Beer’s Racial Reckoning Missed the Mark on Progress

December 29, 2020

By Toni Boyce, December 29, 2020

Craft beer has long prided itself on being a beneficial member of the community, seeing itself as inclusive, ethical, and philanthropic. Obsession with independence and size has driven everything from consumer choice to collaboration efforts. Small is better. Independent is ethical. Community is everything. The words are straightforward, but the message rings hollow more often than not, especially when it comes to Black folks. Our culture is appropriated for capitalization, and those who refuse to assimilate or be willingly tokenized are left on the outside of looking in.

2020 caused many to reflect on the definition of community. As the beer industry looked to respond to the collective angst the Black community has experienced when interacting with the rest of society, one frequently taken action was the compilation of lists of “notable,” “impactful,” and “prominent” Black voices people should be heeding. Though these gestures are likely well-meant, several questions continue to hang like a cloud at an outdoor wedding: What qualifies all these white folks to determine which Black voices are worth people’s attention? What makes white people feel as though they are qualified to be the arbiters on race relations? Why does the beer community give white folks this credence? Spoiler alert: They’re not qualified. They’re not authorities on race relations, and they sure as hell shouldn't be afforded an ounce of deference in “determining” Black folks’ importance. Even as the industry decries gatekeeping, white people remain the filters deciding which Black folks are allowed to pass.

Ren Navarro, founder of  Beer. Diversity. also finds this problematic. “Lists are arbitrary, and when it’s a list comprised of predominantly BIPOC people, it's a dangerous list, because now you're telling a white population, 'Here are the people that we think are safe and approachable,'" she says. This approach is counterproductive, as only highlighting “safe” Black people who make white folks comfortable excludes those disruptors who drive change. There is much to be said for those who are willing to take a stand by saying and doing what is necessary, regardless of who it makes uncomfortable. Change isn’t made when people, especially those in the majority, are comfortable. Navarro mentions that lists don’t have to be completely made of disruptors, but is adamant that these folks should be acknowledged. "[A list] needs to acknowledge that there are a good group of BIPOC folk who are working their asses off that are tired. Capital "T" tired of the bullshit that's going on, and they're not gonna be cuddly and they’re not gonna be approachable, but they're gonna make change."

For him to have an interview about race relations and everyone involved was a white man, was pretty intentional, pretty disrespectful, and pretty damn stupid.”

Though gatekeepers have worked overtime to determine which Black people seeking to enter the industry are “cultural fits,” others have tokenized the Black folks on the inside by presenting their businesses as Black-owned, yet excluding those Black minority owners from decisions. ONE Fermentary and Taproom in Minneapolis, Minnesota was presented as the city’s first Black-owned brewery, but when it came to a public statement in response to the racial unrest surrounding George Floyd’s murder, references made by the Black co-owner Ramsey Louder to white supremacy, the Mineappolis Police Department, and Black Lives Matter were removed by white majority owner Sally Schmidt, who released a watered-down version to the public. A Black face was used in promoting the business, but a Black voice was censored as the business presented itself to the public.

The centering of white people and non-Black POC when it comes to issues affecting Black folks specifically has been a shortcoming of the beer industry since it began navigating the waters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. From books on racism by white authors, to roundtable discussions led by white moderators, white folks have called shotgun in the conversation on race. Andy Crouch, host of “The Beer Edge Podcast,” was afforded an opportunity to interview Brewers Association CEO Bob Pease to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion; social justice; and other topics, as members of the Black beer community were consistently ignored in requesting conversations around the same subject matter. When challenged as to why this discussion only included white men, he responded via Twitter saying, “I think our pretty lengthy record of covering this industry stands on its own, including our conversations as part of @thebeeredge pods. And the role of a journalist is to ask questions, especially when they've gone unanswered.”

April Boyce, my wife and co-founder of BlaQ & Soul, who reached out to Pease for several months on Twitter to no avail, finds the interview pointless. “Andy was pretty much just riding a wave. There was nothing groundbreaking or profound in that podcast. There was no new information,” she said. “For him to have an interview about race relations and everyone involved was a white man, was pretty intentional, pretty disrespectful, and pretty damn stupid. It makes no sense to have a conversation about race relations when everyone in the room is a fucking white male. That in itself is the whole fucking problem.” 

The Brewers Association, which didn’t have a member code of conduct prior to August of 2020, has now released a lukewarm, toothless policy along with a complaint process that gives little recourse to those who are marginalized. The process requires a member or members to file a complaint intake form which will be reviewed by a panel of internal staff. How does one compose a panel from a pool that is overwhelmingly white to arbitrate issues of racism? How does a system that requires that complaints come from members protect those that those very same members oppress? The complaint procedure also mentions that “education” will be prioritized in resolutions. However, it’s been noted that this too has not been put into action, since calls for members such as Founders Brewing Company, which settled a racial discrimination lawsuit with a former employee in 2019, to be held accountable with a decades-late code of conduct and complaint process have been ignored.

The attention turned to Black folks in the face of our oppression is now being used to capture an audience and provide a platform for others.”

While white centering continues to be a glaring issue, Black-led initiatives are also being used in a performative manner. Enter Black Is Beautiful, a collaboration founded by Marcus Baskerville, head brewer at Weathered Souls Brewing. The name, taken from a movement started decades ago by African Americans to celebrate and uplift themselves in the face of white supremacy, has now been used for a collaboration undertaken by the craft beer industry, which is overwhelmingly white. According to its website, the goal of the collaboration was two-fold: “To raise awareness for the injustices people of color face daily and raise funds for police brutality reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged.” This is a problem. The name of the beer highlights Blackness, yet that same Blackness is decentered in the mission, which instead centers “people of color.” The attention turned to Black folks in the face of our oppression is now being used to capture an audience and provide a platform for others.

It’s a detail that fundamentally alters the initiative’s intention, or worse, it’s an intentional bait-and-switch leading participants and casual consumers to believe that Black lives are being platformed. The phrase is a hallmark of decades of movements dedicated to the centering of Blackness that weren’t acknowledged, and, to add insult to injury, several problematic breweries were included in the initiative, including Founders and Iron Springs Public House that was previously under fire for displaying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag in its window.

As for the requests to “donate 100% of the beer's proceeds to local foundations that support police brutality reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged” and “commit to the long-term work of equality,” little remains to be seen from many of the participating breweries. How much money was raised through the initiative and where that money went is a key piece of information missing in determining its impact. While much of the industry has moved on from the collaboration and the discussion of violence against Black folks, Baskerville has experienced personal gain from its visibility, as one of the newly elected members of the Brewers Association Board of Directors.

In 2020, all eyes have been on Blackness, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to equity in beer and everywhere else. For true progress to be realized, efforts must go beyond the conversation and must center those who are marginalized. Dismantling systemic, anti-Black racism will require a redistribution of power that white people in the beer industry have demonstrated that they are unwilling to undertake. If the beer industry intends to be the progressive environment it presents itself as, it must begin with a changing of the guard, and the new guard must act as agents of the oppressed.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
Related Articles

Beer Twitter Shouldn't Stick to Beer

"And I think in terms of intent versus impact, likes and retweets, how much does social media activism actually fucking do?”

How the Pandemic Has Changed Beer Forever

2020 turned the beer world upside down. And while next year hopefully with bring relief and better times, some industry-wide changes are here to stay.