Commentary: Craft beer’s untapped market

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Illustrations by Wes Watson

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and me and a white friend saddle up to the bar at a local brewery. We are alone, aside from the person working. About 20 minutes later, a couple of black guys come in and sit at the bar.

I look at my friend and say, “Blacks actually outnumber whites 3 to 1 in this place. What are the chances?”

The truth? Not very good, because when it comes to diversity at breweries, the numbers are – well – sobering.

Nationally, only 3.7 percent of black drinkers enjoy craft beer (white people account for 80 percent of the market). Those numbers hold true locally, where according to the marketing research firm Nielsen Scarborough, a paltry 3.2 percent of craft beer drinkers are black. It’s even worse for Asians (1.3 percent), and just slightly better for the Spanish/Hispanic category (4.4 percent).

I love craft beer. I’ve covered the industry in Hampton Roads for more than a year, writing stories on Commonwealth Brewing Co., Rip Rap Brewing Co. and The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery.

And while I’m often one of the few people of color, I’ve never really felt out of place. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice the lack of diversity, or find it a bit odd.

White people created craft beer, so logically they have become the majority consumer of it. Meanwhile, the black community has been inundated with marketing from malt liquors, as well as Miller Lite, Bud Light and Heineken. (See NFL commercials.)

Craft beer, to many black people, is a world of intimidation, full of too many selections with too little knowledge about hop yields, saisons and hefeweizens. There is comfort in knowing what you’re drinking.

A recurring trend I’ve noticed in Hampton Roads is professional brewers usually start off as home brewers. Many of them are former military looking for a profitable second career doing something they love. Some have investors, some find creative funding sources, and many have connections. And these local brewers form a community that looks out for each other as the craft industry continues to stake a bigger claim in the market.

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I’ve had many friends over the years who were into home brewing, but not one of them was black. So it seems to follow in this industry: if you’re not brewing it, you’re not drinking it.

Jeramy Biggie, owner of Commonwealth Brewing Co. in Virginia Beach, says “location, demographics and personal taste alignment” all play a role in attracting diversity at a brewery.

Of Commonwealth’s diversity challenges, in my opinion, the biggest is location. The brewery sits off Pleasure House Road in the Chic’s Beach area, which is a predominantly white, closely knit community that is not a major tourist destination.

A friend of mine at O’Connor Brewing Co. mentioned a recent gathering held there by the Old Dominion Peanut Corp. Several black people attended it and, according to him, they seemed overwhelmed by the beer selection. A few asked for “something that tasted like a wine or a cider.”

A large beer selection can be a sensory overload. Take O’Connors: It has a golden ale, Irish red, pale ale, agave IPA, black IPA and dry Irish stout – and that’s just getting started.

I have a passion for trying new beers, so that’s great for me. But if I’m used to grabbing a Bud, Heineken or Corona, I might be inclined to move on.

I stopped into O’Connor for a couple of beers on a recent Thursday night. There were about 50 people in the main room, seven of whom were black. I sat down with one of the men.

Derrick Ivy, 34, has lived in Ghent for about 10 years. Ivy says bartenders turned him on to craft beer, and he’s been a brewery fan since. The lack of diversity doesn’t bother him.

“I grew up in Rhode Island,” he said.  “It’s always been that way for me.”

Ivy is optimistic that sooner or later breweries will catch on with black communities. Until then, he says, people will stick to their comfort zones. Biggie, too, believes craft brews will catch on with people of color.

“I think breweries that provide an environment that’s welcoming to all people regardless of ethnicity, gender or age as well as a solid range of style offerings will see greater diversity in their customers,” he said.

While I’ve found myself a constant minority at breweries, I still enjoy visiting them. I love the process, the variety and the simplicity of them. More importantly, I’ve always been treated well by the staffs and customers.

That being said, it would be a good thing if breweries were less homogenous; seems like a missed opportunity to provide a comfortable space for cultural understanding.

Changing that will likely take a shift in culture and consciousness. We clearly need an infusion of black brewers. How about some soul food trucks at breweries? For breweries that provide live music (and there are plenty of them), an occasional hip-hop or R&B band wouldn’t hurt. And offering more sours could tempt the taste buds of wine drinkers. These would all be steps in the right direction.

But until then, many breweries will continue to miss out on a virtually untapped market. And my experience of feeling like a fish out of water as I swim from brewery to brewery will continue.

Author: Irvin Harrell

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3 Comments

  1. Great article, I am originally from Portsmouth but now live in Ga and I ran across your article browsing The Pilot. Me and my crew love good craft beer and we have a YouTube channel where we want to introduce craft beer to more African Americans and people in generally the way we enjoy it. We have a Youtube channel where we review different craft beers. Right now we only have one post due to scheduling differences but we will have more in the future check us out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjCoQ8zxvhg

    Thanks.

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  2. This was a great article. I totally identify with the you. I experience that quite often living in Milwaukee. I also used to live in Hampton Roads; so it was nice to hear the names of some of the neighborhoods there.

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  3. This was a great article. I totally identify with you. I experience that quite often living in Milwaukee. I can be found at EOTBeerholder on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed where I share my enjoyment of craft beer for people to follow. I also used to live in Hampton Roads; it was nice to hear the names of some of the neighborhoods there.

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