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Racial diversity has been elusive in the craft alcohol business

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They are the only two Black owners of craft alcohol businesses in Delaware. Nationally, it’s just as white.

Ryan Cormier and Alex Biese
Delaware News Journal
Published 11:42 AM EDT Aug 6, 2020

Ron Gomes is used to not being around people who look like him.

As a military brat born in Massachusetts, his father’s U.S. Air Force service moved the family around a lot, many times to areas where he wasn’t among many other Black people.

The same was the case when he got his PhD at the University of Texas in the mid-’90s,  or later when he directed his own research laboratory as an assistant professor at Penn State University.

And now in Delaware as co-owner of Painted Stave Distilling in Smyrna, he finds himself in a similar situation.

Gomes, whose distillery is housed in a converted movie house in the town’s sleepy center, is one of only a handful of Black spirits makers in the United States.

Painted Stave Distilling CEO and co-founder Ron Gomes poses for a portrait at their Smyrna, Del. based operation.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

When it comes to Delaware, where there are about 30 or so craft breweries, distilleries, wineries and meaderies, Painted Stave and the Wilmington Brew Works brewery, co-owned by Derek Berekely, are believed to be the only ones with Black ownership.

The numbers surprise even John Klein, president of Delaware Brewers Guild, the state trade association representing the 25 or so breweries that call Delaware home. He admits he hadn’t really examined the issue.

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“When I start thinking about it after getting your message and circling through a bunch of breweries, I thought, ‘Holy s–t, we are not diverse,” says Klein, whose day job is brewing supervisor at Delaware’s best-known brewery, Dogfish Head Brewing, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

“When I look around at our guild meetings, it’s mostly Caucasian males and we have a handful of females,” Klein says. “But, yeah, it’s nuts. It’s just nuts that we don’t, unfortunately, represent the population as a whole.”

Beer-drinkers play cornhole at last year’s at Brews By the Bay at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal. The event moves to the Big Chill Beach Club near Bethany beach this weekend.
Chuck Snyder/Special to The News Journal

At a time when social movements such as Black Lives Matter are re-focusing attention on issues of race, it’s hard to avoid the obvious: the craft beer and alcohol industry is pretty white, both here in Delaware and across the country.

And that includes both the makers and their customers.

When Delaware beer historian John Medkeff, Jr. was writing his 2015 book “Brewing in Delaware” ($21.99, Arcadia Publishing), he initially wanted to include a chapter about minorities involved in the state’s more than 380-year history of beer brewing.

What he found killed that idea pretty quickly: “There wasn’t really much there to talk about.”

One of a few: a Black American spirits maker

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a feature about the work of Minneapolis-based Du Nord Spirits, which sustained fire damage during protests there sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25.

The Times featured the efforts of owner Chris Montana, who is Black and turned his building into an impromptu food bank following the fire. The article noted that Du Nord was “one of the few Black distillery owners in the United States.”

Mike Rasmussen (left) and Ron Gomes discuss their new distillery in 2012, which they built in a converted movie house that dates back to the 1940s.
File photo

The number is so small that even the American Craft Spirits Association doesn’t know an exact number. “I will say that, anecdotally, there are very few,” a spokesperson says.

Gomes, 54, is in that elite group. He knew it the first time he drove to Kentucky for an industry trade show.

“Looking around the room, you don’t see anyone who looks like you. And it didn’t matter because everywhere I’ve gone, there’s nobody who looks like me,” says Gomes, who had three grandparents from Cape Verde, a group of African islands in the Atlantic Ocean west of Senegal.

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For Gomes, the dynamic of being among mostly white students, co-workers and colleagues throughout his life is normal. And, frankly, he says it hasn’t really bothered him, especially when it comes to his current industry.

He says he believes he is judged solely on his work and product, rarely feeling different because of his race — other than the rare times a white person has said something like, “I didn’t even know you were Black?”

SMYRNA CRAFT BEER, WINE AND FOOD FEST: Ron Gomes of Painted Stave Distilling company in Smyrna handing out samples of some of their creations at the Smyrna Craft Beer, Wine and Food Festival on Saturday.
GARY EMEIGH/THE NEWS JOURNAL

“It’s not something I think whole lot about, to be honest,” he says.

It was during his years of education that he first landed in Delaware as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware. By 2011, he was back in The First State scoping out distillery locations.

He had come to the realization that academia wasn’t going to be a long-term career and eventually decided to leave Penn State for a life in distilling, teaming up with fellow distiller Michael Rasmussen to open Painted Stave. It may sound like a major transition, but going from a laboratory to being an alchemist isn’t as big of a change as you might think, especially after Gomes befriended a couple of amateur distillers on college campuses along the way.

On the heels of social justice protests that has sprouted nationwide since late May, Gomes has seen more attention given to diversity in not just the spirits world, but craft alcohol in general. Whether it’s within the pages of influential magazines like Whisky Advocate or behind the scenes, minority involvement in the industry is being examined like never before.

Painted Stave Distilling in Smyrna, Del.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

In fact, a representative from the American Distilling Institute reached out to Gomes recently to have a discussion about representation and diversity.

“We talked about inclusion, but I asked them, ‘Is this important for the organization? Is this part of your mission?’ and they didn’t have an answer to the question,” he says. “It’s one thing to reach out to the handful of brown-skinned guys and gals that you know, but what do you want to do?

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“You like to believe it’s genuine and a needed correction — not just a knee-jerk reaction to something that happened in our society that hopefully is going to bring along a lot of change.”

Until then, Gomes will still have moments when he’s reminded that he sticks out a little as a distiller. It comes most often when a customer comes into his tasting room asking Gomes to speak to the owner. When he tells them that’s him, he usually gets a big, “Ohhhhh!”

“You know that’s not at all what they were expecting. And there’s a win there for me and people of color,” says Gomes, of Middletown, who sells his Silver Screen Vodka and Diamond State Straight Corn Whiskey in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Chicago and California.

Delaware’s brewing history is almost all white

Beer historian Medkeff’s earliest finding of a Black person involved in Delaware’s beer industry dates back to when an enslaved man was used for labor at Shipley brewery. Owned by one of Wilmington’s founders, William Shipley, it was the city’s first small commercial brewery when opened in 1734 and produced beer for nearly a century.

He was unable to find any other documented Black brewery workers until Arthur Johnson, who worked as a goodwill ambassador for Wilmington’s Diamond State Brewery in the mid 20th century.

Arthur Johnson, goodwill ambassador and driver for Wilmington Diamond State Brewery, at Rodney Square in 1944. Santa Claus, played by Diamond State general manager Harry Wachtel, is pulled by brewery horses Bob and Charles.
Courtesy of Delaware Public Archives

Images from the Delaware Public Archives show Johnson around Christmastime in 1944, playing the role of driver for brewery general manager Harry Watchtel in Rodney Square. A mustachioed Johnson, wearing a suit and hat, is seen behind horses Bob and Charles as Watchel is pulled in a sleigh while dressed as Santa Claus.

Johnson was hired to work the brewery’s stables and take care of the horses, which were used for promotional events and parades, Medkeff says, adding that Johnson was not a member of the brewers union due to the color of his skin.

“He was out in the community representing the brewery and that was the first incidence that I found of any African-Americans really being involved in the brewing industry in Delaware,” Medkeff says.

There was a long lapse when it comes to brewing in Delaware after Diamond State went bankrupt and closed in 1955 and Dogfish kicked in the doors to the craft world 40 years later.

John Medkeff, Jr. at Iron Hill Brewery in Wilmington in 2015.
WILLIAM BRETZGER/THE NEWS JOURNAL

Medkeff has always thought about the state’s racial history in terms of the beer industry because of what he does: examining brewing from a cultural history standpoint.

“There’s a tremendous swath of society that is not involved in this industry,” he says.

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Klein, the president of the Delaware Brewers Guild, recently had a realization while texting a friend about diversity in the state’s brewing world. As a native of Guam who moved to Delaware in 2013 after growing up in California, Klein half-joked that he’s probably “the most diverse person” with the guild.

But now that he’s more aware of the lack of diversity, Klein is already thinking a bit differently: “How can we be more inclusive and how have we been exclusive?”

The same questions are also being asked nationally.

A nationwide push

The issue of representation and equality in the craft beer world is about more than beer — it’s about the American experience itself.

“The craft brewing industry does not exist in a vacuum,” says J. Jackson-Beckham, PhD.

Jackson-Beckham is the founder and inclusion and equity strategist of consultancy Crafted for All, offering consultation and training to members of the craft beverage industry.

The industry, Jackson-Beckham says is “part of the broader cultural and economic climate of the United States, and so if it has disparities it’s reflecting disparities that are part of the greater culture. So I think to some degree this isn’t about something special happening in craft beer, this is simply a place where we’re seeing some of the broader dynamics of the U.S. play out.”

“The craft brewing industry does not exist in a vacuum,” said J. Jackson-Beckham, founder and inclusion and equity strategist of consultancy Crafted For All.
Courtesy of Crafted For All

According to data released by the Brewers Association in 2019, while 12.2 of the U.S. population is Black, only 1 percent of brewery owners are Black. Representation among brewery staff ranges from .4 percent of production staff managers to 4.7 percent of non-brewer members of the production staff.

Jackson-Beckham launched her consultancy group in 2018, the same year she was named the Brewers Association’s first diversity ambassador. Last year she launched the non-profit Craft x EDU, which works for equity, inclusion and justice in the industry and offers scholarships and professional development grants.

For a sense of how we got here, Jackson-Beckham says to look to the origins of the craft beer industry as the groundwork was being laid by California companies including Anchor Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

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It was a climate that saw the retrofitting and engineering of equipment because, as Jackson-Beckham explained, at the time “brewing equipment for the craft scale didn’t exist,” and which required start-up capital.

“We are still very much in the throes of the civil rights movement, people of color are not getting a bank loan in 1970 to start an unproven business model, redlining is still happening,” she says.

A large group of friends from upstate New Jersey have fun as Brews By the Bay was held at the Cape May Lewes Ferry Terminal in Lewes on Saturday September 7th.
CHUCK SNYDER/SPECIAL TO THE NEWS JOURNAL

Then there’s the issue of what sorts of alcoholic products were marketed to specific demographics.

“In some regards, there’s also a bit of a history of beer as a specific kind of product in a lot of communities,” Jackson-Beckham says. “You also have during the 1970s and 1980s macrobrew companies very, very aggressively advertising and targeting malt liquor in 40-ounce bottles to urban populations. So it’s not like there is no beer drinking happening, there’s just a large disconnect between certain populations.

“And I think the popularity of craft beer and the barriers to entry in terms of entrepreneurship and the places craft beer takes hold, if you look at their kind of demographic make-up what you have is, I think, just a kind of perfect storm if that makes sense for a kind of cultural disparity that’s going to persist.”

Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth brewpub released its version of Black is Beautiful beer last week. Dogfish joined more than 1,000 breweries worldwide participating in the Black Is Beautiful Initiative to raise awareness of systemic racial injustice. All proceeds from Dogfish’s release benefit the Southern Delaware Alliance For Racial Justice. Crooked Hammock Brewing and Dewey Beer Co. also brewed Black is Beautiful beer earlier this year.
Courtesy of Dogfish Head

Breweries across the country have been increasingly stepping up to remove barriers in tasting rooms and beyond.

This summer, more than 1,000 breweries from all 50 states and 20 different countries answered the call from San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing Co., to collaborate on the stout Black is Beautiful. The beer was designed to raise awareness about injustice and raise funds for organizations working for equality and standing up against police brutality.

In Delaware, beach breweries Crooked Hammock Brewery and Dewey Beer Co. participated, and released their own versions of the brew in June. On Saturday, Dogfish Head unveiled their 10% ABV edition, now available for curbside pick-up at their Rehoboth Beach brewpub. All proceeds from the Dogfish beer, which costs $22 for a four-pack of 16-ounce cans, benefits the Lewes-based Southern Delaware Alliance For Racial Justice.

A trailblazer who didn’t know it

When Medkeff is asked about any Black brewers in the leadership of a brewing operation in Delaware’s history, he can come with one name: Steven Lewis, former brewer for Frozen Toes Brewing, which closed in 2018.

The tiny Greenville brewery was an in-house brewing operation for Pizza by Elizabeths with beer brewed by both Lewis and executive chef Paul Egnor during Lewis’ two-year tenure.

Now four years divorced from his professional brewing position, he’s surprised to learn that he was a trailblazer, perhaps the first Black brewer to lead a professional brewing operation in the state.

“It’s humbling,” says Lewis, 43. “It’s flattering to know I’m a part of that.”

He’s also surprised that only one craft brewery and one distillery in Delaware have Black owners.

Pizza By Elizbeths Paul Egnor (left) and Steven Lewis serve samples of their Yuzu Gose beer brewed at the Greenville restaurant at the America On Tap Craft Beer Festival at Wilmington’s Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park Saturday.
WILLIAM BRETZGER/THE NEWS JOURNAL

“My time in the craft beer world in Delaware was a good time, going to the guild meetings, getting to know people and going to events,” he says. “Events are attended by all people, but it is alarming when you look at you is owns the companies and that’s where there’s a little bit of a gap. I don’t know if it’s an intentional gap at all, but there is one there.”

During his time brewing professionally, he found plenty of mentors in the Delaware Brewers Guild who helped him grow and educate him on entrepreneurship.

These days Lewis isn’t brewing beer as a job. He’s back to being a home brewer. But he still uses some of those entrepreneurship tips as owner of Newark-based entertainment company Sightline Events. He DJs weddings and other events and also hosts bar nights such as music video bingo.

Painted Stave Distilling CEO and co-founder Ron Gomes poses for a portrait at their Smyrna, Del. based operation.
Jerry Habraken, Delaware News Journal

Lewis, like most brewers across the state, praises the tight-knit and supportive beer community here in Delaware.

“Everyone wants everybody else to do well. No one is rooting against you. And what’s really nice is that as you talk to people, they’re really judging you on your merit: do you know what you’re doing?” he says.

Like Gomes, he is used to being the only minority in the room at times. Born in the Midwest, he grew up in North Carolina. In fact, he was the first Black manager of a well-known restaurant there. So he was not fazed by the lack of diversity in the Delaware beer world.

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“There were a lot of times where I was the only minority in the room, but after a while you don’t think about it that way because you’re trying to be successful,” says Lewis, who thinks frank and open conversations about diversity can help affect change.

“Hopefully that’s what’s coming,” he adds. “A lot of people are ready for it. There will be difficult conversations because people all come from different perspectives. But when you can understand, listen and respect someone’s point of view, then you can truly find common ground and make things better.”

A diverse neighborhood makes for a diverse taproom

With Lewis out of the industry for now, Berkeley, one of five owners of Wilmington Brew Works, is believed to be the only Black person in the leadership of a brewery in Delaware.

Berkeley, whose parents are from the dual-island Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago, is one of five owners of the 2-year-old brewery, the city’s first production brewery in 64 years.

A Canada native, Berkeley also moved a lot in his life for work as a process engineer, living everywhere from Montreal and Boston to Charlotte and Virginia before landing in Delaware in 2013. It’s here where a homebrewing co-worker named Dan Yopp introduced him to craft beer. Yopp also is a partner in Wilmington Brew Works.

“That opened the flood gates,” he says with a laugh.

Berkeley, like Gomes and Lewis, is also used to standing out  — especially when he played competitive ice hockey in Boston. “To see my smiling face there was a shock to a lot of people,” says Berkeley, who lives in Bear.

Wilmington Brew Works co-owners Derek Berkeley (left) and Keith Hughes celebrate after ax-throwing in West Chester, Pa. earlier this year.
Courtesy of Wilmington Brew Works

However, he says his time in the craft beer industry in Delaware has been welcoming.

“I have never felt like I didn’t belong. I’ve never experienced a barrier. Everyone I have met has been amazing. It’s a community where everyone seems to have an open mind,” Berkeley says. “They have a passion that is not seen in a lot of industries today. It’s hard not to get excited when somebody is talking about beer.”

That’s how Amir Lyle ended up at Wilmington Brew Works.

Lyle owns Hair Central salon barbershop on Miller Road, just next door to Wilmington Brew Works. It wasn’t until one of his customers came in raving about their beer that Lyle went over for a taste.

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Let’s just say he wasn’t used to beers with higher alcohol content.

“The first time I tried one, I was so drunk. I was thinking it was just a regular beer out of a liquor store,” says Lyle, who is Black. “I kind of drank it too fast and I had a real buzz. It was like, boom! Now I get it.”

You can find him there twice a month these days, even texting photos of what he likes to friends, trying to get them into craft beers, too. But he admits it’s an uphill battle. After all, he wouldn’t have discovered Wilmington Brew Works if they hadn’t landed only feet away from his door.

Wilmington Brew Works owners Derek Berkeley, Keith Hughes, Craig Wensell, John Fusco and Dan Yopp.
Courtesy of Wilmington Brew Works

“It was so foreign to me,” he says. “It’s just a whole other world.”

Wilmington Brew Works just may have the most racially diverse fan bases of all of the state’s breweries — and not only because the city’s population is 60 percent Black. It’s also the only city brewery lodged in a neighborhood, located near the Ninth Ward neighborhood, making it walkable for many residents.

And that may be a reason why Berkeley is surprised at the lack of racial diversity when it comes to the craft alcohol industry. It goes against what he sees every day in his taproom, which better reflects the outside world than most in our state.

“It’s just a fantastic, really good feeling to be able to look out and see how diverse a community we have built,” says Berkeley, who often finds himself giving a beginner’s craft beer lessons to new customers. “There’s so much out there to explore and enjoy and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to provide that.”

While he has never thought of his skin color as an asset in terms of making new customers at ease in the sometimes-intimidating world of craft beer, he can see how it could be, especially for Black guests: “I hope it’s a reassuring thing to see my face. That would make me happy if just by me being there, it makes some people more comfortable.”

Got a tip? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).

This content was originally published here.

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