Tampa Bay’s Black brewery owners work to bring more people of color to craft beer

The lack of Black-owned breweries isn’t a uniquely Floridian problem.

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click to enlarge Bastet Brewing co-founders Huston Lett (L) and Tom Ross. - Photo by Aaron Hosé / Design by Jack Spatafora
Photo by Aaron Hosé / Design by Jack Spatafora
Bastet Brewing co-founders Huston Lett (L) and Tom Ross.

At a small, local craft brewery, then-39-year-old Tampeño Huston Lett is working behind the bar as a beertender. As he works, he spots a white couple staring at him and whispering. After a while, some dreaded words leave the man’s mouth as he continues to stare at Lett.

“Hey, I don’t want to sound racist but—”

In retelling this story, Lett pauses and says with amusement, “Normally, when somebody prefaces anything like that I’m running the other way, but I humored him and I listened.”

The man finished his statement predictably: “I’ve been in a lot of breweries all around the world, but I’ve never seen anybody Black working at a brewery and I’ve never seen anybody as knowledgeable about beer as you are that’s Black.”

“I remember being angry at the time when it happened,” Lett tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “And that right there...drove me [to further pursue brewing] because I was like you know what? That sucks that that’s a thing but let’s figure out why it’s a thing. That definitely made me start a dialogue and start talking to people that felt the same way.”

That incident was seven years ago and now, Lett is the proud co-owner of Bastet Brewing. He opened it along with his business partner Tom Ross in November of last year. 

The Egyptian-themed Tampa brewery—located at ​​1951 E. Adamo Dr. near Ybor City—is one of the few Black-owned breweries located in Florida. In total, there are four, with three in Tampa Bay. For perspective, Florida is home to 368 craft breweries as of 2020, according to the Brewers Association

But a lack of diversity in brewing isn’t uniquely Floridian. A 2019 demographic benchmark completed by the Brewers Association found that less than 1% of U.S. breweries are Black-owned. This won’t shock most who understand that the issue is not just central to the craft beer industry, but many industries in the U.S. that have long functioned as majority white spaces. 

Beer is slightly different though. Why aren’t more Black people opening breweries, working in tap rooms, or simply enjoying craft beer? It’s a question that becomes perplexing when looking at the cultural and historical relevance beer holds in the Black community. 

“It's one thing if [beer] wasn't a part of African history and tradition, sure—but...there is such a deep history with Africans and beer,” filmmaker Aaron Hosé tells CL. “Ancient brewing traditions go way back to the African continent, to Egyptian times. Even in Africa today, it's a very communal experience. Beer is brewed by women in the families. Here it's brewed mostly by white men.”

One pint at a time

Hosé, an Emmy award-winning producer, was born in Texas and raised in Aruba before moving to Orlando for college. He was raised by an Afro-Caribbean father and a Puerto Rican mother and is known for his documentaries that explore social issues. He recently wrapped up his latest documentary, “One Pint At a Time,” which focuses on the diversification of craft beer in America. He became inspired to make a documentary about the topic after sitting in breweries for years and realizing that he and his wife were always “among or the only people of color at breweries.” The film’s world premiere will debut at a for-now-unnamed film festival next month.

Over four years, Hosé traveled to different states in the U.S.—from Florida to Louisiana, Connecticut, Colorado, New York, and more—to talk to Black brewery owners. He wanted to tell their stories and how they overcame barriers to succeed in such a white-dominated industry. 

One of the brewery owners Hosé interviewed is Khris Johnson, head brewer and co-owner of Green Bench Brewing. In 2013, the St. Petersburg brewery was the first Black-owned brewery to pop up in Florida. Johnson owns Green Bench with his business partners Nathan Stonecipher, Steven Duffy, and Brian Wing. He points to many reasons why the craft beer industry is so white today, but he says a big one is how beer has been traditionally marketed to Black people. 

“There is a reason why the market showed that if you went to urban environments and neighborhoods, there were a lot more large format beers like ‘40 oz. this’ and single packages, which encouraged you to drink all of it at once,” Johnson says. “You go to more affluent, white-focused neighborhoods and there’s a lot more smaller formats in several packages, which encourages sessionability; drinking with responsibility and regulation. From that perspective, you’re already creating an environment that views and uses this product differently.”

Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham is the Brewers Association’s Equity and Inclusion Partner. The association hired her in 2018 as their first-ever Diversity Ambassador and now she leads the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department. Dr. Jackson-Beckham studied culture and the brewing industry in college, graduating with a Ph.D from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To get to the root of the diversity issue in the industry she points all the way back to the 1960s as the answer. 

“The craft beer industry does not exist in a vacuum. It's part of America. And so if there is a disparity in the industry it's because there's a disparity in our country,” Dr. Jackson-Beckham says. 

She explains that the beer industry really began to take off in the late-1960s and early-‘70s, a time “smack in the middle of civil rights.” Because of the recent end of segregation and the widespread discrimination that lingered, practices like redlining, racist bank loan double standards, and others persisted. White people began to home brew, eventually graduating to self-financing, raising money amongst their friends and family, or taking out loans from banks to start their own brewery. Black people were left with none of these same options. 

“These are just remnants of structural inequality that’s common to America… but I don’t think it’s anything about craft beer in particular,” Dr. Jackson-Beckham adds.

It’s certainly not the 1960s anymore, but even today, Black people still face obstacles when it comes to getting involved in the craft beer industry or even just opening up a business in general. Lett of the aforementioned Bastet Brewing was presented with many challenges when it came to both starting his brewery and landing a job in the industry in the first place.

Before he was crazy about craft beer, Lett worked as a graphic designer at a law firm, where he sometimes played bartender at office parties. After a German Pilsner caught his eye at one of them, he developed an interest in craft beer. This interest quickly became a passion, leading Lett to seek out employment in the craft beer field.

“I had been applying to breweries for almost seven years before I finally got a job,” Lett says. “[The brewery I finally got hired at], I had applied there I don’t know how many times. It's kinda hard not to think that it was because I was Black. Honestly, I only got in after Tom [my business partner who was working there at the time] vouched for me.”

In Hosé’s “One Pint At a Time,” it becomes clear that the treatment Lett received is not a rarity. In the film, Hosé talks to Jon Renthrope, the founder and CEO of Cajun Fire Brewing Company, the first Black-owned brewery in Louisiana and the American South. Renthrope details how he submitted over 25 letters of intent in an attempt to find a brick-and-mortar for Cajun Fire to no avail. He still has no physical location for the brewery but he did purchase a 10-acre lot for a mixed-use facility in 2016. The sign on the lot announcing Cajun Fire Brewing “coming soon” has been continuously vandalized. 

“Some of those racist things in the industry are just arriving at my front door,” Renthrope said about the vandalization in One Pint At a Time. “It ain’t just a random vandalizer, it’s actually intentional.”

click to enlarge Green Bench Brewing Co. co-owner Khris Johnson says that Beer Kulture offers a ton of programs to help minorities get into the craft beer industry. - GreenBenchBrewing/Facebook
Green Bench Brewing Co. co-owner Khris Johnson says that Beer Kulture offers a ton of programs to help minorities get into the craft beer industry.

Changing the Kulture

Thankfully, bringing people of color into craft brewing is gaining more awareness by the day, with plenty of organizations and nonprofits initiating change. One of them is St. Petersburg-based non-profit Beer Kulture. Latiesha Cook is the president of the organization and Johnson of Green Bench is the vice president. Beer Kulture began as a lifestyle brand and just reached its first year as an official nonprofit. Their mission is to “invite new drinkers to the party” by reaching Black people and other people of color so that they can go on to “freely walk into the industry as consumers, organizers and professionals,” according to the organization’s website

Johnson says that Beer Kulture—which just facilitated a Green Bench collab with Run the Jewels—offers a ton of programs to help minorities get into the craft beer industry. There are grants awarded to applicants interested in brewery training courses, scholarships to USF’s brewing program, internship programs (including one with well-known Bronx Brewery in New York), beer collaborations that donate money to charities, and even a job board on their website that allows employers to easily find people of color to hire.

“That last one was literally a conversation Latiesha and I had,” Johnson explains. “I was there texting her one night; I was frustrated because I kept hearing, ‘Yeah, so where do I find Black people to hire?’ That’s what I kept hearing from a bunch of people and I'm just like, ‘What…?’”

The result was a database of people of color who want to get into the industry, with their resumes easily accessible for employers to view. “We've been able to post dozens of people into jobs working in the beverage space, a lot of them at breweries. At Green Bench, we've hired three people through the job board,” Johnson says.

For their work with Beer Kulture, Cook and Johnson were invited to serve on the board of the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, another organization looking to help BlPOC get into the industry. The foundation, which is helmed by famous Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, funds scholarship awards to accredited brewing and distilling courses. 

Yet another initiative is Crafted For All, a consultancy started by Dr. Jackson-Beckham. It provides affordable resources and tools for BIPOC looking to get into the industry via a subscription service. She is also the founder of Craft x EDU, a nonprofit that aims to “champion equity, inclusion, and justice in the craft brewing community through education and professional development,” according to the Brewers Association website. Through Craft x EDU, grants and scholarships, opportunity fairs, and more are offered. For Dr. Jackson-Beckham, these programs and all of the work she’s done at the Brewers Association is about more than just diversity. 

click to enlarge Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham, Brewers Association’s Equity and Inclusion Partner, says “The craft beer industry does not exist in a vacuum. It's part of America. And so if there is a disparity in the industry it's because there's a disparity in our country." - Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham
Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham
Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham, Brewers Association’s Equity and Inclusion Partner, says “The craft beer industry does not exist in a vacuum. It's part of America. And so if there is a disparity in the industry it's because there's a disparity in our country."

‘Diversity is actually not the goal’

“Diversity is actually not the goal. Because if you look at diversity in terms of who is in the room...anybody can go out and hire a whole bunch of brown people tomorrow, but that doesn't mean that those brown people are going to have a good time once they get that job,” Dr. Jackson-Beckham explains. “For me, diversity is an outcome of some other practices. Work on inclusion, equity, and justice—and diversity will come.”

As the Brewers Association’s Equity and Inclusion Partner, she has definitely brought lots of ideas to the table to help reach this point. Since her entry into the association in 2018, she has helped start a data collection practice (which provided the alarming statistic of Black-owned breweries making up less than 1% of U.S. breweries), launched a diversity and inclusion events grants program, started a mentorship program for those experiencing barriers in the industry, and more. 

With people like Dr. Jackson-Beckham, Johnson, and Oliver stepping up to the plate to spur widespread change in the industry, there’s hope for its future. It won’t happen overnight but Johnson says he’s already witnessing some improvement.

“There are more and more people of color involved in beer every single day...but it is going to take time for it to drastically change,” Johnson says. “This is not something we do for quick results because quick results don't create lasting change. We do this work everyday because we care about people and we're passionate about beer. We want it to be as great as it can be and the only way that it gets better is with more ideas, people, and involvement. It's something I'll still be doing even when other people think it's already better.”

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About The Author

Aaliyah Selene Pasols

I'm Aaliyah Selene Pasols, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican writer, editor, and big city dreamer.I currently reside in South Florida and am a senior at Florida International University. Writing is my passion and has been since I was old enough to write. I have freelanced for numerous publications such as Miami New Times,...
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