I’m in a craft beer bar in Brooklyn, sipping a $9 stout and looking for black people. “Juicy” is on the speakers, and Notorious B.I.G. grew up a five-minute walk from my barstool here on the dividing line between Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant. This is a traditionally black neighborhood, but right now, at 10:30pm on a Thursday, the only people in the bar are me (white), the bartender (white), and a stocky guy with a beard down at the end mouthing lyrics and nursing a bomber of what looks like Hill Farmstead (he’s white, too).
My search isn’t going well so far.
That’s because craft beer is white. Whiter than a ski lodge. Whiter than a Whole Foods in the suburbs. Craft beer is so white, in fact, that there’s an entry for “microbreweries” in Stuff White People Like, a book based on a blog written by a white person making fun of white people for being white. The passage concludes with this sentence: “[M]ost white people want to open a microbrewery at some point.”
Do most black people want to open a microbrewery at some point? Do any? The Brewers Association, the craft industry’s leading trade group, doesn’t keep records on the racial breakdown of its membership; nor does the American Homebrewers Association, its DIY-focused branch. Both organizations told me they weren’t aware of the existence of any such data. After digging around, neither am I.
So, in the absence of statistics, I set out to answer a simple question: where the hell are all the black craft brewers, bar owners, bloggers, aficionados, and nerds? Why is craft beer -- the consumer side, and especially the business side -- so white?
I started with Garrett Oliver. Oliver is a black man who also happens to be the long-standing brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, as well as an accomplished beer author. When we linked up, it was via email; he was in Slovenia.
In his polite response to my questions (why is brewing so white? Is it changing? Should we care?), Oliver didn’t tell me much. I had the wrong focus, he said; it’s not a craft beer issue but a much broader and deeper problem. “My best answer is ‘See Coates, Ta-Nehisi,’” he concluded. (For the uninitiated, Coates is the preeminent public intellectual in regards to racism in America -- and yes, he’s required reading.)
It was at this point that I realized Garrett Oliver probably gets asked about being a black guy in craft beer more than he does about craft beer itself. Being the de facto spokesman of minority brewing would get a bit tiresome after two decades. So I stopped pestering him, and started making calls. Here’s what I learned.
1. Black people don’t drink much craft beer
Nearly all craft beer brewers started out as craft beer drinkers, so it stands to reason that if there are to be black brewers, there would have to be black drinkers.
Turns out the latter are few and far between. A recent Nielsen study commissioned by the Brewers Association found that while black drinkers compose 11.2% of the US population, they consume only 3.7% of the country’s craft beer. Compare that with the 80% of craft beer guzzled by whites, who make up 60% of the population, and you’ll start to get a sense of the size of the divide.* (See footnote at the bottom of this page for a word on other racial groups.)
Still, numbers don’t tell the whole story. So I asked a sample of black peers if they drank craft beer, and what they thought about it. “I don’t hate craft beer,” said Owen Rucker, a 29-year-old video editor living in Williamsburg. “But if I had to choose what I dislike most about it, it would have to be the culture.” Which he summed up as, “God forbid you want a ‘regular’ beer instead of an 18% homebrewed bacon-infused IPA. You’d get an earful from the closest neckbeards about how you just have to ‘work’ through the taste.”
Kara Brown, a 27-year-old writer in Los Angeles, feels similarly. “It seems like craft beer has been closely tied to an experience that a lot of people of color either don't want to be a part of or don’t feel welcome engaging with,” she said. “I think of white guys in thick-framed glasses and flannel shirts drinking at tables crafted out of reclaimed wood next to their Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”
That sort of arm’s-length engagement goes both ways. While some macros and the malt liquor category -- which has an uncomfortable but profitable history capitalizing on the low-income dollar -- have appealed directly to black drinkers, craft brewers for the most part have not. Ale Sharpton, a black journalist, consultant, beer nerd, and expert pseudonym-deviser (his real name is Dennis Byron) based in Atlanta, told me that while “there are no ‘White Only’ signs” in craft beer, the market still has a long way to go to court black drinkers. There simply aren’t many craft beer bars, restaurants, or stores in black neighborhoods, he said. “I visited a homie recently [in a predominantly black neighborhood] and felt like I struck gold finding a Sierra Nevada Torpedo six-pack at a nearby store.”
It’s important to note that no one I spoke with for this story claimed or even hinted that the enthusiasm gap between white and black consumer bases was driven by racism. Instead, the takeaway of many of these conversations boiled down to a simple fact: craft beer is white because the overall American beer industry has always been white.
So it’s worth asking: why has the overall American beer industry always been white?