In Delaware's very white craft beer world, the all-Black Melanated Mash Makers stand out
By Ryan Cormier, Delaware News Journal,2023-10-02
When Alisa “Shaggy” Gentles worked at Bellefonte Brewing Co. in Brandywine Hundred, she was often the only Black person in the room.
"And if there was another person of color, it was usually someone I knew who came in because I was working," says Gentles , a Wilmington-based IT network technician.
For her and other Black craft beer lovers in Delaware, that's the norm.
So she started the Black Craft Beer Lovers' Facebook page with her sister to bring the community together online and that's how she met other members of the new, all-Black Delaware beer club called Melanated Mash Makers (@ melanatedmashmakers on Instagram.)
It took the internet to bring them together, but the four-person group have found each other and they feel like less of an island in Delaware's nearly all-white craft alcohol world.
Now they are looking to bring more new Black and brown faces into the fold through home brewing events, beer collaborations with breweries and advocacy ― all with the goal of increasing the presence of people of color in the Delaware craft beer world.
In the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter Movement gained steam, DelawareOnline/The News Journal detailed the dearth of Black craft alcohol makers in the state . There are now at least three companies out of more than 50 craft alcohol locations in the state partly under minority ownership, including Painted Stave Distilling, Wilmington Brew Works and Bellefonte Brewing Co. It is believed that there are no Black brewers in leadership positions across the state.
"There's not a lot of people of color right now in the industry who are brewing and I think one way to increase that number is to encourage folks to get into home brewing since that's how many breweries are started," says club member Imani Powell , a University of Delaware administrator and 10-year homebrewer.
Preaching their craft beer passion
Gentles met Powell and Vernell Jackson , a cybersecurity threat analyst and 4-year homebrewer, through the 900-member Facebook group : "When I saw them join, I was like, 'Wait, wait, wait! There's people in Delaware too?!?" Gentles says.
Just before that she had met Adena Brewington-Brown , a women's health nurse practitioner and Philadelphia transplant who recently moved to North Wilmington.
A bartender at Bellefonte Brewing had chatted up Brewington-Brown at the bar and noticed she already followed Gentles on Instagram.
"I sent her a message right then, told her I was at the brewery and she said, 'I'll come and meet you right now.' We've been friends ever since," says Brewington-Brown, also co-owner of the Tricycle Café & Bicycle Shop in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
All together, the four had shared experiences: a love of beer and a passion to preach about the vast world of porters, pilsners and stouts to people who looked like them, giving them an entry point to the sometime-confusing craft beer world through beer education and social media.
The group soon grew close, decided to become an official beer club and registered with the American Homebrewers Association, celebrating their one-year anniversary just last week.
Powell remembers going to some homebrew club meetings over the years and being the only Black person in attendance.
"It doesn't always make for the most welcoming environment, even though I don't think anyone was necessarily ill-intentioned. But it just doesn't always present well," he says.
Meeting at the Mash
Now they meet monthly to host brewing days, have regular taproom gatherings and attend community brewing events, classes and workshops to help spread the word.
They have already gathered Black craft beer enthusiasts (and the "beer curious," as they call them) to local breweries such as Autumn Arch Beer Project and Midnight Oil Brewing Co. (both in Glasgow) and Brandywine Hundred's Bellefonte Brewing Co., as well as out-of-state spots such as Levante Brewing Co. in West Chester and Attic Brewing Co. in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood.
Just their presence at the breweries as a group raises the profile of the small Black craft beer community, they say.
They also advocate for (and amplify) diverse environments to bring craft beer experiences, both here in Delaware and beyond. It's actually what led to their biggest moment yet as a group: brewing a special collaboration beer with Attic Brewing.
After they poured samples of their home brew to promote the group during a Black beer drinkers' party at Attic earlier this year, it led to the collaboration beer with them called Meeting at the Mash for the Barrel and Flow Beer Festival, a Black arts and craft beer festival held annually in Pittsburgh.
They canned 310 gallons of the 6.3% ABV Belgian ale made with lemon peel and basil, complete with a stylish label featuring an illustrated image of Black beer makers brewing beer, driving home the point that this craft brew was different than most.
Being a Black craft beer fan & selling it to others
When it comes to selling craft beer to possible Black consumers, the foursome behind Melanated Mash Makers lean on their cultural background to guide drinkers as to what they may like.
Brewington-Brown, who owns a beer trailer called Black Girl on Tap allowing her to haul the good stuff and serve from several different kegs, learned of that cultural advantage firsthand at a beer festival in West Philadelphia.
It was there where she was serving a largely Black audience, which did not usually drink craft beer. She steered many toward a clean Belgian with a touch of sweetness.
"I would ask them what do they normally drink and I'd go from there," she says during a chat with the group at Autumn Arch , recent winner of a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its Belgian-style sour ale called All the Love You Won’t Forget. "I knew the Belgian was going to be more palatable to them because they are not used to the harshness of an IPA or the heaviness of a stout. And they ended up liking a beer they never thought they would drink before."
Being Black and promoting craft beers to a Black audience, she says she has a natural upper-hand being able to describe what a beer might taste like, referring to drinks and foods that are perhaps more recognizable than the sometimes unfamiliar descriptions used by breweries.
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"You know, not talking about how it tastes like an English biscuit ― talking about things that they are used to and resonate with them," Brewington-Brown says.
As Powell says, tasting like a biscuit can mean something totally different depending on what community you're speaking with.
"When you drink or eat anything, it always brings up some kind of nostalgia or memory. And while I do think it's important for there to be some sort of standardization when you're talking about marketing and things like that for beer, I think that might not always hit with all of your customers," he says of descriptors used for craft beers.
Untapped audiences can also be reached sometimes by focusing on different flavors or styles of beers, Gentles says, pointing to two she's come across during her travels that caught her tongue.
One was a collaboration by a Black-owned tea company and a brewery, using their tea leaves to make a purple lavender beer. Another was a cider collaboration between FarmerJawn, a Black-and-female-owned Chester County, Pennsylvania farm, and Ploughman Cider of Asper, Pennsylvania, to create Uptown Cookout.
The cider was made using ingredients from FarmerJawn's crops, including red watermelon and collard greens.
Says Gentles: "I was like, 'There's collard greens in it!?!' It was earthy and really, really good."
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: In Delaware's very white craft beer world, the all-Black Melanated Mash Makers stand out