Craft brewers like the challenge of developing something different: Discovering an interesting hop blend. Adding an unorthodox fruit. Shaking up expectations.
But an initiative out of Texas has compelled more than a dozen breweries here to follow the same basic recipe.
The Black is Beautiful campaign was launched in early June by Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in San Antonio, in part to highlight the lack of diversity in the craft brewing industry. Owner Marcus Baskerville announced his plan on social media, asking beer lovers to tag their favorite breweries to encourage them to participate.
More than a thousand breweries from all 50 states and 20 countries now have brewed the caramel-malt and flaked-oat-infused stout, earmarking the proceeds for nonprofit organizations focused on police reform, legal aid, or equity and inclusion efforts.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the brewing field,” said Denny Foster, co-owner of Main & Mill Brewing Co. in Festus. “But there’s not a lot of diversity in it.”
Fundraising collaborations are not new for breweries. In 2018, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. promoted a campaign for relief efforts after the massive Camp Fire ravaged California. In the spring, the Brooklyn-based All Together collective helped support tipped workers who lost their income because of the coronavirus.
This summer, all kinds of businesses have been reckoning with their lack of racial diversity in the wake of renewed calls for representation and access following a wave of protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
By the numbers
Black is Beautiful strikes a nerve within an industry that purports to be inclusive and accessible: embracing a uniform of jeans and T-shirts, using pop-culture references as drink names, sponsoring neighborhood festivals and softball teams.
Employment, though, tells a different story. Of the more than 8,000 craft breweries across the United States, fewer than 1% have a Black owner. Nine out of 10 brewers are white.
“It’s a great cause and good opportunity to raise awareness,” said Karen King, co-owner of Side Project Brewing.
The Maplewood brewery sold out of its batch in five minutes, raising more than $10,000 for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.
Foster said Festus, which is more than 92% white, “gets a bad rap” on issues of race and diversity. Participating in the collaboration lets his employees and customers know where he stands.
Main & Mill’s version of Black is Beautiful will benefit Life for Life Gym, an after-school program north of downtown St. Louis.
‘Changing the perspective’
The underrepresentation in brewing is reflective of disparities found throughout society, said Stuart Keating, co-owner of Earthbound Beer on Cherokee Street. And that lack of diversity feeds on itself.
“It’s not diverse because it’s not diverse,” he said.
For a person of color, stepping into an all-white workplace can be daunting, said Keating, who is white. Transportation can be a problem. So can access to training.
On the ownership side, breweries require expensive equipment and infrastructure at the outset. Many owners come to brewing after profitable careers elsewhere, in fields such as accounting or engineering. Keating was a lawyer.
Earthbound has an all-white staff but has made efforts to “diversify the supply chain,” Keating said.
St. Louis Hop Shop, just down the street, has joined with the brewery in producing Black is Beautiful. Proceeds will be donated to the effort to close the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, the city jail known as the workhouse.
The Hop Shop will carry 20 cases of Earthbound’s stout. Justin Harris, who owns the craft beer retailer with his brother, doesn’t typically brew beer. But he was taken with the promotion’s cause.
“As a Black man, it really resonated with me,” Harris said. “A lot of it is changing the perspective of what beer is.”
Across the United States, craft breweries have been opening at a faster clip than the market is growing, but African Americans represent an untapped population of potential consumers. The demographic makes up 13% of the U.S. population but just 4% of craft beer drinkers.
“It only makes sense to expand and cultivate new markets,” said J. Jackson-Beckham, the diversity ambassador for the Brewers Association, a national trade group based in Colorado. “Organizations that do well in terms of equity and inclusion are more profitable businesses. But it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not a flashbulb.”
At the oldest craft brewery in St. Louis, Schlafly, diversity has been a discussion topic for a long time, said CEO Fran Caradonna.
“Maybe we haven’t reached out to a more racially diverse group,” she said. “It’s something we talk about, but clearly it’s still an issue.”
A wider range of viewpoints also can fuel innovation, Caradonna said. When the industry started courting women as consumers, a new assortment of beers flooded shelves — ones that were less hoppy, more fruity, lighter. As it turns out, men drink those, too.
The brewer is packaging 100 cases of Black is Beautiful, selling it in four packs for $10.99. The proceeds will be split between the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders and the ACLU of Missouri.
Participating in the initiative is not enough, Caradonna said. Schlafly, which has three locations, has no Black brewers or packagers.
“This is an area that all of us in St. Louis needs to be working toward and doing better,” she said. “We want our actions to speak for us, and that means we need to do something.”