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From Wilkes to Chocolate City to Sankofa: A Timeline of Black Brewing History

The history of Black people within the brewing industry is inherently important. As histories are written, and documentaries are made, we highlight the history and progress of Black brewers and beer industry innovators in the District of Columbia. Below is a timeline, notes, and images including many of the accomplishments and developments within the DC beer world.

Kofi Millet
Kofi Meroe adds grain to Woven in Time, pic via Allagash

The timeline and annotated notes below owe a great deal to Kelsey Watson, a Certified Cicerone Beer Server who has been giving brewery tours in DC for the last several years. Our discussion centered on the glaring omissions in beer history. Too often Black brewers and their contributions to the beer world get left out of the historical record. This timeline is a resource for those wishing to write about and/or do more research into the important topic of Black brewers, brewery owners, and their contributions.

This is what we’ve found so far, but it’s not everything. If something is missing, please let us know! We will likely leave many contributions and contributors out. This is not done purposefully and we see this as an opportunity to bring in the knowledge of our community of beer aficionados. If you have information to contribute please reach out to us.

Timeline

1st taps! Chocolate City, 18 August 2011
1st taps! Chocolate City, 18 August 2011. Pic via Thomas Cizauskas

 1786 – Washington DC’s first brewery – Wales’ Brewery, which opened in 1770 – has Mr. Wilkes, an enslaved Black man, likely making beer there. The November 23 issue of the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser reports that Wilkes died: “On Tues. Evening [November 21], a blind Negro Fellow, named 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.”

1872 – “Frank,” a Black brewery worker, labors at George Schnell’s brewery. 

1873 – Frank, formerly at Schnell’s (Schnell’s brewery and tavern 1864 – 1872) works at the Christian Heurich Brewery until his death.

1917- 1933 Prohibition in DC (1920-1933 national prohibition), Black people operate as bootleggers.

2011 – Chocolate City is the first Black-owned brewery in DC history, beer first pours August 18.

Kofi Meroe and Amado Carsky, Sankofa Brewing

2018 – Sankofa first all-Black owned beer brand in DC history, beer debuts in June.

2019 – The Vibe Queen releases Strawberry High with Right Proper Brewpub Shaw.

2019 – Soul Mega becomes the second entirely Black owned contract beer brand.

​​2019 – Black Brew Movement, founded in 2018, curates flights at ANXO Cidery hosting Black Hoppy Hour: Cider Edition, cider flights pour August 1.

2020 – Black Brew Movement releases Cuffing Saison at Right Proper Shaw, beer flows on January 4. 

2020 – Right Proper Releases Say Their Names – Donates 100% of proceeds to Black Lives Matter DC in June.

Right Proper’s Say Their Names

2020 – Hellbender and Tim Bryson brew Amplify Black Voices in August.

2021 – Hellbender and Tim Bryson brew Support Black Businesses in February.

2021 – Sankofa and Allagash brew Woven in Time in July.

2021 – Urban Garden Brewing, LLC becomes the first entirely Black owned, woman-lead beer brand in DC history, beer debuts on September 25.

2021 – Black Brew Movement hosts the Black Beer Garden at DCBeer Week on September 25.

2022 – ANXO Cider partners with Beer Kulture for Beer Kulture and The American Cider Association providing three scholarships for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.

The Black Beer Garden, hosted by the Black Brew Movement, DC Beer Week 2021. From left, Black Brew Movement cofounder Charles Rominyi, Laura Aderotoye

There are massive gaps from the 18th, 19th, and 20th, centuries to the 21st. With over half of our dates in the 21st century, it’s clear that Black brewery owners have begun to chart a new, successful path forward. For more information about each date in the timeline, an annotated notes section with images follows.

Notes

1786 – A timeline of Black brewers in the District of Columbia means going to the start of brewing in the federal city. DC’s very first commercial brewery was Wales’ Brewery, named after its owner Andrew Wales, in 1770. At his brewery was a Black man who we believe brewed, Mr. Wilkes. We don’t yet know how long Mr. Wilkes had been brewing there but we know he was there inside the brew house in winter 1786 because he died there in November, 1786.

1786 – “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.” According to a local newspaper, Wilkes was a blind man, and if not for the tragic accident that took his life, we might never know that a brewery who sold beer to George Washington, benefitted from enslaved Black labor. The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser published the details of Wilkes’ death, writing that he was scalded on Tuesday, November, 21, and died the morning of November 22. The notification of Mr. Wilkes joining the ancestors was published on Thursday, November 23, 1786.

1873 – Christian Heurich, DC’s most successful (and largest) brewer hired George Schnell’s employee, a man named Frank, and gives a brief recollection of him in his memoirs. From The Nation’s Capital Brewmaster: Christian Heurich and His Brewery, 1842-1956 by Mark Benbow:

“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.”

Truck of the Littlefield, Alvord & Co. Express parked at the Christian Heurich Brewing Co., Washington, D.C.. Source: ​​https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005693119/

1917-1933 Garrett Peck, author of Capital Beer, writes: “Prohibition closed the breweries in the Washington area and nearly silenced an industry that was the city’s second largest employer after the federal government.” This 1915 article estimates “nearly 1500 men, women and children would be directly affected by any Congressional act which served to confiscate the nearly $5,000,000 worth of properties owned by the breweries.” DC went dry two years later.

Peck adds that it was “notoriously easy to purchase alcohol in Washington during Prohibition – but sadly not beer. Bootleggers preferred distilled spirits, which were vastly more profitable.” Bootleggers employed Black labor, specifically in the distribution of alcohol. Per DCist, and Leo Warring’s book The Foggy Bottom Boys, white bootleggers employed Black men “to deliver the booze, which was a job with comparatively higher wages than manufacturing.”

Source: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/npco/item/93505162/

We know from The Foggy Bottom Gang that bootleggers in DC employed Black rum runners. “Shooting or killing a Black man did not arouse the same interest among law enforcement and civic officials as the killing of a white person … Thus, a gang could send a message to a competing gang by shooting one of their Black ‘rum runners’ with near impunity.” White bootleggers viewed Black labor, and Black lives, as expendable.

Watson writes, “I imagine there is a lot of Black beer history in this gap between the turn of the century and modern day brewing. Namely with DC’s interesting history around prohibition and the political landscape during the early 20th century.”

Waiting for Chocolate City Beer (01)
Chocolate City at RFD. Pic via Thomas Cizauskas

2011 – When Chocolate City Beer opened in 2011 they became the first Black-owned brewery in the District. The brewery’s ownership was not entirely Black, as the Washington Post reported in 2011, “In fact, the brewery’s ownership is multiracial. [Jay] Irizarry and [Ben] 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.” The beer launched at RFD, Regional Food and Drink, a now-closed restaurant kitty corner from the Capital One Arena. The brewery operated from 2011 to 2014, at ​​2801 8th St NE, Washington, DC 20017, the current address of the Dew Drop Inn. In a way, this bar operates on historic ground: the site of DC’s first Black-owned brewery.

2018 – When Sankofa’s first batch of beer, Hypebiscus, began flowing in June 2018, the brewery was the first entirely Black-owned beer brand in DC history. Founders Kofi Meroe, and Amado Carsky were born in the US and raised in West Africa. Meroe earned his degree from University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Carsky from University of Maryland, College Park.

Eamoni Collier and Bobby Bump brew Strawberry High

2019 – Eamoni Collier, The Vibe Queen releases her Strawberry High beer, along with her song of the same name. Right Proper Brewpub Shaw hosts her release and donates $1 from every Strawberry High sold to An Indivisible Art Collective and their efforts in bringing together arts education, community building, intercultural exchange, and neighborhood equity.

2019 – Soul Mega Beer opens in 2019, with founders Elliott Johnson and Jahi Wartts, Howard University alumni. The brewery began pouring beers in July 2019. Beer sponsor of Trill Grill, a music and food festival, Soul Mega’s Worldwide American Pale Ale debuts at 2019’s fest, which had Rick Ross headlining on July 27.

​​2019 – Black Brew Movement crafts cider flights at ANXO Cidery, and hosts Black Hoppy Hour: Cider Addition on August 1.

Black Brew Movement

2020 – When Black Brew Movement released Cuffing Saison at Right Proper Shaw, this became their first commercial batch of beer on January 4, 2020. Eight months later Black Brew Movement Members Simone Cope and Phil Jackson contributed to “Crafted Conversation” from Bond Brothers Beer Company (NC).

2020 – Say Their Names, a Kellerbier, debuts at Right Proper Shaw, influenced by the victims of police brutality. The names of people murdered at the hands of police are on the bottle’s label. Right Proper co-owner and co-founder Thor Cheston said in June 2020, “On Saturday, after talking to a number of our staff members about how Right Proper should respond as a company to the growing movement in support of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we took a suggestion from one of our staff members, Eamoni Collier, that we rename a beer #SayTheirNames.”

Photo via Tim Bryson

2020 – Hellbender and Tim Bryson Brew Amplify Black Voices, hazy pale ale with citrus. 100% of the proceeds of the beer benefited Capital Partners for Education, a DC-based mentoring program.

2021 – Hellbender and Tim Bryson brew Support Black Businesses, a Trappist-Style Tripel. With the beer’s release, customers were encouraged to enjoy the beer with a pairing from Black-owned and -operated businesses Roaming Rooster, Puddin’, Urban Charcuterie, and Urban Chef’s Table. The beer debuted February 14, 2021.

2021 – Sankofa and Allagash collaborate to brew Woven in Time, “an expressive and balanced dark ale brewed with millet and smoked maple syrup.” The beer was brewed for the Barrel & Flow Fest whose founder, Day Bracey, connected Sankofa and Allagash. The beer debuted in July, 2021.


2021 – When Urban Garden Brewing, LLC opened it became the first entirely Black owned Woman-led beer brand in DC History. Their beer, Chamolite, was served on September 25. Eamoni Collier and partner Stephon Green became DC’s fourth Black-owned beer brand, the company dubs itself  “a DC-based producer and distributor of high-quality beer.”

2021 – During DC Beer Week 2021, Black Brew Movement hosts a collaborative event with Right Proper Brewing and An Indivisible Art Collective. The Black Beer Garden featured local Black-owned beer companies, Urban Garden Brewing, LLC, Baltimore’s Joyhound Beer Company, Sankofa Beer Company, and Soul Mega Beer Company.

2022 – ANXO Cider partners with Beer Kulture and The American Cider Association, providing three scholarships, for both levels of the American Cider Association’s Certified Cider Professional program as well as registration for each recipient and a guest to CiderCon (Feb 2-4, Richmond, Virginia) as well as travel and lodging for recipients and guests.

 

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