It’s been four years since then-employee Tracy Evans filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Michigan’s largest craft brewery at the time, Founders Brewing Company, for the racist incidents he allegedly experienced. The filing, and particularly the statements that came forward in the aftermath of depositions and tone-deaf reactions from management, sparked a national conversation about race in the brewing industry. The brewery, which has locations in Detroit and Grand Rapids, received fierce backlash on social media as well as from fans and businesses, but for many Black beer enthusiasts the incidents simply confirmed what they already knew — beer isn’t the most welcoming industry for Black people.
Detroit, a majority-Black city, doesn’t yet have a local Black-owned brewery for beer consumers and enthusiasts to gather or for fermentation professionals to thrive, but that’s going to change soon. Black folks in Detroit are working on making a space in the beer industry that is uniquely their own.
A yet-to-be-named Black-owned brewery is slated to open near Livernois and McNichols later this year, spearheaded by Brian Jones-Chance. The Ypsilanti native is a real estate developer, Ypsilanti council member, and the chairman and chief operating officer of 734 Brewing Company. He casually stumbled into the beer industry as a Western Michigan University college student and home brewer who initially set out to make pop, but discovered that beer is a much cheaper endeavor. (It has fewer additives and simpler ingredients.) The more invested Jones-Chance got in the processes of making beer, the more he learned.
“I don’t think people realize how versatile beer [can] be. You can flavor it, you can do all kinds of things, you can make little minor changes to ingredients that make it taste like something totally different,” says Jones-Chance. “A lot of the marketing and a lot of the focus has really been on the white male in their mid 30s. The reach is still pretty small. There’s a lot of room to grow.”
Michigan is home to nearly 400 breweries, a handful of which are located in Detroit, and Jones-Chance’s will be the one of the first of its kind. He counts himself among many Black beer enthusiasts who are contemplating how to make the move from consumers to producers of beer and beer experts with the tools to go beyond the bottle and share their unique journeys throughout the industry.
Jones-Chance’s journey to owning a brewery began when a friend mentioned that he wanted to open one. Jones-Chance combined his interest in beer with his desire to share his business knowledge, and pretty soon three best friends — Jones-Chance, Alex Merz and Patrick Echlin — became business partners in 734 Brewing Company, an Ypsilanti brewery that opened right before the pandemic. “The audience is definitely the neighborhood folks at the Ypsi location. We really strive to be a diverse field that’s sort of a reflection of the Ypsi community. We focus a lot of our energy on bringing more Black people, especially into a part of town where historically we have not been super involved.”
Jones-Chance envisions more diversity at every level of the beer industry. He wants to see more Black folks blending and proofing spirits and more Black women in lead brewing roles as well. He wants to make it explicitly known that Black folks are welcomed and desired in his business. He aims to bring the expertise he’s gained with his Ypsilanti location to Detroit. “On McNichols, we’ll be tailored to the surrounding Black community,” he says.
Another addition to the local beer industry is Eastern Michigan University’s Fermentation Science program, headed by professors Cory Emal and Gregg Wilmes. The pair are collaborating on a Detroit-based training school with Jon Carlson, the owner of Nain Rouge Brewery and Smith & Co., with logistical support from Midtown Detroit, Inc.
Carlson says he initially got the idea to open a brew school after hearing his daughter, who is biracial, mention that she wanted to make beer. At the time, he didn’t know of any entities that would explicitly make that possible for anyone outside of the perceived majority of beer drinkers — older white men. Although they aren’t Black Detroiters, Carlson and his co-founders have hopes of diversifying the local beer space from their Selden Street location.
The soon-to-be-opened Nain Rouge Brewing School references some of Eastern Michigan’s fermentation program curriculum and will reserve half of its trainee spots for low-income, minority Detroit brewers. According to a postcard that was recently mailed out, applicants to the 12-week training program that is slated to launch in April of this year must have a high school diploma and be over the age of 21.
The school is intentional about limiting the barriers to entry. Participants in the program are given the option to pursue hands-on practical training in skills like brewing, packaging, inventory, canning, and marketing, which are suitable for entry-level positions in the industry. They are also anticipating that some attendees will want to seek higher education through Eastern Michigan’s science-focused fermentation program. Carlson views the brew school as a pipeline toward employment and entrepreneurship.
“My end goal here is not to just have the training facility. My end goal is to find somebody from Detroit to be that next great brewer. Somebody that hopefully I get the opportunity to meet and then work with. That has to be the ultimate goal in this and I hope I get to be a part of something like that,” says Carlson.
Beyond the brewing field, some local Black entrepreneurs and influencers are finding new opportunities to reach audiences that in the past may have been ignored by the larger industry.
When you inquire about Black women in the local beer community, many point to Barb Baker, who’s enthusiastically referred to by her social media persona, Siren of Stout. You can find her online sharing what kind of brews she’s drinking, posting funny, relatable stories about being a woman in a male-dominated industry and documenting her latest tastings and brewings at local or far-out breweries. The actress and TV personality started drinking beer in college at Ohio University because it was always the free option at parties, and eventually started doing promotional work for liquor and beer events. That’s where she met other Black women in the beer community.
Baker says she initially met lots of Black women when she entered those spaces, but many of them were into beer for the fun and camaraderie of it; they enjoyed it as a hobby and not as a job. “With a lot of spaces, Black women go first and then everybody else comes,” says Baker.
Now, she’s a first-level cicerone, a technical term that means she is a certified beer server who knows how to pour and can talk about beer and its qualities. Put simply: She knows a whole hell of a lot about beer. She uses that knowledge in her role as the president of Fermenta — a nonprofit that supports women in the fermentation, beverage, and food industries.
Baker says she initially connected with Fermenta’s founders in the same way she does with lots of other folks — by talking about her love of beer. She realized early on that social media would be a crucial way to find folks who have the same interest as her and got active on Instagram as @sirenofstout, where she educates folks and takes them along on beer tasting journeys virtually. In that space, she’s fostered a supportive community, where much of her industry experience is self-directed and joyful, as opposed to exploitative.
Baker has partnered with a long list of brewers including Griffin Claw Brewing Company, Five Shores Brewing, DuClaw Brewing Co., and Black Calder Brewing, a Black-owned beer company near Kentwood, Michigan, which launched in 2020. Working in various beer spaces, she acts as a beer judge, a certified beer server, and as an ambassador. But she’s also, either intentionally or coincidentally, pushing forward the idea of what role Black women can play within the industry.
“I know it’s big because people have told me that and reminded me how big it is,” Baker says of her status as a Black female ambassador for beer.
“Other women keep going, ‘Who are you doing a collaboration with?’ ‘Wow, you met them?’ Or, ‘You brewed with them? You did this? That’s so cool. I wish I could do that.’ And in my head I’m like, ‘Go do it,’ right? That’s what I did,” Baker says. As the president of Fermenta, she plays an active role in inviting more Black women to learn about fermentation and enjoy the educational opportunities, monetary resources, and emotional support that the organization provides. “I think you got to see yourself somewhere before somebody else can see you there,” says Baker.
Many of the Black women who entered the beer industry with Baker weren’t in a rush to monetize their work or establish themselves as thought leaders in the space like many of their male counterparts. In some ways, the white male image of beer that prevails exists because white men capitalized on that initial swell of interest in craft beer and essentially ran to the front of the line. As an experienced beer coach, Baker knows that there are many ways to engage with the beer industry. In addition to being a beer enthusiast, she enjoys being a host and spearheading creative partnerships.
Baker wishes for a day when more Black folks in the beer industry can be in leadership roles, especially with brewers guilds, and establish local and national beer policies — as opposed to being propped up for fleeting diversity, equity, and inclusion roles or used as marketing collateral. In order to bridge this gap, she says that Black folks would need access to more hands-on educational opportunities with making beer.
Harry Weaver and Bernard Jackson have also played a crucial role in the local and national efforts to connect beer with a wider community as the hosts of The Brewz Brothaz, a podcast the pair started in 2018. Before their show launched, Weaver and Jackson were just two beer nerds who met up in November 2013 to talk about the best Christmas beer and engaged in a heady, impassioned conversation. The pair enjoyed hashing it out so much that they wanted to add others to the group; it grew organically through word of mouth. At its core, beer is a communal hobby, so it’s only right that a community arose out of their initial connection.
Now they have a name, a podcast, and over 800 members online. Detroit is still the headquarters, though, and the modern-day social club frequently gathers to partake in beer, whiskey, and cigars around the city. Brewz Brothaz hosts meetups and bottle shares, which are exactly what they sound like: Attendees bring bottles they haven’t yet gotten to or don’t want to partake in alone and taste them with a group instead.
But the Brewz Brothaz crew, founded by two Black men, don’t always feel welcome as they make the rounds in the local beer circuit. Weaver notes that small things, like the art and music a brewery chooses, can serve as a calling card or a perceived warning sign for the kind of customers they want to attract.
Weaver, a diversity, inclusion, and school culture professional in metro Detroit, shares: “Even in the work that I do with schools, I talk about windows and mirrors. I talk to classroom teachers about whether their students of color are seeing windows or mirrors in their classrooms. Are they looking at the wall and seeing people that look like them in their classrooms? Or at least seeing mirrors? Or are they looking out into a world that doesn’t recognize them?” For Weaver, the environment a brewery establishes follows the same principles, and can serve to welcome or discourage Black customers from visiting. “In a brewery or other space, if I go somewhere, and I just can’t identify with anything in the space, it doesn’t make me feel particularly welcome,” he says.
Jones-Chance admits that he was hesitant to open up a Detroit location because he knows how protective folks can get about their hometown. Although he’s not a Detroiter, he’s a Black Michigander from a deeply rooted Ypsilanti family. His first brewery, 734 Brewing Company, is located in Ypsi’s shopping-centric Depot Town, while the Detroit location is in a Black neighborhood on the historic Avenue of Fashion that has gained both commercial attention as well as city and developer investment over the last few years.
Jones-Chance says he and his team are being very intentional about their Detroit launch. He notes that Detroit community leader and real estate developer Chase Cantrell as a vital partner. “Growing up in Ypsilanti and opening businesses there as an adult certainly informs my approach to McNichols,” says Jones-Chance. “My family has been here for generations and now we live in a gentrifying and changing place. My partners and I know what it’s like to have that sense of not really being welcomed in your hometown, so I think we’re able to be sensitive to that.”
Reporting for this story was produced in partnership with the Detroit Equity Action Lab – Race and Justice Reporting Initiative, a program of The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.