I’ve long considered what the brewing industry in DC proper would look like if brewery ownership statistics reflected our city’s demographics.
I finally got around to writing it up and I think it’s worth reading with a critical lens. I am not a demographer. I am not a sociologist. I’m just some schmuck asking questions, and that’s enough critical thinking for this paragraph.
DC has three Black owned breweries: Sankofa Beer Company, Soul Mega, and Urban Garden Brewing. None of these breweries have brick and mortar facilities, and so immediately they are set apart from the 14 physical facilities listed in the Brewers Association’s directory. Urban Garden produces all of its beer within DC–and more on this soon–while Sankofa and Soul Mega beers are produced in Maryland. All three companies are licensed in the District of Columbia and operate as such.
If you want to support a Black owned brick and mortar brewery, consider heading to Patuxent Brewing Company. If you’re in DC, this is likely the closest to you.
The Brewers Association State Craft Beer Sales & Production Statistics, 2021 lists a dozen breweries in DC. The more recent numbers according to the Brewers Association directory show DC having 14 breweries.
If we look at census data on DC from July, 2022, you will find 45.8% Black or African American people constituting a single race. If 45.8% of all breweries in DC were Black owned, we’d have somewhere between 6 to 7 out of 14 breweries. I’m sticking to 14 as the number of physical brick and mortar breweries because it’s an easier number. A more accurate number would be 17, including Sankofa, Soul Mega, and Urban Garden into our total of DC producers. That number would lead us to 7 or 8 Black-owned breweries to have a number that approximates what the 2022 census reveals in terms of population percentage.
One way to consider a path to equity for Black-owned breweries is the total volume output by DC. According to the Brewers Association’s Production Statistics 2021, DC produced 29,721 barrels. If you consider all of the beer barrels produced in DC being equal to the Black or African American population of the city, the output of Black-owned beer would look like 14,266 out of 29,721 barrels. 14,266 barrels represents just under 48% of overall beer production in 2021. In the 2021 Brewers Association’s totals of beer production, Sankofa and Soul Mega were reported as producing under 200 barrels (Urban Garden launched in September, 2021).
The conversations we can tease out of these numbers are endless but I’ll focus on two points of entry: ownership and consumerism.
The first, ownership, is a clunky topic that has very troubling implications that date back to the start of America, systemic racism, and all of the issues that prevent more Black people from owning businesses. It may be easy to write off small business ownership as something that is out of reach for many Washingtonians, but at the same time we have three young, Black-owned breweries doing business in the District as I type this. It would be great if the city did more for all small businesses, and there are organizations working toward this goal. Most immediately to the local brewing industry is the DC Brewers Guild who are striving to make business ownership less cumbersome and raise the profile of all of the members in the Guild (DC Beer is an allied industry member). It’s important to recognize that it’s both great that DC is home to three Black-owned breweries, but also that several more Black-owned breweries would have to open–with their own physical spaces–to approach equity in ownership, nevermind barrel output or market share.
The next topic to tease out from the numbers is consumerism. There is a massive amount of beer sold in the District that is NOT brewed in the District. According to Reyes Beer Division and tax data from the city, 303,169 barrels of beer were sold in 2020. In 2021, 324,618 were sold. Pre-pandemic the numbers were much higher, at about 420,000 bbls in both 2018 and 2019.
Looking at DC’s production number for 2021, the Brewers Association reported breweries in the city brewed 29,721 barrels, with perhaps 200 bbls brewed by Black-owned breweries. Now let’s take that number out of the total beer sold in 2021 which was 324,618. That means that 294,897 barrels of beer consumed in DC were NOT made here. Not even 10% of the beer consumed by DC was brewed in DC. Not even 10% of overall beer sold here was made here.
If we look at the number of ~10% and envision a sales path where 10% of all the beer brewed in the district is made by Black-owned breweries, that would be 2,972 barrels. It is a far cry from the 14,266 barrels that would represent an equitable number of beer produced to rival DC’s census numbers but it’s a number in search of reality. So what will it take?
Certainly if beer was cheaper people would sell more. Yet at the same time, it’s not like anyone in DC is getting rich off of their small brewery. And generally speaking, the smaller the brewery, the smaller the profit margins. This is specifically true for contract brewers like Sankofa, Soul Mega, and Urban Garden.
Yet every time you buy an Urban Garden, Sankofa, or Soul Mega beer at a shop like H Street’s Craft Beer Cellar, you support not only a Black -owned brewery but a woman owned and operated shop, in this case owner Erika Geodrich’s small business. Her business then supports other businesses and she generally has a robust selection of Black-owned brands.
Sankofa Beer Company’s founder Kofi Meroe founded his company in 2018. When I spoke to him for a story published last January, he told me:
My preference is always for folks to go to our accounts and support their establishments whether it be package to-go stores, or restaurants or bars. A lot of our accounts are places we personally enjoy and I like when people can go there. Because they get kind of the similar experience that I feel when I’m there. I always think it’s great for people to support them because it just helps us get our sales up…I really try to push most people to our accounts…I always hate to call and shout out one particular place but I will give special recognition to Metro Bar. They’ve been great supporters of our brand and it also happens to be a really cool and fun place to have a drink and meet people.
Ultimately, an equitable brewing industry wouldn’t just reflect the census’ demographic data, it would promote the positive growth the city’s small businesses need. But in the meantime, perhaps we can focus on the number of ~10%. If ~10% of all the beer brewed in the city was made by Black-owned breweries, we’re looking at 2,972 barrels of beer. What will it take? I don’t have the answers to get there but I know it would take a tremendous amount of growth. Would it mean people need to buy more beer? Would it mean consumers need to buy less seltzer and ready to drink cocktails? Would it mean more outreach on the part of breweries?
A massive output of production is likely not in the cards anytime soon, but what if new breweries opened in wards 7 and 8? The Washington Business Journal noted that Atlas Brew Works “is in negotiations to take a 20,000 square-foot space in The Douglass building… along Howard Road, SE.” And while Atlas isn’t a new brewery, what if Sankofa and Soul Mega decided to contract brew there and began cranking out 1,000 barrels annually? It’s a massive “what if” and wild speculation, but it’s one route in which DC could perhaps reach that roughly 10%.
Last January DC Brau offered their contract brewing services via an ad on Brewbound. If 50 60-barrel batches of Black-owned beer brands were contracted next year, Black-owned beer production would be at 3,000 barrels. Could Sankofa, Soul Mega, and Urban Garden contract that much beer? It’s one way to fathom how much more the market needs to grow to have just >10% of all beer brewed in DC coming from Black-owned brands. It would require a tremendous amount of growth, and amongst other necessities, a significant sales team, but it could be done.
Many of the area’s Black-owned breweries will be at metrobar on Sunday, February 26. See you there!