Inside a threadbare recording studio in the basement of a worker-owned cooperative in Pittsburgh, Fresh Fest co-founder Mike Potter cracks open an Allegheny City Brewing Most Dope IPA. Across from him sits fellow festival co-founder, comedian, and Drinking Partners podcast co-host Day Bracey. The Pittsburgh natives first met in this very studio in October 2017, when Potter first appeared the podcast, which is co-hosted by comedian Ed Bailey. Potter had joined that episode to discuss Black Brew Culture, the website he started in 2014 to unite and celebrate the disconnected community of Black brewers and breweries in America.
“Right after the podcast, Day was like, ‘Let’s meet and see how we can further the cause with each of our individual platforms,’” Potter tells me.
The result: Day and Potter decided to found Fresh Fest, the nation’s first Black beer festival, in 2018. After a wildly successful first year, Potter is now back in the Drinking Partners studio to talk about the second iteration of the fest, which is a mere two weeks away.
“Last year, it was far beyond anything we could have expected,” says Bracey. “I think we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it.”
Bracey and Potter recall how they suddenly needed to relocate to a larger venue only ten days out to accommodate larger crowds, and how they were expecting up to 700 attendees and ended up with 1,200—so many they had to turn some people away.
In year two, there are twice as many local and visiting breweries. National brands like New Belgium and Guinness signed on to participate. And for the VIPs, Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver will join the Drinking Partners podcast live, which will also feature food provided by James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi. The evening will be capped with a performance by rap group Nappy Roots, who are opening their own craft brewery in Atlanta.
The goal of the festival, says Bracey, has always been, “How do we uplift the Black community?” While Fresh Fest is both a means of economic empowerment as well as a rare expression of diversity in an industry dominated by white men, the founders emphasize that it’s really a celebration of Black music, culture, art, and, yes, craft beer.
“If we’re going to do a festival, we’re not just gonna do another fucking ‘put everybody into a parking lot, fill it with a bunch of beer, put a band in the background and some food trucks,’” says Bracey. “Black people don’t do that shit.”
He adds, “We said at the very beginning, if we’re going to do a beer festival, we’re going to do a beer festival like they don’t do beer festivals. We’re going to do a festival, and we’re going to bring beer to it so that we can introduce the Black community to the craft beer industry.”
Bracey got his start in Pittsburgh comedy in July 2012; his podcast co-host, Ed Bailey, began in August.
“We were two of maybe five or six regular Black comedians in Pittsburgh at the time,” Bracey says. “We wanted to try to find a way to expand our brand outside the finite people we could meet at a comedy show.”
In September 2014, they began the Drinking Partners podcast, eventually attracting local politicians, national hip hop artists, and hundreds of craft beer industry personalities as guests.
Around that same time, Mike Potter launched Black Brew Culture from his Pittsburgh home. He had tried brewing some Pliny the Elder clones in a homebrew kit, but after a dozen so-so batches, he realized his calling in craft beer might be in something other than brewing.
Together, Potter and Bracey ensure that Fresh Fest is a mix of local and national beer culture. Bracey has interviewed someone from almost every Pittsburgh brewery, so he handles the locals. Potter, with his national network, coordinates the out-of-town, Black-owned breweries.
This year’s Fresh Fest includes 45 Pittsburgh-area craft breweries—that’s pretty much all of them—alongside 30 black-owned breweries from around the nation, in addition to 75 vendors, 10 musical acts, 15 artists, and 20 food stations. But Pittsburgh itself has no Black-owned breweries nor any professional Black brewers.
To address this, Bracey and Potter pair participating breweries with a local black entrepreneur or entertainer to collaborate on a special-edition beer for the festival.
This year, collaborations include a peach cobbler-inspired honey ale brewed between the Drinking Partners, Troegs Brewing, and Apis Meadery, and a “Blueberry Trapcakes” stout brewed by Union Brothers Brewing with Pittsburgh rapper Hardo.
“You can only do so many hazy IPAS with coconut or, whatever the fuck, mango juice—whatever the hell it is, it’s been done,” says Potter. “But to tell the story of like, a 7 Up cake, or sweet potato IPA, based on a certain culture’s experience and history, it’s brand new.”
This year, Fresh Fest will also feature Black-owned breweries that are yet to open, having them collaborate with an established Pittsburgh brewery. That includes LA’s Warcloud Brewing, a collective of ten Black semi-professional homebrewers, who worked with Eleventh Hour Brewing on the 7 Up cake beer, Apollo.
Kuumba Smith, an award-winning homebrewer from Allen, Texas, who brews as Smittox Brewing, tells me he’s glad Fresh Fest exists to provide a platform for brewers of colors to gather outside of Facebook groups. He hopes to talk business with fellow brewers at the festival to learn how they secured the financing and partnerships needed to successfully open and sustain a craft brewery.
“I think a lot of us don’t have the same chances that a lot of—I hate to say it—that a lot of white folks have. Maybe some people don’t think we know what we’re talking about,” says Smith. “But times are changing, man.”
Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter, founders of craft beer lifestyle brand Dope and Dank, have received a lot of attention recently for their upcoming brewery Crowns & Hops in LA's Inglewood neighborhood. At Fresh Fest, they’ll release two of their beers, Elevated Cypher IPA and Urban Anomaly stout, for the first time ever.
Ashburn and Hunter stress that one of the most valuable aspects of Fresh Fest is that it brings an event to the people, versus asking people to come to an environment in which they may not feel comfortable.
“People don’t realize how uncomfortable at times it is being the only one of someone in a space,” says Hunter. “That really can be a bit overwhelming and discouraging.”
The idea of reaching people where they are was on display at last month’s Very Local, Very Fresh—a $5, scaled-down version of Fresh Fest in Pittsburgh’s historically Black Hill District, which featured a handful of local and out-of-town breweries and a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in the craft beer industry. One of those breweries was Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing, which was founded in 2012. It collaborated with Crowns & Hops, as well as Herndon, Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company, on a West Coast IPA brewed with South African hops for Fresh Fest this year.
“Aslin is a predominantly white brewery,” notes Hunter. “Union is a Black- and white-owned brewery. Crowns & Hops is a Black brewery. So, we all have very unique perspectives.”
Union co-founder and brewer Kevin Blodger is also the diversity chair for the Brewers Association. He said that he has noticed that every time he is pictured in a news story, the following weekend will see an uptick in Black visitors to his Baltimore taproom.
“I want people to come in and feel comfortable,” he says. “I hope that other breweries say ‘Hey, if I bring in people who don’t just look like me— the quote-unquote bearded white guy in a flannel— but if I’ve got Black and brown and Latinx and gay and lesbian people working here, it’s going to make others comfortable and want to come to my brewery and spend money here.’”
Potter and Bracey say that Fresh Fest will remain grounded in Pittsburgh, because, in their estimation, the city lacks a middle-class Black neighborhood and is in dire need of a Black-centric event with national drawing power. They are, however, exploring the idea of expanding the festival to other cities in coming years.
For now, they are focused on ensuring year two is a hit. Despite last year’s wild success, they still get the occasional online troll—“What if I wanted to host an all-white beer festival” is a common refrain—but they won’t let the haters bring them down.
“At the end of the day, the change is coming anyway, so you can kick and scream and be mad about it, but there’s not much more you can do than just troll online,” says Bracey. “I don’t read the comments much anyway.”