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Pittsburgh's Black Beer Festival Returns As Barrel & Flow

By most measures, the festival that launched in 2018 as Fresh Fest has been a big success. It made history as the nation’s first Black beer festival. It drew 1,200 guests its first year and 3,400 its second. It was named second-best beer fest in the nation by USA Today two years running. It even sold 1,000 tickets to last year’s virtual edition, according to co-founder Day Bracey.

So why change its name this year to Barrel & Flow: Black Arts on Tap, even as it prepares to return as an in-person event this weekend?

One factor was the dissolution of Bracey’s business partnership with Fresh Fest’s other co-founder, Mike Potter. But Bracey offered another reason: To him, Barrel & Flow isn’t all, or even mostly, about the beer.

Plenty of craft beer will be dispensed and consumed this Saturday, of course. But Bracey consider that largely a means to the end of creating business opportunities for Black people. “That is by far the main goal and focus of the festival,” he said.

Barrel & Flow’s new name was inspired by the 2005 movie “Hustle & Flow,” said Bracey, who’s also a stand-up comedian. “The craft-beer industry is a business,” he said. The fact that it wasn’t a business that Black people were participating in very much was a spur for the creation of the festival, said Bracey, who also co-hosts a podcast on craft beer with fellow comic Ed Bailey.

Bracey also wanted to focus more on beer-adjacent artists, from the designers who make labels for beer bottles and cans to the music acts who’ll perform on outdoor stages at the festival’s new location, the sprawling South Side Works.

“We don't want to sell beer to the Black community. We want to sell opportunity to the Black community,” he said. “So, yeah, it’s craft beer … and, you know, hustle and flow. So it is Barrel & Flow.”

Pandemic notwithstanding, some things have changed in the Black beer scene. Not, unfortunately, the ownership figures: There are still only 60 or 70 Black-owned breweries in the U.S., less than 1 percent of the total of 8,500 or more. And none of Western Pennsylvania's more than 40 breweries is Black-owned.

But Pittsburgh is getting attention nonetheless. In July, Forbes magazine called Pittsburgh “the world’s best example” of a city “that truly values and promotes diversity.”

The article cited Fresh Fest, of course, for its role in desegregating Pittsburgh arts and drinking culture. In an interview, Bracey said that Black brewmaster and author Garrett Oliver of New York told him he’d been surprised by the crowd at the 2019 Fresh Fest.

“He was like, ‘Before I came to the festival, I thought it was going to be this, you know, pseudo-segregated space or whatever,'” Bracey said. “And he stepped in and he was like, ‘Wow, the diversity that's there, the integration.’ It wasn't just Black folks. There were people, you know, across the rainbow. You know, he said it: 'That's what America looks like. It looked like America.'”

Forbes also noted the Pittsburgh Brewing Diversity Council, founded in 2020, and the newly opened Trace Brewing, a Bloomfield establishment that has voiced a commitment to diverse hiring practices.

“Trace reached out to me before they opened up, and said, ‘Hey, we want to be intentional about, you know, moving forward and diversifying our taproom,’” said Bracey. “And they did it, like they didn't just put lip service. They did it. You look around and there's brown people and black people and gay people. It's more reflective of reality.”

Bracey added that while the ownership numbers haven’t changed, Black people are making inroads into craft beer.

“We're seeing more folks looking at the industry as a way of opportunity, whether that's getting a job at a brewery, collabing on a label, you know, having beer at an event that would help sell tickets, or [bring] foot traffic to their area.”

In spite of it new digs on the South Side, Barrel & Flow’s programming will be largely familiar to Fresh Fest attendees. About 30 visiting Black-owned breweries — perhaps half the nation’s total — will be dispensing samples of their wares, including collaboration brews with local breweries. Other collaborations pair Pittsburgh-based Black artists and musicians with local breweries. There’ll also be live music on two stages; the headliners are nationally touring progressive funk band Ghost-Note, and Pittsburgh-based hip-hop artist Benji. There are also two DJ stages. And there’ll be about 30 food vendors, plus a lineup of speakers and more.

New initiatives include “art + biz,” a program to provide grants of up to $1,000 to support projects by artists, musicians and designers working with small businesses. Art + Biz is supported by New Sun Rising in collaboration with Farm to Table. And for the first time, the festival will be a hybrid live/virtual event, with digital access to Barrel & Flow’s musicians, speakers, and more, and home delivery of collaboration beers.

Additionally, back in July, with COVID-19 cases rising again both locally and nationally, Barrel & Flow became one of Pittsburgh first major events to announce it would require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours for all attendees.

“We had some vendors pull out. We've had some folks ask for refunds,” said Bracey. “We've had some, you know, trolls hop on and give us the, you know, the angry, tweets and whatnot. And it was weird because, I'm used to hearing from racists, but now we're hearing from anti-vaxxers.”

But Bracey said response to the mandate has been overwhelmingly positive. And he noted that in-person admissions are capped at 5,000, leaving plenty of room to spread out at South Side Works.

Barrel & Flow runs Friday through Sunday, with the main festival taking place Sat., Sept. 11. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm