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‘Beer and Racism’: Uncomfortable, but necessary, reading

"Beer and Racism"In “Craft: An Argument,” Pete Brown writes, “(Craft) isn’t just about the things we make; it’s about the kind of people we are. And for this, we get to an unspoken assumption we may be reluctant to admit even to ourselves; we believe that makers and buyers of craft products are morally superior to other people.”

Craft brewers are the good guys. So are craft beer drinkers. Stories like this pop up almost every day: A funk band and a brewery pooled resources to help make money for the United Way and parks in Wisconsin; or a Florida brewery is serving a pink beer all month and donating a portion of the sales to a local nonprofit raising awareness of early detection of breast cancer.

Craft breweries raise money for charities, they boost local employment, they collaborate with each other, they support environmental causes, and they check all the other appropriate boxes. Of course, they are woke. Craft brewers and craft drinkers agree that racism—a word no easier to define than craft beer—is bad.

In “Beer and Racism,” authors Nathanial Chapman and David Brunsma write, “Craft brewers and craft beer often symbolize progressive ideals, creativity, independence and forward-thinking.” Seems familiar, until they add, “If this is true, why is the craft industry and culture exclusively white?”

In December 2015, Dave Infante asked a similar question at Thrillist (and won a James Beard award). “This article came across our desks as one of us (Chapman) had just finished his dissertation on the rise of craft beer in the US and the other one of us (Brunsma) had just finished his first year editing the journal he had co-founded, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity,” they write in the first chapter of the book that followed.

As the full title—“Beer and Racism: How Beer Became White, Why It Matters, and the Movements to Change It”—suggests this book is a wide ranging, academic, interdisciplinary examination of the “deep structures of racism and white supremacy in the beer industry and craft beer culture.”

It is the second in a Sociology of Diversity series that will include others such as “Craft Food Diversity: Challenging the Myth of a U.S. Food Revival.” In the preface, series editor David Embrick writes, “Books in this series equip and challenge the reader to think critically about racism, sexism, ableism or other persistent inequalities.”

This book will make readers who brew, sell or drink craft beer and consider themselves proponents of progressive ideals uncomfortable. Plenty may shake their heads as they progress from one chapter to the next, signaling they don’t believe they are complicit. Chapman and Brunsma make a strong case otherwise—using history, other cultural studies, sociology and interviews to examine all aspects of the beer industry—but convincing craft community members remains a challenge.

“Well, that we are finding out is it is the real hard part . . . And really, it becomes what we find is it’s not about beer anymore. But in today’s social climate, particularly as far as racial injustice and racial equity and equality is concerned, white people don’t like it when you say that things are racist or support white supremacy, whatever that may be,” Chapman said when I talked with the authors.

“So you have with the book a seemingly innocuous, sort of mundane, everyday object that everyone’s familiar with that, really, I think David and I show highlights and reflects these structural inequalities, racism, discriminations, and so on.”

It is not, however, a story that needs to end unhappily. After all, the two describe themselves as craft beer lovers. (For instance, we talked about bottle shares as conferences they attend.) Their final chapter is about change, and includes interviews with brewers, owners, organizers, influencers, marketers, sales representatives and others who are driving that change.

“As we were working to uncover some of the hidden stories, to illuminate the often invisible social, political, economic, and cultural linkages between racism and beer, to give those interested in beer more roads to go down in order to have the very important conversations that need to be had, there was already so much happening so fast,” Brunsma said.

“From the success of Fresh Fest and the inaugural Suave Fest, to increased attention to securing funding outlets to increase Black and brown brewery ownership, to increased raced-based litigation against companies, and the clear interest in amplifying the work of underrepresented brewers and consumers as well as the consistent reclaiming and uncovering of stories that have remained invisible until now. So much is going on.”

By asking the question, “Why don’t Black people drink craft beer?” Chapman and Brunsma set out to provoke multiple conversations and inspire more studies. By pointing to other scholarship—for instance, the examination of Black ownership of taverns in Toledo, Ohio, before prohibition—they encourage more of the same.

There is much I’d like to discuss with them, and it was no surprise that our first conversation left me ready for more. Rather than quote bits and pieces of all the topics we covered I think there’s more to learn by going into detail about three of them.

We began by talking about what is sociological about beer.

Chapman: “A common conversation I had when I was starting to do the beer research was that very question. My advisers, my colleagues, my cohorts in graduate school would say, you know what is sociological about beer? And at the time, I didn’t quite have an answer. But I think now, having gone through “Untapped” (a book which he edited) and other articles in this book, now I do have an answer and sort of flip it around, as I would say, what’s not sociological about beer?

“We sort of look at beer in the race book from the lens of race and social structure and inequality and racism. But we can also look at craft beer in terms of space and place and the construction of meaning, authenticity, economics and a global political economy. So I really think when we look more in a more postmodern sort of view of sociology, it’s really everywhere in craft beer.”

Brunsma: “As I started engaging with the variety of craft beer that was out there, I started kind of looking around and I mean, I study race and racism by and large, but I started looking around and noticing that the people that were connected and the groups that seem to be connected to this object, craft beer, seem to be coming from a similar echelon of society. They seem to be coming from a particular racial and ethnic background, and they tended to be mostly men. And as I started also getting deeper into craft beer and the consumption of craft beer. I mean, it’s expensive as well. And so I think there’s a class dynamic there as well.

“So for me, you know, the object of craft beer both brings people together and also excludes people at one in the same time. And that was my hypothesis at the time. And working with Nate on his dissertation, and as he was carving out this sociology of craft beer within our own discipline of sociology, I kind of wanted to dig a little deeper and see if we could perhaps answer the question as to why that was the case, at least in my small neck of the woods here in southwest Virginia.

“But of course, as I travel around the country to conferences and all kinds of sociology conferences or just on my own family travels, I kept being able to say the same thing about the the social structure of craft beer. And so for me, that’s kind of fundamentally what is sociological about it is that if sociology is the study of social groups and what brings them together and maybe what also tears them apart, beer seems to play a small but maybe even significant role in that phenomenon.”

Craft brewers understand that customers value “local” and “authenticity,” however objective authenticity (authenticity as an original) may be inconvenient.

Chapman: “[There is the fact of where] breweries pop up the most often. We would argue, as well as some of our other colleagues in other similar studies about urban life, is that the craft brewery is an indicator of and often a catalyst for gentrification. So the gentrification process involves the displacement of a people and then the replacement by a new people. So what that involves sociologically is the physical removal of the people from a place, but also the stripping of the original meaning that was constructed there, the interactions that occurred there that were on their terms, their space, and meant something to them, gave them a sense of community or whatever.

“I think what’s problematic about this authenticity, or you use the word reclaiming or you hear revitalization in those things, is when you’re talking about a gentrified area where someone has been displaced to revitalize and to reclaim it is most necessarily and by definition done through white hands, white gaze, white intentions.

“So this notion of authenticity then is predicated and constructed on this sort of colorblind notion of, well, this is our place now. We’re not concerned with who was here before we could construct this, meaning where they might, for instance, you have some of these old breweries and industrial districts that will highlight the labor of the textile mill that they were in. But they whitewash it. And they don’t talk about the people who occupied the mill afterwards or the neighborhood that had to move to create the parking lot and things like that.

“Authenticity is a slippery slope philosophically and sociologically and academically, because it’s always a transactional process.I might present my brewery as being truly authentic and representative of X location, but if my patrons, my customers, don’t see it that way, it comes off as inauthentic. So it’s a delicate sort of balance and dance between consumer and producer and what those expectations are for a quote, unquote, authentic experience.”

The authors use an analytical tool known as the production of culture perspective—which focuses on how the symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught, and preserved—to look at relationships within the beer and brewing ecosystem.

Chapman: “The production of culture perspective basically looks at macro and mezzo level forces, so industry level forces and organizational level forces and how these different facets of production can constrain the production of certain goods, but can also then stimulate production of new goods. So what we will see, what I argue in my (doctoral) dissertation is that the structure of the brewing industry being highly concentrated and oligopolistic in the post prohibition period, the advent of the three tier distribution system and its implementation nationwide, the organizational structure of smaller craft breweries, allowing them to adapt to market changes, the markets themselves, the technology involved, but also the careers and the laws and regulations that regulate craft beer.

“So the production of culture perspective looks at these six facets as they work in concert with each other to sort of explain post hoc how these things might emerge. But it’s limited in that it can help explain the production of craft beer, how we have a craft beer industry, but it can’t explain the meanings that are attached to it. So, for instance, the craft beer culture bottle shares and things like that.

Brunsma: “It provides the scaffolding for our own investigation into the whiteness of beer, because the reality of it is that beer, and then one could also add craft beer on to that, but by and large, I mean beer and craft beer has been brewed by taverns and saloons and breweries and inns and ordinances. And no matter how deep back you go into history in what we call the United States it has been largely owned by, and the products have been almost predominantly catered to, and distributed by, and consumed by, and critically discussed by white men. I mean, no, there’s no argument here. It doesn’t matter how far back you look in the history.

“And interestingly, you know that structure itself. One could walk away from that structure, that historical and contemporary structure and just say, look, I mean, I get it, beer has always been white and it continues to be white. And when you norm something like a cultural object, like beer, when you norm it to white and masculine, if you norm that kind of cultural object that way, then there is a culture that surrounds that. So culture in this sense means how one even makes sense of beer, the kinds of language that one can use to trade praise and or insults about particular products are kind of specific.

“And they’ve specifically been created and crafted within the kind of like cauldron of whiteness, capitalism and segregation in this country. Beer has, depending on your perspective, either suffered as a consequence of that reality or it has benefited as a consequence of that reality.

“What we tried to do in this book is to take a look at that culture. And say even though there is this mythology about who makes beer, like when you read the classic beer books, it’s like there’s this mythology that’s created about it, and whites are the actors. White men are the actors. They’re the ones that do things and everyone else gets things done to them. Yet as we started looking at it and talking to people and talking to Black brewers and talking to Latinx brewers and talking to female brewers, we realized that actually that old narrative, that old story is not is not fully accurate.

“The culture of beer, which is embedded within the whiteness of beer, has actually worked to exclude and kind of silence any race, many of those stories for generations. So our book is trying to question the old narrative, and trying to also to amplify the new narrative which is happening all around us.”

Want to listen to more from them? Chapman and Brunsma will be talking about the book Nov. 12 during the Beer Culture Summit, then moderating a panel discussion about experiences with beer and racism.

2 Responses to ‘Beer and Racism’: Uncomfortable, but necessary, reading

  1. Fred Wolf October 28, 2020 at 10:11 am #

    This feels a bit like you want to horn in on a movement but you looked around and found everything else was taken so you’re going with “systemic racism in beer”. Obviously, and I hope you realize this in some quiet moment, you are contorting yourself into a pretzel or worse to assign malefic motives to a group of nerds who like to taste beer. I don’t like to taste beer. I drink Budweiser if any at all, and lean towards Coke over Pepsi. Pedestrian tastes for an intelligent man such as myself. My Black friends like strawberry soda. We laugh and move on. They love barbecue chips, I lean towards sour cream and onion. Sometimes barbecue. We don’t have any desire to discuss the 27 chemicals in our mouths. We do, however, love to talk basketball. They are better than me. I am good. Not good enough for the NBA. Why? I am white, they are black. Is that why? Meritocracies can be heartbreaking. I was heartbroken when I got cut. But at least it made sense. There weren’t “favored groups” or “carve outs” that left some of us high and dry by the luck of the draw. Enjoy your beer. Don’t worry what others think. Especially don’t worry what I think because it’s fairly scathing. Your group is boring and laughable to me. And to many blacks. Party on, beer nerds! You’re only being racist when you patronize! Which of course you are doing, and for the country’s sake, the sooner you come to understand this (If you’re capable of higher level abstract thought) the sooner the real help will start arriving. Until then please stop embarrassing yourselves, you’re adding to the distracting din.

    • Stan Hieronymus October 28, 2020 at 10:18 am #

      To be polite, I wanted to acknowledge I read this. Thanks for your thoughts. I urge you to buy the book and read it with an open mind.

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