DETROIT PROPER: Black Brews in a Whitewashed Industry

Highlighting the people, places and events of Black Detroit

ith the return of Stroh’s to the beer market, this promises to be a wonderful Oktoberfest for Detroit. But if there’s one drink that’s anathema to the African-American cultural experience, it’s beer.

Black folks don’t celebrate suds. There’s hardly a mention of it in R&B or neo-soul – unlike country music, where it’s a staple. We drink beer, but our social lives aren’t built around it and, for many, it’s even frowned upon. That’s a curiosity since black folks have been happily brewing beer from sorghum and maize for centuries. The Xhosa women of South Africa brewed a special beer, umqombothi, to celebrate the initiation of young men. African-Americans brewed what would now be called “craft beer” from slavery through Prohibition.

But over time, beer has become as white as mayonnaise and cottage cheese. When I was in college in the ’70s, white frats got the weekends started on Thursday nights. Out came the kegs and away scattered the black students who equated beer with white male aggression. In my social circles, no self-respecting black student would come near a beer. (I should point out here that college is where I came to love beer, but I digress.)

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I’m not so sure times have changed much since my college days. Angelique Holcombe, 28, was born and raised in Detroit. “I am African-American and I like beer,” she said, as if introducing herself at a Black Beer Lovers Anonymous meeting. She acquired a taste for stout after going on her first pub crawl in Oxford, England six years ago. “When I got back to the U.S., I was very uncomfortable ordering beer at a bar when hanging out with my girlfriends. I would always get cocktails to not be the oddball or to scare off potential guys.”

Mass marketing has certainly exacerbated the apartheid in the beer industry, wedding beer to pickup trucks, big-breasted blondes and white male antics. But the racial segregation in the beer market is not only about image or culture. The industry itself once was notorious for its racist hiring practices. According to urban historian Thomas Sugrue, in 1950, the Urban League surveyed five Detroit breweries. Out of 3,300 brewery employees, only 39 were black. This trend did not improve over the next decade. In 1962, blacks made up less than 1 percent of the workers in the Detroit brewing industry, but comprised about 30 percent of the general population.

Plenty of industries have a long history of employment discrimination. Beer, however, managed to carry that legacy well into the post-civil rights era. Coors was famously crowned the icon of racist beer when the comments of CEO William Coors came to light. While addressing a meeting of minority business executives in 1984, he allegedly said that the best thing slave traders did to American blacks was “to drag your ancestors over here in chains,” because American blacks had more opportunities than Africans. That comment (along with Coors’ other anti-labor, anti-LGBT policies) helped reinforce the broader notion that beer is a white man’s brew.

Never wanting to leave money on the table, however, the beer industry cynically created boosted beer just for us! They called it “malt liquor” (which has the same potency of many craft beers which are not called liquor), put in a giant bottle (not for being social, but for getting blasted) and wrapped it in a hyper-masculine urban cache. You won’t find malt liquor at your neighborhood bar. It’s pointedly distributed through party stores, gas stations and grocers, and properly imbibed on street corners.

“Malt liquor (is) simultaneously beer and not beer,” wrote J. Nikol Beckham in her blog The Unbearable Whiteness Of Brewing. Beckham teaches at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. An African-American, she writes about the politics of food and drink. “Many of us have come to understand that malt liquor is not legitimate enough, too dangerous or too associated with the ‘wrong crowd’ to be served in any self-respecting bar or pub. That has produced a kind of ‘separate but equal’ economic positioning of malt liquor brands on the part of the industry.”

Only about 11 percent of black beer drinkers prefer malt liquor, according to a 2014 Experian Marketing Services survey. That leaves the rest of us to swim against the tide for a good brewski. Holcombe took matters into her own hands by attending Schoolcraft College’s Brewing and Distillation Technology certification program in Livonia in 2015 and becoming a home brewer. She loves craft beers, and a growing number of her black contemporaries are taking an interest in (openly) brewing and drinking it. But the booming craft beer industry is as white as its big beer counterpart.

No surprise there. Hops don’t fall too far from the vine.

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