2 New Black-Owned Breweries Tap In, Aim To Change Industry

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — As the craft beer industry expands in Charlotte, one untapped market is about to emerge.

It’s been three years since Charlotte — a city with than 30 craft breweries — has had a Black-owned brewery. Three Spirits Brewery was Charlotte’s only Black-owned brewery. It opened in 2016 but closed three years later without explanation.

But now, two Black-owned breweries are getting ready to open over the next several months.

Weather Souls Brewing Co., out of San Antonio, Texas, will open its second location in October in South End. Charlotte is familiar with the brewery and owner Marcus Baskerville because two years ago, he started the Black is Beautiful project to raise awareness about injustice. Several local breweries participated.

“There’s an amazing craft beer scene there,” Baskerville said.

Following Weathered Souls’ opening, Hippin’ Hops Brewery will open its fourth location in NoDa. It’s Atlanta’s first Black-owned brewery with a permanent site, which opened in April 2021.

Owner Clarence Boston has long ties to Charlotte. He opened his first business in the Queen City 16 years ago. He has had ownership in several businesses since, including a funeral home and nightclubs.

Early next year, Hippin’ Hops Brewery will open its fourth location in Charlotte. Boston opened a second Atlanta brewery and distillery in the spring. And soon, a third location will open in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as a production brewery, offices and restaurant.

Hippin’ Hops Brewery will be the largest Black-owned brewery in the U.S., Boston said.

“Black-owned breweries are a so unique business because they don’t exist,” Boston said.

Less than 1% of the nearly 8,500 craft breweries in America are Black-owned, according to a 2019 Brewers Association survey.

Both Baskerville and Boston have plans to change that.

“Real change is made through ownership,” Baskerville said. “We know when you build a diverse business, you have a better chance of success.”

Boston was recently appointed as treasurer to the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. He’s also the Guild’s first Black board member in its 12-year history.

“I never thought in a million years I’d be sitting on the guild,” Boston said. Boston said people call him “The Black Anheuser-Busch” and his goal is to distribute in all 50 states.

His hope is to help the craft industry tap into another market.

“There are a lot of Black beer drinkers but introducing them to craft beer is only going to help the industry as a whole,” he said.

Boston plans to create a diversity, equity and inclusion advisory board to help other Black brewers to open breweries in Georgia and eventually nationwide.

And as host of Blacktoberfest on Oct. 15 at the Stone Mountain site, he expects to draw not only Black breweries nationwide but collaborations from other breweries, such as SweetWater, Monday Night and Reformation in Atlanta.

“We could not make enough beer for all those people coming,” Boston said of the event. “We put Black brewers with different breweries to brew a beer for the festival.”

It also can be hard to get the products in front of consumers. That’s why Jamel Lynch started Harlem Beer Distributing, based in Durham, four years ago. He met Celeste Beatty, owner of Harlem Brewing Co. in New York City and the first Black woman to open a brewery in the U.S., who explained the challenges with distribution and cracking the white-male-dominated industry.

Lynch was an engineer for IBM at the time, but wanted to help get Beatty’s beers in North Carolina. He reached out to stores, bars and restaurants, selling 140 cases to show a distributor that Beatty’s beer was worth taking on. But even then, the distributor said no.

“I began to see some of the challenges of the small brewers, in particular African-American breweries, to try to penetrate a network. It’s not really made of people that look like us,” Lynch said. “I grew up here in the South. I know what it’s like to be shunned and I’ve certainly run up against some of those challenges in this industry.

"You don’t belong in this business. That was the vibration I felt when I began to speak to some of these white-owned bars and restaurants,” he said.

Lynch decided to start a distribution company to give smaller breweries exposure to markets that they would not normally have access to.

“I’m trying to break down those barriers,” Lynch said. “It’s not that we want to work only with African-Americans. We want to work with people who have a like-minded approach to doing business, connecting with your community.

“Beer distribution is just a platform to do what I really want to do and that’s inspire and help other people,” he said.

For years, Boston wanted a Charlotte location for his Hippin’ Hops Brewery, even incorporating it in North Carolina in 2018.

“I tried my damn hardest to find a building through several of the big real estate companies in Charlotte and it was just like they didn’t want to lease to African-Americans,” Boston said. “That’s a big part of why I left. “It was a different time than what it is today,” he said.

Boston and his wife Donnica found a place for the brewery and restaurant within a week of moving to Atlanta.

But he still wanted to be in Charlotte. Boston said there were no problems finding a space for the brewery. In fact, the leasing company for the Winnifred Street location is owned by an Atlanta company familiar with Hippin’ Hops.

“But I do see things have changed due to COVID,” Boston said. “It’s amazing to see a lot of these different Black-owned businesses popping up in Dilworth and places that would generally rent to African-Americans.”

In the Black community, Boston said, the biggest challenges in breaking into the craft beer industry are securing capital and fear of investing in yourself.

Lynch said one batch of beer can cost $15,000. “Try to build up your own capital, self-invest as much as you can before you step out and give yourself some time,” he said.

Boston was able to invest his own capital into the brewery from the sale of the Charlotte funeral home and interests in other ventures.

Baskerville said in the 1980s, the lack of resources and securing financial funding created a generational gap for minority-owned businesses.

“They would have laughed me out of the bank,” said Baskerville, 37.

He also points to industry advertising.

“It’s never been marketed to us like malt liquor and Hennessy,” Baskerville said. “It’s not culturally normal for Blacks to drink beer.”

Baskerville’s co-owner Mike Holt, who is white, is the majority owner and financier of Weather Souls.

Boston said it’s important to share information about schools and how to apply for loans and grants to open a brewery, as well as mentorship.

“Make those things available to Black folks to push the industry forward,” Boston said. “We have to get the word out more.”

Nationally, about half of craft beer consumers are white male, and for a long time this has caused many BIPOC, women and other minority people to feel the industry does not have a place for them, Lisa Parker, executive director of N.C. Craft Brewers Guild. The nonprofit started in 2008 and 72% of North Carolina’s 403 brewing facilities are members of the Guild.

“However, the face of craft beer is changing,” she said.

The industry is increasing opportunities that foster minority, women and BIPOC involvement.

“One such example is the Charlotte-based Many Faces Initiative, which provides paid internships that offer mentoring and immersive training experiences to people of color interested in pursuing careers within the craft brewing industry,” said Parker, who was a homebrewer and was hired as the guild’s second employee in 2015.

Last year, 1,300 breweries worldwide — including several in Charlotte — joined Weathered Souls’ Black is Beautiful Project. It raised $3 million.

Now Baskerville is using a portion of those proceeds, along with a $100,000 grant from Rahr Corp. and other backing to create the Harriet Baskerville Incubation Program in Charlotte. The program, named for Baskerville’s grandmother who brewed during the prohibition, will help aspiring brewers of color and women learn all about brewing and brewhouse operations.

The incubator is expected to start in November, following Weathered Souls opening on Clanton Road in late October. Twelve home brewers will be accepted.

“I never thought this would be a passion project but giving others a blueprint to open a brewery is my purpose,” Baskerville said.

Even if four minority-owned breweries open within the first year, Baskerville said that’s a 16% increase for the craft industry.

Baskerville’s advice is to speak with a local Small Business Administration officer, learn about grants or other funding available from the city and state, and seek mentorships from someone in the industry. “Ask tons of questions,” he said. “Surround yourself with people who know things to learn from.”

Another way to break down barriers is partnerships and supporting Black-owned and minority-owned businesses by asking retailers for the product, said Lynch, who now distributes six breweries in over 300 locations in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina, including Charlotte.

Harlem Brewing Distribution also sets up scholarships and offers internships, Lynch said.

Just this summer, Parker said North Carolina crossed the threshold of 400 brewing facilities in production.

“Charlotte is now our state’s largest craft beer city, with a total 41 permitted brewing facilities currently in production,” she said. “Our breweries serve as all-inclusive community gathering spaces, and due to this, we play a significant role in the economic development and revitalization of our downtowns and neighborhoods.”

And Boston said maintaining diversity in any business is important. Hippin’ Hops’ staff of about over 50 is diverse, Boston said with about 50-50 Black and white. And, he expects the majority of customers to be white.

“We’re not a Black-owned brewery that is just for Black people,” he said. “We want diversity in our breweries.”