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Disasters have long served as a catalyst for communities to coalesce around a common goal. In depriving us of the connection we’re used to, COVID-19 has forced us to find and construct those communities in new ways.
In so doing, the virus has also shone an unflinching spotlight on society’s racist and inequitable structures and systems. Recent civic uprisings across the country—and the wider world—make plain the urgency of the need for change. Now is the time to confront all the ways that white supremacy has shaped, and continues to drive, American society, its institutions, and its industries. And that includes beer.
Illustrations by Colette Holston
Until now, the beer industry has been largely content—not to mention successful, and profitable—in catering to an audience composed mainly of white, upper-middle-class men rather than making active efforts to bring new faces onto its teams or into its taprooms.
But the recent Black Lives Matter protests, plus the coronavirus pandemic, have since forced the hospitality industry—beer included—into an overdue reckoning with its inherent inhospitality. For beer businesses, choosing not to engage in these conversations wouldn’t just be a moral failing—it could also be financial. In this perilous economic moment, and at a time of broad contraction, the industry’s future looks likely to depend on its ability to attract new consumers and enthusiasts beyond those it currently serves. A return to “normality” won’t be enough to ensure its future growth and success.

“The Time Is Now” is an in-depth, three-part series dedicated to the struggle for racial equity within the beer world. From exploring the economic underpinnings of the beer world’s homogeneity to spotlighting the bias deep within its workplace culture, this series depicts an industry that has unilaterally failed to create space and support for Black entrepreneurs, creators, brewers, and drinkers. It also offers concrete next steps for anyone in beer—from drinkers up to owners—who wants to change that status quo, and create a better and more equitable future for the industry.

Today, journalist Mike Jordan discusses the problems facing Black-owned small businesses, and traces the history of those barriers to the country’s beginnings. Tomorrow, equity advocate and former brewery analytical chemist Toni Boyce describes the ways that bias and racism manifest in beer’s workplaces. And on Thursday, Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham—founder of Crafted for All, LLC and founder and executive director of Craft x EDU—makes the economic case for pursuing equity, inclusion, and justice.

Check in with Good Beer Hunting on Twitter and Instagram to hear first-hand accounts from Black voices across the beer industry. And tune in on Saturday, August 15 for a follow-up podcast conversation featuring contributors Mike Jordan and Toni Boyce, hosted by writer and consulting editor Beth Demmon and editor-in-chief Claire Bullen. The kind of change that’s needed now is nothing less than a complete shake-up of the status quo. For businesses looking to prioritize inclusion and eradicate barriers, it isn’t enough to merely avoid suspending diversity training programs like Google is alleged to have done in 2019, according to current and former employees. It goes further than condemning blatant discrimination, like the kind that Founders Brewing Company perpetrated against Tracy Evans. It means diligently correcting hiring practices that consciously and unconsciously exclude people of color, addressing implicit biases that shape customer experience, eradicating microaggressions, and participating in cultural and financial efforts that directly promote equity.
This three-part series aims to explore and break down those disparities by highlighting the voices and experiences of Black people working in and around beer.
Part one, authored by Atlanta-based journalist Michael B. Jordan, traces beer’s inequity back to the country’s beginnings, illuminates the barriers that continue to hinder Black-owned small businesses, and shows how COVID-19 has forced these injustices to the surface.
Part two, authored by former beer industry analytical chemist and equity advocate Toni Boyce, looks at the gatekeeping and bias embedded within the beer industry’s culture and workplace practices, and asks the question: just who does this craft beer “community” include?
The final feature of the series, authored by Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham—founder of Crafted for All, LLC and founder and executive director of Craft x EDU—looks to the future by spelling out action items that contain the potential to reshape the beer industry into a model of equitable practices and genuine inclusion.
For some readers, these conversations may seem unfamiliar or unsettling. For others, these accounts of prejudice, consistent bureaucratic failure, and both conscious and unconscious bias feel all too familiar, and grimly repetitive of discussions that have been had again and again.
If there’s a glimmer of hope—that, in this moment, there may finally be enough momentum to lead to long-lasting change—it’s the responsibility of those who have benefited from the beer industry’s biased power structures to own that past, and to fight for a better future.
THE PANDEMIC EFFECT Since its arrival, the coronavirus has moved like a hot knife through layers of political bluster, propaganda, and postulating. It has cut to the heart of our sagging social support programs, tattered infrastructure, and weak bureaucracy. It has also cast a remarkably bright light on our existing power structures—in society generally, and in our communities specifically.
“This pandemic is demonstrating to us how unfairly stacked the odds are against some people, and truly how unfairly the odds are for some other people,” says Paul Jones, owner of Cloudwater Brew Co in Manchester, U.K. “It's showing some of us that we only get to have a nice time if someone is having a shit time.”
Those inequities existed long before the pandemic arrived, and before another Great Recession came in its wake. Now, the beer industry is facing entirely new pressures—and Black workers and business owners are likely to feel the worst of them.
“All recessions exacerbate existing inequalities by race and ethnicity — and always hit black and Hispanic workers harder — but this one will be worse […] it will be an absolute nightmare,” said Heidi Shierholz, policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, in the Washington Post. The same piece revealed the number of working Black business owners in the U.S. dropped by as much as 40%, or nearly 450,000 people, between February and April 2020. (Latinx business ownership dropped 32%, and Asian business ownership dropped approximately 25%.) Repercussions from this catastrophe will likely be felt for decades to come.
According to the latest statistics from the Brewers Association, Black-owned breweries make up a mere 1% of overall breweries in the United States. (For comparison, 88.4% are white-owned, 3.7% are American Indian or Alaskan Native-owned, 2.4% are Hispanic/Latinx-owned, and 1.9% are Asian-owned; remaining respondents declined to reply.) As was reported in Sightlines last year, when the Brewers Association’s Brewery Operations Benchmarking Survey was released, entry-level, front-of-house positions feature better representation than any other area in the industry, though those jobs are also among the lowest-paid. The organization noted that “anyone scanning [the results] will conclude there is work to be done, and we as a craft beer community can do better.”
That just 1% of breweries have Black ownership is dire. But that number’s about to get even worse, as many Black entrepreneurs have found themselves shut out of government-sponsored recovery plans, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
As reported by NPR, only 38% of small businesses who initially applied for PPP loans received funds, but just 12% of minority applicants received the same assistance. (Eventually, up to 67% of applicants received PPP funds, but as Reuters reports, Congressional districts with the highest Black populations still received up to $13 billion dollars less in PPP funding than districts with the lowest percent of Black residents.) Meanwhile, a Small Business Association report issued by SBA Inspector General Mike Ware “found the agency failed to provide guidance to lenders requiring they prioritize rural, women, and minority-owned businesses, even though the coronavirus legislation passed by Congress expressly says to do so. In fact, the report says it ‘did not find any evidence’ that SBA issued that guidance to any lenders doling out the payroll protection loans.”
This isn’t just a story of bureaucratic mismanagement: this lack of access to funding will likely limit the trajectory of Black entrepreneurship for decades, in beer and in most other industries. But it’s also not new. The PPP’s failings are the result of barriers to financial access that have existed for decades, and whose roots go back centuries.
Examining the PPP as a test case is crucial for demonstrating all the ways the decks have been stacked against Black business owners—and in understanding why active, sustained intervention will be needed to prevent the continuing homogeneity of beer.
PPP PROBLEMS Of the many fundamental issues with PPP loans that disfavor Black business owners, the most basic is that borrowers are required to go through lenders instead of applying directly to the government for aid.
That means small businesses with existing or prior relationships with banks were in a better position to gain approval and receive funding immediately. Because Black Americans have faced myriad challenges in establishing banking relationships—much of them stemming from miseducation and limited financial literacy due to segregated schools and other restrictions on access to basic and higher levels of education—they faced an immediate barrier to receiving critical support.
The Small Business Credit Survey (SBCS) 2020 Report on Employer Firms, put together by the Federal Reserve Banks of 12 major cities (including Atlanta, Chicago, New York and San Francisco), provides a glimpse of how bank financing has varied significantly by the race and ethnicity of business owners. Using 5,514 responses fielded from small businesses with fewer than 500 employees in Q3 and Q4 of 2019, the report says 46% of bank funding was received by firms with Non-Hispanic White ownership, which was twice as high as Black-owned businesses at 23%.
Lenders’ fee structures were another hurdle for Black-owned businesses seeking PPP funding to overcome, according to a report from the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending, which used data from the SBA, the U.S. Census, and the Treasury Department. Their study says banks received higher origination fees from larger PPP loans, even though the rate of return for loans under $350,000 was as high as 5%, while anything over $2,000,000 was capped at 1%.
There’s also the fact that white-owned businesses are twice as likely to be employers than businesses owned by Black people. Non-employer firms were not allowed to apply until a week after the PPP loan program began on April 3; just 10 days later, 71% of the $349 billion in the program’s first round had been depleted. With all of the funds allocated by April 16, many Black-owned companies simply had no means of participating.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF INEQUALITY The outcomes of the PPP are still being examined now, as its impacts are revealed in real time. But the fundamental flaws within its structure speak to longstanding, white-supremacy-upholding barriers designed to keep Black people from accessing capital.
Those flaws are, of course, byproducts of hundreds of years of slavery, where the story of America’s race-based economic inequality begins. Black Americans know this reality well enough that data isn’t necessary, but the facts and numbers are clearly there for anyone requiring receipts.
A Brookings Institute study published in February examined the wealth gap between Black Americans and white Americans, and noted that wealth-building efforts by the former have been consistently impeded since Emancipation—from housing discrimination and “redlining” to the collapse of the Freedman’s Savings Bank in June 1874. That bank lost $3 million (over $67 million in today’s dollars) deposited by more than 61,000 citizens, due to overwhelming challenges of internal corruption and popular resistance to Reconstruction—despite Frederick Douglass’ best efforts to save it with his own money.
This history connects to African-American ownership of craft breweries the same way it relates to Black owners launching any small business today. Stolen wealth and systemic, intentional disenfranchisement have kept Black people from participating in capitalism at equal levels, thereby perpetuating white supremacy hundreds of years after slavery and Emancipation—and well into the future, unless something changes—in a way that’s hard to logically deny.
BAND OF BROTHERS Jeremiah Donald, co-founder and brewmaster of the now-defunct Band of Brothers Brewing Company in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, seems averse to complaining. Band of Brothers opened in fall 2015, which at the time made it only the third craft brewery in the University of Alabama’s home city. It was also immediately the city’s biggest brewery, and drew fans and curious first-timers of all colors until it shuttered in summer 2018.
“We created a bridge that was unlike anything else in Tuscaloosa outside of football,” he says. “When you went into Band of Brothers you’d see a mix of ethnic groups and ages. There was a diversity we haven’t seen again in any other business in Tuscaloosa.”
Jeremiah says he and his brother Jeremy bootstrapped as much as possible, but quickly realized they couldn’t pull off Band of Brothers, from piecemealing brewing equipment to dealing with a gutted building, without bank financing.
“The build-out ate a little bit into what we expected as far as operating funds. Of course you’ve got your unknown expenses, but it all eats into capital. Then the permitting. The longer you wait for permits, you’re not producing anything, so it sets you back further,” Jeremiah says.
Jeremiah’s wife Carla recalls questioning the fairness of the setbacks, particularly when she saw that certain permitting rules seemed more lenient for others. “You could ride a mile and a half down the street to another brewery, and I feel like they got away with things. We had to hire contractors to bring [our building] up to code. And I’m like, ‘Why not them?’ I bit my tongue about it, but I did feel a kind of way.”
Believing their business plan was solid, they met with 15 banks and took on three more partners who had higher net worth before a bank finally took a chance on a $350,000 loan. It came with terms Jeremiah describes as favorable, a repayment plan he calls “pretty fair,” and a “not-so-bad” interest rate. “I know there are other breweries that have taken out loans much more significant than what we took out, but I don’t know the basis of their finances. That’s one of the challenges: being able to provide collateral.”
Despite having a hit with its Belgian Strong Ale, Monk on the Radio, the brewery’s other three core beers never caught as much fire with customers, and there were organizational challenges and other first-timer’s mistakes Jeremiah says led to the closure. Prior to Band of Brothers’ closing, the founders had purchased a still and planned to start making spirits, and were in the process of launching a food truck. Looking back, while that was all part of the original plan, it was also quite a bit to take on—particularly with limited funding.
“Quite honestly, we failed in certain areas. We shot ourselves in the foot in some ways. We went into it knowing we had a slim margin of error. In business you’re gonna make mistakes. Ultimately it got to the point where the capital caught up with us. You have to control the expansion and growth.”
Today Jeremiah works at Tuscaloosa’s VA Medical Center hospital. He has a new brewing venture called Hidden Abbey, which he describes as something between an alternating proprietorship and contract brewing. Carla, meanwhile, is preparing to launch an influencer brand called Beauty & The Brewmaster.
“If I evaluate what’s the best way to get back into brewing, is it going through the rigamarole of banks and trying to get capital, after what I went through the first time?” Jeremiah says. “Or, I’ve already brewed, and I’ve got a tried-and-true, tested recipe—how can we take some of these creations and get those out to people?”
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE Of course, economic turmoil is just one part of the picture, particularly in the midst of a pandemic and nationwide protests. It comes on top of pervasive police violence against Black communities, inequality in access to and quality of healthcare, and the fact that Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate across the country (due to deeply entrenched medical racism, inaccessibly expensive health care, as well as the higher percentage of Black workers in “essential” frontline jobs).
Between the already-tiny number of Black business owners who have overcome numerous systemic obstacles (which range from, but aren’t limited to, blocked access to credit, lack of institutional mentorship, and scarcity of generational wealth to provide a safety net) to open a brewery, and the destructive impacts of COVID-19, the future makeup of the beer industry looks likely to remain homogenous.
For consumers and fellow beer businesses, pledging to support local Black-owned breweries is a great start, as is authentically expanding collaborative efforts with fledgling brands. But deeper organizational change is also essential, from the way that culture operates within breweries to gatekeeping hiring policies. For more on that topic, come back tomorrow to read part two of this series, co-authored by Toni Boyce.
Up next: The Time Is Now, Part 2 — The Urgency of Changing the Culture in Craft Beer, co-authored by Toni Boyce.
Words, Mike JordanContributing Editor,
Beth Demmon