By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Craft beer is an industry that has seen a meteoric rise over the past decade, but has largely been dominated by one demographic. According to the Brewers Association, more than 80 percent of self-identified craft drinkers are white, but there are forces within the field working to change that.
The second iteration of Fresh Fest, America’s first beer festival for black-owned breweries and breweries that have collaborated with black artists, took place August 10 at Nova Place in the North Side. The festivities were kicked off by a symposium and bottle share event at Ace Hotel on August 9, featuring craft beer industry professionals discussing the culture and future of the field.
Fresh Fest 2019 featured 23 black-owned breweries, as well as 45 collaborations between local breweries and black artists. Also in attendance were professional DJs and live bands to keep the crowd of nearly 3,000 beer enthusiasts entertained. Admission included unlimited five-ounce samples and a keepsake glass.
The brainchild of Day Bracey host of the “Drinking Partners” podcast and the Pittsburgh Current’s craft beer writer and Mike Potter of the publication, Black Brew Culture, the first Fresh Fest was held last August. Their work with the craft beer industry drew their attention to the racial disparity in the field, with both creators and consumers being predominantly white men.
The festival has made waves in the industry since its inception, and received considerable public and professional support. In April, it was voted second-best beer festival in America in USA Today’s “Top 10 Reader’s Choice” poll. The following month, they were awarded a “diversity and inclusion event” grant from the Brewers Association.
Fresh Fest 2018 was also the subject of the short documentary “A Fresh Perspective,” which screened at the New York African Film Festival and Pittsburgh Indie Film Festival.
Brewers flocked to Pittsburgh from all across America to attend the festival, many for the second consecutive year. Joel Suarez of Uptown Beer Society came from New York City to attend Fresh Fest again, working to represent the Dominican and African diaspora beer brewers in his community and to lead the diversity movement in the five boroughs.
“We drove out just after closing bar at four in the morning, just because it’s one of the first black beer festivals,” said Suarez.
Jon Renthrope of Cajun Fire Brewing Company made the journey to Pittsburgh from New Orleans, Louisiana for the festival.
“This is our second time in Pittsburgh, and both times were for Fresh Fest,” Renthrope said. “New Orleans is the festival capital of the world, but we don’t have anything like this.”
Pennsylvania beer makers were also well-represented. Among them, the Harris Family Brewery, one of the first black-owned breweries in Pennsylvania. Co-owner Tim White said he appreciated the diversity of the attendees and the community the festival creates.
“There’s so many people here, so many black people here,” White said. “A lot of people talk about us fighting for a seat at the table. This is us creating our own table.”
There were also new faces vending at this year’s festival, including Alematic Brewing, who came from Huber Heights, Ohio for the occasion. They signed up to attend the event just two weeks after opening their doors.
“We’re a minority-owned brewery. It’s very important we celebrate the diversity of craft beer,” said Mike Meholick, co-owner of Alematic. “The camaraderie of the whole thing has been amazing.”
Like the vendors, festival attendees also came from far and wide, and they came for a variety of reasons. Many, also like the vendors, are aspiring to join the craft beer scene, looking to make connections and learn more about the field. One of these individuals, a man named Daniel, came from Philadelphia to get his feet wet in the industry.
“I’m just starting out, so I’m getting knowledge in the culture, meeting people, and really learning the process,” Daniel said.
Many others, naturally, are fellow beer lovers who came to sample new varieties of the drink they so enjoy, while also supporting black business. Malik Lewis, for instance, traveled from Brooklyn, New York for Fresh Fest, drawn by the diversity of the scene that he found lacking back home.
“I recently got into craft beer three or four years ago, and one thing I had always noticed was the lack of black representation in the industry, so when I saw this, I was intrigued,” said Lewis.
Myles Durkee was also in attendance, having traveled from Michigan to support black breweries and sample their craft. And he summed up, in just six simple words, why Fresh Fest is so important.
“Black people like good beer, too!”