Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As craft beer breweries pop up in cities across America, Michael Potter and Day Bracey want to make sure that African American brewers are not left off the map.
Pittsburgh’s beer-drinking identity is either the scruffy steel worker with drops of I.C. Light splattered across his ZZ Top beard, or the Cupertino-transplant tech wizard swilling an Imperial IPA through a not-plastic straw so as not to get froth on their salon-coifed mustache. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, and includes a group often erased from that beer-chugging identity: African Americans. Two black men in Pittsburgh—comedian/podcaster Day Bracey and event promoter/brewer Mike Potter—are hoping to change that picture when they launch the “Fresh Fest” this weekend, which they are billing as the first African-American beer festival in the nation.
The name is inspired by the early 1980s “Fresh Fest” hip-hop tour that exported the then-mostly New York City-brewed brand of street culture to cities across America. Bracey and Potter are hoping to do the inverse with their “Fresh Fest”: Import the various black-owned brands of beer breweries from around the country to one central location for a weekend—and show the world some black brew magic.
Many of the several dozen brewery companies that will have their beers on tap at the Fresh Fest are located in Pittsburgh. Some of the black beer companies have an explicit cultural or political mission behind their brand. There’s the D.C.-based Sankofa Brewing Company, which infuses West African traditions into its beer-making process, and the Garvey-ite sounding Black Star Line Brewing Company, which has a mission of creating “job training/economic opportunities for marginalized, disenfranchised, and to provide social justice education” on top of crafting beer.
These are the kinds of black beer vendors that Potter has been scouting, curating, and networking with through his Black Brew Culture online magazine venture. When he linked up with Bracey on the comedian’s popular “Drinking Partners” podcast to discuss the expansive universe of black brewers, the two realized that they needed to host a convention, to bring all of this hopped-up black talent into focus.
CityLab talked with Potter and Bracey about the goals and expectations of the Fresh Fest and what it will take to break more black people into the industry. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity
So, why you, why Pittsburgh, why beer?
Day Bracey: We were concerned about the lack of diversity in the beer industry. We both agree that the lack of diversity is based on systemic racism, and to solve that we should tap into those issues that are found in systemic racism, which is the lack of access and education. With this beer festival, we’re trying to strike up a conversation between the beer industry and the black community, and also reach out to black brewers from around the country who are already successful at what they’re doing, to bring them together. This is a billion-dollar industry and we have [very small] representation in it. The doors are wide open for us because anytime we get into an industry, we make it a little funkier. Anytime you add diversity, that industry pops.
The history of the relationship between beer companies and African Americans is pretty exploitative—remember those Budweiser “Kings of Africa” posters?
Michael Potter: Growing up and during our college days pretty much all of the beer that was available to us and that was sold to us was stuff like St. Ides, Colt 45, Mickey’s. A lot of our icons—black leaders, people of influence—advertised and pushed malt liquor products on us. So naturally if that’s all you’re exposed to, that’s all you’ll ever know.
Is this why craft beer is often associated with white hipsters and gentrification?
Bracey: It’s also a poverty thing. A lot of our beer drinkers are in that age 25-to-45 middle-class with disposable income [demographic]. Nobody who is poor has seven or eight dollars to spend on one beer. The problem is that blacks are disproportionately more poor than whites. Even black people who are in the industry are mostly in that 25-45 middle-class demographic. I know when I was broke and only had $5 to go out, I was only buying $1 Blue Moons. Even if I wanted to try some new shit, when I first got into [craft beer] I was only buying shit that was on clearance, or had some kind of discount. I walked into a store one day and saw a cool-looking beer on sale, the label looked cool and had some cool ingredients like a coffee porter or something—so I thought, oh, well maybe the ladies will like it or something.
How do you feel about the distribution of craft beer carriers across the city, where, because of segregation, black people may have to travel to far-flung parts of the city to find good beer?
Bracey: And if you walk into the wrong neighborhood, as a black man in America, especially in Pittsburgh, you might die. I’m not about to die just to try a beer.
Potter: I would. For a really good-ass beer, I would die. No, but he makes a good point, though, and it all comes back to access and exposure. You want to know why you always see white guys drinking craft beers, it’s because you don’t go into Whole Foods and see coolers filled with malt liquor. When you go in a Trader Joe’s almost everything you see is craft beer. When we were younger Ice Cube told you that St. Ides was the move. I’m still tempted occasionally to grab a 40 ounce of it.
Bracey: We just had an article run in the paper the other day, and of course in the comments people were like, “Oh, I guess it’s going to be a bunch of malt liquor in there,”—the comments were mad lewd. Other people were saying, “Why does it have to be a black beer fest? How come there are no white fests?” Really? Didn’t we just have an Italian festival, a Greek fest, a Polish fest?
Potter: Anytime you start claiming yourself and your worth, people will always be afraid of that. It’s based off the fact that someone is afraid of your power. So, if I say that I’m a black man and I like to do black man shit, they’ll respond, “Why it gotta be about black?” Because, that’s what I’m wearing, and I have to wear this every day.
Bracey: So this festival is like a start to change that, first by providing a safe place where black people can come and you don’t have to do a headcount because it’s an all-white space. It’s also a space where you know that the cops won’t be called on you.
Wait, can you be guaranteed no one will call the cops at this fest?
Bracey: I think as a black artist or entrepreneur you have to take into consideration that somebody is not going to like what that you’re doing and will do everything in their power to get you up out of there. I hope it doesn’t happen but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen.
So how can cities foster and develop more African Americans to get involved in the beer industry?
Bracey: They could stop shooting us. No for real, the reason we don’t have great representation in a lot of industries is because we are policed more heavily, we get pulled over more often, we get harsher sentences, our fathers are taken from us at a higher rate by the judicial system. We get paid less and we get laid off more. So when it comes to cities or whatever, you know, I think the police often work as a buffer not only between rich and poor but also white and black. So, if you’re asking what can be done by the city, first we need more police accountability.
Potter: But also one of the goals of the Fresh Fest is to come up with a black brewer’s guild. Through that we can begin to answer some of these questions. That’s a priority, so we can have a team in place to address things like who do we talk to about getting capital and funding. Once we get that established, we can do things like pool our funds together to buy properties, for new breweries, or schools where kids can go instead of college to learn the trade—just like people go to trade schools to learn how to lay bricks or be a carpenter, you go here to make beer. It’s the kind of industry where if you know how to do it well then you can make good money, with the right training and the right access.