"Craft beer is part of America, and America has problems."
A famous African-American brewmaster called me out on Instagram, and he wasn't wrong.
Welcome to Fingers, a newsletter by me, Dave Infante, about drinking culture, being online, and beyond. If you’re getting this email it’s because you’ve signed up for one newsletter or another of mine over the years. If you don’t want this one, by all means hit the unsubscribe link at the bottom of this email, and please accept my apology for intruding in your inbox. Sorry to bother you!
If you were forwarded this email and want to subscribe to future Fingers dispatches, smash this here button:
More about this project right here. Big thanks to my pal, the very-talented Daniel Fishel, for the hot new logo and graphics. Check out more of his work here, and commission him to draw things for you at o-fishel.com. Alright, let’s get to it.
Indigenous hops pickers in the Puget Sound area of Washington State in the 1890s. See below for more on this photo. Source
There’s an ambitious new foundation launching tomorrow to fund scholarships for people of color in the brewing and distilling industries. It’s named after the most prolific beer writer of all time, and backed by one of America’s most well-respected and successful craft brewers.
And in a small, unexpected way, your humble Fingers editor Dave is involved.
I’ve written on and off about the beer industry for about a decade. After I won an award for this story about the conspicuous absence of Black people in the craft beer world and particularly in the beer-brewing game, I started writing about it more.
Lately, that Thrillist story has been bubbling up online as a “resource” to understand inequity in craft beer. That makes me uncomfortable, as I explained in my interview with Chalonda White (a.k.a. @AfroBeerChick):
On one hand, it’s very flattering to think that something I wrote might, in any way, help beer-lovers make sense of the grotesque injustices that the simpatico forces of American racism and American capitalism have wrought on the country’s people of color in general and its black citizens in particular.
But on the other, I reread the story, and while it’s not bad, and I worked hard on it and reported it in good faith, it’s still five-year old story written by a white journalist.
Worst of all, that story turns on the premise of some grand mystery, but the answer is fairly straightforward. All the awful shit that white America has done to keep Black people disenfranchised and out-of-power general, they did in particular in the beer industry. Craft beer is an extension of that, and welp, there ya go.
The answer is obvious to me now, but the fact that it wasn’t at the time doesn’t mean that others hadn’t already given it a lot of thought.
Others including the influential brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, an African-American man named Garrett Oliver, who last week called me out by name in an Instagram post for missing the point a half-decade ago.
The post was about the launch of the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, a brand-new organization Oliver is spearheading to try to “directly fund a more equitable and dynamic future” for the beer- and booze-making businesses. (The Michael Jackson in question is this one, not that one, by the way.)
Here’s his announcement:
It’s a long Instagram caption, and most of it is about the foundation, not me (thank god), but this bit cut to the quick:
About five years ago, while in the vineyards of Slovenia, I was contacted by a writer named Dave Infante, who was writing for “Thrillist”. He wanted to know whether craft beer had “a racism problem”.
I declined to comment, noting that craft beer is part of America, and America has problems. I suggested that he educate himself about those problems and then come back to me. He went on to write his article, entitled “There Are Almost No Black People Brewing Craft Beer. Here’s Why.” You can google it.
I’m sure he meant well. But I still believe he missed the point. The craft beer scene lacks balance because America lacks balance.
(The bit about Slovenia, random as it may seem, tracks; I distinctly remember him telling me that in his email response to my request for comment.)
For Oliver, who is also an award-winning beer author, the framing of my piece missed the forest for the trees. It’s a mild call-out, and a fair one, I think.
Any social ills of the craft beer industry—sexism, racism, labor exploitation, etc.—are also the ills of the country it comes from. You can’t “fix” racism in the American craft beer industry (or any industry, really), without addressing its pervasive presence in American society. I absolutely buy that.
As for the 2015 piece in question: was it self-serving overkill that missed the mark? I’m obviously biased, but it’s hard to imagine phrases like “the craft beer scene lacks balance because America lacks balance” resonating with Thrillist’s circa-2015 readership without the beat-you-over-the-head directness with which we framed the story. (Although I really wish Oliver had given me that quote at the time!)
If my approach on that story came off ham-fisted, flat, or dilettantish to tuned-in readers like Oliver… well, point taken. In my writing since, I’ve tried to explore these issues with more dimension and nuance, and to be more aware of my blindspots as a white male journalist.
Anyway, I was surprised to see my name in Oliver’s post—not that he was wrong, I just didn’t expect him to remember our brief email back-and-forth from five years ago.
And I was slightly terrified, too: with all the talk about~*~*cAnCeL CuLtUrE*~*~ lately, it’s a pretty hot moment in media—very much including food & drink media. I figured I might be in for an online drubbing.
But not so. Oliver graciously gave me the benefit of the doubt in his initial post, and then again in his response to my comment beneath it:
We are all learning as we go, @dinfontay, myself included. Thanks for helping to start the conversation.
Again, I’m biased, but I found this exchange pretty refreshing. Civility! Discourse! Room for growth! I don’t know who deserves these allowances on the toxic high plain of today’s nightmare internet, but hey, I’ll take them here.
In any case, the beer industry is desperate (thirsty?) for more diverse voices, and from what I know of it, so is the distilling world. I, for one, am looking forward to checking out the MJF when it launches tomorrow; if you are too, keep your eye on Oliver’s Instagram feed.
This tweet is about Champagne, right?
Speaking of cancel culture! The subtext for this tweet is The Harper’s Letter™, some real inside-baseball, Manhattan media navel-gaze-y bullshit that I simply refuse get into it here. If you know, you know; if not, consider yourself lucky.
But I enjoyed the joke about Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée all the same. Although apparently the Champagne region actually doesn’t put AOC on its labels? Huh! I uh… I guess don’t really know that much about Champagne.
*I’m going to start working in some Creative Commons photos from the drinking world at random in some newsletters. I don’t think they’ll often relate directly to the subject, but it’ll make the posts look nicer on social feeds, and they’re pretty fascinating in their own right.
Thanks for reading! If you have a friend you think would enjoy this piece, please forward it to them and encourage them to sign up for future editions:
All comments, questions, lavish praise, and vicious criticism on Fingers can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.