Diversity in the Craft World

Martin Johnson - Craft beer's fan base has gotten much more diverse.

A coupla weeks ago, I had an encounter at a bar that reminded me of how things have changed. I had just walked into Drop Off Service, one of my favorite East Village beer bars and was perusing the list, when one of the regulars sidled up to me and said, “Here's your beer sir.” I didn't get it since, for one, I was sort of expecting him to say. “Hey man, how's it going?” and two, how would he know what I was drinking?

It reminded me of the last time someone presumed they knew what I was drinking. It was a long time ago. I was working at a fancy grocery store in 2003 and a new hire heard that I was into beer. I was eager to meet the guy anyway as he and I were the only African Americans on the sales floor. The first thing the guy said to me was, “I bet you really like Heineken.” I rolled my eyes and gave him the most polite look of befuddlement I could manage. My new coworker ran through a list of every imaginable large production beer before I told him that Schneider-Weisse Aventinus is my favorite beer, but I drink it only occasionally. Instead, I prefer to explore from among the many great beers all over the world and the growing number of craft beers brewed in America.

He responded, “Oh, that white boy shit,” dashing my hopes of an insightful dialogue. In response I told him all about Garrett Oliver. He turned the conversation to sports.

So much has changed since then and all of it for the better. First of all, Heineken is no longer automatically associated with African Americans. Secondly no one thinks of craft beer as a white thing either. And for good reason. The rapidly growing constituency for craft beer has become remarkably diverse.

This jibes with my experience in New York beer bars too. When people ask how I learned about beer, I name the experts who shared their knowledge with me and while there's a Mark and a Dave on the list, there's also Jen, Maggie, and Gina. Jen in fact is now a beer consultant in California, but while based in New York, she worked at Blind Tiger, one of the pioneering bars for craft beer. One afternoon when the subject of diversity came up, she said it went beyond race and gender. “It used to be that no one wanted to work at the Tiger during Pride Weekend. It was slow because all of the regulars would go out of town and none of the visitors were interested in beer. Now, it's one of the busiest weekends of the summer because so many gays from out of town want to drink rare and unusual beer.”

At Drop Off, it's perfectly normal for women to outnumber men and the gender split is often 50/50. At my usual Friday night hang, Milk and Hops, a beer bar/bottle shop/cheese counter hybrid, it's not unusual for African Americans and Hispanics to outnumber whites at the bar. When I spoke to Garrett Oliver in 2009, he predicted that as more African Americans travel abroad, they will become fans of craft beer; it was how he fell in love with the stuff decades ago.

Change is happening a little more slowly at the upper echelons of the production cycle. Michael Ferguson, host of Beer Geeks, often refers to himself as “the other black brewer” in reference to Garrett. I only know of a few other African Americans working at or near the Brewmaster level, but these things take time. 20 years ago, there were very few African American winemakers, now there are more than three dozen. Some of the leading figures in the wine world are black, like Andre Hueston Mack, who was the opening night sommelier at Per Se and now makes wine for his Mouton Noir label.

So getting back to my encounter at Drop Off, my barstool buddy was offering me a Stone RuinTen in jest. 

He remembered that I was drinking it the last time we spoke. I smiled gently and told him that I might join him in a glass of that fantastic 10.8% ABV/100 IBU IPA soon, but that I was going to start with something a little less aggressive. And as I savored the Stone Cali-Belgique (yeah it was Stone tap takeover weekend there), I kept smiling at how things had changed.

The Author:

Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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