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The Unbearable Whiteness of Craft?

08/11/2016 12:25PM | 6797 views

Omar Passons is like every other San Diego craft beer fan. Ordering a pint at North Park’s Tiger! Tiger!, he savors his drink’s aromas, flavors, colors. He also notes his companions’ colors — or, more likely, color.

“To be the only African-American in Tiger! Tiger! on a Saturday afternoon and still enjoy what you are there for,” he said, “you have to have your foot in multiple worlds.”

In San Diego and across the nation, the great majority of those who make and consume craft beer are white men. Take it from Passons, a lawyer and vice president at the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, who seeks out craft beer hot spots on his travels. In Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, he’s often the only African-American at the bar.

Or take it from a 2014 Nielsen survey. This found that whites drank nearly 80 percent of craft beer; Hispanics, 8.4 percent; Asians, 5.5 percent; and African-Americans, 3.7 percent. The male/female split was nearly as lopsided, with men quaffed nearly seven out of 10 craft beers (68.4 percent).

Does this matter? How many palates can distinguish between, say, a pilsner brewed by an Anglo guy and an Asian woman?

Yet in an increasingly diverse society, craft beer — defined as brews made by an independent brewery with an annual production of no more than 6 million barrels — may be ignoring unique ingredients and a vast new potential audience.

Nationally, one of every eight beers sold is craft. In San Diego County, now home to 128 breweries, the ratio is closer to one-in-five. If the industry reached out to women and ethnic minorities, the thinking goes, it would grow further and faster.

“You definitely want more diversity in the consumers,” said Derek Gallanosa, a Filipino-American and head brewer at Rancho Bernardo’s Abnormal Beer Co. “That opens up more avenues for your beers.”

Neither Passons nor Gallanosa detects racism here. And Liz Chism, co-owner and brewmaster at San Diego’s Council Brewing, insists the industry is not rife with chauvinists.

“The guys,” she said, “definitely have a huge respect for women in the field.”

Still, in this diverse region — with a population that is one-third Hispanic, 10 percent Asian, 5 percent African-American, and 50 percent female — there’s a sense that something is off, a bit too pale and male.

“I wouldn’t say there is any overt intention to be exclusionary in the diversity sense,” said Passons, who is the San Diego Brewers Guild liaison with the San Diego Workforce Development Board.

“But this is certainly an issue.”

Passons belongs to a loosely organized national club, Brothers in Craft Beer. These African-Americans enjoy full-flavored India pale ales, Russian imperial stouts, Belgian golden ales, spicy saisons.

While the group is sizable, about 500 strong, every member knows what it’s like to be the only drinker of color at their favorite craft beer haven.

This is due to economics, Passons believes, and culture. Average incomes for minorities still lag behind their white counterparts, and craft beer is more expensive than the lagers from Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and other brewing titans.

Moreover, many role models — parents, older siblings, mentors — ignored the craft beer movement. The most prominent African-American associated with beer may be actor Billy Dee Williams, who in March revived his 1980s role as a TV spokesman for Pabst Brewing’s uncrafty malt liquor, Colt .45.

While there may be more black ales than black brewers, that’s changing.

There’s Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing and author of “The Oxford Companion to Beer.” San Diego’s AleSmith employs several of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and Will Izor leads the large warehouse operation.

“It’s a little surprising when you walk into AleSmith on a big release day and you see five or six Africans and African-Americans,” Passons said. “You’re like ‘Whoa!’ It’s kind of surprising.”

Surprising, because it’s unusual.

“There’s a pretty large untapped market here,” Passons said.

Among local beer geeks, few have more credibility than Gonzalo Quintero. “Dr. Q” — Quintero has a Ph.D in education — lectures on craft beer at San Diego State University, runs the beer program at Chula Vista’s La Bella Pizza and writes articles with titles like “Brown People Drink Craft Beer, Too.”

He’s optimistic about beer’s changing demographics.

“We were later to the game for a variety of reasons,” he said, “but our generation grew up with craft beer.”

Last weekend, a craft beer event at La Bella drew customers from Tijuana, Eastlake, North Park and Kearny Mesa. “Some were blue-collar workers, some students, some professionals,” he said. “Craft beer is the great equalizer. It is an affordable luxury.”

It’s also a growing industry. In 2015, there were 4,512 jobs in San Diego brewing. Top brewers can earn six figures, and many entry-level jobs pay more than minimum wage. There are Hispanics in these ranks — Pizza Port brewer Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes, say, or Tom and Sarah Garcia, the married owners of Escondido’s Offbeat Brewing.

Still, breaking into this field can be difficult. Two years ago, Joaquin Basauri sent emails to every San Diego brewery he could find, offering to donate his work while learning the trade.

“Only one wrote back,” Basauri said.

He’s now head brewer for that company, Barrio Logan’s Border X.

If San Diego beer has a Great Brown Hope, it’s Border X. Owned and operated by local Latinos, it specializes in beers that incorporate flavors from popular Mexican beverages. Blood Saison uses hibiscus flowers like Agua Fresca de Jamaica. Horchata Golden Stout and Abuelita (“Grandmother”) Chocolate Stout are also regulars, the latter infused with Mexican hot chocolate and cinnamon.

Basauri notes that flowers, cocoa and other items are “adjuncts,” additives to beer’s traditional four ingredients: Water, yeast, malt and hops.

“We sell like crazy our adjunct beers,” he said. “But if you can’t make the traditional beers that everyone likes — the hoppy beers, the lagers — you are going to get lost in the shuffle.”

Now 24, Basauri has been watching the rising craft beer scene in Baja California, where up-and-comers like Ensenada’s Wendlandt have dominated national competitions. San Diego breweries, he argues, should look south when hiring for key positions.

“There’s this crazy beer scene in Baja right now,” he said, “and we are not picking anyone up.”

Diversity is important, he said, if it brings in new ideas. “I want to surround myself who think differently than me and challenge me. I’m not going to get that with people who think like me.”

Race and gender are factors for companies building a diverse work force, Quintero said, but so is geography. “San Diego is so diverse, but a lot of people are not seeing themselves in the products that are being served.”

Dr. Q cited one local brewery charting a fresh cultural course: Santee’s BNS, which brings its Western themes and award-winning IPA, Revolver, to events like the Lakeside Rodeo.

“We are East County,” said Gene Chaffin, BNS’ owner. “We are not part of the hipster, surfer dude scene you find with breweries in the coast.”

When brewers assemble at festivals and conferences, Council’s Liz Chism noted, there are usually four times as many men than women. She finds some advantages to being in the minority.

“There’s no lines for the girl’s bathroom,” she said, “but there are lines for the guy’s bathroom.”

In ancient cultures, women did most of the brewing. While now outnumbered by men, women are still prominent in many breweries.

Gina Marsaglia is president and CEO of the Pizza Port chain. Lisa Hinkley is Green Flash’s co-founder and vice president for marketing. In Fort Collins, Colo., women have led two breweries: Kim Jordan, co-founder of New Belgium, and Wynne Odell, CEO of Odell’s.

Does a brewer’s gender have any impact on a beer’s flavor?

“I’ve had people try one of my beers and say, ‘This has a woman’s touch,’” Chism said. “But I would say everyone is different and unique. I personally like beers that are balanced, but I don’t know if that is because I am a woman.”

Does ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation matter while you sip a Banana Hammock Scotch Ale at Hillcrest Brewing — “First Gay Brewery in the World” — or a Mo’ Bettah Double India Pale Ale at Santee’s Pacific Islander Beer Co.?

“I’ve been treated very, very well in this industry,” said Ku’uipo Lawler, Pacific Islander’s Hawaiian-Irish co-founder. “But it is primarily a very Caucasian industry.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen any diversity.”

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