs at the fest) is one collaborator; so is Marita Garrett, the mayor of Wilkinsburg.

Garrett is mostly a wine drinker, she said, but worked with owner Matt Gouwens at Lawrenceville’s Hop Farm Brewing Company to come up with something she liked.

“I don’t usually drink beers that much, but this has exposed me to all the different offerings and samplings, and how there’s even, you know, beer that tastes like wine,” she said. Their collaboration “has a little bit of like lavender notes, as well as hibiscus,” she adds.

Garrett acknowledges that many in her town, which is mostly African-American, have voiced concern about gentrification when entrepreneurs have broached opening a brewery there. But as Fresh Fest demonstrates, different kinds of people can open breweries. “You can be a part of this as well,” she said.

Ticket pre-sales were strong enough that Fresh Fest has been moved from its original location, Threadbare Cider, in Spring Garden, to larger digs at Nova Place, on the North Side.

The event also includes live music and food trucks.

A VIP Experience ticket includes a meet-the-brewers session and special edition of the Drinking Partners podcast live, all starting at 1 p.m. Early admission runs 4-9 p.m. and includes a swag bag and special access to beers and food. The regular session runs 5-9 p.m.

For more information, see the event’s website.