A New Day for Craft Beer in Pittsburgh
Day Bracey, along with Ed Bailey and Mike Potter, forge a more inclusive approach to craft brewing.
photos by laura petrilla
Day Bracey tried his first craft beer when he was 23. It was a Blue Moon on special for a dollar at an Oakland bar. “I thought, ‘This tastes like orange, kind of.’ I didn’t know beer could taste like something other than just beer,” he says.
Bracey also didn’t know that taking this sip of craft beer, albeit a mass-market one, would a decade later help set the stage for his role as co-founder of Fresh Fest Beer Festival, the nation’s first beer festival spotlighting black brewers, which took place in August.
In 2014, Bracey and fellow comedian Ed Bailey started a podcast called Drinking Partners. Initially, the content focused on conversations recorded over drinks — but they didn’t talk specifically about booze. A live event at Full Pint Brewing (which, incidentally, is the local brewery Bracey credits for truly opening his mind to craft beer) followed by live podcast at The Brew Gentlemen keyed them into the close-knit community of craft brewers. The theme of the show, which now is approaching its 200th episode, shifted to brewers and breweries. “Beer snobs can enjoy it because it’s entertaining, but it’s not about the deep specifics of the beer all the time. We don’t want to propagate the culture of beer snobbery,” Bracey says.
But there was a nagging issue for Bracey and Bailey. “There isn’t a lot of culture in the black community that’s focused on beer brewing,” Bracey says.
Bracey says that lingering divisions and disadvantages caused by systemic racism in the United States are at the root of the black community’s underrepresentation as both brewers and drinkers of craft beer. “Any time you’re talking about an industry that is especially homogeneous, especially in America, especially where it’s white-male-dominated, typically it’s because of barriers of access and education,” he says.
Historically, beer companies marketed malt liquor rather than craft beer to black drinkers. Home brewing clubs, the primary space for budding brewers to learn their craft, are largely unheard of in black communities. Most bars that specialize in craft beer are in primarily white neighborhoods, and that lack of diversity in the clientele highlights the lack of community integration. “We’re less inclined to go to new places when they’re majority white spaces. We typically stay where we know. But that’s everybody, really,” Bracey says.
Bracey and Bailey believed that, with their position, they could open doors for those in the black community to feel welcome in the beer one. A conversation with Mike Potter of Black Brew Culture, an online magazine, about practical ways for them to do so resulted in the three of them deciding to organize Fresh Fest.
The trio brought in 10 black-owned breweries from across the United States and had 25 Pittsburgh-area breweries collaborate on beers with local black artists, thought-leaders, business people and entrepreneurs. “When you see people who look like you doing this, it’s easier to think that you can do it yourself,” Bracey says.
Despite some pushback in the form of threatening emails, PMs and comments from apparent white supremacists threatened by the intersectionality of the event, the festival was by all accounts a success, with a diverse, inclusive crowd mingling over cups filled with a wide assortment of beer styles and flavor profiles. Pittsburgh’s brewers welcomed the opportunity for inclusivity with open arms; Bracey says that a number of the local collaborations resulted in ongoing conversations between the brewing partners.
Fresh Fest Two already is on the books for August 2019. In the months leading up to it up to it, Bracey, Bailey and Potter plan more outreach by bringing brewers into black communities to do tastings, education and events. “The stories that they have of building their businesses are inspirational. And it translates. It’s within reach of what people can do,” Bracey says.
“This is real opportunity to grow something in an industry where we don’t have a lot of representation, and we don’t yet have a big market for.”