A few weeks ago I was hellbent on cleaning up an email inbox that had become overstuffed with promotions and junk mail. Damn near 1,000 emails deep, my eyes glazed over, I settled on one with the subject line: “Brewery Hopping While Black in Charlotte: An Invitation.” It was from Kevin Martin from GoodRoad Ciderworks, who was writing in response to a column I wrote back in April in which I expressed the often lonely feeling of hanging out at Charlotte’s breweries as a Black person and decried the lack of diversity on the other side of the bar as well.
“I read your article and it struck me. It felt, how shall I say, familiar. I’d like to invite you to drop by GoodRoad CiderWorks sometime to chat. I’m the head of the fermentation program, lab stuff, IT and do much of the government formula grunt work. I’m also part owner, Black, and a West Charlotte grad :),” the email read.
The sender was Kevin Martin, head of fermentations, lab and information technology at GoodRoad CiderWorks, a cidery and meadery located in South End. Embarrassed by my delayed response, I replied in hopes that my invitation didn’t come with an expiration date. Fortunately, it hadn’t.
A sweet, tangy aroma hung in the air as I entered the door at GoodRoad. I took a deep inhale of excitement as I anticipated my first sip — ciders have been my drink of choice for a few months now.
A quiet evening in the brewery, I scanned the room in search of my pen pal. In the corner, hidden behind an open laptop sat a contemplative man. I approached the bartender to confirm that the gentleman was the person I was looking for.
A gentle spirit and a humble presence, Kevin Martin is one of the most captivating faces behind the industry that I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a cold one with. His knowledge of cider and mead is unparalleled and yet he has a way of explaining things in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or reductive. He was both gentle and educational as he guided me through the current ciders and meads on tap before I settled on an award-winning, semi-dry cider called the Stayman.
We returned with our libations and it didn’t take long before we got down to the nitty gritty. I asked why there aren’t more people of color owning breweries.
“From a business perspective, access to capital is part of it. There’s plenty of BIPOC individuals that have the knowledge but don’t have the money to make those mistakes and mess up,” Kevin told me. “There’s a lot of people who will deny the existence of systemic racism. It trickles into all things, including in the brewing industry.
“I’ve noticed, when I go into certain places and they don’t know what I do, a lot of times if I weren’t already comfortable, I’d be uncomfortable,” he continued. “And until I say certain things, I’m not taken seriously. That’s why in here [GoodRoad], I make a point to speak to people.”
I inquired if it was just me who noticed a broader disconnect between the craft beer scene and the Black community, to which Kevin comforted me in explaining it was far from just me.
“There is absolutely a disconnect,” he said. “Part of it: The industry has never had a need to reach out because when you’re not affected by something, it’s just not an issue for you. It’s not so much that people are purposely oblivious all the time … It’s not that people haven’t been invited in, it’s just that nobody’s ever been made welcome.
This reminded me of one specific visit to a local brewery during which a bartender gave a well-informed taste test to a white patron ahead of me, only to answer, “I don’t know what to tell you,” when I said I had no idea what I wanted.
Kevin has experienced similar situations, including getting stereotyped. He recalled a time when someone asked if he could make malt liquor directly after learning that he knew how to brew beer.
Why does that question conjure a sigh? Because the question is born, without thought, out of the assumption that as a Black brewer, even though he is a self-taught crafter of mead, cider, and beer since 1994 (and now brandishes a plethora of awards and judge certifications amongst a host of many other accolades), malt liquor is what he is assumed to be well-versed at making.
“When you’re swimming in a pool that’s meant for you, you may not realize that pool isn’t a good climate for other people,” he said. “If you’re having Thanksgiving dinner and everyone you were expecting is already there, and somebody else shows up, you don’t care if there are extra chairs.”
I can’t explain how difficult it is to reduce the two-and-a-half-hour experience with Kevin to a few hundred words, and some of the conversation is reserved for the simple comfort of meeting someone who sees you before ever speaking a word to you.
But I can tell you that Kevin is an intellectual stimulus, a creative innovator, a code-switching revolutionist, and an impetus for diversity. I hope the Q.C. can find more folks like him to participate in this growing but lacking industry.