Pride, Politics, and Pints at Provincetown's First Brewery

March 26, 2019

By Aaron Goldfarb, March 26, 2019

The guests were dressed like Boy Scouts and lumberjacks, leather fetishists and Chick-fil-A cows, even The Shining twins (though there was more than two of them). Most of them were men. They played in a flip cup tournament, posed for photos in a giant beer can photobooth, and, of course, pounded pints of beer. The event also helped raise $2,500 for The Shack, a local LGBTQ welcome center. Held in late October at Provincetown Town Hall, this was the launch party for Provincetown Brewing Co., the gay hot spot’s first brewery.

“When I first came up here eight years ago, I was like, ‘Let’s go to a brewery.’ And my friends told me there isn’t one,” explains Chris Hartley, the brewery’s founder. “There’s no brewery? But this is such a vacation spot. I know gays don’t typically drink [craft] beers, but some bears and lesbians do,” he jokes. “Now I don’t see myself being either of those, but I still do love beer.”

Hartley is right that the craft beer world has largely ignored the LGBTQ community and almost completely left them out of the cultural conversation. That’s depressing for an industry rooted in gay-friendly urban metropolises like New York, San Francisco, and Boston. And, while it’s easy to offer the flippant stereotype that “gay people don’t like beer,” maybe the problem is not that simple.

“The craft beer industry, although growing, is still a bit of a niche market and as the gay community represents a small subset of the general population, that means it represents a small subset of a niche market, so there is not a critical mass of gay beer makers,” explains Bill Thomas, founder of the New York City Gay Craft Beer Lovers. “When I look back at thirty years of going to gay bars, beer was never viewed as a specialty or a focus. Rather, it was a commodity. Gay bars had beer because it was profitable to have something relatively cheap and easy to pour.”

Thomas believes this is what led to “big beer” products almost completely dominating the gay bar scene—due to their scale they could offer incentives and price breaks that no craft brewery could match. Likewise, these large corporations could afford to budget marketing dollars toward, say it with me, “corporate social responsibility.” A cynical ploy or not, it’s why Budweiser floats so often end up in Pride parades.

“Craft brewers don’t enjoy that same access,” adds Thomas, “When they have to make hard decisions about where to distribute or market, it makes sense that they would target known, reliable markets. It might seem to make sense to them to cede the [gay] market to the macro brewers.”

Hartley didn’t like that. Seeing the lack of craft beer at the bars he frequented, he set his mind to change things. When he had his epiphany in Provincetown, he was involved in residential construction in the New York area. Work was good, but wasn’t satisfying. So he dropped everything and moved to Boston where he began interning at Turtle Swamp Brewing under the mentorship of brewmaster and co-owner Nik Walther. There he started developing recipes—he favors juicy IPAs and easy-drinking pub-type beers like red ales. Hartley now splits his time between Boston and Provincetown as he prepares to open the doors on his taproom later this year.

“Our ethos is that this is an activist brand,” Hartley says. Once it’s fully up and running, thirteen percent of every beer sale will go to a different, progressive charity. Another two percent will go back to Provincetown causes like Family Week—Provincetown’s annual gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified families in the world—or Girl Splash—Provincetown’s “summer week for women.”

“Anything that benefits the town or queer community, those pillars are what matters most to us,” Hartley explains. “Those causes will be what we’re focusing on promoting.”

Early buzz around the opening has caused a few local publications to call Provincetown Brewery “America’s first gay brewery,” but that’s not quite the case. Hillcrest Brewing Co. opened in 2012 in the heart of San Diego’s gay community. Since then the “queers who love beer” have become one of the city’s most visited craft breweries. There’s also Gay Beer, Loyal Brands’ contract-brewed canned offering (in partnership with Butternuts Beer and Ale) that was recently launched in the New York City area. There have likewise been hyper-local initiatives surrounding single beers, like in the case of Brooklyn Brewery’s The Stonewall Inn IPA and Coney Island Brewing’s Pride 365. The latter was a collaboration with Thomas’s group, which currently counts an astonishing 2,300 members who attend near-weekly events in the five boroughs.

“It’s my opinion that craft beer can be very successful when it’s focused on serving a local market that it knows and can be engaged,” explains Thomas, who also visits Provincetown every summer. He recognizes that craft beer is not the primary focus of the town’s bar scene, though thinks it could be poised to break out as he’s noticed more and more local craft beers appearing at bars and restaurants like The Squealing Pig and The Canteen. Thomas thinks Hartley’s brewery can succeed in P-Town, if it focuses on engaging the community at events like the Boatslip Resort’s famed “tea dance” happy hour while also making visitors aware of what supporting Provincetown Brewing (instead of, say, Bud Light) actually means.

“I really want my beer to be a conversation starter, to shine light on values that P-Town stands for,” Hartley explains, noting that this is a truly personal mission for him. “The P-Town queer community welcomed me with open arms, and I want to give back to them.”

It almost had this dreamlike quality, like what I dreamed being gay would be like when I was younger. When I came to P-Town it was an immediate sensation of feeling very at home.”

Hartley had started visiting Provincetown in the summer of 2012. He explains that, as a gay kid growing up in Reno, Nevada, he hadn’t really been exposed to a ton of gay culture until that trip.

“It almost had this dreamlike quality, like what I dreamed being gay would be like when I was younger,” he notes. “When I came to P-Town it was an immediate sensation of feeling very at home. There was this immediate sense of familiarity, like when you go home to visit.”

He hopes his space will seamlessly fit within the community he now calls home, which is increasingly important during an era that has begun to see the rapid decline of predominantly gay spaces due to the advent of hookup apps and the general rise of LGBTQ visibility. As INTO’s Zach Stafford told the Eater Upsell podcast last year, “People can make any space through the apps a gay bar, a gay club, and you kind of now understand that gay people are everywhere.” Having said that, Provincetown at large still does offer a place where gay people can fully be themselves without negotiating their identity.

“Unlike other places, P-Town still has this authenticity, there’s this authentic quality to the gay experience," explains Hartley. "Everything feels more thought out, and there’s a real flavor to everything, the aesthetics of it all.”

Provincetown Brewery is set to do the same for gay beer drinkers. The brewery’s taproom is built in an old mechanic’s shop. Unfortunately, the late-2018 to early-2019 government shutdown slowed some necessary permit approvals, meaning Hartley won’t be able to legally open his doors until late spring or early summer. Only five to ten percent of Hartley’s beer will be brewed in Provincetown—the small town simply has space, water, and sewage limitations—with the rest being contracted out of Turtle Swamp. The fact that Provincetown is busiest in the summer makes Hartley think he can use the quieter off-season to experiment with more limited, higher-gravity beers.

Hartley jokes that, because he’s gay, the space will be a little more “finished” than most breweries you’ve been to. He studied graphic design in college and was once an interior designer for Ralph Lauren stores. Thus, despite its previous industrial usage, he’s managed make it feel warm and comfortable, really emphasizing the natural light of the space. Throughout the taproom, art, photographs, and other elements will highlight both the history of Provincetown and activism throughout queer history.

 But, it will still be a brewery, a laid-back spot with a pool table, shuffleboard, and board games. With an outdoor area so people can soak up the summer sun and enjoy the fresh salt air. A place that people—and Hartley emphasizes “everyone,” gay or straight—can use as a community hangout, where local organizations can hold meetings, or just a spot for people to drink beer and socialize. It will also perhaps be the only brewery in America not afraid to promote itself by encouraging you to come check out its male employees’ great butts.

“I really want to have fun with this,” explains Hartley. “I don’t want activism to be a downer!”

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

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