Clay Palmer (right) and Holy City Brewing brand ambassador Kara Straub | Credit: Photo provided

I’ve always found comfort in craft beer … for the most part.

I’ve always found comfort in having my elbows on the bar, in tasting new beers and checking out new swag and new equipment in the brewhouse. I feel comfortable in these places, being in the “staff only” areas. I feel at home, at ease.

Generally, I have been the only person of color in the building. And I mean the whole entire building! No beertender, production staff, management, kitchen staff, not one other person of color.

But, the culture in these “spaces” is beginning to change. On the national scale, you have Benny and Teo’s #blackpeoplelovebeer movement on social media. Crown and Hops, a crowd-funded gypsy brewery turned brick and mortar location on the West Coast, is primarily owned and operated by Brown and Black people. These industry people are focused on giving opportunity to underserved communities in the craft industry. The number of Black and Brown influencers on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok has dramatically increased in recent years. But is it enough?

In 2017, Floridians Latiesha and Dom Cook launched Beer Kulture, a marketing agency and lifestyle brand that worked to raise awareness of craft beer in communities of color. The company is now a nonprofit fundraising for underserved communities through beer education programs.

We’ve also recently seen a surge in publications that shed light on the lack of inclusion in this industry, your Al Sharptons and Jamaal Lemons of the world, speaking from a perspective that has never had a voice in these rooms.

During the pandemic, the world tilted. Businesses closed, lacking resources. But others continued to operate. Between mask mandates and the rules put in place to protect the citizens of this country, I saw division and chaos. This and the endless brutality against Black people at the hands of law enforcement was a lot for me, for everyone.

But there was light. Marcus J. Baskerville, owner and operator of Weathered Souls Brewing Company in San Antonio, Texas, brewed an imperial stout that gained national recognition. He launched the movement, Black is Beautiful. The initiative aimed to shed light on the issues of police brutality within Black and Brown communities and the lack of opportunities in the industry for people of color. It became a beacon of hope for many.

During this time in 2020, I was hired at Commonhouse Aleworks. My interview process was very casual and welcoming — nothing that I had experienced. Honestly, I was nervous and a little apprehensive. This was new to me, and we were in the middle of a pandemic!

Pearce Fleming, owner of Commonhouse, and then the taproom manager, Brittany Geddis, invited me to the brewery to have a beer on their “Common Ground.” I felt like I was just having a beer and catching up with old friends. We sat in the rocking chairs outside on the porch and just chatted. We talked about beer and my interests. We got to know each other in that short time. But then, the conversation took a turn and it got real. They told me how Commonhouse was a safe space, a space for ALL people, Black, White, gay, straight, Christian, atheist.

“This ain’t a brewery, Clay,’’ Fleming told me with the most sincere and serious tone he had used all afternoon. “This is a nonprofit that sells beer, and we’re here to help people. And if you can get down with that, we would love to have you join our team.”

I was excited and not just for the job or for myself. I was excited for Charleston beer. I was excited to hear an owner invite everyone into a space, a space that was usually like a White fraternity house. A space where even though I was always invited, I still felt like an outsider. A space where I would never invite my close friends and family because they wouldn’t understand. I was excited to be a representative of my community.

Fleming’s hiring of me meant there is and can be representation for a group of people who feel like they didn’t have anyone “putting on for them.” I was a real hire, not a token hire. This wasn’t an affirmative-action ploy. This was saying this person is perfect for the job. This person’s character is what we want in our space.

Commonhouse led the charge in the Black Is Beautiful brew push and the Charleston beer scene followed. From that point, an explosion of events, connections and collaborations spawned. Holy City Brewing Company and Tha CommUNITY launched a lager that propelled a multi-brew initiative across the city. It also stirred conversation on how to get more Black and Browns in the taproom not only as guests but also from an employment standpoint.

Chris Brown, owner and operator at Holy City Brewing, wants to create a pipeline of grassroots brewers and staff. He constantly asks, “How do I get more Black people in this space? How do you get a person of color to feel comfortable about applying for a front of house or production position?” Sometimes, the answers are complicated. But they can also be simple.

Let’s continue to push the boundaries. Let’s continue to support each other. Representation matters so much and if people don’t see themselves in the people working in these spaces, they don’t see themselves in that space.

I’ve always found comfort in craft beer — elbows on the bar. Trying the new beers before release. Getting a look at new equipment and new swag. I’m glad more people that look like me are now getting that chance to feel comfort in craft.

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