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Brewing Change Collaborative Tackles Diversity Problem

Scott Skinner, Elle Rhodes,Calvin Cruz, Kate Winkel, Jennifer Ray-Jones, Chioke Jones, Mahad Muhammad, Jeremy Moran, Nasreen Sajady, Phillip Owens, Amonte D Pollard, Liv Parkey, Ramsey Louder

During a recent Tuesday happy hour, six people of color stood in the half-hearted spring sundown at Sociable Ciderwerks, debating whether the garage door should go down to keep out the chill.  

Over the formidable merits of the taproom’s new Pinch Flat Cider, someone quips: “This is probably the most people of color to ever gather at a Minnesota brewery, ever!” 

“No—there were six black people—specifically black people at the last meeting. There are pictures!” says another. 

That meeting, the third for Brewing Change Collaborative, a group of about 30 individuals working in and around the Twin Cities brewery and taproom scene, was likely comprised of almost all of the people of color working in and around the Twin Cities brew and distillery industry. Considering Minnesota’s nearly 200 breweries, it’s an appallingly low number. The collaborative’s mission is to “foster diversity, equity and inclusion for people of color in the brewing industry through advocacy, outreach and education.” 

When Nasreen Sajady, a quality manager at Fulton Brewing, had her first opportunity to provide feedback at an official review, she told management that the company was “too white, too straight and too male.” 

“I told them that going into a room with 30 white men is a scary, scary situation,” she says. To the company’s credit, she says, they listened instead of trying to make excuses or justifications. 

“They started hiring more POC (people of color), queers and women. And not just in hourly positions. They put women of color in positions of power, where our voices are heard. ... They continue to work towards making the environment safe for women, POC and queers.” 

Sajady, who is Afghan American, and her colleague Elle Rhodes, two of the few women of color working in beer locally, say they enjoy working in the relatively progressive environs of Fulton Beer—the 100th largest brewery in the country out of about 7,000 nationwide.  

For others, the lack of diversity can mean challenges to professional development, and in worse case scenarios, more overt racism. And with that racism comes concerns over personal security. 

When Ramsey Louder began homebrewing, it never occurred to him that his hobby could become a career. 

“I never saw anyone who looked like me doing this,” he recalls. 

And even while he’s poised to become the second black brewery owner in the state at his upcoming One Taproom in the North Loop, he says he’s often overlooked as a brewer—much less as a brewery owner. 

Even when he’s actively working on production, he says people will walk in and look past him—ostensibly looking instead for a white face. “That feeling is shitty,” he says, “that people can’t even see you as an employee at a brewery.” 

Chris Montana, owner of the second black-owned micro distillery in the country, DuNord Craft Spirits in Minneapolis, says he knows the feeling well. 

“People come in and they always walk past me. My bar manager is a white dude and they inevitably talk to him, and he now gets it. It’s like there’s no way I could be the guy they need to talk to,” he says.

While Rhodes says she was reasonably comfortable in her “unicorn-ness,” it began to sink in that there had to be other people like her who might want to work in, or otherwise approach the industry that she loves, but that they may not feel safe. 

That was her catalyst to get involved. 

It’s been fewer than six months since the collaborative formed, and members like Jeremy Moran, who works in sales and marketing at Sociable Ciderwerks say the asylum they find in each other’s company goes far beyond networking and camaraderie 

He paints a picture of a recent marketing tour he had to take to Monticello, Minnesota, where suddenly, he was the only person of color for miles around. 

“I was afraid that the car would break down ... I was going to my booth [at the trade show] and thinking ‘What’s going to happen’? People make side comments ...”

Rhodes mentions a time when she went to draw a beer at Fulton, with two white men sitting at the bar and one saying to the other: “Never thought I’d see that happen.” 

She says she doesn’t know exactly what he meant, but she has some suspicions. 

Montana says he also faces challenges in the greater distillery world. At a recent American Craft Spirits Convention where he was among 1,500 peers,  Montana says he was the only non-white member in attendance. He’s now president of the association, and as part of his governance, he insisted that the organization say in an official statement that the industry “values diversity.” 

“That took a year,” he says. 

He encountered pushback, with some members asking him if diversity was really a problem in the industry. “Outside of Chris Montana, who do you know?” he says he asked them. “Don’t tell me the sky isn’t blue—it’s like, bullshit, it isn’t!” 

Though he’s put diversity on the table as part of his leadership, Montana says he’s not really interested in being the “brown person ambassador” for the industry. 

“I don’t want to be the only one talking about diversity. I’m kinda sick of that. DuNord Craft doesn’t have a Kente Cloth on the label. It’s about what’s in the bottle.” 

Instead, he’s decided to put his money where his mouth is, offering yearlong internships to persons of color that will render them so qualified, that “you’d be dumb not to hire them.” Not because of their background, but because of sheer skill and job readiness. 

“The hope is that they’ll start their own distilleries,” he adds.

Louder has plans as well, not just to attract a more diverse staff, but a more diverse drinking community, including commissioning artists of color, women and queer folks to help create the look and design of the space, as well as a plan for exclusive POC performance nights. 

“I know mentally that situation wasn’t great. I thought [going into ownership] this is going to be a huge part of my life. I don’t want to be in that situation again,” he explains. 

Back at Sociable, Moran mentions that the cidery’s decision to offer a semi-permanent residency to Union Kitchen by Yia Vang and Chris Herr, the most prominent Hmong chefs on the local scene currently, has drastically changed the demographics of the company’s clientele with that single move. 

“The Asian and Hmong community has been showing up in numbers,” says Moran. 

Heartened by the shift, Moran is planning some upcoming Mexican food pop-ups, accompanied by hop-hop DJs and other experiments in divergence from the status quo. 

“I had a guy come up to me recently and say: ‘I’m so glad you’re here; you’re the only other person of color in here,’” Moran says. 

Everyone interviewed for this story said their entry into the business involved “keeping my head down and doing my job.” So much so, that some didn’t even realize they were the only one in the room until they had an opportunity to take a sharp look around. 

A toast to more change in the industry—and a lot more holding heads up high. 

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