Aerin It OutColumnsNightlife

Brewery Hopping While Black in Charlotte

Where’s the representation?

Aerin Spruill (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

In the current environment of Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate and myriad of other hashtags and movements being used on social media platforms and in the streets to expose the racially motivated violence that’s occurring on a daily basis, it can be challenging to analyze one’s own thoughts and feelings about representation in everyday spaces such as breweries.

Does seeing an unarmed black person murdered affect how I see the majority in daily/nightly rendezvous — people who have never “done anything to make me feel Black while enjoying nightlife?” Am I overthinking white friends who casually invite me to spaces where I just so happen to be the only black person. Are they doing so on purpose, or do they even notice?

The question I faced most recently during a visit to Brewers at 4001 Yancey was this: Are my eyes betraying me or are there really only five Black people at this establishment on a Saturday at 7 p.m.? Is it an environment created by the establishment or a symptom of a South End environment? Is it me or is it them? If “I stop talking about it” will it just go away?

A quick Google search uncovered that, as of July 2020, there were only two black-owned breweries in all of North Carolina and none in Charlotte.

Let that sink in.

I recently began exploring my mental filing cabinet of experiences over the years trying to piece together the memories and recall the deep feelings of melancholia that I felt walking into any given Irish pub or brewery for the first time with that inevitable pit in my stomach — knowing that I’d be one of the very few black people, if not the only one.

That alone begs the question, how did I know if I’d never been?

From family cookouts to college pregames (the precursory experiences to nightlife exploration as an adult), my memories are almost completely absent of “craft beer.” Sure, there’s a blur of Bud Light, Corona, and brown liquor, but I never thought about why this was while I was in the moment. After all, those memories didn’t take place at a brewery, nor was anyone stopping off to grab a growler before an event.

I realized this while having a late-night patio hang with a friend who works at a local brewery. A white guy discussing the staggering reality of the lack of Black-owned and operated breweries (at a time when brewery saturation is high, IMO) and postulating ways to change this.

Granted, this friend is one I would consider “woke,” but in the aftermath of that convo, I thought, “If he notices a disparity, then my on-the-ground observations mustn’t be simple coincidences, but a series of experiences that represent a larger, collective social issue made manifest.”

It’s important to note that it’s less a feeling that I am “unwelcome” or “unsafe” at (in this example) a brewery, but a feeling that a particular space wasn’t curated for me, by anyone that looks like me, or marketed toward me.

That’s the feeling that accompanies the moment of realization: “Whoa, I’m the only black person in here right now,” as I attempt to discern whether or not I’m feeling adventurous enough or if my palate is “sophisticated” enough for an IPA or a chocolate stout before settling on a cider or sour. 

Conversations around representation, particularly a lack thereof, can be uncomfortable. “Just because Black people don’t go certain places, doesn’t mean they can’t go; that’s their choice,” I’ve often heard as a rebuttal, stated with a tone that is a combination of dismissive, defensive, and reflective with a touch of resigned sadness. “Nothing is going to change,” or “It is how it is,” all at once. And the harshest reality when I review how I felt about these convos is that, while their delivery could be greatly improved, said persons aren’t necessarily wrong.

A simple visit to any brewery on any random day in Charlotte could be surprisingly diverse on one trip and homogeneous on another. “Diversity” may look like 20 Black people in a large crowd one day and five on another. What may be deemed “diverse” by one account may not be acceptable for another. Simply put, representation is nuanced.

I haven’t yet asked a head brewer or brewery manager if they’ve noticed the disparities in patronage representation or within the industry in general, but it’s been covered sparingly in local media. This may just be the start of a series of conversations that needs to be had on the duplicitous nature of breweries being for all, and why all aren’t showing up.

We need to talk about why representation matters for growing patronage, diversifying an experience and increasing sales; what barriers exist to entry for Black business owners and brewers; and the potential to transform a cultural nightlife experience in the Queen City. 

Read more of Aerin Spruill’s Aerin It Out columns here.

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