This festival is a celebration of black beer culture

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When Charles St. Clair and a friend opened the Black Horizon Brewery in Willowbrook in 2017 – an affluent suburb just southwest of Chicago – he hadn’t given too much thought to the fact that his was one of the few bricks and mortars belonging to blacks. breweries across the country.

After all, growing up in a predominantly white Chicago suburb, St. Clair says he was used to being the only black face in a room. But when he got to know his fellow black brewers in Chicago and nearby Indiana, he realized he was part of a small but growing community.

What is part of the appeal of the Barrel and flow festival, a celebration of black-owned breweries, taking place September 10-12 at the Southside Works in Pittsburgh. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours will be required to enter.

“I’m looking at the social side of it all,” says St. Clair. “I want to hear what (other people’s) stories are, what their struggles are, and especially from the guys who have been doing this for a lot longer.”

Questions such as how to expand distribution or how to build brand awareness arise, of course. But what appeals to St. Charles is the idea that this annual meeting (formerly known as Fresh Fest) is an opportunity to create a power structure to embolden black brewers.

The Barrel & Flow fest’s mission is just that: to uplift brewers and artists in an industry that has a reputation for exclusion. Day Bracey, the founder of the festival, is quick to point out that of more than 8,500 craft breweries across the country, less than 100 are black-owned and less than 40 of those breweries function like a brick and mortar. mortar.

Bracey and former business partner Mike Potter initially launched what was known as Fresh Fest in 2018 with great popularity. The festival proved to be a success, drawing thousands of visitors and providing a first-ever national celebration of black brewers. The pair got into a fight, but Bracey decided to continue their mission, this time renaming Barrel & Flow.

Barrel & Flow refers to the interconnection of the black arts sectors, whether visual, musical or culinary. On the “barrel” side of the event, most of the participating brewers joined forces with other brands. These collaborations often give small brewers a chance to work with larger or more established brands to expand their reach.

“A lot of times the breweries come to us because they want to start the conversation, start that dialogue and meet people on an equal footing and for the brewing industry and to get to know the black community and for the black community. get to know the brewing industry in a non-predatory way, in a way that will improve what they are already doing, ”says Bracey of the collaborative process.

The “flow” part refers to the arts. Performing artists include funk band Ghost-Note and Pittsburgh rapper Benji, along with a lineup of over 20 other musicians and DJs. In addition to the live performances, Bracey says artists will have the opportunity to connect with local businesses. The initiative, funded by Arts Equity Reimagined and community development nonprofit New Sun Rising, provides support to creators throughout the year and helps them establish commercial collaborations. If a small business was looking to rethink their labels or menus, for example, they can partner with an artist to do so. And there’s also a science fair, in part, to encourage kids to take an interest in STEM and maybe get them into the brewing industry. For people who want to participate but cannot make it to Pittsburgh, the festival will also offer virtual programming via its Digi Flow pass for $ 10.

Rather than wait to be included in a predominantly white industry, Bracey sees the festival as a platform for black brewers to build their own supportive ecosystem.

This is one of the reasons why Sankofa Beer, a Washington DC-based brewery, will be returning to this year’s renowned festival. Kofi Meroe co-founded the company with his cousin Amado Carsky. Both were born in the United States but spent much of their education in parts of West Africa.

The company is considered a contract brewery, which means that it sells its beers for distribution to bars and retailers and does not have a physical sales hall open to the public. Sankofa’s offerings vary frequently, but when creating new beers, the cousins ​​draw inspiration from their African roots, with ingredients native to Ghana such as a lager with hibiscus and a chocolate milk stout. .

Meroe says he never really thought about what it means to be one of the few black brewers in the country, but once he got more involved in the industry, he started to consider participation in events like Barrel & Flow as a responsibility.

While he won’t be attending the event himself (he says other members of the company will), he says he sees value in offering mentorship to the “next generation. ”Of brewers in a very young category.

“Personally when I go I go there for a reunion feeling, it’s almost like a big family reunion for us,” Meroe said. “I know most black people in one way or another, and we’ve probably met at Fresh Fest for the past couple of years at some point.”

As more black brewers enter the field, the need for a supporting infrastructure has become evident to those in the industry in recent years.

In Michigan, for example, Founders Brewing Co. was at the center of a racial discrimination lawsuit in which a former employee, who is black, alleged that the Grand Rapids-based brewer tolerated a “racist internal corporate culture. And dismissed him in retaliation. when he complained to human resources.

In an attempt to restore trust in the black community, Founders has teamed up with Detroit chief Phil Jones. He developed a menu during Black History Month that celebrated black culture. Jones, a famous chef and activist, saw this as an opportunity to facilitate change in company culture.

“You don’t have to go to the founders, you don’t have to drink their beer, but someone needs to have these conversations with them because in fact they’re not going anywhere”, Jones explains.

For the Barrel & Flow Fest, Bracey says businesses are vetted to ensure attendees align with the spirit of the event. In doing so, event planners have forged relationships with companies that embody similar values.

“We know the industry is predominantly white and there’s a lot of discrimination in various pockets, especially when you get into these redder states, these redder areas,” says Bracey. “You can focus on all the evils in the world, the issues that black people are facing, or you can look at all the progress that has been made to get us to where we are.

“This is the thing that gives me hope, knowing that with as much work as we put in, we might not see the change we want to see in our lives, but neither do a lot of people who have died. so that we get to where we are now. There are many women who did not have the right to vote. There are many blacks who did not have the right to be free but they still fought “Said Bracey.” That’s what we’re looking for with this festival. It’s like, yeah, there’s a lot of work. We’re going to visit a lot of breweries and maybe be the only black person there, but find the people who do the work and support them. ”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles on how creating creative places can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously funded by the Kresge Foundation.

Serena Maria Daniels was a 2017-2018 Next City member for Fair Cities. Based in Detroit, his reporting on the intersection of culture, politics and entrepreneurship can be found in Reuters, NPR’s The Salt and Latino USA, Extra Crispy (a Time publication), Lucky Peach, Chicago Tribune and others. She holds a BA in Journalism from California State University, Northridge.

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