From the people who own craft breweries to those who frequent them, the craft beer scene is interminably, undeniably white. Which is why the North Carolina-based Black Star Line Brewing Company—one of the first black, queer and female-owned and operated craft breweries in America—is such a breath of fresh air.
Named after legendary black nationalist and Pan-Africanist writer Marcus Garvey's historic shipping line, designed to enable the flow of both money and people back to and through Africa, Black Star Line Brewing is a craft brewery that's unmistakably political in an industry that's all too often not. And that's nearly as refreshing as the queer-farmed, proprietary blend of hops they use for their brews.
"We don't just see liquor and libations as a way to relax and have fun," said Black Star Line's founder, L.A. McCrae. "We see it as a viable pathway out of poverty for our community."
McCrae, who uses they/them pronouns, doesn't just mean that literally, in terms of creating jobs and income for black people. They're also speaking to the power that comes from confronting the whitewashing of artisanal and craft cultures writ large, and how they're increasing awareness about African Americans' largely obscured history in Southern and Appalachian spirits-making culture.
"Growing up, my dad worked a lot, and one of his favorite things to do at the end of the day was come home and go get a cheap beer or wine cooler and relax," McCrae recalled. "In my family, my oldest brother got into craft beer, and watching and witnessing his love and enthusiasm for it was intoxicating for me."
"Over the course of this spring, my family had a lot of problems—a lot of the matriarchs in our family died or were really sick," they continued. "And it was actually then that I learned from my aunt that we had generations of this work in my family. My great uncle, I learned, actually used to run tobacco and booze—that's how my family wound up in North Carolina! So we had this rich personal heritage that I never knew about until then."
Today, McCrae brews small batch beers that not only link them to their own personal heritage, but aim to empower current and future generations of black, brown and queer people through employment and cultural impact.
Their family's legacy in the business only made the white homogeneity of the industry that much more glaring. "I was in financial planning at the time, and during events I would notice there were no black employees, no black breweries, no women—I started to think about intersectionality and classism, racism, sexism [in the industry]."
As McCrae began working in the craft brewing industry, they began to experience just how skewed it was. "It takes a lot to enter those places [where craft beer is typically served]—a lot of psychological, emotional, and spiritual armor has to be put on just to walk in the door and see nothing but white people, listening to white music," they said. "It's awkward to navigate that space. As a black person, my black dollars are going to support whiteness that keeps me and people in my community out."
"Each of our beers has a story," explained McCrae, and are named in the spirit of the black community—names that become "an act of resistance, an act of reclamation. We educate about our history with the names." With brews like Assata Ale, Stokely Stout, Afro Pop Porter, The Lorde, and more, the goal is to spark dialogue as one imbibes.
"We are in a unique position to have a conversation that most likely wouldn't take place in most other breweries," they said. "It's like this, when people say: 'What's a Stokely?' Well, let me tell y'all about Stokely Carmichael. Let's talk about why he's important to Black history. Let's talk about why there's an entire brewing industry out there designed for the palette of white folks."
As someone with a dramatic student loan debt to income ratio, McCrae said they've yet to qualify for traditional loans. So they do what excluded folks have always done: be resourceful. That means that L.A. and their team frequently travel to local and regional beer and food festivals to hawk their wares and build community. And to date, Black Star Line's capital is completely donation-based, from what McCrae calls their "#grassrootsreparations initiative."
McCrae is hoping to open a brick-and-mortar location. Eventually, they hope to have multiple, including "cities impacted by blight so that we can create pathways for folks not currently working in the craft brewing industry to become involved."
But for now, Black Star Line serves their brews all over North Carolina, relying on word-of-mouth and social media marketing to connect with consumers.
"There's no traditional funding for so many of us. In order to be successful, you have to have big credit and assets just to get a loan," McCrae said. "It really shows the intersectionality of racism and classism and sexism and homophobia, because they all work together to keep poor and black and queer folks out of the capital they need to work. Being undercapitalized and making it work is reality, and guerrilla marketing is part of our grassroots ministry. It allows us to break bread and have real, authentic conversations with people over beer."
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