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Proving The Power Of Black-Owned Craft Beer

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter are the founders of Crowns & Hops Brewing Co., a Los Angeles-based and Black-owned brewery, with designs on building their own brick-and-mortar facility once pandemic conditions improve. Ashburn is CEO, while Hunter is COO and oversees the beer-making. In addition their regular lineup, Crowns & Hops launched four new beers in honor of Black History Month. They’re also one of the businesses selected by Vans’ “Foot the Bill” initiative to create a custom-designed shoe benefiting independent businesses.

TEO HUNTER: Crowns & Hops has been about six years in the making. We started out seeing a lack of diversity in craft beer in general—not only with the industry, but also with the patrons. But once we went online, we didn’t see that same absence. We saw people of color enjoying beer and drinking it as connoisseurs. So we created a festival called Black People Love Beer, which eventually spawned the movements “Black People Love Beer” and “Brown People Love Beer.” If you put in those hashtags, you’ll see that they’ve grown beyond us at this point. They became a way for people to acknowledge and address the fact that there was an issue overall with diversity and inclusion in the industry. We realized that the next step was to curate events.

BENY ASHBURN: Those were the Dope & Dank days. The good old days. My background has been in experiential event marketing and creative advertising. So I’m very clear on the importance of these curated experiences. I realized that there hadn’t been that many events specifically geared towards Black and Brown people in the craft beer industry. So it was really important for us to create these safe spaces that not only introduce people to what craft beer was and is, but also to appeal to the craft beer aficionados and the existing consumers who love craft beer but never had a place to go where they see themselves in the brewery space, or the beer tenders, or even the owners. So those were our Dope & Dank events—truly educating through content and curated experiences, showing how we exist inside the space.

TEO: We had craft beer popups in the back of barbershops. At the time in California, you could serve up to a pint of beer or a glass of wine in a barbershop or a salon. We utilized that loophole to provide tasting experiences. We brought the craft to the people, instead of people having to go into an environment where they didn’t see their culture, they didn’t see their reflection. I don’t even think the industry realized that it was protecting this bubble that was not inclusive.

BENY: It was very important for us not to do these events in your traditional spaces. We knew we couldn’t just invite people to breweries if they didn’t understand what craft beer was. So we would do barber shops. We partnered at clothing companies and places that were culturally relevant to relate more to the Black and Brown communities.

TEO: After doing that a number of times, and having kegs kick upon kegs kick at our events, and realizing that there wasn’t going to be any profit-sharing in these efforts, Beny and I came to the conclusion that it was important for us to turn a page on the diversity and inclusion conversation and obtain racial equity as it relates to creating our own craft brewing company. That is the ultimate demonstration of dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism. Out of 8,000 breweries in the country, less than 1 percent are owned by Black people. And of that 1 percent, probably half of those don’t own their facilities. So there’s still a ton of work that needs to be done.

There was nothing in craft beer aligned with the cultures of Black and Brown people. Any time you saw it on the shelves, any time you saw it in the coolers, it was always just the echo of our culture. It was someone in high school loving a hip hop song, and that was the only time you saw our culture represented. It was never intrinsically coming from ownership. In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of the amplification of Black voices and Black businesses, we took the opportunity to fully lean into our philosophy and our concept, and ensure that people could go to the store, whether it be a liquor store or a Whole Foods Market, and find an independent craft beer that came from the culture.

The four beers released by Crowns & Hops for Black History Month. Photo: Courtesy Crowns & Hops.

BENY: We have always been focused on trying to achieve racial equity in the craft beer industry. It was really about creating those new owners, and showing how this industry can be more varied in terms of who’s really owning these properties and these spaces, and welcoming these different consumers. That led us to our 8 Trill Pils initiative that we launched last September in partnership with BrewDog.

I think we always knew this was going to be the end goal as we built our Dope & Dank brand—really focusing on all the verticals, from beer to events to curation. But it wasn’t until we met James Watts and Martin Dickie at BrewDog in 2018 that we were able to visualize how Crowns & Hops Brewery could truly come into existence.

TEO: It’s very stark and polarizing to consider that it took a Scottish-based brand to understand what we were doing for American craft beer. No one else even broached that conversation with us about opening a brewery. We worked on a project where BrewDeog was filming content, and once they saw our impact, these guys—the largest independent craft brewing group in the world—immediately came to us and said, “How can we help you? We don’t want to own you. We just want to help you with what you’re doing, because inherently we’re going to get more business because you’re getting more business.”

Six months later, we were on this panel with a woman by the name of Simone Washington—at the time she was in charge of diversity, inclusion, and racial equity for Ben and Jerry’s—and she gave us a document by the Kellogg Foundation called “A Business Case for Racial Equity.” That was the first time we read anything that gave us language associated with what we were actually accomplishing, and the significance of it, and the fact that it wasn’t a zero-sum game. For American craft beer, racial equity and diversity and inclusion had always been more of a zero-sum game versus a strategy for economic success.

That document says if we focus on racial equity today, our country stands to see an impact of $8 trillion to the national GDP by 2050. It made such an impact on us. We decided to really lean into that and create an initiative based off of that $8 trillion number, called 8 Trill Pils.

BENY: We released a pilsner called 8 Trill Pils in partnership with BrewDog. We brewed it in three countries—the US, Germany, and the UK. We partnered with three really amazing black designers who did the label design with us. We donated 100 percent of the proceeds to organizations in those countries focused on racial equity. In December 2020, we awarded a $100,000 grant focused on helping Black-owned craft-beer businesses.

It was very emotional for us to watch a lot of these application videos and see some of the same struggles that even we still go through to this day. There’s not a lot of resources for Black or Brown craft-beer businesses, or even access to breweries that can help you. We got dinged ourselves on trademarks. We had to change our name from “Dope & Dank” to “Crowns & Hops” because we never trademarked the word “dope.” Access to information like that is so important to understanding how to create and build businesses.

The 8 Trill Pils initiative is meant to be a resource beyond just capital. How can we help you in so many other ways, so that you can be successful? From breweries to bottle shops, how can we expand the entire supply chain across the board?

TEO: We have such a huge opportunity to make an impact on an industry that needs help as it relates to racial equity capital and supporting Black-owned businesses.

BENY: Everything we wanted to create in terms of how we’re changing the face of this industry—we started seeing that years ago in the increase of more vocal Black- and Brown-owned craft-beer brands or influencers, or just seeing more people in the breweries themselves sharing a pint. Because of what we’ve created and our consistency and our brand messaging, we’ve been able to speak as a trusted voice in the craft-beer industry from a diversity perspective. People believe that what we’re saying and what we’re doing is aimed at sustainable change. This isn’t just something to do in the moment. When I think of everything that happened in 2020, with George Floyd’s murder on down, it was very easy for people to come to us and ask how to move forward because we had been laying the path for so many years. Finally people heard us, and paid attention to the things we were saying and the things we were doing, and really joined our cause in pushing this narrative.

TEO: We are as excited about people understanding our narrative as we are about people discovering that we also have the ability to produce world-class beer. If we didn’t have beer that could stand up to this movement, the movement would suffer. It’s been our focus to make sure that these recipes are designed and brewed in a manner in which people can be just as proud to advocate for us in terms of what we’re building and our mission.

We focused on making a very diverse portfolio of beers ranging from West Coast IPAs to traditional pilsners to hazy IPAs and stouts. We feel that people are discovering craft beer for the first time through us, and we want to make sure they have a thorough experience as it relates to the craft beer journey.

Currently, our beers are found throughout California, Portland, and the Las Vegas area. When the pandemic hit, we were in the process of finalizing our investor raise for our brick-and-mortar brewery space. COVID put a hold on that. But not having a brick-and-mortar to force us to move directly into packaging on our first release has proven to be the smart business model moving forward.

We partnered with some really amazing contractors and facilities, and we were able to get our beer on shelves in a really big way because we built a brand that people trusted and believed in. On our first release, we very quickly went from 200 stores to 300 stores. So the pivot, while very taxing for all of us, was great in terms of our business. It allowed us to focus on the beer and not spend much time in building the brick-and-mortar. It allowed us to really express our creativity in our cans and drive culture in a way that no one’s ever seen in the craft beer space before.

Last year was such a tough year for all of us, but it was also a growing experience for the business entrepreneurial category. I think Black businesses received a lot of opportunities that weren’t really available before 2020. It’s continuing even now. My assumption is this will probably be the biggest Black History Month of all time, with everything going on in our society. We are excited to be able to be leading that and taking part in changing the culture, particularly in the craft beer space.

BENY: We have been pushing this message for six years. This is what our brand has been built on way before everything happened in 2020. So for us, this has never been just a moment in time. This isn’t something contrived. It is a truly authentic feeling coming from both me and Teo, and how we want to create a brand that people can care about and truly get behind.

TEO: The solutions have been there for generations. This is the first time in history that people are actually internalizing and digesting these solutions. I’m sure Frederick Douglass probably had information that echoes the same things that James Baldwin said, the same things that any of the leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement are currently saying. It is a matter of internalizing it and understanding that it takes consistent action. We’re not going to get it right the first time, but that does not negate people from actively trying consistently. That is how we dismantle white supremacy and expose white fragility, because to be frank, it’s that same fragility that caused our industry to lack diversity.

Including people, making something more diverse, and welcoming other cultures and communities are the very things that help us unfold and get to a better place. It’s about consistency, and taking it in, and understanding that you don’t have to get it right, and you don’t have to be the owner of the solution. Being a part of the solution is the point.

Top photo by Jason Flynn.