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Diversity in craft beer: ‘That whole product and its culture is not even presented to an entire community of people’

Sales are down, and the industry looks to diversify.

Tim White, Shaun Harris, and Jerry “JT” Thomas plan to open Harris Family Brewery in Harrisburg this year. The company is considered Pennsylvania's first black-owned brewery
Tim White, Shaun Harris, and Jerry “JT” Thomas plan to open Harris Family Brewery in Harrisburg this year. The company is considered Pennsylvania's first black-owned breweryRead moreAntwan Little

When Shaun Harris and Tim White were growing up in Philadelphia, the beers available to their communities in the west and north were a far cry from the chocolate stouts, wheat ales, and lagers they’ve created together as adults. People in their neighborhoods, they say, were offered mostly malt liquors like St. Ides and Colt 45, plus maybe a little Budweiser.

“I didn’t even see a Yuengling until I moved to Harrisburg,” says Harris, 39, who relocated to the capital as a teenager.

But Harris and White, 35, are working on changing that with the Harris Family Brewery, which they established with co-owner Jerry “JT” Thomas in 2014. It’s the first black-owned brewery in Pennsylvania, with a brick-and-mortar location in Harrisburg planned for this year.

“That whole product and its culture is not even presented to an entire community of people,” Harris says. Judging by the demographic breakdown of drinkers, their experience isn’t unique: Craft beer consumers are mostly white and male. According to a 2018 poll conducted by Nielsen-Harris on Demand, 88.5 percent of craft beer drinkers in the United States are non-Hispanic white, and 68.5 percent of them are male.

That demographic uniformity is not good for business; it’s considered a contributing factor in the recent slowing of the craft beer industry’s historically strong growth. In 2018, craft beer grew by just 4 percent in marketplace volume, down from the double-digit growth to which the industry had grown accustomed over the last decade, says Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewers Association.

“Within the craft brewing community, there has definitely been a movement internally to advance diversity and inclusion efforts,” Herz says. “Many things are happening, and yet it’s also decades worth of work.”

Some of that work is changing the racism and sexism inherent in beer culture — it’s part of the reason women and people of color don’t feel welcome in beer geek circles. This year, for example, a beer writer and editor resigned from his position at Great Lakes Brewing News after publishing a bizarre, sexist travelogue he later claimed was satire. And Founders Brewing Co. is currently involved in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by an African American former employee.

There are structural factors in play, as well.

The Brewers Association doesn’t track ownership demographics for craft beer, but anecdotally, the makers are about as white and male as the drinkers. It wasn’t always like that.

The earliest iterations of beer as we know it, by most accounts, were brewed by women and people of color thousands of years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Fast-forward to colonial America, where “women were the early innkeepers, and the ones who provided the ale for so much of the American Revolution in their taverns and taprooms,” says Nancy Rigberg, co-owner of Rittenhouse’s Home Sweet Homebrew. That all changed, Rigberg says, during the Industrial Revolution.

Craft brewers, which the Brewers Association defines as small and independent beer companies, started emerging in the 1960s and ’70s, and their demographic makeup reflected the period. It’s “hard to imagine that a person of color or woman would have a lot of luck securing a start-up loan for a craft brewery … a business model that was largely unheard of” then, says Brewers Association diversity ambassador J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham.

The Philadelphia region seems to buck the trend in female ownership, thanks to women like Rigberg, whose brewery helped birth the local craft beer scene; Carol Stoudt, who started Stoudts Brewing Co. in 1987 and who became the first female brewmaster in America since Prohibition; and Rosemarie Certo, who started Dock Street Brewery in 1985 with then-partner Jeffrey Ware. The Philadelphia area’s chapter of the Pink Boots Society, an organization that empowers women in beer, helmed Philadelphia’s first female-focused beer event, the Bold Women and Beer Festival, which took place earlier this month.

“There are women in all aspects of the business,” Rigberg says. “We don’t tolerate a lot of stupid guy stuff. There just isn’t a place for it anymore. We don’t have to follow anyone’s lead.”

The region’s relatively strong representation of women, however, does not extend to people of color. Mike Potter, co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Fresh Fest, the country’s first black craft beer festival, says the number of black-owned breweries could be as low as 50 nationwide. His estimation doesn’t account for minority-operated breweries that are not African American-owned.

But guys like Harris and White are trying to change that. “We want to make sure we take care of the beer culture while at the same time taking care of our culture, and responsibly introduce our community to craft beer,” Harris says. Once their new brewery opens, they say, it will include a taproom for tastings, community, and charity events; appearances by local food trucks and restaurants; and maybe even a beer garden and area for growing hops in its outdoor space.

In Philadelphia, rapper Chill Moody has a similar objective for his Nicethings IPA, which he’s brewed with Dock Street since 2016. The goal, he says, was to “provide an alternative for my people” that’s a little more interesting than the malt liquor he also saw dominating beer store shelves in his West Philly neighborhood growing up.

“Now, I’ll catch my cousin going to get some Dogfish Head,” Moody says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s good, because you were drinking OE [Olde English] for so long. Now, you upgraded your palate.'"

Some craft beer companies have begun implementing solutions to the industry’s diversity problem. Ardmore’s Tired Hands is attracting minority employees to the industry with its Diversity Brewing Internship, a production-focused program it introduced last year. It’s open to “everyone who is not already represented in the brewing industry," says Tired Hands co-owner Julie Foster.

The Brewers Association added a diversity committee in 2017. Jackson-Beckham joined as a diversity ambassador in 2018, and this year the association established a diversity and inclusion-focused events grant program (Fresh Fest was among the first winners). With any luck, Herz says, these resources will help craft beer makers “up the game.”

Harris and White say part of raising African Americans’ presence in craft beer begins with outreach and education. Particularly, White says, with the simple message that “better beer exists in the world” than the low-quality, high-alcohol brews he and Harris saw growing up. Craft beer has not historically focused on marketing itself to women or people of color.

Advertising by large beer brands, Jackson-Beckham says, has played a significant role in the current racial breakdown of drinkers. St. Ides began a controversial ad campaign in 1988 that targeted black beer drinkers by using popular rappers like Notorious BIG and Tupac to hawk its malt liquor. The company ended that campaign in 1996 after continued legal scrutiny from the New York State attorney general and the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco for allegedly targeting minors, glorifying gangs, and using overtly sexual imagery.

The Brewers Association recommends craft beer makers take a “barriers, not bait” approach to expanding their customer base, as Jackson-Beckham wrote in an article for the organization last month. The idea, she says, is to focus on “removing perceived barriers to access," rather than “attempting to bait specific populations of people into a relationship with your brand."

Big Beer has also long treated women as sex objects rather than consumers. It has “historically been marketed to males … aged 21 to 34,” Herz says, which has “beer boxed into a bit of a corner being perceived more as a male beverage.” And craft beer has been party to sexist beer labels like SweetWater Brewing’s ill-advised “Happy Ending" and MobCraft Beer’s “Date Grape,” both released in the last several years.

But there’s been progress in craft beer when it comes women: In 2017, the Brewers Association updated its marketing and advertising to forbid sexually explicit, lewd, and demeaning brand names and language in materials for beers produced by its members. In that sense, craft beer has been anecdotally successful, Herz says. Many craft brewers she has observed market their products as “non-gender-specific” beverages and avoid the historical tendency to “pink-ify” or “male-ify” beer. As Herz puts it, “beer has no gender" (or race).

“Today’s beer community is minded, and should be minded, toward inviting all to their products,” she says. “That has to do with how they are presented."