On a lively Thursday night at Venn Brewing in Minneapolis, members of the Brewing Change Collaborative swapped stories at their monthly meeting as they enjoyed a variety of craft beers.
The gathering was about much more than business and social connections—it provided a space for people of color in the craft beverage industry to support each other.
Often the only ones from a diverse background in an industry dominated by straight white men, Brewing Change Collaborative co-founders Ramsey Louder, Elle Rhodes, and Nasreen Sajady began the nonprofit in March 2019 to promote diversity and equity in their industry. They’ve created a place for collaborative members—people of color and from LGBTQ community—that many consider a second family.
Sajady described what she told her managers in 2019 during a formal review at Minneapolis’ Fulton Brewery when she worked there as quality control manager.
“As a brown queer woman in a room with 30 white men, I told them it was scary for me,” she said.
Subsequently, Fulton took steps to diversify its staff. Sajady, a microbiologist, now offers consulting services to breweries and distilleries, and is co-founder and advocacy director of the Afghan Cultural Center.
The collaborative helps people of color in the industry establish careers, take full advantage of employee benefits, and build generational wealth.
That’s why Rhodes invited Brian Mills, a financial planner from Northwestern Mutual, to come to its monthly meeting last fall to field questions ranging from how to maximize the value of a 401k to general tips for investing.
“We organized as a way to make progress. Where can we create the space? It’s also not just about accessibility,” said Rhodes, national director of sales at Du Nord Social Spirits. “We’re looking for ways to remove significant financial and educational barriers. It’s never just been about beer.”
In the past several years, the group has advocated for members facing discrimination in the workplace, awarded a scholarship to a member to attend the Brewing & Beer Steward Technology certificate program at Dakota County Technical College, and partnered with France 44 to offer a workshop focused on how to create business plans.
Its beer collaborations with local breweries includes a series with Minneapolis’ Broken Clock Brewing Company that highlighted forgotten figures in cultural history, such as Black labor activist A. Philip Randolph.
“When people are challenged by the dynamic of certain spaces, it can make them feel uncomfortable,” said Shaunte Douglas, a collaborative member who represented the group at a booth at the Winter Beer Dabbler Festival in St. Paul last month.
Douglas said some people who approached the collaborative’s booth were uncomfortable when she spoke about diversity, equity, and inclusion, while others reacted positively and affirming about the group’s mission.
“People are excited that we’re in the space. That’s why we do what we do,” she said. “I’ve seen progress in our local breweries—people of color are going there for employment opportunities.”
When having a ‘second family’ makes a difference
“In our diverse community, we show up for each other,” Sajady said.
Collaborative members have supported each other through police brutality in the Black community and violence against Asians and Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Collaborative members say they also have faced discrimination in their jobs, with 2020 marking a year of racial reckoning within the local craft beer scene.
That year, Louder, Minneapolis’ first Black brewery co-owner, resigned along with several other employees of color from the North Loop’s One Fermentary & Taproom amid a staff dispute over reopening just days after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. One Fermentary closed indefinitely in 2020. Louder is now head brewer at Grand Rapids Brewing Company in Michigan.
During this time, a 2018 racist incident involving 56 Brewing came to light when a witness, Caroline Brunner, described it in a comment posted to the Instagram page of Brewing Change Collaborative and encouraged others to “skip 56 Brewing.”
56 Brewing co-owner Kale Johnson, who is white, was accused of tying a knot resembling a noose and waving it at *Mahad Muhammad, a Black 56 employee, during a March 2018 birthday party at Grumpy’s Bar in Minneapolis. When the incident was revealed in 2020, Johnson resigned as CEO and the brewery severed all connections to him.
Muhammad, now operations manager at Dual Citizen Brewery in St. Paul, said he didn’t say anything at the time because he didn’t have a support system and wanted to put the incident behind him. In addition, he feared being ostracized in the industry.
“Two years later, the truth needed to be out there when the owner made statements that downplayed what happened,” Muhammad said. “Unfortunately, we’ve all gone through similar experiences in the industry. The [collaborative] is a space where you come in and everyone understands what you’re going through.”
What the numbers reveal
With about 9,300 breweries nationwide, it’s estimated that 94 percent of brewery owners are white, 2 percent are Latino, 2 percent are Asian, and less than 1 percent are Black, according to the Brewers Association, a national not-for-profit trade association for home brewers and those in the craft beer industry.
“The vast majority of Americans of drinking age, upwards of 85 percent, live within 10 miles of a craft brewer in urban and rural settings. Breweries are gathering places that can help build resilient communities,” said J Jackson-Beckham, PhD, the founder of Crafted For All, a national consulting firm that helps craft beverage organizations become more inclusive.
Jackson-Beckham, who also is equity and inclusion partner for the Brewers Association, noted that it was an important first step for the association to collect demographic information to help create programs to increase diversity and improve business practices.
“Breweries are a unique tool to bring about social and economic changes. It’s a place where anyone can have a career-oriented job. It makes space for different types of employment,” said Jackson-Beckham.
A brewery pass for communities of color
The collaborative hopes to expand its Twin Cities community by inviting more people of color to join it in taprooms through a new free brewery pass. Locally, it has about 30 active members, and worldwide, about 1,000 members—relationships formed as far away as Brazil and South Africa through networking at industry events, Sajady said.
The pass offers one free beer at seven Twin Cities breweries: Arbeiter Brewing, Broken Clock Brewing Collaborative, Dangerous Man Brewing, Dual Citizen Brewing, Modist Brewing, Pryes Brewing, and Sociable Cider Works.
People of color can pick up a pass at the group’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Brewing Pass release party on March 31 at Arbeiter Brewing at 6 pm, or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Beer has its roots in BIPOC culture, but it has gotten lost,” said Muhammad.
When Muhammad was a child in Ethiopia, his mother, herself a brewer, told him about the history of beer in Africa.
“You can see the reclaiming of this history starting in the industry, where you see a larger presence at beer festivals and more Black-owned breweries nationwide,” he said.
Many of the participating breweries employ collaborative members. Bri Smith, a brewer at Modist Brewing, has been brewing for over a year. Modist hired her as a delivery driver during the COVID-19 lockdown, then offered to train her to become a brewer.
“As the first Black female brewer in Minnesota, it made me want to do it even more. Being Black shouldn’t be a qualifier, it should be the norm,” Smith said. “It’s a sign of actual change at Modist. It’s not just performative.”
Smith recently crafted and designed her first beer—a hibiscus lemon gose—from start to finish in a collaboration with Arbeiter Brewing. She worked closely with Arbeiter general manager Kate Winkel and Arbeiter brewer, Aaron Herman, to release two beers to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. As a part of the collaboration, Arbeiter will release a raspberry basil wheat ale and hold a mini market with local vendors to celebrate International Women’s Day on the same day.
Interested in joining the Collaborative?
For more information about the collaborative, go to the Brewing Change Collaborative webpage.
The group usually meets on the fourth Thursday evening of each month. The time and place can be confirmed by contacting the collaborative. The first hour of each meeting is for members only. The second hour is social and open to allies, nonmembers, and anyone wanting to support the organization or learn more about what it does.
People of color qualify for membership and do not need to work in the craft beverage industry. The group also organizes educational events, community service opportunities, social outings and retreats.
Dan Beaubien, a beer blogger and podcaster for A One Pint Stand, who was born in Colombia and adopted by Minnesotans, considers the collaborative “a second family.”
“Craft beer is white male-dominated, and it’s a limiting perspective,” Beaubien said. “Some craft beer owners don’t understand why, but it really goes back to belonging. It’s not that the people of color don’t like craft beer—we just don’t like to be the only. What the [collaborative] does is make these spaces feel more welcoming for everyone.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Mahad Muhammad’s first name.