It’s no secret that the craft brewing industry has long been something of a boys club, and a particularly white one at that. Issues of racial and gender proportionality within the industry are often poorly understood when they’re considered at all.
Endless speculation and hand-wringing have been typical of the discourse on issues of diversity in craft beer (or the conspicuous lack thereof), with the occasional apologist referencing Brooklyn Brewing Co. founder Garrett Oliver as if to say that one successful black brewer negates the problem. One local craft beer enthusiast, however, has issued a call to action. L.A. McCrae has founded Black Star Line Brewing, the first black, queer, female-owned brewery in Western North Carolina — and the brewer’s plans don’t stop at beer.
Black Star Line has entered into a production partnership with Hendersonville’s Sanctuary Brewing Co. in advance of securing a new home in Morganton or Hendersonville and expects to be pouring beer by the end of June. In addition, the brewery has started a business incubator program to mentor African-Americans as they take part in the brewing boom by giving them the tools to set up their own operations throughout the country, both under the Black Star Line brand as well as independent from the company.
“We want to create opportunities for other people to get involved in the entrepreneurship aspect of the business, for people to be able to be themselves and not have to deal with the toxic work environments that we often have to deal with as folks with different social identities outside of what has been known as the norm — and that’s not even necessarily the norm anymore,” McCrae says.
McCrae does not come from a traditional brewing background, having earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and African studies from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a master’s in divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and a postgraduate certification from Harvard University in executive leadership and community organizing.
While this educational background might not suggest a career as a brewmaster, McCrae’s passion for craft beer was instigated by their (McCrae prefers to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns) brothers and a palate honed through training from the Culinary Institute of America while working as a sous chef at Iron Bird Stadium in Maryland. There was also a hidden family connection to beer, of which McCrae only recently became aware.
“My grandmother got sick. She’s fine now, but she was on death’s doorstep, and she started telling me that I came from a line of people that were homebrewers,” they say. “On her last day before she went in the ICU and was just out of it for weeks, she started giving me these recipes that have been in the family for generations. So I’ve been experimenting with those and really coming to understand this as a birthright of sorts.”
The plan for Black Star Line is to start small and stay small, initially brewing on a 3-barrel system and most likely capping growth at 7 barrels in order to devote more energy and resources to the breweries expected to emerge from the business incubator. The brewery has been pouring some of its core beers — including a ginger beer, an IPA, plus a pilsner named for poet Audre Lorde — at special events in the area. A line of nonalcoholic botanical teas is also being produced in conjunction with Zora’s Apothecary, a business owned and operated by McCrae’s partner, Ekua Adisa.
Flagship beers are intended to be distributed both packaged and in kegs, with an eye toward creating a presence in traditionally black neighborhoods and communities that might not dedicate a lot of shelf or tap space to craft beers. The line of botanicals will be available at a variety of locations, with Asheville businesses such as the West Village Market and Grail Moviehouse having already expressed interest. Black Star Line previously partnered with the Grail for a screening of the James Baldwin biopic I Am Not Your Negro during Black History Month.
In addition to the brewery and business incubator, McCrae has also orchestrated a gathering of black brewers under the auspices of the Black Brewers Guild, an organization they launched after connecting with other African-American-owned breweries around the country. Recognizing the need for solidarity and the capacity for collective bargaining within the industry, McCrae conceived the guild with the intention of bringing black brewers together as a community. The Black Brewers Gathering will be held in Asheville from Oct. 21-23, with a pre-gathering brew day open to the public on Oct. 20.
McRae’s ambitions for Black Star Line are driven by a love for family and community, with a guiding principle to foster a culture of inclusion and acceptance within the craft beer industry. In McCrae’s words: “We’re excited and humbled to be able to enter this market and really be trailblazers in some pretty badass ways. Let’s build, and build beyond beer.”