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Writer Investigates History Of America's Black Brewers


OK, be honest. When I say craft beer, what comes to mind? A hoppy IPA? Sure. But maybe also, as James Bennett II writes in the digital magazine Eater, a, quote, "white guy swilling beer in specialty stemware in an authentic bar riddled with fugazi bullets in a gentrified neighborhood," unquote. And maybe we'll throw in some plaid shirts and beards along with that.

But that got Bennett thinking. He's a writer at New York Public Radio, but in his piece for Eater, he reports on the role that enslaved Africans and others played in the development of American beer. His piece is called "We're Reclaiming Beer Because It's Ours." And he's here with us to tell us more.

Hello, James Bennett. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAMES BENNETT II, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start where you start - at the famed cookout, the Black American cookout. And you describe - how shall I say it? - a certain ambivalence toward beer. Why don't you read the sentence that starts with, I'm not saying you won't find any beer?

BENNETT: (Reading) I'm not saying you won't find any beer at the cookout. I'd place a sure bet on Heineken, a solid one on Corona and a possible one on Bud heavy. But if you arrive with only craft beer, all who see you will scorn you. And I can't say I disagree with them. This culinary and social event is not for your Ahab's Shanty Sea Salt Ale or a Bobo Brazil Coffee Stout.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, I think that sums it up. Well, of course, and you point out that I think a lot of people sort of think beer is associated with European immigrants - mainly, you know, Germans and, you know, the Irish. But you point out it was not always that way. And you trace beer's history back to precolonial Western Africa. So what role did beer or alcohol play in that region?

BENNETT: People all over the world for a very long time have been fermenting various things for consumption. And in the case of fermentation practices in precolonial West Africa, some of the research that, you know, I read up on, some of the really great people that I was able to talk to, really were able to pinpoint that fermenting these beverages played this huge and enormous and important role in religious and spiritual practices.

MARTIN: And you point out that enslaved Africans not only brought that beer-making tradition with them - that they built on it while here, that people, enslaved people, were very much a part of the creation of and support of beer-making in the United States, like the master brewer at Monticello was Sally Hemings' brother.

BENNETT: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I really think that there's a popular image of the enslaved African with a mind that is completely blank, and they have to be taught all of these things to do as, you know, the white person does. And that's just not the case, right? You would see these wanted ads for enslaved people trying to escape, and they would be described as, you know, a master brewer or having the skillset to create this brew. Peter Hemings, Sally Hemings' brother, was a master brewer at Monticello, so they knew what they were doing.

MARTIN: Well, you make some fascinating connections between, say, the abolition movement and the temperance movement. I mean, you point out that most abolitionists were also part of the temperance movement because they associated alcohol with domestic violence and also kind of the indolence and violence of slave culture.

And you also say that the pub and saloon culture really left Black people out of these spaces where people were drinking, and then that somehow got wrapped up in patriotism as defined by kind of white people. Like, how is it that beer became so disconnected from Black culture?

BENNETT: So at the risk of oversimplifying, you know, there's a wave of immigration, especially from Central Europe, Germany. And they're settling in the Midwest. And with them, they're bringing their own cultural identity as it's tied to beer. They're setting up, you know, what we would call, you know, I guess, a beer garden.

And I think I quoted Michael Twitty - you know, a great food historian - and he likened it to their Sunday outing. It was their thing to be with other people in your German community, you know, read German newspapers, speak German. And so even if you're not Black, but if you're a non-Germanic speaking person, it's just kind of, like, why would you go hang out there?

Now, some of what's happening in tandem, too, is the creation of beer is being commercialized. It's taking the creation of this drink out of the home. It's corporatizing it, right? It's making it a widely available product. And that's a job. For some strange reason, they were shutting out certain darker-colored people. And to your point about the Americanization of it all, during the World Wars, especially World War I, right, there's this rash of anti-German sentiment, and a lot of these breweries are in really tough financial straits.

And so when prohibition is over, you have these popular brewers that are just kind of, like, we can't afford really to slide back into having no one like us. So let's toe this very American line and almost rebrand, not as a German beer, but as a very homegrown, patriotic American beer. And I guess, as we all know, when we think homegrown, patriotic American flags, what naturally follows for some reason are blond hair and blue eyes. Like, it's very exclusionary in its imagery for being so, quote-unquote, "patriotic."

MARTIN: Well, so what about now, though? Do you think that's changing? I mean, you highlighted in your piece a number of African Americans who are brewing things now. And as briefly as you can, like, what are some of their stories?

BENNETT: Yeah. Like, I live in New York, and there's a couple of spots in New York, and one of them is Harlem Hops. And that was founded by Kim Harris and Stacey Lee and Kevin Bradford. They're all HBCU graduates. I would also, you know, point to folks like Chris Gandsy down at DaleView Biscuits and Beer. It's a brewpub in Flatbush. During Black History Month, he introduced some new brew that took their names from civil rights heroes like Pauli Murray, which was a dark ale. And he has one on tap all the time called the Paul Bogle, named after the Jamaican national hero.

MARTIN: So what I want to know, James, is if you go to a cookout this summer - and hopefully, we'll be able to do that safely - is there any craft beer that you would bring to the cookout without fear of being shamed or, like, you know, laughed out of the place?

BENNETT: Oh. Well, I mean (laughter), there are some rules that I feel, you know, compelled to adhere to. So I would bring some Heineken (laughter). But also for myself and, you know, for some to share, you know, I might bring something local from a neighborhood brewery - you know, one that's Black-owned. I think I mentioned Paul Bogle - you know, this pale ale that's not too harsh, and it's brewed with sorrel, which is really kind of, like, vibrant and inviting. And, I guess, the Heineken, which I, you know, admiringly and lovingly call the, quote-unquote, "Black beer."

MARTIN: That was James Bennett II. He is a writer and editor at New York Public Radio. And his latest piece about the African American imprint on American brewing is published in Eater.

James Bennett, thank you so much for being with us.

BENNETT: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.