Black brewers have been making beer in the Washington, D.C. area for the last four centuries, likely brewing for George Washington before 1786. That enslaved brewer, a man named Wilkes, died from an accident sustained inside DC’s first commercial brewery.
In 2011, the District got its first black-owned brewery, Chocolate City, which closed in 2014. Today, two of the city’s 10 breweries—fully 20 percent—are black-owned. Nationally, black-owned breweries are closer to one percent.
Out of roughly 27.6 million businesses in operation in 2012, 2.6 million were black-owned firms. According to the United States Census Bureau, Washington has the highest ratio of black-owned businesses with 28 percent. Among small business owners, brewery owners represent a minority. Within that group is an even smaller niche, black-owned breweries.
“Black owners are already grossly under-represented in beer, and the current outbreak [of COVID-19] presents a very real threat of that becoming worse,” says Michael Uhrich, founder and chief economist at Seventh Point Analytic Consulting and the former chief economist for the Beer Institute.
“The few black-owned breweries that we have in the U.S. are all very small and rely on sales in taprooms, bars, and restaurants for between two thirds and all of their revenue,” adds Uhrich. “Almost all of that is gone due to stay-at-home orders across the country.” DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s stay at home order went into effect April 1 and is due to last until June 8.
“We’re definitely seeing a decrease in revenue as the majority of our customers are bars and restaurants,” says Elliott Harris, CEO and co-founder of Washington’s Soul Mega. Soul Mega began selling beer in 2019 and currently offers an American Pale Ale called Worldwide. Before the pandemic the brewing company had seven accounts and Harris was working on placement in two others. He says that number is down to three, but he hopes to secure a fourth soon.
When the brewery launched last July, it was a beer sponsor of Trill Grill, a music and food festival with Rick Ross headlining. In 2018, the festival drew over 3,100 attendees. Harris says Soul Mega had planned to participate this year but with the event likely cancelled, there are now thousands of potential customers who may never hear about his brand. With a business dependent on visibility at festivals and restaurants that sadly have a questionable future given the uncertainty of the pandemic and the dangerous nature of large crowds, he anticipates rough seas ahead.
Kofi Meroe is co-founder of Sankofa Beer Company, Washington’s other black-owned brewery. He started selling Hypebiscus, a hibiscus pale ale, in 2018, later adding Harmattan Haze wheat ale. “What I’m most anxious about is how long it will take for things to get back to normal and when things do start opening up… how are our behaviors going to change?”
Sankofa and Soul Mega both self-distribute within DC. This means the gross profits they make all go back to their companies instead of getting shared with distributors. The flip side is that breaking into certain types of accounts, like grocery stores, is a more difficult proposition. Whereas self-distributing builds many individual relationships, a relationship with one buyer for a grocery chain could get your beer into a dozen stores.
Distribution requires volume though, and both breweries aren’t just small, they also contract brew, meaning they don’t have a brewing facility or pay a lease on commercial property. “We have a small team with zero full-time employees so I’m not feeling the crunch like more established companies,” says Meroe of Sankofa. While Meroe hasn’t had to lay off anyone, he can’t sell beer to go, and his plans to open a taproom have been waylaid. He says the possibility of a taproom this year is slim.
“I can’t speak solely for black-owned breweries in general, but I can imagine any new brewery or [a] brewery that doesn’t have a large cash reserve is feeling the crunch,” says Harris. He’s had to dispose of his draft beer, which threw his cash flow and cash projections out the window. Fortunately, Soul Mega isn’t behind on any bills, although Harris says “this has definitely been a challenge for us to pivot the way we do business.”
Three breweries in the nation’s capital have already closed and may or may not reopen, but Sankofa and Soul Mega remain afloat. As the beer industry seeks to weather the storm that is COVID-19, these two young, black-owned breweries are proving that steering a sailboat can be easier than maneuvering a supertanker.
Michael Stein is president of Lost Lagers, Washington, D.C.’s premier beverage research firm. He writes for DCBeer.com, the Washington City Paper, and Brewery History, the journal of the Brewery History Society.