When Charles St. Clair and a friend opened Black Horizon Brewery in Willowbrook in 2017 — an affluent suburb just southwest of Chicago — he hadn’t given too much thought about the fact that his was one of just a few Black-owned brick and mortar breweries in the country.
After all, having grown up in a majority-white Chicago suburb, St. Clair says he was used to being the only Black face in a room. But when he started getting to know his fellow Black brewers in Chicago and nearby Indiana, he realized he was a part of a small but growing community.
Which is part of the appeal of the Barrel & Flow Fest, a celebration of Black-owned breweries, taking place Sept. 10-12 at the Southside Works in Pittsburgh. Proof of vaccinations or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours will be required to enter.
“I’m looking at the social aspect of it,” says St. Clair. “I want to hear what (other people’s) stories are, what their struggles are, and especially from the guys who’ve been doing this a lot longer.”
Questions like how to expand distribution or how to get the word out about the brand come up, for sure. But what appeals to St. Charles is the idea that this annual convening (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 been plagued with a reputation for being exclusionary. Day Bracey, the festival’s founder, is quick to point out that of the more than 8,500 craft breweries across the country, fewer than 100 of them are Black-owned, and fewer than 40 of those breweries operate as a brick and mortar.
Bracey and former business partner Mike Potter originally launched what was known as Fresh Fest in 2018 to wide popularity. The festival proved successful, attracting thousands of visitors and providing a first-ever national celebration of Black brewers. The pair had a falling out, but Bracey decided to continue on his mission, this time rebranding as Barrel & Flow.
Barrel & Flow refers to the interconnection of sectors of Black arts, whether it be visual, musical, or the culinary arts. On the “barrel” side of the event, most of the participating brewers have partnered with other brands. These collaborations give often smaller brewers a chance to work with larger or more established brands to expand their reach.
“A lot of times breweries come to us because they want to start the conversation, start that dialogue and meet people on even terms and for the brewing industry and to get to know the Black community and for the Black community to get to know the brewing industry in a non-predatory way, in a way that is going to enhance what they’re already doing,” says Bracey of the collaborative process.
The “flow” part refers to the arts. Among the artists set to perform are funk music group Ghost-Note and Pittsburgh rapper Benji, as well as a lineup of more than 20 other musicians and DJs. In addition to the live performances, Bracey says artists will have an opportunity to connect with the local businesses. The initiatve, funded by Arts Equity Reimagined and the community development nonprofit New Sun Rising, offers year-long support for creators and helps them establish business collaborations. If a small business was looking to redesign 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 get interested in STEM and perhaps inspire them to enter the brewing industry. For folks who want to take part but are unable to travel to Pittsburgh, the festival will also have virtual programming through 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 ecosystem of support.
That’s one reason Sankofa Beer, a brewery based in Washington D.C., will be returning to this year’s rebranded festival. Kofi Meroe co-founded the company with his cousin Amado Carsky. The two were born in the United States but spent much of their upbringing in parts of West Africa.
The company is considered a contract brewery, meaning it sells its beers for distribution to bars and retailers and does not have a physical taproom open to the public. Sankofa’s offerings vary frequently, but when creating new brews, the cousins draw inspiration from their African roots, featuring ingredients native to Ghana, such as a hibiscus pale ale and chocolate milk stout.
Meroe says he never thought much about what it means to be one of just a small number of Black brewers in the country, but once he got more involved in the industry, he began to view participating in events like Barrel & Flow a responsibility.
While he won’t be attending the event itself (he says others from the company will), he says he sees the value of providing mentorship to the “next generation” of brewers in a very young category.
“Personally, when I go, I go for a sense of reunion, it’s almost like a big family reunion for us,” said Meroe. “I know most of the Black people out there in one way or another, and really we probably met at Fresh Fest over the last year or two at some point.”
As more Black brewers are entering the field, the need for a supportive infrastructure has become clear for 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 fired him in retaliation when he complained to human resources.
In an attempt to rebuild trust in the Black community, Founders partnered with Detroit chef Phil Jones. He developed a menu during Black History Month that celebrated Black culture. Jones, a celebrated chef and activist, saw this as an opportunity to facilitate change in the culture of the company.
“You don’t have to go to Founders, you don’t have to drink their beer, but someone needs to have these conversations with them because they’re actually not going anywhere,” says Jones.
For the Barrel & Flow Fest, Bracey says companies are vetted to ensure that the participants align with the spirit of the event. In doing so, event organizers have built relationships with businesses that embody similar values.
“We know that the industry is predominantly white and that there is a lot of discrimination that goes on in various pockets, especially as you get into those redder states, those redder areas,” says Bracey. “You could focus on all of the ills of the world, the issues that Black folks face or you could look at all the progress that has been made to get us to where we are.
“That’s the thing that gives me hope, knowing that as much work as we put in, we might not see the change that we want to see in our lifetimes but neither did a lot of people who died for us to get to where we are now. There are a lot of women who didn’t have the right to vote. There’s a lot of Black people who didn’t have the right to be free but they fought nonetheless,” says Bracey. “That’s what we’re looking at with this festival. It’s like, yeah, there is a lot of work. We are going to going into a lot of breweries and maybe be the only Black person there, but look for the people who are doing the work and support them.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning Chicana journalist and founder and editor of Tostada Magazine, a Detroit-based digital food & culture journalism platform that centers stories and perspectives of immigrants and people of color.