I spoke with Annie Johnson, this year’s homebrewer of the year, whose take on the matter is that many people of color simply don’t have access to craft beer, and that without access, there isn’t going to be interest.
“If you think about most urban cities, and you have a minority population that belong to a certain area of town, we all know it… If you go to the little corner mart, there is no craft beer. It’s Bud, Bud Light. Nothing is marketed to them except for those. They’re the only ones that are marketing to that particular crowd. And if you’re not exposed to it, you’re not going to be interested in it.”Not wanting to leave Atlanta out of the conversation, I also invited Ale Sharpton and Lenox Mercedes to weigh in on the subject. Though neither Ale or Lenox had spoken to each other or read Annie’s interview at the time I spoke with them, they had similar thoughts on the matter.
Ale Sharpton (a.k.a. Dennis Malcolm Byron, Jr.) a prominent Atlanta beer blogger and web host who is regularly asked to contribute to Thrillist as an Atlanta beer expert (and who also writes for Beer Connoisseur, HipHopWired.com, The Atlanta Voice, Jet, J'Adore, and others) agreed that lack of exposure to craft beer was a problem, but the issue is also part of a larger historical context:
“I think [exposure] is a big part of it. There was also a period of disconnection when beer was discovered in Egypt and the Sumerian civilizations, to Europe. When it was brewed eventually in the U.S., German and English immigrants played more of a role than others. That has a lot to do with it as well. Eventually, the microbrewery movement was simply dominated by whites. Things are turning around slowly.”Ale Sharpton sees his work as a beer blogger, in part, as a form of activism:
“What I realized was that particularly African Americans were not regularly informed through avenues directly catering to them via magazines, websites, and other sources. Part of my goal of developing the Ale Sharpton brand was to help [people of color] realize that there is an awesome, exciting, and burgeoning world of craft beers to enjoy. [...]
I always try to promote festivals as much as possible, because they are the ultimate tasting vehicles for hundreds of different ales and lagers. [...] I try to help open more doors for everyone. Hopefully, the only white and black issues in the craft beer world will solely concern things like witbiers and stouts. It's a slow movement, but we are getting there one sip at a time.”When asked to assess the current level of diversity in the craft beer circles he travels through for work, Ale says the numbers don’t lie:
“I have yet to walk into a black-owned brewery, but I have met a number of black brewers throughout my travels, including Garrett Oliver. I also think there have been issues with getting funding to start breweries. I have met a lot of aspiring black and Latino brewers who want their own breweries, but getting the funding has been the biggest obstacle. It is simply a reality that spreads beyond the beer world.
Hopefully one day race will be a non-issue, but the numbers currently don't lie. There is still not a balance. I think exposing the beautiful characteristics of beer to everyone is a step in the right direction. Perhaps breweries can start having minority brewing programs and I would like to help take part in that. Golf, tennis, and auto racing have similar programs. Why not beer?”Ale Sharpton says brewpubs, bars, and eateries also bear some responsibility:
“One other point I would like to make: Black-dominated eateries, bars, clubs and other public establishments, for the majority, have terrible, extremely limited beer selections that are often monopolized by macrobreweries. I thrive on consulting here as well. Again, it is all about exposure and providing opportunities to taste different styles. This will lead to other open doors in the brewing world.”
“Part of the reason the interest level is not as high is because Black and Latino people are so brand loyal that we’ve been drinking the same stuff for like 50 years. It’s Budweiser, Heineken, Guinness, Corona. And that’s pretty much the top four in terms of urban and Latino. You have a few others, here and there, but primarily that’s what we drink.”Lenox went on to say that he hopes he and his company can be players in bringing craft beer to overlooked communities:
“There is not enough engagement going on. Craft beer doesn’t market to Black and Latino, at all. So, that’s why I exist. I saw an opportunity to say, OK, the stuff is great. We just need a conversation started around it in an atmosphere that’s comfortable and we will support those brands as well. [...]
I think [craft beer] represents a lot of good things about America, about real people in the world, that just are like… don’t bother us with wars, and all that stuff. Just do what you do and have a good time.” [...]
My whole stance is, craft beer is leaving money on the table by not marketing out.”His reasons for creating multi-cultural craft beer conversations extend beyond mere recognition of an open market.
“Being from NY… I’m Latin. My father’s Dominican. My mom is from Ecuador. And I grew up in a black neighborhood, surrounded by an Italian neighborhood, surrounded by a Jewish neighborhood, surrounded by a Puerto Rican neighborhood… So, we hung out with everybody. Indian friends. Asian friends. Everybody. It’s like, if everybody can’t come, I’m not going.
When you come to Atlanta, there is this black/white/Mexican thing. That’s how they hang out. So, I felt that my company was needed, my festival was needed, in a macro sense. When American is fumbling through some big issues—housing crisis, unemployment, wars constantly—we need more reasons to come together than to get apart.
And if we can come around music and beer, it’s easy. Everybody relaxes.”Although participation at this year’s HGHH event (which also had a Cinco de Mayo theme) was lower than expected, Lenox has plans to improve for future events, including altering his price structure and avoiding the theme.
“I found out, that Cinco [de Mayo] is offensive to Mexicans. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is offensive to them. And being Latino, I was hurt. I didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t know that until I talked to Mexican people and they were like ‘You know we don’t celebrate that, right? Yeah, that’s totally American shit, and it’s like a spoof almost.’ So I felt bad. That’s my last Cinco de Mayo. Never again. Never, ever again. [...]
I really thought I had the formula for 700 people to attend. And I just needed some more support on the promotion. And then you’ve got stuff like ticket price. Because Black and Latino [are] new to craft beer, they’re also new to the beer festival format. So they’re not just ready to pay $40-$50 for a festival ticket, even though I know my festival is worth that.”Despite not being native to Atlanta, Lenox says he’s not going anywhere, and is committed to seeing his company, and his city, continue to grow and diversify.
“I’ve been here ten years now, and I feel like I’m part of Atlanta, especially working at Morehouse and knowing a lot of natives. I’m invested in seeing it grow. I’m not leaving. I think this is it. My dad is here… [...] Yes, there are some areas that are unsafe, for everybody! And the West End is rough around the edges, but there are a lot of great places to go. So, now my focus is to find those places that have craft beer, respectable craft beer, and hip hop.”Toward the end of our chat, Lenox was more forthcoming:
“To me, I’ll be honest with you. I’m really tired of the race discussion. Our packaging on earth is only that. You have to be in a certain spiritual place to be able to elevate above your race and even your gender. You’re a human being. These things such as race, you really have to evolve past that. I can sit down with anybody [and] I’m going to express myself from the heart.”
In parting, I’d like to extend my deepest thanks to Annie, Ale, and Lenox for sharing their thoughts and for being so open about their own experiences within the craft beer culture. It’s conversations like these that give me hope, not only for the future of craft beer, but for the future of the culture at large.
Although I do enjoy unwrapping a pretty package, it’s the inside that keeps my interest. So whether we’re talking about beer or about people (who are each a unique brew of their own sort), I couldn’t agree more. Slow as it may be, craft beer’s evolution is going to need to keep pace with its growing demographic (both inside and out) if it's to maintain their grip on its minimal market share.
We invite you to comment and contribute your thoughts on this topic here, on Facebook, and on Twitter. The full transcript of my interview with Lenox, which covers a wide range of topics--including public transit, transcending ideas of gender and race, and the right to freedom of speech--can be found after the jump.