Local Brewers Defy the Lily-White Craft Beer Scene
Local Brewers Defy the Lily-White Craft Beer Scene
By Ryan Pitkin
On May 12, a diverse crowd of around 100 people gather in Goodyear Arts for an exhibit called Mood: BLACK featuring visual art, live music and free drinks.
In a back corner, folks gather around a table to try cups of Dat Dere or the Stokely Stout, two beers from Black Star Line Brewing, a black-owned brewing company based in Hendersonville.
Cut ahead by a few hours, on the afternoon of May 13, as people pour into a block on Louise Avenue for the opening of a new Catawba Brewing Co. location in the Belmont neighborhood between Plaza Midwood and NoDa.
The opening is a success, as hundreds of people catch rays on the patio or take up tables inside.
While everyone seems to be enjoying themselves at each scene, there's one striking difference between the two: despite Catawba's location in a historically black neighborhood, there's not a single black person to be seen among the hundreds of people there at around 5 p.m.
The scene at any brewery in Charlotte on a summer afternoon is more similar to the latter than the former, so it begs the question: why?
Is the lack of diversity among Charlotte's rapidly growing craft beer culture a matter of taste, education, apathy or something else?
For Tabu Terrell, who left his high-paying job as an emergency medical physician in 2013 and in November 2015 opened Three Spirits Brewery, becoming Charlotte's only black brewery owner entering the all-white local craft beer scene was nothing new.
- Tabu Terrell with a flight of beers. Photo by Ryan Pitkin.
"We used to always joke about that. You go to conventions and there's not that many people like you," he says. "I went to a couple of [Craft Brewers Conferences] and you just kind of look around the room and your like, 'Huh?' But from my perspective, it was no different from medical school. So I was kind of used to that, it didn't really hit me as hard."
Terrell began making homebrews during his first year of residency at Indiana University in 1999. He had a natural gift, and by the time he finished his residency and moved to Charlotte in 2002, his beers were getting rave reviews from friends who admitted they usually had to lie to protect the feelings of home-brewing buddies.
He kept at it, eventually building a shed behind his home when his wife allowed him to get his "big-boy system," but he only thought of the trade as a potential profession after retirement.
That was until one day in 2010 when Terrell was getting some rare time in with his 4-year-old daughter and attempted to teach her a lesson. He ended up learning one himself.
"I scolded her for something and I could just see that she was completely puzzled as to why I'm scolding her," he says. "I realized that a nanny was raising our kids instead of us, and that is not really why I went to school or how I envisioned my family. It's always like a conglomeration of things, but that kind of started the avalanche."
Terrell says his crowds on any given night are majority white, and believes the lack of black clientele comes from a need for education. He recalls that, for as long as he can remember, he has seen malt liquor and spirits advertised to blacks and regular beer advertised to whites.
Terrell refers to "the count" that most black people do as soon as they enter a room, when they look around to see how many other black folks are in the space. He makes it a point to welcome people of color as they come through his door and let them know he's there and that he's the owner.
He says he does so without pressuring them or making them feel like the spotlight is on them.
Photographer Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr., stopped in on a recent night and was greeted by Terrell, who eventually took Jacobs down the list of beers while describing how each one got its name.
"You walk in and you feel not only at home, but not intimidated from the traditional, dude-bro, 'No soup for you,' approach to the craft beer scene," Jacobs said of the experience.
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- Tabu Terrell in his brewery. Photo by Ryan Pitkin.
Terrell is optimistic that more minorities will eventually get interested in the craft beer scene; it's just a matter of time before folks start to come around to realizing what they like.
"When you tell people of color or diverse people that you're going to go to a microbrewery, I think they automatically assume that the beer is going to taste weird," he says.
A Nielsen study published in 2016 showed that African-American drinkers are far more likely to purchase spirits such as vodka or a sweet white wine like moscato than beer.
Terrell says organizations like Black Business Owners of Charlotte, Charlotte Black Professionals and an all-black cigar club called Cigars & Stilettos have held events at his business, and some members still don't even drink beer.
"They're trying to expand their palettes. And so they'll come and they usually do flights and try to taste. They're trying to change their palettes so they can come and support us, which we greatly appreciate."
Terrell sees Three Spirits as a bridge brewery, a term he only first heard a couple months ago but believes fits nicely. It refers to a brewery with lighter and sweeter options that aren't as harsh as some breweries.
"A lot of African-Americans are worried that the beers are just too much, there's too much going on," he says. "So ours are just — we call them 'comfort beers' — easy drinking and smooth, just to get people on the bridge from the Bud Light, the Miller, the Pabst, just to start expanding their palettes."
Besides, it's a taste he can relate to. When asked if he brews them sweet because that's how he likes them, he doesn't have to consider the question long.
"It's not a conscious effort, it's just when I'm looking at the recipe I'll be like, 'Ehhh, add a little bit of sugar to that. Make it a little bit sweeter,'" Terrell says. "I'm not a person that likes a lot of dry things. That's what I bring into it. I think there's a little bit of merit to that."
L.A. McRae, founder and brewmaster with Black Star Line Brewing (BSL), has also found that the sweeter the better works for their clientele since brewing the company's first batch in February.
McRae decides on what types of beer to brew through counsel with family members and through prayer. Using that process, the sweeter, honey-infused and ginger beers have become most popular over the last three months.
"What I know from my people, being black folks, being queer folks or being women, is we want something that tastes sweeter," says McRae, who prefers to be referred to in non-gender specific they/them/their pronouns.
- [From left] L.A. McRae, Ekua Adisa McRae and local comedian NuffCed at a recent Black Star Line tasting.
Like Terrell, McRae includes familial ties and personal stories into the recipes and names of each beer BSL brews.
"Everything for me is about family — whether it's about family of origin, family of birth, ancestral family or spirit guides — and really honoring the legacy and the history and the culture that we're building with black brew culture," McRae says.
McRae grew up in Bel Air, Md., home of DuClaw Brewing Co., which was founded in 1995. Later, a family friend opened Red Brick Station, a brewpub in nearby Nottingham, Md. Eventually, McRae's two older brothers became "craft beer snobs," in their own words, and McRae wasn't far behind.
About a decade ago McRae left the seminary; as a "self-ordained, practicing homosexual," it became clear that a future as a Methodist preacher was not in the cards.
"For the last 10 years I've been searching for what it is that makes me really happy and what I love doing," McRae says. "So when I thought about that, I thought: Well I love drinking beer. I have a family culture around drinking beer, we're black craft beer nerds. And also I love creating, I used to be a sous chef. So for me it was about an opportunity to pull all the things I love together."
McRae began experimenting with small batch brewing — BSL still doesn't brew more than seven barrels at a time — and learning the tricks of the trade. The name for the Stokely Stout came along before McRae knew the details of brewing, and making that inaugural batch was a learning experience.
- A lineup of Black Star Line brews.
"Getting to this recipe took us five batches, and it was not easy," McRae recalls. "The first batch was just absolutely terrible."
But McRae persisted, and after perfecting that dark stout, got to work on some lighter tastes, like the citrusy Ocean's Nectar or Dat Dere, a ginger beer.
However, a diversity in brews doesn't always lead to a diversity in the culture, at least not in the short time BSL has been around.
McRae says most white people are caught off guard when they realize they're speaking to the company's brewmaster.
"We like to say that beer is community; well, there's a typical demographic of white, cisgendered, heterosexual men who have taken up a lot of space in the craft brewing industry, especially in Charlotte," McRae says. "There's a lot of that micro-aggression and old-brewers boys club stuff happening, which is really shitty, but it's the typical experience for somebody from my walk of life . . . People either don't realize or don't care, but that's part of white privilege, you can just sort of turn your eye from it."
Terrell says he experiences the same presumptuous attitudes at his location, and laughs when he tells of how he has learned that he can use the ignorance to his advantage.
"I don't have to talk to solicitors," he says. "They come in, and they always go straight to [tap room manager] Debbie, or my assistant brewer, my brother-in-law, who's white. They'll walk right up to them. So I can just sit in the corner and nod or shake my head if I want to talk to them or not. I don't have to deal with them."
Terrell believes success has made some are brewers apathetic about the lack of diversity in their tap rooms, but predicts that as the proliferation of Charlotte breweries continues, added competition will make existing owners more aware of the huge population that isn't coming through their doors.
"If you're successful, you're probably not paying much attention. You're making your money, so it's not that big of an issue," Terrell says. "Even African-Americans don't realize how much spending power we have as a community. So I don't think other people really look at it either. This city has a lot of black professionals, with a lot of money."
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- Danielle Hilton and L.A. McRae (right) talk at a recent tasting in Charlotte.
McRae believes the opportunities to serve those populations will come only when breweries make a conscious effort to give back to the communities they serve.
"Me and the folks I associate with, as conscious black folks, to go into white establishments that don't have any investment in black, brown, queer women communities, it's hard for me to get behind that," McRae says. "So if I'm going to take my hard-earned dollars out of my pocket and give it to you, I know that's not going back in my community."
McRae said they would need to see "performative allyship" from local brewers before they felt like they were truly part of the community.
"That would be where we're going to host a night for low-income kids on this side of Charlotte, or we're going to go over here and clean up the gutters in this neighborhood. And it has to be more often, and it has to be less transactional and deeply invested in the community," McRae says.
Until then, McRae will simply be worried about BSL, and finding space in Charlotte where they can brew their small batches.
McRae is also planning the first-ever gathering of black brewers for either Hendersonville or Charlotte in October. The gathering will be an opportunity to connect black brewers and brewery owners with black beer enthusiasts, among others.
"There's no Black Brewer's Association right now; all of the brewing associations are white. If you look at the leadership, they're all white. If you look at the board membership, they're all white," McRae says. "So we're looking at having some collective bargaining power with distributors, with hop growers, etc. How do we create some accountability, and inspire other people to get involved in the industry? It will really start the conversation of what is black brew culture? What does it look like? What do we feel?"
As for us, what we feel, for now anyway, is very hopeful for the future of local craft beer culture.