Last year, Pittsburgh earned a place in beer history thanks to Day Bracey and Mike Potter, co-founders of Fresh Fest, the nation’s first festival for black-owned breweries.
The success of the inaugural festival surprised even its organizers, who had expected 700 or so ticket buyers but drew nearly twice as many.
But that doesn’t make the sophomore effort any easier – especially when Bracey and Potter are roughly doubling the event’s scale.
They’re planning for 3,000 visitors, up from a racially diverse crowd of 1,200 last year, and hosting 28 black-owned craft brewers from around the country, up from nine. The three-day program, Aug. 9-11, also features live music, DJs, food trucks, and collaborations involving 45 Pittsburgh-area brewers and notable local African Americans creating original brews. So even though the venue’s the same – Nova Place, on the North Side – the logistical demands have grown.
“It’s almost like we’re starting from scratch again,” said Bracey.
Planning an event this size is a year-round enterprise, and has occupied the two men full-time for the past few months, he said. Bracey, a stand-up comic and podcaster, said that he and Potter, a print-shop owner and home brewer, broke about even on the 2018 Fresh Fest. That’s pretty impressive, considering that neither of them had ever attempted anything similar. (Bracey says strong advance ticket sales prompted them to move the event from the original venue to the much more capacious Nova Place.)
They’re hoping the 2019 model turns a profit. For what it’s worth, Bracey said on July 30 that advance sales had already exceeded last year’s total.
The three-day festival’s mission is to get more black people making, selling and drinking craft beer – those typically novel and adventuresome IPAs, hefeweizens, stouts and others specialized in by smaller breweries. Though craft brewers continue to proliferate in the U.S. – the latest count tops 7,000 – the number of black brewers is still around 50. Pittsburgh has no black-owned craft breweries, and Pennsylvania has just one: Harris Family Brewery, in Harrisburg. The 2019 Fresh Fest will host more than half the national total.
Along with Harris Family, returning guests at Fresh Fest include Sankofa Beer Company, from Washington, D.C., and Black Frog Brewery, near Toledo, Ohio. Local celebrities and breweries doing brewing collaborations include: “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” sportswriter Nubyjas Wilborn and Church Brew Works; artist Alisha Wormsley and Cinderlands Brewing Company; Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones and Brew Gentlemen; and funk band Starship Mantis and Helltown Brewing.
The festival opens Friday with a series of events at the Ace Hotel, in East Liberty, including a panel discussion and a symposium, both hosted by nationally known beer writer Ale Sharpton.
Saturday’s attractions, all at Nova Place, include the main event, mostly held outdoors, with unlimited pours of some 150 beers and ciders. New this year: indoor access, including DJ sets to supplement the live music outdoors. The live headliner is Kentucky-based hip-hop group Nappy Roots.
For VIP ticket-holders Saturday, there’s also a special live edition of Drinking Partners, the craft-beer podcast Bracey co-hosts with Ed Bailey, with renowned Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, and an event catered by James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwauchi. On Sunday, there’s a brunch at Strip District restaurant Savoy, geared for visiting industry types but open to the public.
Bracey said he thinks Fresh Fest is changing the conversation around black folks and craft beer – and not just because some of last year’s collaboration brews, like Blq Metal, a West Coast IPA developed by rock guitarist Byron Nash and Helltown Brewing – have outlived the festival that inspired them.
“The biggest [impact] has been online, and seeing people who were the only black person in their neighborhood, or in their local brewery, finding other black folks and saying, ‘Oh, there’s a community of people out there that are also interested in this. I’m not alone,’” he said.
Bracey also cites increased awareness within the mostly white brewing community that it needs to acknowledge nonwhite drinkers – and maybe think twice about, say, beer names that reference rap lyrics or street gangs and are generated by all-white creative teams.
“Whenever I go into a brewery now, it’s still very much white. I’m still very much the only black guy in there, typically,” he said. “But ... you are starting to see people say, ‘Hey, it’s not OK. How can we do this, and do this in a responsible manner?’”
In other words, staging a black beer festival – something that a year ago didn’t yet exist – still involves bridging different cultures.
“Typically with a beer festival, a bunch of guys get into a parking lot, and they might have a band in the background, and they fill it up with beer and they drink for four to six hours,” he said. By contrast, “with black events, we’re typically more with the culture, whatever the entertainment is there, that’s the focus. … We’re looking at what to do, who’s gonna be there, who’s [who] in the crowd, what outfit we’re gonna pick. The reason for coming is completely different, the motivation is different in those communities. So we’re trying to merge those communities.”