Food & Drink

How My Career Shaped Me Into a Mentor For Black Brewers

“Instead of just using Black culture, get our people involved in the industry.”

Photo: Chris Attenborough; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Kevin Blodger has a long track record of leading the way. While his career started out in education, he’s worked his way up the beer ladder and is now the co-owner and director of brewing operations at Union Craft Brewing in Baltimore, as well as the chair of the Diversity Committee for the Brewers Association. And, of course, there’s his role as dad. Blodger talks about how fatherhood, inclusion, and recent global issues have all factored into his brewing career. As told to Jess Mayhugh.

I started home brewing in college in the late ’90s. I got a kit from a liquor store and started messing around with it. But I honestly didn’t think it could be a career. After school, I became a crisis specialist at a non-public school run by a church in Silver Spring that would take kids the school system couldn't handle. I did that for almost two years. They asked me to be principal, but at the same time I had interviewed for a job at Frederick Brewing, now Flying Dog. They offered me $10 an hour. The school was going to give me a lot more money, but I took the job with the brewery. I told my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, that my parents might not be too happy with that decision.

Overall, my parents were actually pretty supportive. I think it was more like they saw me floating around for a while, they just wanted me to make a smart decision and wondered if it really could be a career for me. Oddly enough, my dad had worked on the line at a brewery in Detroit to put himself through school, so he was at least familiar. I always enjoyed the idea of working with my hands and making a tangible product. The first beer I homebrewed was a porter and everyone liked it. I loved that feeling of everyone digging it.

I got engaged to my wife while I was still working at the school, she was a teacher there. This was the summer of 2004 and we were married in 2005. Around that time, I reached out to Jason Oliver at Gordon Biersch and he was looking to fill a head brewer position in Naperville, Illinois -- just outside Chicago. We didn’t have kids yet, so my wife and I thought, why not? We had so much fun out there, just hanging out with everyone at the restaurant. We were in our early 30s with no family pressure just yet. Naperville is beautiful, aside from the brutal winters. If Union hadn’t become this idea and I didn’t have the opportunity to come back to Maryland and build something from the ground up, we probably would have stayed.

My son Ben was born in December 2009 right before we moved back, and then my daughter Zoe was born five years later. Kids change everything. They changed our lifestyle and just made being successful at work more important. It made me try and focus on being the best I can be and figure out how to make more money to support us. Obviously, it changed our drinking habits. I have this massive cellar at home and I used to crack beers every night and think about them and brainstorm ideas, but I don’t do that much anymore. When I’m home, I want to spend time with my kids watching their goofy Disney shows and music.

My son is now 10 and my daughter is 5 and they love coming to the brewery. They love coming to get food when there’s a pop-up. They know I make beer, but they mostly think the stickers are cool or want a cool t-shirt. My son especially has a fascination with the people at the brewery. He always wanted to people-watch and just would sit and look around. I never knew what he was absorbing and then weeks later he would tell me in detail about all the people he saw. I know he is missing that social aspect of life right now.

We’ve got a very diverse taproom staff, and we’ve been making an effort to get a more diverse staff in the back brewhouse. I almost feel like I’m in a position now where I’m known a bit. I’m the chair of the Diversity Committee for the Brewers Association. If I can lend my voice to say there’s a place for us, too, I want to have that role. This is a white, male-dominated industry but I want to tell folks that it’s open to everybody. If I can do it, you can do it. I’ve had some lucky breaks, but also worked really hard. There’s now a more concerted effort and movement. Now with social media, if you have a cause, you can get people to rally around it. There are movements around Black beer like Crown & Hops and Black Beer Travelers -- and different people trying to form communities around Black, women, trans, LGBTQ people in this industry.

You’ll see these breweries throw a Black person on their cans -- like Biggie or Tupac -- but then you look at the brewery and there are no brown or Black people working there.

What’s going on around the country right now is reminding people that, instated of just using Black culture, get our people involved in the industry. Craft beer is this young, hip industry that people want to be a part of and you’ll see these breweries throw a Black person on their cans -- like Biggie or Tupac -- but then you look at the brewery and there are no brown or Black people working there. A lot of breweries go into old, distressed neighborhoods where the taproom staff doesn’t look like its customers. If I see people at the brewery that look like me, I’ll want to come back next time.

One program we’re working on at the Brewers Association is a mentorship program in Boulder, Colorado encouraging staff who come into the taproom as beertenders to slowly be trained in the back of the house. Move them to the canning line or cellar, and eventually they’ll become certified cicerones. We do diversity event grants all around the country like Fresh Fest in Pittsburgh and Suave Fest in Denver. The whole goal is to bring more diverse people into the fold. Of course, all of these things are halted because of COVID.

Right now, the top priority at Union is to keep our team safe and healthy, as well as our customers. We practice social distancing measures like masks and gloves in the brewery. We did not want to rush and open our taproom the first weekend we were allowed. Nothing really changed. Just because certain people are prioritizing the economy over people, you have no idea what people are dealing with at home. My wife had cancer last year and went through chemo so she has really been unable to leave the house. We want to look out for those people and really let science be our guide. We did release a beer called Somebody to Lean On that benefitted the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Group, and are trying to think of other ways to support the community at this time without rushing to open our doors.

Until there’s a reliable vaccine, I don’t know about the future. Maybe cases are starting to go down with the summertime, but will there be a nasty resurgence in the winter? We’re all kind of on pins and needles for that reason. But at the same time, we have financial pressures. I would like to say we could start to open slowly at 25% capacity, but that’s just outside. We’re talking about a reservation system and capping the number of people at a table. Of course, restrictions will hurt the spontaneity of hitting up a few breweries on a beautiful Saturday in Baltimore. The hope is, if we do the right thing now, we can safely return to those kinds of moments.

For now, I’m in the brewery about 3-4 days a week, still doing what I can. I’m spending a lot more time with my family. It’s tough because you love your kids so much, but they test your patience at the same time. I feel like we’re all getting on each other’s nerves. But I know my kids and I know what they’re into. I really gotta give props to my wife, she’s taken the lead on education and she’s done such a great job. She’s taken a lion’s share of the responsibility and we are lucky to have her and her teacher background. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had taken that principal job, especially now that my kids are school age. All I know is that -- either way -- we’d all be looking forward to summer break.

Blodger recommends these beers from Black-owned breweries:

San Antonio Texas Cavernous Imperial Stout by Weathered Souls Brewing
“The owner and head brewer, Marcus Baskerville, is a guy I met through the internet a few years ago and then met in person last year at Fresh Fest. He has established himself as the stout king of Texas and a sip of Cavernous will show you why. Full bodied with notes of fig and roasted coffee with a great chewy mouthfeel, this beer is a can’t-miss.”
 
Postcard Pilsner by Green Bench Brewing
“Khris Johnson is a lager geek like me and he makes these really beautiful beers. His Postcard Pils is a delicate but robust beer with a sweet graininess and soft hop bite that keeps me going back sip after sip.”
 
Sorachi Ace Saison by Brooklyn Brewery
“I can’t talk about Black brewers without speaking about the OG. Garret Oliver is a pioneer. I mean, he was tapped to write the freaking Oxford guide to beer. He’s super knowledgeable, maybe even more stylish, and he’s someone I’ve always looked to emulate. His Sorachi Ace saison is liquid joy in a bottle, and he used those hops before most people knew what they were. They give the beer a bright lemony character with some dill notes.”
 
Blackwing Lager by Union Craft Brewing
This German style schwarzbier is dark but light-bodied and full of flavor: chocolate, slight coffee, and dark fruit but only 4.8% so you can drink a couple and still get home. We use all German malt and hops in this beer and it gives it a great mouthfeel. It’s also a favorite for Zadie (our 100-year-old box folder), so there’s that, too.

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Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor at Thrillist and considers Union’s Anthem Golden Ale the perfect summer beer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.