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‘We’re Reclaiming Beer Because It’s Ours’

The overwhelmingly white image of beer culture erases a much longer, far-reaching narrative of Black brewing 

In a 1995 article in the Journal of Black Studies, Kenneth Christmon describes an interaction between the French ethnographer Marcel Griaule and a Dogon elder and priest named Ogotemmeli. Griaule, who was doing work in Mali, told Ogotemmeli that he was confused by the occasional ramblings he had heard from older, apparently drunk men who repeated what he believed to be a curious phrase: “The dead are dying of thirst.”

Ogotemmeli explained the phenomenon thusly: Death, he said, requires certain rituals to be performed before the departed can join the ancestors in peace. These rituals included a costly amount of food and drink; to economize, a family might wait until they could be performed with other families. While they waited, the spirits, caught between two worlds and in search of something to quench their thirst, would gather at the vats of fermenting beer that the families traditionally prepared for religious and secular purposes. They imparted the beer with their energy, giving it its intoxicating qualities. When an older man consumed it, Ogotemmeli continued, his ensuing state of drunkenness was the struggle between his own life force and that of the departed. So what sounded like incoherent nonsense to Griaule — “the dead are dying of thirst” — was actually the drinker’s attempt to expel the foreign energy. It made people take notice. The spirits are getting restless; it’s time to give them peace.

The Black American cookout is a sacred institution. And just like church and the fundamentals of mac and cheese cookery, it has its own set of sacred rules. They govern every aspect of the function, from who can make potato salad to how to deal with your dietary restrictions to the variety of drinks you’ll see: juices, teas, Sprite, “sprite,” and — if you’re grown enough — brown liquor. Beer, though, is another question entirely.

I’m not saying you won’t find any beer at the cookout. I’d place a sure bet on Heineken, a solid one on Corona, and a possible one on Bud heavy. But if you arrive with only craft beer, all who see you will scorn you, and I can’t say I’d disagree with them. This culinary and social event is not for your Ahab’s Shanty Sea Salt Ale or Bobo Brazil Coffee Stout. That’s because the Cookout operates with a grace afforded it via a social contract. And while any number of things could be written about its governing rules, I’m eternally fascinated by ones concerning beer.

Before I continue, let me offer a simple acknowledgement: The ways that Blackness is lived and expressed are myriad, but sometimes you’ve got a hunch that your massive mental file of anecdotes might be part of a record that illustrates a larger, shared experience. As such, the question of how my melanated companions consume beer has lately been an ongoing topic of conversation between me and Christopher Gandsy, the chef, brewer, and owner of Flatbush, Brooklyn’s Daleview Biscuits and Beer. “I remember going to cookouts at my family’s house and men were always drinking beer,” says Gandsy, who named his brewery after Dale View, his hometown neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina. “Only Budweiser, the tallboy cans.”

Regardless of how we do and don’t drink beer, there is, I believe, a widespread assumption that Black folks don’t drink — or make — the stuff. Beer, as it appears in American pop culture, is hilariously white. The idea of craft, as critic Lauren Michele Jackson has observed, is steeped in that whiteness. Of craft breweries, she writes, “the founders, so many former lawyers or bankers or advertising execs, tend to be white, the front-facing staff in their custom denim aprons tend to be white, the clientele sipping $10 beers tends to be white.”

You know the image: an hirsute white guy swilling beer in specialty stemware, in an “authentic” bar riddled with fugazi bullets in a gentrified neighborhood, frequented by patrons who read far too deeply into hip-hop lyrics.

To be fair, this is an exaggerated idea of craft beer, but that overwhelming whiteness colors the macro stuff too. White America has a monopoly on the stereotype of college-aged students crushing a 30-rack of Natural Light, and I dare you to find me a Coors Banquet TV spot featuring Black people.

The dominant image of beer culture in this country has always been predominantly white, or more specifically European: German lederhosen and Oktoberfest, English and Irish pubs, kitschy “authentic” biergartens. While beer certainly has a place in many European cultures, these images monopolize the collective imagination.

But it’s disingenuous, factually incorrect, and socially irresponsible to peddle that lily-white narrative, because it discounts the Black brewers and entrepreneurs deep in the beer game. Take, for instance, Sacramento’s Annie Johnson, who in 2013 became the first woman in 30 years — and the first Black brewer outright — to win the American Homebrewers Associations’ Homebrewer of the Year award. In Pittsburgh, Day Bracey and Mike Potter co-founded Fresh Fest, the nation’s first beer festival with a focus on brewers of African descent. Up in Harlem, Celeste Beatty runs Harlem Brewing Company, the first brewery in the country owned by a Black woman.

Black and white photo of people sitting around a table, with bottles of beer on the tabletop.
Saturday afternoon at a bar in Clarksdale, Mississippi, November 1939
CORBIS via Getty Images

The overwhelmingly white imagery of beer culture erases a much longer, far-reaching narrative, too, as you’ll learn if you journey to Washington, D.C., where Kofi Meroe and Amado Carsky run the Sankofa Beer Company. Sankofa takes its boozy cues from ingredients and fermentation practices back home — “home” meaning Nigeria and Ghana for Meroe, and Nigeria and Benin for Carsky. Something Meroe told me revealed the presence of a cultural equation that was begging to be balanced. “It’s not necessarily that we’re bringing African beers or beer styles to America,” he said. “It’s more so that we’ve adopted American and European beers but [are] looking at West African fermentation, processes, styles, and ingredients as well.”

Beer, in other words, occupied a central role in pre-colonial West African religion and social life — and still does. From Africa to Colonial America to The Birth of a Nation, Black folk were no strangers to beer. But something had to happen to explain where we’re at now: a largely monochrome craft brew economy, macrobreweries that have historically neglected to market their core products to a Black demographic, and — in the instances when beer is around in Black homes — a fridge full of Heineken.

To understand why, it helps to begin in Africa: The more you learn about the role beer played there, and the practices and social norms around it, the easier it becomes to draw parallels to the lived experience of Black America.

“The ancestors of African Americans, they were fermenters. They were really good at making their own liquor and making their own beers and also making wine from fruit,” says the culinary historian and writer Michael W. Twitty. “One of our Africanisms, in fact, was producing all these things, and one of the reasons why we did that was because it was related to our traditional spirituality.”

Libation, Twitty adds, “is the heart of African spiritual worship.” He recounts seeing this firsthand on a trip to a Tikar village in Cameroon. “They pull out a big ceramic vessel full of their traditional beer,” he says. “And even though a lot of Tikar are Muslim, this is one of the traditional religious practices they kept alongside Islam.” While beer drinking may be nonexistent on Friday, Twitty notes, you better believe that at social functions to honor youth, celebrate a marriage, or put the deceased in the ground, alcohol is poured out and passed among the elders.

When trying to account for Black America’s apparently absent relationship with beer, hearing about this ritual consumption explains a lot — at least for me. When I was a kid, for instance, beer was never a presence in the fridge. It was limited to holidays and celebratory meals and functions: crab feasts, cookouts, and family reunions.

But if ritual and social mores might account for a great deal of why different cultures drink the way they do, climate informs it as well. And in the case of alcohol production and consumption, arguably no change in climate was more impactful than the Little Ice Age, a period of regional global cooling that stretched roughly from the beginning of the 14th century to the middle of the 19th.

While wine was no stranger to Northern Europe in a pre-cooled world, chillier weather devastated the region’s grape crop. “That Little Ice Age canceled grape growing in the British Isles and Scandinavia, and along the Baltic Coast,” Twitty explains. “Northern Europe went from being able to grow grapes to only being able to grow hops and grain.” On top of that, the historian Philipp Blom argues, the Little Ice Age ignited rapidly changing social, political, and philosophical movements across the world, fueling an age of exploration and the birth of capitalism. So from there, it wasn’t a big leap for white folks to build some big boats and then go a-sailin’ for spices, get crazy rich, engage in some casual acts of murder and land theft, then build even bigger boats and pack them to the gills with human bodies with the intent of forcing them to work as slaves to keep the economy alive.

The prevailing image of an enslaved Black person is that of someone laboring in the fields or being ordered around the big house, but American slavery built and sustained pretty much every aspect of this American life. And that included beer — again, the West African societies from which so many bodies were stolen were no stranger to the mechanisms of fermentation. “We know that enslaved Africans and African Caribbeans were brewing beer or were cultivating hops or other grains that would have been used in the brewing process,” says Theresa McCulla of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Black brewing skill was no secret, she adds. Advertisements for enslaved people who were skilled brewers? Absolutely. Wanted posters that identified fugitives as skilled brewers or otherwise involved in the brewing industry? As American as apple pie. Peter Hemings, enslaved at Monticello, was a master brewer.

I’m loath to call this knowledge “revelatory,” yet I’m having a hard time thinking of a more fitting word. Erasure is deliberate. Black folks’ labor and participation in the production of a craft product should be tied to that product itself. It’s a bizarre occurrence, really, that a niche economy obsessed with craft conveniently ignores the forced, unpaid labor that made those goods. Beer hardly stands alone in this conversation — think of the aesthetic and consumer culture surrounding barbecue or whiskey. Or, as Lauren Michele Jackson puts it, the “character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful.”

If a culture’s drinking practices are transmitted through generations, then the Black relationship to alcohol can be explored through a couple of factors. For one, there’s the complicated issue of temperance, which was far more tangled up in race than its name would have us believe.

Back in the 19th century, abolitionists combined their moral crusade to rid the nation of the evils of slavery with the goal of persuading it to abandon the perils of drink. The causes were intertwined to such an extent that it became an “every abolitionist was a teetotaler but not every teetotaler was an abolitionist” kind of situation, says H. Paul Thompson, history department chair at North Greenville University. Not only were many slave narratives and the contemporary fiction from abolitionist authors anti-alcohol, alcohol “was always associated with the oppressor,” Thompson points out. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Prue becomes an alcoholic and is whipped to death; in Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative, he recounts the free flow of booze for a week during Christmas, which he argues kept the enslaved from plotting an escape. And in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup writes about how his “friends” offered him drinks in a saloon, culminating in a drugged dram that landed him in a slave pen. (For the record, I can’t help but think of Northup when I remember being warned as a kid to neither drink around white people nor accept boozy gifts in open containers.)

“Black people’s attitude toward alcohol in the 1800s was not ideological. It was strictly pragmatic,” Thompson says. Black America wasn’t anti-drink, we just stuck with what we knew. Alcohol only came around at Christmas? Cool. The only non-Blacks that are friendly to us are these Northern folks that say alcohol is bad? Got it. And then there are the implications of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment, too.

“The last thing [Black people] were were drunkards under slavery,” Thompson explains. “So when they get free it’s not like, ‘Oh, now we’re free to drink.’” At the top of the agenda were things like getting an education or a job or legally married, property ownership, and generally not being treated like garbage in a society where “all men are created equal.” Throw poverty in the mix? It’s counterintuitive to keep booze around when there are groceries to be had. Still, that doesn’t come close to explaining how beer culture grew in America among different ethnic enclaves. The chronicles of immigration are tightly woven into the country’s fabric, and of course they have something to say about the history of brew here.

For much of American history, beer and cider were produced in small batches for consumption at home, but as the 19th century chugged along, so did German immigration. Those immigrants both populated the beer trade and brought with them a bonafide beer culture that dramatically changed the way beer was made and consumed. Professional breweries were set up, and brewing became an increasingly profitable business with its own insular social and financial networks. “And so African Americans began to be shut out of the process of employment and breweries,” says the Smithsonian’s McCulla, “whether that was by the brewers themselves or eventually by unions who, because of discriminatory practices, would not hire African Americans into unions.” All to say: if you were a Black brewer trying to find work in the latter 1800s, good luck.

Exclusion, though, occupied two sides of the same coin. On one side, the German-American beer garden wasn’t necessarily shutting out “others” because of any racial animus. “That was their Sunday outing,” Twitty says of its patrons. “They had a culture, and they weren’t really fraternizing with us. It wasn’t because they didn’t like us or anything.” Tack on the fact that these beer gardens were in generally urban areas (and we’re talking about a pre-Great Migration United States here) and this checks out. If you’re Black person (or any non-German) in a Midwestern city, why would you spend your leisure time with Teutonic folk speaking German, as if you could even understand the conversation?

On the flip side, there was saloon culture. As beer became an increasingly mass-produced commodity, consumers became less inclined to imbibe their own homemade table brew. Saloons popped up seemingly everywhere, as did the social codes that defined them. If segregation in beer gardens was more passive, then in saloons, it took a more intentional form. “Suddenly beer was less consumed at home and more likely to be consumed in taverns or saloons, which would also discriminate against Black consumers,” says McCulla. “They would not allow them to enter the same spaces as European Americans or white Americans.”

With all this attention to the North, maybe it’s time to turn an eye to the postbellum South.

Not all temperance activists believed in stuff like “equality.” In the decades leading up to the national Prohibition, some of them were freaking out. The temperance movement did include abolitionists, and later social progressives and suffrage activists. But nativists and segregationists also counted themselves among the temperance crowd — what if alcohol destoryed the fabric of white supremacist society itself?

“There was always a tension between the industry, which wanted to sell product, and powerful local interests that wanted to control the use of the product,” says Thomas Pegram, a history professor at Loyola University Maryland. Below the Mason-Dixon, he explains, there was increasing concern about the idea of the saloon, because “it was one of a few places in Southern society where recreational mixing across racial lines was possible.” Up north, where dry activists were becoming increasingly suspicious of new immigrants congregating over drinks, temperance could take on an anti-immigration slant, too.

Many breweries were forced to shut down during Prohibition’s enforcement from 1920 to 1933. Those that did survive could not afford to go through a similar experience again. “[After repeal], the industry is working really hard to reestablish itself while simultaneously treading extraordinarily lightly with regard to federal regulation,” notes J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, diversity ambassador for the Brewers Association. As part of those efforts, big brewers like Miller and Anheuser-Busch recast their brand image as something definitively patriotic and “American.” “Beer [culture] just became this flag-waving, rah-rah-rah America type of culture,” she says. And yes, in this context, beer culture means “white” — although some breweries did go out of their way to court the Darker Audience. The Bushwick, Brooklyn-based Rheingold, for example, was the regional sponsor for Nat King Cole’s 1956 television variety show, as well as a sponsor of Jackie Robinson’s weekly radio show.

A malt liquor ad hanging on a subway wall, with a photo of a woman in a low-cut dress, a bottle, and the tagline “IT’S SO GOOD, IT’S BAD.” 
An advertisement for Haffenreffer Malt Liquor, 1990
Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

While beer was increasingly “all-American,” not all Americans were drowning in suds. The alcoholic beverage industry that began to emerge after the repeal of Prohibition got a further boost by the white flight to the suburbs that followed the end of World War II. More space and disposable income to entertain helped to create a new cocktail culture — one whose sophisticated, cosmopolitan drinks made beer, the everyman’s brew, look flat by comparison. So how could the average beer company compete? By developing a high-ABV product to compete with the demand for cocktails.

If you’ve never seen a vintage malt liquor ad, there are few features you should look out for. First is the name: Country Club, Olde English, Private Stock. Classy stuff. You’ll also see smiling white folks having the time of their white lives. And you’ll notice the booze is served out of a bottle, in coupes, tumblers, or wine glasses. This was the drink of the future, targeted squarely at a cocktail-drinking white American. But, as Jackson-Beckham notes, “that product really just didn’t resonate with that audience.”

Malt liquor is, to put it lightly, an exceptionally acquired taste. So how did it go from garden party aspirations to Boyz n the Hood levels of despair? The exact why is a matter of lore, but Jackson-Beckham has a pretty good idea. “The best story I’ve been able to get is that there was some kind of persistent market research saying that urban audiences make more purchasing decisions based on ABV and that urban audiences tend to buy for volume,” she says. “The decision was made to market malt liquor not as an upscale product, but a specifically urban product and to put it in a large vessel.“ Boom: the 40.

Advertising has more to do with what we buy than most of us care to admit, and the malt liquor ads of the ’70s and ’80s were tailor-made for Black America — or at least, what brewers imagined Black America to be, thanks to some choice celebrity endorsements. During that time, Schlitz malt liquor had a loaded roster, featuring ads from the Platters, Kool & the Gang, Richard Roundtree, the Spinners, Teddy Pendergrass, and, singing what is easily a top-10 jingle of all-time, the Lockers. Colt 45 famously employed the cool of Captain Calrissian himself, Billy Dee Williams. And the talents of high-profile musicians provided a clear throughline to later campaigns, most notably the ’90s-era St. Ides spots that featured specially crafted verses from Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Wu-Tang, 2Pac, and Biggie.

The politics of malt liquor are conflicted and fascinating, largely because of the calculated exclusion of Black consumers by major brewers and their abstention from marketing more “respectable” beer brands to Black America. Pabst owns Colt 45. Molson Coors pushes Olde English. King Cobra? That’s an Anheuser-Busch brand. And yet the popular image of Black American drink does not include Pabst or Coors or Bud Light. I’m not saying it needs to, but I am saying it’s in part by design.

“There’s no kind of upward or lateral mobility through the brand portfolio,” says Jackson-Beckham. “You kind of get stuck in the 40 bubble. In a lot of other companies’ brand portfolios, you might try a product and go, ‘Oh, well, okay. I liked this one, maybe I’ll try that one.’” Such a consumer path doesn’t exactly lead out of the 40-ounce bottle.

The relationship of Black America to malt liquor continued its evolution at the same time the country experienced a moment of upward mobility (although our collective memory of a mass entry of Black Americans into the ranks of the middle class may be somewhat inflated). But that mobility informed respectability, too. “A lot of Black people were going through this kind of Cosby Show-esque upward social mobility,” Jakson-Beckham explains. “They did not want to associate themselves with the symbols of a kind of urban Blackness — that is for them like a bit of a danger of association.”

But that narrative — that being associated with “Black” things will make the white establishment think less of you — smacks of the worst kind of respectability. “This is a clearly infantilizing narrative,” says Jackson-Beckham. “It’s like, you are either incapable or too irresponsible to moderate on your own.” In Black America, that narrative went, malt liquor is beer, beer is bad, and that badness ruins communities. Beginning in the late ’80s, a number of episodes portrayed malt liquor as a symbol of Black community decay. Some were factual, like Black-led protests over malt liquor ads perceived to target a vulnerable Black community in Baltimore. And some were fictional, like the aforementioned 1991 John Singleton film Boyz n the Hood, or Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite, a 2009 Blaxploitation send up in which a crime-fighting team uncovers a nefarious scheme by the U.S. government to “alter” the bodies of Black men by getting them to drink an aggressively advertised malt liquor.

Macrobrews weren’t marketed to Black people, and the one style of beer that was — malt liquor — was being rejected by some in the community. But there was one type of product that filled that void: premium spirits. Brands like Hennessy became the products of Black cosmopolitanism and upward mobility. Far more costly than beer, these mid- to high-shelf spirits imbued alcohol consumption with an even greater connotation of luxury. Sure, maybe Black people are saddled with a D’Ussé stereotype, and Hennessy may be the “Spirit of the NBA,” but these brands marketed to Black America when home-grown beer wouldn’t.

Still, it’s not like beer didn’t make a play — if you’re looking for a consistently referenced brew in hip-hop history, you’ll see Heineken again and again. The argument you could make for Heineken being a “Black” beer is that it came with the same cosmopolitan prestige that accompanied premium spirits. Ditto Beck’s (or Grey Poupon, for that matter). Similar to the way premium spirits functioned, Heineken may have occupied the role of “sophisticated” brew, worlds apart from the domestic blandness of Miller and Coors.

The story could end there, but that would erase the picture of the Black brewers making legitimately tasty craft beer, shattering old stereotypes in the process.

“We’re reclaiming beer because it’s ours,” Kim Harris says when I ask her what she wants people drinking craft beer to know about the relationship between the brew and the African continent. In 2018, Harris, along with fellow HBCU graduates Stacey Lee and Kevin Bradford, opened Harlem Hops, an uptown craft brew bar that’s taken up the mantle of reorienting the relationship between beer and Black America. Sometimes that means getting customers to try something new. Someone may pop in, apprehensive about the menu because of a bad experience with a particular alcoholic beverage. “Once we tell them why we like to sell craft beer and liquor, they really get to understand what it is that we’re doing, and they taste it,” says Lee. “And they actually end up liking it better than a beer they’ve had before. Better than the Grey Goose or Jack Daniel’s that they experienced.”

It’s equally about forging a connection to Africa’s beer past, too. “It’s all about history for us,” Harris chimes in. “Once we can have a better understanding of our history, it makes us a better group of people.”

But I had to ask them: Was alcohol a casual presence in their homes during their youth? It was for Lee and Harris, whose fathers preferred beer and whiskey. But it wasn’t for Bradford. Alcohol “wasn’t really a thing in my house,” he recalls. “Just special occasions. Mom would drink wine every now and then. It wasn’t prevalent in my home. I got interested in beer in college, and the rest is history.”

I can relate to this, and so can Daleview Biscuits and Beer’s Christopher Gandsy. Beer was around when he was coming up, he says, but the thing to drink was that brown. Gandsy didn’t stumble into the craft beer game until Father’s Day nine years ago, when his wife gave him a Mr. Beer homebrew kit. One kit turned into four, and that’s when Gandsy says he realized “beer wasn’t just that American lager that I wasn’t used to, like in college.” Today, his beer menu changes frequently, with brews bearing the name of friends and Black heroes alike — the Paul Bogle, a sorrel-infused pale ale named for the Jamaican national hero, is a neighborhood favorite. For Black History Month 2021, he’s lined up a slate of beers to honor civil rights leaders like Pauli Murray (a dark ale), Diane Nash (an IPA), and Claudette Colvin (a red wheat ale). “And a majority of the beers coming out are [named for] women,” Gandsy says. “My belief is that lots of movements that happened throughout history, especially during the diaspora, wouldn’t have happened without strong women.” Each beer will be accompanied by a bio, so if you don’t know, then you will know. That theme of education pervades much of Gandy’s work: Although he got into the beer game because he genuinely enjoys drinking the stuff, he also had a desire to inform and facilitate cultural conversation — all while turning Flatbush into a craft-friendly neighborhood.

But it’s through an internship program he’s piloting that he hopes to make the biggest impact. Called Lovibond, after the inventor of a device used to measure the color — and thus the quality — of beer, its ultimate goal is that the people of color who go through the training “can find a job in the brewing community, in the city,” Gandsy says. For an industry that has historically been so blindingly white, this is a move to inject some much-needed perspective.

The mere act of thinking about beer and Black culture feels, for lack of a better word, weird. There are a lot of assumptions and a lot of hearsay. But something that Michael Twitty told me assuages those uncertain feelings and legitimizes that most delightful feeling I get when I share details of my childhood or adolescence with another Black person who had a similar experience, despite living hundreds of miles away.

“Some aspects of our culture don’t fit the mold of Western scholarship, because Western scholarship demands that there is some kind of written transmission of information and culture that explicitly says that something occurred,” Twitty told me. “I’ve abandoned that to some extent, because I think it’s bullshit. I think that it’s a way of obfuscating our ability to reckon and make peace with our own story. Part of our story is not based on written words. It’s based on oral tradition, it’s based on intuition, based on imagination. It’s based on feeling, it’s based on stories. It’s based on anecdotes and it’s our job to weave them together, to create a nexus that gives us a sense of fulfillment and peace that we know who we are. That having been said, you know, Black folks were master distillers.”

There’s much to learn, and much to teach. And much respect and acknowledgment that’s long overdue. So tarry here no longer, and pour out a Heineken brew for your deceased crew on Memory Lane. The dead, after all, are dying of thirst.

James Bennett II is a writer and so-called “critic” who spends his days thinking about food and music.

Lead image photo credits: MOFAD, Martin Goodwin/Getty, Archive Photos/Stringer/Getty

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