Food & DrinkFood Features

Sugar Creek Brewing Internship Aims to Diversify Craft Beer Scene

A pint at the table

When the national Black is Beautiful initiative swept through Charlotte’s craft beer industry, Marques Nash was gratified. The campaign, ultimately taken up by more than a dozen Charlotte breweries, charges each participant to release a racial justice-themed beer and donate all proceeds to local foundations that support equality, inclusion and policing reforms. As general manager of Sugar Creek Brewing Company, and as a Black man, Nash approved of the idea of utilizing the popularity of craft beer to raise awareness and funding for a worthy cause. But he also wondered: Why stop with a beer release?

Nash went to his employers, Sugar Creek Brewing Company founders and co-owners Joe Vogelbacher and Eric Flanigan, and proposed that the brewery offer a paid internship to a Black person interested in entering the craft beer field. The internship would cover all aspects of the industry, and upon completion the intern would receive assistance in finding a job in the field or becoming an owner of their own business.

“I was thinking of the saying, ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’s set for life,’” Nash tells Queen City Nerve. But in this case the idea can be restated as: “Why release a Black is Beautiful beer, when you can give a Black person a livelihood and career.”

The Sugar Creek Brewing Company internship comes at a time when the local craft beer industry, historically seen as a white man’s game, needs to expand its diversity. According to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild (NCCBG), just 1% of North Carolina breweries are minority-owned. In Charlotte, that percentage dropped to zero in April 2019 when owner Tabu Terrell shuttered Three Spirits Brewery, the city’s only Black-owned craft beer-maker and establishment.

The NCCBG has not published figures on minority management in the industry, but since Three Spirit’s closure, Charlotte’s craft beer scene has increasingly looked like a sea of white faces. The exception, say Vogelbacher and Nash, is Sugar Creek Brewing Company. They maintain that Nash is the only Black general manager in Charlotte’s burgeoning brewery scene.

“I’m really surprised there are not more people of color in the business,” Vogelbacher says. “I didn’t even realize how much diversity we have in our own staff until I took a closer look at it.”

The brewery’s team includes a Latin-American employee and a Pacific Islander as assistant manager. Nash is aware that his rare position in the industry comes with responsibility. He says he hopes to be the bridge that opens up the craft beer world to more diversity.

He remembers the meeting last June when he pitched the internship to Sugar Creek Brewing Company’s President Vogelbacher. The two men were sitting in Vogelbacher’s office at the brewery, bouncing ideas off each other, when Nash proposal the internship. His boss embraced it with enthusiasm.

The Brewmaster’s Apprentice

Though the company plans to join their compatriots in the local craft beer scene in releasing their own version of a Black is Beautiful beer, that project is on the back burner, Vogelbacher offers, while the brewery focuses on the internship’s details.

“We’ve offered internships here before,’ Vogelbacher says, “but nothing quite as robust as what Marques came up with.”

The taproom at Sugar Creek. (Photo courtesy of SCBC)

The paid internship, which commences in mid-October, runs for eight to 12 weeks, at 40 hours a week. It will start with a single intern, says Nash, but he doesn’t rule out additional interns in future iterations of the program.
“We want to make sure that this is done correctly,” Nash says. “We want to see the evolution of this as it moves forward.”

The intern will spend time with the brewery’s founders and division managers, receiving hands-on training in all areas of business including brewing, cellaring and recipe formulation, taproom operations, sales, marketing, distribution, and financial management, Nash offers. His plan has built-in flexibility, with specialized or focused training made available to the intern based on their areas of interest.

“If [we get] somebody who’s trying to get a job like Marques, they’re going to spend time with Marques,” Vogelbacher offers. “If it’s somebody who is trying to open a brewery from scratch, they might spend more time with me.”

Needless to say, applicants for the position must love beer, Nash says, and be willing to immerse themselves in Sugar Creek Brewing Company’s way of making the malted beverage.

Sugar Creek Brewing Company’s website says the business is dedicated to crafting Belgian-inspired ales for the Carolinas and beyond. For Vogelbacher, the appeal of the Belgians is that they break many brewing rules. Unlike the Germans just across the border, who operate by the Reinheitsgebot, strict purity laws that limit beer’s ingredients to just malt, water, yeast and hops, the Belgians have no restrictions, he says.

Belgian beers, crafted by Trappist monks in monasteries, embrace experimentation, Vogelbacher offers. The Belgians put their beer in champagne bottles, treating in the way the French treat fine wine. They put spices in their beer, or age it for a long period of time and they often make sour beers.

“They do anything they can to make the beer delicious,” Vogelbacher says.

He knows his beer. Last December Vogelbacher was certified as a Master Cicerone, the fourth and highest level of the worldwide cicerone system. He passed a grueling two-day 20-hour exam, held just once a year in Chicago. A cicerone is the brewing equivalent of a sommelier, a certified and knowledgeable expert in wine making.

Vogelbacher is the first brewmaster from North Carolina to earn the highest level of knowledgeable expert in beer, joining a worldwide fraternity of only 19 people.

Joe Vogelbacher (left) and Eric Flanigan of Sugar Creek Brewing Co. (Photo courtesy of SCBC)

Nash is also certified in the cicerone system, attaining the first level as a Certified Beer Server, the only level that allows testing online. He’s currently studying for level two, and hoping to earn the official Cicerone designation this year.

The brewery staff’s dedication has earned the company international awards for the classic Belgian beers on the establishment’s extensive menu.

Last year, they won a Great American Beer Festival Gold Medal for their Belgian Dubbel, a strong brown beer first brewed at Westmalle Abbey in 1856, Vogelbacher says. The Belgian Dubbel also won a Gold Medal in The U.S. Open the year before.

But the brewery’s beers are far from being limited to the classics, Vogelbacher maintains. Sugar Creek Brewing Company makes trendier beers as well. Their west coast IPA, “The Big O,” is popular in the grocery stores. An IPA fermented with fruit, it’s currently the company’s best seller.

Grocery stores are particularly important to the company now, because the brewing industry has been ravaged by economic fall-out from COVID-19, Vogelbacher offers. The brewery has furloughed most of its team with a 75% reduction in staff, which includes a 50% cut-back in the tap room. A complete drop off in private events has contributed to a 50% reduction in draft beer sales in North and South Carolina, he says.

“All our business is coming from our cans,” he maintains.

Despite the dour business outlook, Vogelbacher and Nash feel the timing two months from now will be perfect to bring an intern on board and teach them the ropes. To some extent, the company’s no rules credo also applies to what the intern does with the knowledge and experience they gain from their apprenticeship at Sugar Creek Brewing Company. Upon completion of the program, the brewery will offer the intern a job reference and/or assistance with business planning.

When asked if he’s concerned that he might be training a potential competitor, Nash says he doesn’t see the situation that way.

“It would be another ally and partner in this world of craft beer,” Nash maintains. “We can’t stop breweries from opening, but we can encourage a more diverse scene.”

“It would be like a sister or brother brewery” Vogelbacher adds.

Whether the intern wants to open a business, hone a centuries-old craft or learn the ropes in a still-robust field despite the ravages of COVID-19, applicants are advised to email their resumes, along with a 350- to 500-word essay on why they are right for the position to:

A Brewing Opportunity

Whoever lands the position is in for the experience of a lifetime, Nash promises. He sees parallels between whomever becomes the intern and his own journey as a Black man in the craft beer industry.

“I would have absolutely killed for this opportunity,” he stresses.

In 2017, the then 30-year-old husband and father of two had been working in the hospitality and food service industry for a number of years. He was serving as general manager at Mellow Mushroom when a coworker who was also putting in hours at Sugar Creek Brewing Company started touting employment at the brewery to Nash.

“He kept talking about how I would be a perfect fit here,” Nash remembers. “He eventually dragged me over and thank God he did.”

Three years ago, Nash started as an assistant manager. He compares the excitement and satisfaction of working at the brewery and embracing the challenge of a steep learning curve to his other career as a musician.

Ten years ago, Nash’s Charlotte-based band Lucky Five released their debut album, La Resistance, to local and regional acclaim. A staple of the Queen City’s music scene, the band fused funk, jazz and rock into irresistible grooves centered around Nash’s impassioned vocals and soulful lyrics. But after playing Speed Street and a South by Southwest showcase in 2012, life happened. Band members moved on, leaving for college, marriage and job opportunities. Though the band’s members have remained friends, La Resistance remains Lucky Five’s only release.

The band reformed for a one-off reunion show in December 2018, selling out the Evening Muse. Nash remains proud of Lucky Five and La Resistance.

“That album is my heartbeat,” he told Queen City Nerve shortly before the reunion show. Today, Nash says he’s found a calling that is equal to music.

“That strain of passion that I have toward music I [also] have towards beer and spirits,” he says, adding that his current job has brought him new skills to learn and new challenges to conquer.

Black craft beer
Marques Nash wants some company as one of the few Black men in the local craft beer industry. (Photo by Daniel Clark Cunningham)

Nash’s strength is that he spends time with guests one-on-one, Vogelbach offers, making people of all walks of life feel comfortable. Nash particularly loves serving craft beer novices, people who can’t tell the different between a pilsner and a porter. He sees a big part of his job as helping people who don’t know beer find a new favorite.

Two years ago, Nash became general manager. Vogelbacher says the promotion is a testament to Nash’s skill in several aspects of the brewery business; he handles the taproom, runs the patio, tracks inventory and manages the kitchen.

“He’s doing a bazillion things,” Vogelbacher maintains, adding that Nash’s superpower is relating to customers, even when he’s multitasking a full management agenda.

“Marques juggles all kinds of things,” Vogelbacher says. “He could be running an event in the warehouse, [plus] an outside event. There might be somebody having a wedding and you [need someone] to keep a bridezilla happy. Marques does all of that.”

Nash is in charge of every aspect the front of house, which is normally 50% of the brewery’s business, Vogelbacher says. Any intern candidate who spends time with Nash had better be ready for a crash course in operations. Nash says that whoever is ultimately chosen the be the brewery’s intern will be getting the opportunity of a lifetime. He believes this because he feels like he is already living that opportunity.

“I get to come here every single day, watch how we’re running the brewery, see how the business is being built and learn how we’re brewing beer,” he says.

Bridging Differences with Beer

When Charlotte native Vogelbacher moved back from New Jersey to his hometown on 2013, he was surprised by the segregation he saw.

“Where I lived it was more of a melting pot. [In Charlotte] we have so many pockets,” Vogelbacher says. “It seems that the craft beer pocket has been very white-dominated.”

Vogelbacher’s dream to open up the marketplace champions diversity, but is also good business.

“I want to sell our beer to every single person — young, old, fat, skinny, gay, straight, Black, white — because the best thing ever is when you can make your art available to everybody.”

He says there’s no better way to do that than Nash’s idea to engage a Black aspiring brewer to learn the company’s craft so they can help the company get their product out to the public at the grassroots. Diversity in staff can also help spur a more diverse clientele.

Nash has no illusions that there are barriers against that reciprocal diversity, and not just in the brewing business. Although the Republican National Convention has been scaled down from its original configuration, Charlotte is still weathering the aftershocks of hosting a political party and a president that have openly embraced racism and white nationalism.

“I need to save my colorful thoughts about Trump for later,” Nash says. “But it breaks my heart that someone can find so much joy [from] watching the division in our country.”

Instead, Nash finds joy in promoting an internship that could reflect his life, and become a dream come true for another person of color.

“I know that beer isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “Beer is that one constant, that one thing that will always bring us together no matter what.”

It will be there when you celebrate a wedding, or when you mourn a loved one’s passing, he offers.

“What has to change now is the faces serving beer and making beer,” Nash says. “If we can be a part of that initial change in Charlotte, it will be one of the proudest things I’ve done in quite a long time.”

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