Color of Beer: Addressing Our Whiteness

judging

When imagining the stereotypical beer drinker, thoughts might float to large, bearded men with rotund bellies or thick-rimmed, bespectacled hipsters carefully quaffing out of snifter glasses.

Rarely does an initial impression end up with women, who account for 25 percent of total beer consumption by volume and about a third for craft beer. Even more so, how often would we consider a black, Hispanic or Asian drinker?

“It doesn’t bother me that much, but after a while, you’re like, ‘how come more people that are like me aren’t doing this?” asked Liz Garibay, historian and beer writer at History on Tap. “It’s never been something I’m overly sensitive to, but you start looking around a room, especially within the beer industry, and it’s something you become aware of.”

liz garibay-history on tap

Liz Garibay

Garibay, whose parents both immigrated from Mexico to her current hometown of Chicago, admitted she’s never felt out of place within the beer community because of her background – enjoying good beer and good company isn’t dependent on the race or ethnicity of others. But for any community, having the ability to share multiple perspectives isn’t just pivotal for the sake of diversity, but can be meaningful for education and exposure.

Which is why, as beer companies shift attention to demographics not representative of the large, bearded man or skinny-jeaned hipster, perhaps we should, too. Because, as scholar J. Nikol Beckham points out, “from every casual scanning of a craft brewery’s website to the staff page of Brewers Association, it’s pretty obvious to anyone inclined to notice that craft beer is remarkably white.”

There are plenty of factors at play that influence a beer-loving demographic that leans white, mostly from a vast array of socio-economic considerations.

The 1980s offered a schism, setting a path toward a “black beer culture” as slumping beer sales encouraged companies to turn attention toward malt liquor. This move was almost exclusively advertised toward minority-heavy urban centers and the idea of 40s even became a staple icon of black masculinity in hip-hop.

While that may now be more of a footnote leading to today’s more accepting beer community, money still plays a big part. Especially when craft beer, a luxury good, finds a median price of about $12 per six-pack.

According to market research company Nielsen, 78 percent of craft beer drinkers have a household income of more than $50,000, and the majority – 60 percent – make more than $75,000. While the median household income for all Americans is almost $52,000, wealth inequality among racial lines is real and by some standards, provides white households up to 16 times the overall wealth of others. The most educated and highest-earning Americans are drinking more than everyone else.

Anecdotally, they’re also brewing more, too.

“At homebrew competitions, I am one of the youngest and darkest that comes,” said Allen Huerta, writer at the Active Brewer blog.

Allen Huerta-homebrew

Allen Huerta, top center, participates as a judge at a homebrew competition.

Despite its surge in popularity, homebrewing requires a serious investment in equipment and materials. One that may often be out of reach for some minority households, even ones where beer plays an important role.

“Craft brewing is rooted in homebrewing,” Lagunitas brewer Jeremy Marshall told NPR in 2013. “And if you look at home-brewing, you see nerdy white guys playing Dungeons and Dragons and living in their mom’s basement, and I know this because I was and am one of them.”

Or, as Frederick Douglas Opie, a food historian at Babson College, pointed out, “It could be that beer is like a lot of things in the food industry which, as they grow popular, become very hip, yuppie and white.”

“One of my most memorable moments was at Brewvival 2014,” explained Huerta. “We were just making our way around the booths. We stopped at a point and I noticed three other black people nearby, three to the left, and two to the right. For some reason, they all fell in on me and one guy made the joke, ‘Are we allowed to do this? Should be split up before they put us up?'”

Neither Garibay or Huerta expressed worry about their place among a predominantly white community, but both mentioned the most recognizable name representing the alternative demographic – Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver.

“I don’t know of any other beer person out there that would be mainstream and minority,” Garibay said. “I respect him for his knowledge and what he’s done for beer, but I’m sure he’s not the only one out there. We need to find the other folks.”

Brewers like Andres Araya, who founded 5 Rabbit Cerveceria in the suburbs of Chicago, offer a new wave of potential role models, along with Curtis Tarver, co-owner of Vice District Brewery, the first minority-owned brewery in Chicago. These instances fly in the face of craft beer’s founding mythology, often based around “a white-collar executive or fresh-faced college grad who was willing to get his hands dirty for the love of a hobby.”

“I think having this kind of visibility will help people become more aware of the issue,” Garibay said.

As the beer community grows – both in its consumers and business leaders – it would seem greater diversification is inevitable. Brewery growth is skyrocketing and with it, increased exposure to all segments of people, from inner cities to rural pastures. But that doesn’t mean ways to address disparities are simple.

“I am not sure how the industry would change it’s approach toward inclusion,” Huerta said. “I think any change has to come from outside the industry.”

Which is why for an industry moving toward greater diversity, it’s just as much a responsibility for beer lovers to move in the same direction – away from imagining that stereotypical, big, bearded drinker and start thinking about something (and someone) in a different way.

Related reading:

24-Hour Retrospective: A Conversation on Race and Beer

I Do; Maybe I Should Not by Tasha at Meta Cookbook

Expectations, Gender and Beer

The Unbearable Whiteness of Brewing

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Header photo via Great American Beer Festival website.

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12 thoughts on “Color of Beer: Addressing Our Whiteness

  1. Pingback: I Do; Maybe I Should Not | MetaCookbook

  2. I’m really grateful to have more conversation on race in the beer community. It’s really important, really hard, and lots of folks would prefer to avoid it. Dragging things out into the light of day is the only way to truly improve our community. And every improved community improves society.

    Please also pass my thanks on to those whom you interviewed. Being willing to speak out matters.

  3. We have been trying to be a platform for Latino craft beer drinkers to be heard and seen for four years now. The question of why aren’t there more of us still lingers after all these years but I’ve come to understand that the answer is multi-faceted. The lack of diversity in the craft beer community stems from a cultural divide, a marketing challenge and access.

    I would love to agree with the economic stance you took above but bottles of liquor are far more expensive than a six pack and that’s still heavily purchased by the Latino demo.

  4. Pingback: 24-Hour Retrospective: A Conversation on Race and Beer | This Is Why I'm Drunk

  5. I have actually thought about this situation a lot over the years and I’ve never been able to come to any kind of conclusion. The following is simply my best guess.

    It seems to me like it might be less an issue of race than of cultural heritage. I appreciate that those two concepts are easy to conflate. The main construct seems to be the importance of beer as a cultural presence in Western European societies versus its presence in other cultural backgrounds. I know that we like to think of ourselves as Americans or, in my case, Canadian, but beer is sort of a generational thing. There’s a reason we have the phrase “not your father’s beer”: because you sort of pick up beer drinking from watching adults around you. I would guess that this means that in groups where beer is a less important factor of cultural heritage, it’s almost certainly less likely that craft beer is chosen to be used a tool of individuation from the previous generation?

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