Why This North Carolina Brewery Made a Juneteenth Beer

June 18, 2020

By Jay C. Williams, June 18, 2020


It all started with a word exclaimed last year during a planning meeting for Durham, North Carolina-based Fullsteam Brewing's 2020 events. The voice behind that word was Ari Sanders, Fullsteam’s director of taproom operations. 

Growing up in Smithfield, North Carolina, Sanders lived with her great-grandparents for many years, both of whom were born to freedmen, or people who had previously been enslaved. She fondly remembers Juneteenth family cookouts as well as church sermons about freedom.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Union army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to read General Orders, Number 3, which declared that enslaved people were free, despite the Emancipation Proclamation having freed all slaves almost two and half years earlier. The following year, emancipated slaves planned Jubilee Day to celebrate. The Juneteenth tradition spread from there to neighboring states and then across the country as freedmen migrated to other parts of the country.

“I thought of the possible event as something fun, educational, and unique to Southern culture,” Sanders says. “The relationship between the South and its agricultural roots are also intrinsically linked to slavery, so I thought it was important that Fullsteam acknowledge that in its programming, particularly as Durham welcomes so many transplants to the area who aren't necessarily as aware of the South's antebellum history as well as folks who were born and raised in the South.” 

For the event, the brewery had planned on having dance exhibitions, musicians, artists, and storytellers. “I have always really loved storytelling,” Sanders says. “I'd hoped to connect with local writers, poets, and historians and lend our stage to their telling of stories related to the experiences of both enslaved people and freedmen.” 

Sanders takes it a step further, saying, “Sharing these stories can help people foster diverse relationships and stoke interest in the stories of other people. Sometimes, unique programming at a brewery can foster that interest, but I think that being interested in the humans to whom those stories belong make for far more engaged learners. Interested, engaged learners are far more apt to investigate, retain and think critically.”

Stacey Price Sprenz Photography

As with a lot of plans for 2020, the event was interrupted by Covid-19. The brewery had hoped to shift it to an online celebration where participants would be able watch all the entertainment safely from their own homes while enjoying a Fullsteam Juneteenth unfiltered pilsner, made with 100-percent North Carolina grain. As a brewery focused on seasonality and Southern agriculture, Fullsteam wanted to make sure it had a beer appropriate for the summer.

“One thing that is always consistent with June in North Carolina is heat and humidity,” Sanders says. “We wanted something crisp, easy-drinking and appropriate for dancing and celebrating.”

However, last week Sanders expressed in a very personal blog post that the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd “made it next to impossible to think about comedy and dancing.”  

Fullsteam released the beer as planned on June 11 and will donate 100 percent of the profits to two Durham nonprofit organizations: the Hayti Heritage Center, which provides cultural arts and educational programs, and Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which works to dismantle structural racism and oppression.

“This release has been one of our quickest selling packaged beers,” Sanders says about the Juneteenth unfiltered pilsner. “It's made me quite happy, although I'm pretty sad that I can't buy more to share with friends.” 

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