Book Review: Beer and Racism

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This Insights & Analysis post will be a first for this blog: a book review. The book, Beer and Racism: How Beer Became White, Why it Matters, and the Movements to Change It by Nathaniel Chapman and David Brunsma was released in October as part of the “Sociology of Diversity” series from Bristol University Press.

The book is an academic book. I say that upfront to set expectations. There is plenty of very real, non-academic content that will be relevant to a non-academic industry participant, but to get to the content an industry member will likely find most valuable, you’ll need to work through (or skip) literature reviews, theoretical framing, and the trappings necessary for an academic volume. Skimming past the academic debates to get to the content may be worth the trouble. While I doubt many readers care where this work falls in the various academic literatures or the frequent citations of Bourdieu, many brewers might be wondering more urgently about their role in systemic change in this country and how our industry interacts with those larger questions.

In the same vein that this book is an academic work, it is not a “how to,” and there are few practical suggestions on how to build a diverse organization. If you’re looking for that, there are plenty of resources popping up. It is, however, theoretical background for those who are interested in learning about systemic racism, and more specifically, how those structures that have long driven inequality in American society have manifested themselves first in beer and brewing, and now craft brewing.

Taking a step back, much of the story is bigger than craft beer or even beer. At many times I was reminded of Garrett Oliver’s comments that were quoted in a recent Dave Infante piece: “craft beer is part of America, and America has problems.” The history that is laid out throughout the book makes this clear. That is not to say that the beer industry is blameless. Rather that the rules that shaped America’s relationship with beer, both formal laws and informal cultural and marketing practices, stretch back well before anyone marketed malt liquor or put the word “craft” in front of “beer.” From the places we have been welcomed to drink to the drinks we have been marketed, Americans have long faced very different worlds, including in beverage and hospitality, based on their race (and gender – although the book primarily focuses on race, sexism is often interwoven in the story).

If I could boil the central thesis of the book down to a sentence or two, it’s that the craft beer community and industry have both been created by networks that offer unequal access, something that many industry participants (specifically the white and male ones) are likely oblivious to; they miss the “forest for the trees.” Furthermore, these systems and networks are tough to break: it’s hard to introduce black people to craft beer in white spaces, and those spaces stay white without inviting in a black perspective to the industry side.

This book tries to survey the forest and few parts of the industry (or American society) are spared in the description. From homebrewing to science education, to wholesalers and unions, numerous steps along the way have conspired to keep beer and brewing organized by race, class, and gender. That’s even before you get to hiring and the brewery spaces themselves. These issues can be hard to see from the inside. The homebrewing section brought back personal memories of a talk to Brewers Association staff by Aaron Ellis, who as a grad student did research at the BA archives. His presentation to staff was likely the first time many of the white, male staffers considered how a homebrew club meeting might appear to a lone minority participant.

If there is some positivity, it is found in the final chapter about movements and efforts for change within the brewing industry. While the beer community can only play a small role in larger societal systems, it documents some of the work that is being done within beer.

Should you read this book? The academic jargon will likely be a turn off for many in the industry. There is a sad irony in that, as the book’s central thesis is about the educational and cultural systems that keep people out. That said, if you go in ready to skim or skip the literature review and the paragraphs about sociological theories, the historical content and modern-day interview excerpts in the book would be a valuable read for anyone who believes systemic racism is present in society, but doesn’t see how that applies to them or their brewery. Beer and Racism takes the books that have been on bestseller lists this summer and brings them home to beer. While I could create a list of quibbles in the logic of some arguments or some of the data presented, none of them refutes the central premise of the book, which is that the weight of history and the systems supporting that history hang over nearly every craft brewery. We repeat the environments and structures we live in and repeat the stories we are told. Without knowing the underpinnings of that story and its flaws, as well as consciously working to build new structures, our beer history is destined to repeat itself.