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Three Centuries of Black Brewers in DC

As the beer world begins its course of undoing the white-washing enumerated in beer history books and journals, we seek to recognize and correct faulty narratives, working towards new ones by uncovering and delivering facts seldom told. Those of us who regularly engage in beer history come across the tales that the Founding Fathers were all great brewers. Or that England, Germany, and Belgium have always been respected for their beers, but not Egypt, Peru, or Ghana. One way to try to counteract faulty claims is aiming for accuracy in the 21st Century. So we ask questions. We ask for help. And we read.

Model tray for making chicha, Peru. By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50737387

Of course, we recognize the narrative when it is corrected or proper context is given. Be it beer, food, wine, or spirits, we seek to excavate the truth. Take, for example, the case of arguably America’s most famous whiskey, Jack Daniels. “Six enslaved distillers worked within” George Washington’s distillery and while we love to see it for historical accuracy, we hate how often it gets glossed over. Here we put forth one such new narrative: Black brewers have been making beer in the District of Columbia for three centuries.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1821 “we brew 100. galls of ale in the fall & 300. galls in the spring, taking 8. galls only from the bushel of wheat the public breweries take 15.” Did he mean we as in he and Peter Hemings, who was enslaved at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, or did he mean the royal we? Was he referring only to himself in an erasure attempt of Hemings’ brewing prowess? These are some guiding questions as we attempt to peel back the layers of the proverbial beer history onion.

The story that beer went from homebrew to industrial scale (in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries) is not faulty. This shift from small homebrewing to large commercial brewing also took brewing away from women and put it in men’s hands. This narrative, though valid, often glazes over the history of black brewers. It ignores the roles of the enslaved and almost never asks the question, what was the role of the enslaved in colonial and early American beer production? Many white writers gave their attention to George Washington’s recipe for beer, but not the people making beer at Monticello.

Thanks to Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham’s work, people like Peter Hemings, who made beer at Monticello, are getting their due. Articles proclaiming Peter and James Hemings “America’s first black celebrity chefs” can provide a new lens to the narrative, but there are still countless black brewers whose work remains largely unwritten, unknown, and uncelebrated. The District of Columbia has examples even closer than Peter Hemings at Monticello. Indeed, black people have been making beer in DC, commercially, for three centuries.

Garrett Peck highlights one such person, a man named Wilkes, who worked at the brewery of Andrew Wales in what is now Alexandria, but within the original Washington, DC federal enclave, in 1770. Wales’ brewery was DC’s first. Thanks to Peck we also know that George Washington bought kegs from Wales, leaving multiple promissory notes and accounting details. And while we can’t say for certain, it’s entirely possible that Wilkes, the enslaved black brewer, made beer for President George Washington. Wilkes, who was blind, tragically died in Wales’ brewery in 1786. The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser reported, “WILKES, belonging to Mr. Andrew Wales, Brewer, fell into the Cooper which had boiling Water in it, and so scalded him that he died the next Morning.” Until we find an earlier record, Wilkes is the first black commercial brewer in Washington’s beer history.

Christian Heurich, who remains the longest-serving brewer and brewery owner in the history of the District, met a black man in the 1870s when he was searching for a space for his first brewery. The space was the former site of Schnell’s Brewery and beer garden, on 20th Street NW between M and N streets. From Mark Benbow’s The Nation’s Capital Brewmaster: Christian Heurich and his Brewery, page 40:

In his memoirs, Heurich noted that “Frank,” described as an “aged colored man,” did most of the work at the brewery for the original owner. He was kept on as deliveryman and porter: he remained “a faithful employee of mine until his death.”

Ale Sharpton reported that African American brewers make up roughly one percent of independent brewery ownership. Pinpointing DC’s first black-owned brewery is somewhat complex. Is it Sankofa, which released its first commercial batch in 2018? Or is it the now-defunct Chocolate City, which opened in 2011? It seems fairly straightforward but there are subtle complexities to black ownership.

Kofi Meroe, Sankofa cofounder, wrote:

Because we don’t actually own a brewery I would say Sankofa Beer Company is a producer and distributor of craft beer, and yes we are black owners. I have never met the owners of Chocolate City, I hear that there were black owner(s), so pending that clarification I’m not sure if we are the “first.”

According to the Washington Post’s reporting in 2011, Chocolate City’s “ownership is multiracial. Irizarry and Matz are white, but two other partners are black: Don Parker, who helped write the company’s business plan, and Brian Flanagan, Chocolate City’s major investor.”

However you peel the beer history onion, whether designating DC’s first black brewer in the 18th Century, or the first black-owned brewery in the 21st Century, one thing is for certain: we need more narratives that honor those brewers lost to history, or, as Carter G. Woodson would put it, “erased by History.” This is certainly not the first nor will it be the last article in an attempt to uphold the names of those who did not get the recognition they deserve.

Jacob Berg also contributed to this article.

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