Celebrating Black History in Craft Beer

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Springfield’s First Black-Owned Brewery: Looking to the Future from a Historical Crossroads

White Lion Brewing Company Founder, Raymond Berry, Jr. (left) and Head Brewer and Operating Partner, Michael Yates (right)

In late August 1619, a privateer ship called the White Lion landed in Point Comfort (now Fort Monroe) in the Hampton Roads region of coastal Virginia. The ship’s captain, John Colyn Jope, brought with him a cargo that would forever change the course of American history—two dozen African men and women, sold in exchange for food.

More than two centuries later, thousands of enslaved people of African descent risked their lives by entering the Underground Railroad—a network of escape routes and hiding places used by those fleeing southern slave states. Massachusetts was an important center of the anti-slavery movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. The city of Springfield, in particular, became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, home to more than two hundred free black residents by 1850, and a meeting place for abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.

When Raymond Berry, Jr. founded White Lion Brewing Company in 2014, it became Springfield’s first beer brand. The fact that the city’s first brewery was also black-owned drew a direct line between the present and its past. The brewery’s location at 1500 Main Street, which it occupied in 2020 after six years of contract brewing and statewide self-distribution, is just a block from the former site of the Pynchon Street Methodist Church—a likely stop on the Underground Railroad according to Springfield’s Pan African Historical Museum.

“African folklore and storytelling by elders depict the White Lions as a mythical creature, a Messenger of God, the child of the sun,” says Berry. “The brewery is part of history’s evolution dating back over 400 years…When we tell our story it is a first for someone, that is why I love sharing a piece of history.”

Berry shares, “White Lions were seen as symbols of prosperity, pride, and the universal good humankind has to offer.” In keeping with all of these themes, the brewery strives to be active contributors to the Springfield community, to Massachusetts, and to the craft brewing industry at large. The team at White Lion is invested in creating a legacy. “Hopefully 10, 15, 20 years from now 1% increases significantly,” Berry adds, referencing the Brewers Association’s 2019 demographic benchmarks for the brewing industry that reported that less than 1% of U.S. breweries are black-owned, “and more black and brown people will find opportunity and help elevate the trade to new heights.”

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Mourning and Making History in the Nation’s Capital

Truck of the Littlefield, Alvord & Co. Express parked at the Christian Heurich Brewing Co., Washington, D.C.

Historian Michael Stein of Lost Lagers ran into a common challenge when exploring Black history and the legacy of Washington, D.C. beer and brewing. One doesn’t have to go very far back before the histories of Black brewers and brewery workers go missing. That doesn’t mean those individuals didn’t have an important role in the District’s brewing history.

Stein points to an excerpt from the memoirs of Christian Heurich, the longest-serving brewer and brewery owner in the history of Washington, D.C., included in The Nation’s Capital Brewmaster. Heurich, who purchased the former site of Schnell’s Brewery, “noted that ‘Frank,’ described as an ‘aged colored man,’ did most of the work at the brewery for the original owner. He was kept on as deliveryman and porter: he remained ‘a faithful employee of mine until his death.'”

We take this time to acknowledge individuals like Frank, whose unrecognized contributions were a vital part of the history of brewing in Washington, D.C. and across the entire U.S.

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Celebrating Black History in Craft Beer

I have had mixed feelings about Black History Month for as long as I can remember. This may be an unexpected sentiment coming from your Brewers Association’s new equity and inclusion partner. Consider, however, that this is also the sentiment of someone who has for decades watched organizations celebrate Black history for exactly 28 days and then promptly shelve those celebrations when March 1 arrived. Moreover, I am one of many professionals who have been asked annually to do pro-bono work to make these celebrations possible. It has been all too easy to become cynical about these transitory efforts.

The grassroots effort to set aside time to celebrate and preserve the significant people and events in the history of the African diaspora (that began in 1925 and is now a federally recognized observance) does not deserve my cynicism. It deserves time and consideration that extends beyond the month of February.

The results of the first installment of our Brewery Operations Benchmarking Survey made two important things crystal clear:

  1. Black people (along with other underrepresented groups) have experienced formidable barriers to seizing the tremendous opportunities that the industry offers, and
  2. We as a craft brewing community can proactively do more to identify and remove those barriers.

However, charging forward without looking back is folly. In order to move forward intelligently and authentically, we must reckon with the past. It’s time to take another look at the brewing community’s history, tell stories that have gone untold, and acknowledge the stories that cannot be recovered, having been lost to time and bigotry.

This year, we highlight the contributions of Black individuals and communities to beer and brewing history with the help of some of the industry’s most talented historians and storytellers, and shine a light on a number of those making history today. Watch the Brewers Association’s social media channels for these stories throughout 2021. We will update this post over the course of 2021 with images, profiles, and links where you can learn more.