"If you're gonna be about it, then be about it."
Afro Beer Chick talks to Fingers about being a black craft beer lover right now.
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In 2016 I won a James Beard award for this story I did about the conspicuous absence of black brewers in America’s then-booming craft beer industry. The story has been making the rounds on Twitter this week as white people look for ways to educate themselves on the plight of black Americans in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
This makes me feel pretty weird! 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. Not the best resource for people who genuinely want to understand what craft beer means to black Americans in 2020! So instead…
Meet Afro Beer Chick
Better known on the timeline as @AfroBeerChick, Chicago’s own Chalonda White has been in the craft beer game in one capacity or another for over a decade. Beer Twitter folks might remember Chalonda as the blogger who, upon receiving a racist email from a racist, tweeted screenshots of it, which eventually led to a social-media outpouring of feel-good support around the tag #IAmCraftBeer. (Side note: this happened in 2019 but feels like at least eleventy-bajillion years ago.)
Anyway, in the excruciating, nightmare stew of pandemic/protest/martial law Twitter, I’ve found myself gravitating to her unwaveringly clear perspective on how beer fits—and doesn’t fit—into the national conversations now raging about race, class, and policing. So for the very first Fingers interview ever (!!!) I spoke with Chalonda on performative allyship in the beer business, breweries giving mutual aid to protesters, fake apologies from brewers making racist posts, and more.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dave Infante, Fingers: When did you first start realizing that like there were conversations about race that needed to be had that weren’t currently happening?
Chalonda White, Afro Beer Chick: Even before I started Afro Beer Chick, when I got into the beer industry beforehand, I was president of Girls Pint Out Chicago for a couple years. I had to step back from that, which was me looking out, you know, for you know, more women. I noticed then there were not a lot of women of color [working] in beer or even talking about beer. So when I started ABC, I started to say like, “Okay, where are the black people, at?”
I’m always on protection mode when it comes to my people. Beer comes second to that.
You know, we're growing, but we still have a way to go. I'm really happy that since I came back, I'm starting to see there's more conversation from, you know, black people in this industry. You know, it was like, I'm right here, sis, it’s what’s going on! And you know, it's been all love, especially when I went to Fresh Fest… ah man, because I’ve seen just how much our community [of black craft beer enthusiasts] has grown. But you know, from talking amongst ourselves, we still have a ways to go.
What in particular do you feel like you have “a ways to go” on?
Acceptance. We've run into the fact that a lot of people [think] that we do not know what we’re talking about when it comes to beer. A black man, and especially black woman [who] can run down the beer industry into different styles of beer, we’re looked at as unicorns. Like, are you kidding? Why is that? There are a lot of black people who are in the industry who are very knowledgeable, who have experience. We're not as rare as you think we are. It's moreso them accepting that we're there.
It seems like you sort of kicked into high gear after George Floyd was killed, and started speaking on the need for activism in the beer community even more than normal. Was that a conscious choice?
I literally just had somebody tell me to think about my brand before I start tweeting. My brand is not who I am. I’m a black woman first and foremost. That is going to always come first. So for me, I’m always on protection mode when it comes to my people. Beer comes second to that. For me, I don’t have to get ready because I’m always ready.
Is the brewery silent on everything? If that's the case, I'm not mad at it.
For me, the reason why I started calling breweries to come out was because when we were having panel discussions about diversity and inclusion, everybody was on board: ‘Oh my god, this is a wonderful topic. Come on, come to my brewery, let’s to this and this and this.’ Great!
But now that we’re in the thick of shit, when we really need that participation, I notice that of the very same breweries have been silent. So it’s like, no, I don't want diversity and inclusion to be a trend, because it benefits you for that moment. So I’m looking at certain breweries like, oh, I see we were just a phase for you, so that you could look good, so you could profit off of this. You're not really down for the struggle.
Speaking of diversity and inclusion initiatives: do you think that’s a valid path towards developing legitimate allyship amongst breweries, at this point?
To be honest with you, since this whole George Floyd situation has come about, my position has started to change. I'm starting to think that [diversity and inclusion initiatives] are something that some of these breweries—I’m not gonna say all, because there are some breweries that are really in the thick of it with us—but some of these breweries use it to make themselves feel comfortable about what's really going on in the industry.
Like “we're gonna do just enough making seem like we're doing enough, and that's gonna be okay.” No. At the end of the day, yes you have a business to to protect, but you're also protecting your customers. Because you have black people that come into your breweries all the time, you have white people who are offended when black people are discriminated against at your breweries. So it's like, come on now. If you're gonna be about it, then be about it. Don’t fake it.
What does it look like for breweries to actually step up and walk the walk in this context?
Well, for instance, Weathered Souls [a black-owned brewery in San Antonio], I love the concept they’re doing. They’re sending breweries a base stout beer for them to tweak anyway that they want. It’s called Black Is Beautiful.
We still have racist people in this industry.
So they're calling for you, if you brew this beer with that recipe, then you have that to donate proceeds to the movement. Now the question is, are some of these breweries actually going to participate, as far as donating their proceeds? Only time will tell.
What about mutual aid for protesters? Do you think breweries should open up their spaces and provide supplies for protesters? Is that a role breweries can play?
I'm gonna say it most definitely is. If you can open up your brewery and and offer some assistance to protesters—and yes, I know you run a risk because not all the protesters are peaceful, which is because of certain groups that want to cause chaos—so I understand why they may be leery. But this is for the cause, this is for the struggle. So if [breweries] can do that, I would love to see them do that.
Do you think it's important for the actual brewery brand to be involved as opposed to just like the owners and the workers individually? Like, what's the distinction there in your mind?
Is the brewery silent on everything? If that's the case, I'm not mad at it. That means you're consistent. Or are you speaking up only for certain causes? So my feeling is, if you’re being selective, then your silence right now is not valid. You're picking and choosing. So you have some breweries that have been completely silent on every single issue, and I can respect that more than people selectively just doing this one, and not doing this one. That means you're just trying to play a safe, and you're only doing enough just to look like you're doing something.
[Editor’s note: I wrote a bit about this for the Post and Courier.]
You said something on Twitter about putting “I can’t breathe” on a beer, and that being off-limits.
If you see “I can't breathe” on a can, and you know that those are the words that two black men yelled out before they died, that means you're profiting off of their death. I have a big problem with that. That's basically what America has done to black people since slavery: profited off their death. So no, I'm not gonna be okay with it. I wouldn't be okay with it if I saw a black brewery do it. I don't want anybody profiting off of a black man, or a black person’s death.
Yeah. Do you follow @WorstBeerBlog? I haven’t seen any labels that specifically say “I can’t breathe” on them yet, but he’s been on a tear recently posting some controversial stuff breweries have done with regards to the protests.
Oh yeah! I'm loving what he’s doing. For example, he brought to light Steam Hollow Brewing [a brewery outside of Chicago.] I went there in October, I met the husband and wife. My husband and I took pictures with this couple! So to see that's how she feels? Yeah, no. Never. Never will I set foot in there. Never again.
Screenshot of the Steam Hollow co-owner’s Facebook post claiming the killing of George Floyd was a hoax. Source
Tell me what that feels like to see a brewery owner reveal their values like that.
[The Steam Hollow post] is proving what black beer industry folks have been saying all this time: we still have racist people in this industry. What I don't like is how closeted they were up into this point. I respect an outright racist more than I would a closeted one. I felt disrespected. I don't want to make it about me personally, though. It’s like, how dare you diminish this man's death to saying he was a paid [crisis] actor and he's a porn star. What the hell were you thinking?
I would walk away completely if I had to choose between craft beer and my people.
They’re getting everything that they deserve, and I don’t want to hear any fake apologies. That's a problem with the brewing industry as well. Somebody does something that they know is offensive, and they don't care at that moment. But the moment those consequences come due: “Oh my god, I'm sorry, we’re learning to be better…” No, you’re hiding behind your bullshit. That’s what I don’t like.
What did you think about Founders Brewing Company posting about Black Lives Matter?
Oh god. [Scoffs.]
What did you think?
You know what, I’m still at “fuck Founders.” Ain't nothing Founders can say to me, ever. Ever, ever, ever. Founders is fake.
[Editor’s note: Grand Rapids brewery faced a high-profile racial discrimination lawsuit in 2019. We spent a few minutes discussing the backstory, which you can read about more here.]
Is it time for breweries to pick sides? Or can they still sort of walk the middle line of this, like, you know, progressivism that craft beer sort of promoted a lot through the last 15-20 years about being for everyone and like, as long as you hate corporate, you're with us?
When you don't pick a side, it’s like you're not trying to acknowledge that racism exists. You’re trying to live in this beautiful, buttoned-up world where “I don't see color.” That's the most offensive thing because that's a black person. So [breweries] definitely have to pick a side because it's like the first step to identifying that there’s a problem.
Look at everything going on now! That’s why we’re here, because people don’t want to pick a side. They don’t want to accept the fact that there is a huge racial issue in every level of every single industry in this country, and basically around the world.
Is the American craft brewing industry’s relationship with people of color and particularly with black producers and consumers a viable structure to move forward at this point? In other words, like, can this be fixed, or must it fall apart?
Man, that’s hard [laughing.]
I know, but look into the crystal ball for me.
That's a hard one. Because I mean, if we take a break, it’s like we’re separating ourselves. And let’s be honest, it's not like we have a lot of black hop farms or [other support infrastructure], you know know what I'm saying? So you can't exactly separate yourself [as a black brewer.] At the end of the day, the craft beer industry is supposed to be about community—
But do you buy that at this point?
That’s why I say, key word, supposed to be. But even my views on that have changed. I used to be like, “Oh yeah, craft beer is about community, it brings people together.” That was when I was bright-eyed and bushy tailed when I first got into it. Now that I’m into the thick of things and starting to see and hear other stories from other people, I’m like “wait a minute, hold on.”
I believe it could be fixed, but it has to be to the point of being broken in order for people to really realize just how much damage has been done to know how much we have to actually repair.
What if craft beer doesn’t fix its relationship with the black community? Do you turn your back? What’s more important to you?
My people. My people. I’m a black mother, I’m a black wife, I’m a black auntie. It’s like… me picking my brand, or my voice in beer, as more important than the struggles of my people would be like me picking my daughter second, or my husband second, or my nephew second. And I’m not doing that.
I would walk away completely if I had to choose between the two. I was Chalonda White when I came into it, I’ll be Chalonda White when I’m over and done with it.