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How Eugenia Brown is Empowering Women of Color to Join the Beer Industry

November 11, 2020

By Courtney Iseman, November 11, 2020

Eugenia Brown is intent on building bridges where she sees barriers in craft beer. On July 22, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based beer professional and enthusiast launched The Road to 50. An initiative to help 50 women of color obtain Cicerone beer server certification, the movement has galvanized the craft community and grown to become The Road to 100, with goals now surpassing that first level of Cicerone certification.

Brown is a mental health professional and beertender with her own brand, Beer Chick LLC, which produces beer-related merchandise aimed at welcoming and representing women of color in the beer community. She is also a leader of Charlotte’s Pink Boots Society chapter, where she has been active in reaching out to women who aspire to work in beer through outreach and scholarship programs.

As Brown was entering the beer industry, she discovered the Cicerone program. The comprehensive scope of knowledge covered by the Cicerone tests appealed to her passion for beer education, and she began studying and attending classes at local breweries. Having passed the first level, Brown says she sees Cicerone certification as a foot in the door of the industry that women of color don’t often have. 

“Guys, in particular, can show up to a brewery, volunteer on brew days, and make connections,” Brown says. “They don’t always need the Cicerone certification. I hate to say it, but I almost feel like [women of color] need to come to the table with that something extra. We don’t have families who own breweries, we don’t grow up going to breweries. We need this other way in.”

While Brown was already focused on improving inclusion, education, and opportunity for women of color in beer, she decided to go one step further this summer with the Road to 50 initiative. Training for a new job at Free Range Brewing, Brown was surprised to see another Black woman in the room after being so used to being the only Black woman on staff at other beer jobs. 

“I thought, ‘Wow, Eugenia, you’ve gotten so comfortable being the token Black person, why is that?’” Brown recalls. She says she reflected on the opportunities she’d recently had or created, like being invited to help brew J. Wakefield Brewing’s Black is Beautiful beer. 

“Whether conscious or not, I was somewhat contributing to that tokenism because I hadn’t invited anyone else. I felt like I was trying to protect myself and my space. I felt really vulnerable within that but in the same breath...I thought, ‘Why aren’t there any other Black women in this space?’” 

Brown acknowledges that she isn’t in a position of authority to make decisions about who works in breweries and who is equitably included in the beer industry—the fact that those positions are mostly occupied by white men is exactly what needs to shift. Still, Brown felt she could impart change, helping women of color find pathways into beer careers.

Brown was inspired to do just that through education after reading about Garrett Oliver spearheading the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling to offer BIPOC scholarship opportunities. Seeing that first-level Cicerone certification as a conduit to one’s new or better beer career, she created the Road to 50 campaign to raise money for 50 women of color to not just take the Certified Beer Server test, but to study and learn together. The test fee is $69, and Brown says that while the cost is prohibitive to some, for many others, lack of confidence is a major roadblock. The Road to 50 helps potential beer pros overcome both.

Photos courtesy of Eugenia Brown.

To raise money, Brown designed a “More Bridges, Less Barriers” T-shirt. The response was overwhelming. People bought the tee or simply donated money, and Brown hit her goal in three days. Meanwhile, the Cicerone program caught wind and decided to double the initiative’s impact, covering 50 more tests. The Road to 50 became the Road to 100, and Brown raised $8,000. This left her with enough to additionally help 20 women take the written portion of the second level of Cicerone certification. 

The 100 recipients for the Certified Beer Server level have been selected. Of the 20 partial scholarships for the second level, Brown says applications are currently being reviewed for five spots; a second round of applications will be accepted for another five after those are rewarded, and the final ten are reserved for women completing the first level in December.

Excited by the potential impact of this education-geared movement, the beer community has been finding ways to get involved. Edge City Brewery donated some of its Black is Beautiful beer proceeds. “We believe in what [Eugenia] is trying accomplish, which is to further bridge the gap between those in the industry and those that desire to be,” says Edge City cofounder John Thomas.

Cicerone-certified women working and educating in beer enthusiastically joined the Road to 100 as mentors. Beer scholar and advanced Cicerone Asa B. Stone, Ph.D. helped Brown build the initiative’s education component. 

“I wanted to work with Eugenia because growing up in Japan, I learned that ‘the person we used to be is the very person we could help most,’” says Stone. “I felt that I could actualize my vision of what I wished I had when I began my own journey in the beer world to help others like me and enrich our experience.” Stone adds that the mentorship program helps participants stay connected, inspired, and empowered.

Stone, Brown, and other mentors created a 12-week course where the 100 participants learn different topics and have discussions. Mentors like cartoonist Em Sauter created a visual syllabus (free to all here), and Razia Gonzalez organized a donation of 100 books from the publisher of Tasting Beer.

“We’re being taught by these really knowledgeable women who are very well versed in the industry in every aspect,” says Road to 100 recipient Gloria Rakowsky, a university professor pursuing a career in beer education. “It’s really cool to be a part of something that you can see. We’re all over the country, so to see everyone’s faces on the Zoom group, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m definitely not alone.”

Rakowsky says she’s long known the struggle of being a woman in craft beer. In 2014, she started the Syracuse Women of Craft beer, a social group for women to exchange knowledge and meet people in the industry. Finding out about Brown and the Road to 100 provided her the impetus to take the test, for which she has been studying since June. Rakowsky passed on her first attempt in September.

Another recipient, Shani Glapion, is also the founder of a group aimed at fostering inclusion and diversity in beer. The Black Beer Experience emphasizes socializing and education to establish space for Black people in the taproom. Glapion is excited about the credibility she feels Cicerone certification adds to one’s name in the industry. 

“You get taken more seriously if you do things like this, especially as a Black person not already having a beer community,” Glapion says. “I’m trying to create my space—I haven’t been homebrewing for 20 years, this is my way of making my mark.” Shifting from construction project management, Glapion intends on becoming a beer consultant and giving overlooked Black-owned businesses attention to create craft beer menus, as well as growing The Black Beer Experience chapters in new cities.

Rakowsky, Glapion, and recipient Rekik Tesfaye all plan to proceed to level two Certified Cicerone status after passing level one. Having already worked as a beertender and for an alcoholic beverage distributor, Tesfaye says she wishes someone would have pushed her to take the Cicerone test before. For her, The Road to 100 program has been a source of mentorship and support.

Tesfaye sees the bridges that Brown’s Road to 100 initiative is building where it set out to knock down barriers, bridges that can not only help 100 women confidently enter beer, but in doing so, can also help diversify the industry. 

“Being a woman first can be a barrier in craft beer, let alone a woman of color, and then a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Tesfaye says. “It can feel like you don’t belong...This is a bridge that helps us connect. It’s nice to see other people that look like you and encourage you on this path. The hope is that the more of us who take this path, the more people who will feel like they can follow it, too.”

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