Beer Scout: Black Star Line Brewing brings diversity to WNC craft beer

TRAILBLAZERS: Black Star Line Brewing owner and brewer L.A. McCrae, right, pictured with partner Ekua Adisa McCrae, aims to foster a culture of inclusion and acceptance within the craft beer industry. “We’re excited and humbled to be able to enter this market and really be trailblazers in some pretty badass ways,” says L.A. McCrae. Photo courtesy of L.A. McCrae

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.”


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

10 thoughts on “Beer Scout: Black Star Line Brewing brings diversity to WNC craft beer

  1. The Real World

    Ok sorry, but this article is ridiculous! Yea for black people that they can open breweries is what’s being said. Are you kidding? Why does their skin color matter? It doesn’t.

    OF COURSE…..they, and humans of every other skin color, gender, orientation, belief-system, religion, full-haired or bald, one arm or both, wheelchair-bound or walking, ETC ETC ETC are interested and able to open businesses! You are utterly focusing on the wrong aspect. You should profile the courage, willingness and creativity of people who decide to assume the considerable economic risk and enormous time involved in entrepreneurship. Most people do not possess all 3 of those.

    I just returned from a 5 day trip to Cincinnati; an old American city with a significant black population. And, let me tell you, the numerous interactions I had and also observed between black and white people were utterly contrary to what loads of people here and elsewhere seem to want to believe and promote. They were smooth to the point that there was not one bit of hesitation or negativity from either side. Actually, it was more than that — they ALL behaved as if they weren’t even noticing skin color. Utterly so.

    The black and white skin color obsession is substantially a Southern and/or uber-liberal thing. Guess what, folks? Much of the rest of the country is busy living together quite well. You all should travel more and pay attention. If you do, you will see my statements are true. GO…..and open your eyes and ears.

    • Scott Douglas

      It looks like Alli beat me to the punch here, but as the author, I thought I’d throw in my two cents anyway. First of all, Real World, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this piece. One of my primary objectives in writing this story was to open a discourse on the subject of race in the brewing industry, and it looks like that conversation is getting underway in earnest.

      As to your assertion that ethnicity is a non-issue, I’ll have to respectfully disagree. Whether or not you’ve experienced or witnessed any instances of racism in your life (and if you haven’t, I’d love to know how you pulled that off), I can assure you that it remains a painfully pertinent concern for huge swaths of non-white people, both in our country and around the world. It is certainly an issue of great importance to the folks at Black Star Line. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but we do not live in a “post-racial” society — at least not yet. Every time someone like L.A. McCrae shows the courage, willingness and creativity to challenge the current status quo, we get a little closer to realizing that dream.

      So yes, I think you’re wrong — but I don’t hold that against you, and I’d like to explain why with a little story from my past. I grew up in Haywood County, not traditionally known for having a large minority population of any sort. I went to college in Harlem, and had friends of pretty much any ethnicity you can imagine. At the time, my perspective on race was not much different from your own — but I can point out the specific incident which disabused me of such notions.

      Late one night, I was leaving school to head downtown with some friends. I suggested we chip in on a cab to save time, and one of my friends stated bluntly that we’d never get picked up. It’s worth noting at this point in the story that this particular friend was a young black man who had grown up in Staten Island, and he was convinced we wouldn’t get a ride because of his race. I made essentially the same argument that you’ve made here, but after almost an hour of trying to hail cab after cab, the cold recognition of my privileged ignorance began to sink in. It didn’t matter to those cabbies that my friend was wealthy and well-educated, it only mattered that he was black. Needless to say, I had plenty of time to think about how misguided my perspective had been during the long, awkward silence of our train ride out of Harlem.

      Now, I’m glad you had a good time in Cincinnati — but I suspect that if you had bothered to ask any of the black people you interacted with about their thoughts on the current state of racism in America, they would have told you that it is still very much a reality. Mark Twain once said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I’ve always been inclined to agree with him on this point, but in the context of your condescending admonition that everyone should travel more, you also managed to make some pretty prejudicial statements about liberals and Southerners, so maybe travel isn’t the panacea Twain and I believed it to be. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’re probably a conservative, and probably not from around here. If that is in fact the case, and if you do indeed have some sort of problem with Southern liberals, it sounds like Asheville may not be the right town for you.

      Again, I doubt there was any malicious intent underlying your comment, but I do think you’re looking at this story from the wrong angle. As a white, cisgendered heterosexual male, I’ve had a lot of advantages in my life that I didn’t realize weren’t available to everyone. It took the admittedly modest experience with the hard truths of bigotry that I just recounted (among many others) to change my worldview, and that’s why McCrae’s race and sexual identity are so critical to the story of Black Star Line. As someone who has worked in the beer industry for many years, I can state with no equivocation that every single industry professional I’ve spoken with is excited to see more diversity in the craft beer scene. If you’ve ever been to a beer festival or brewer’s convention, you’ve probably noticed that the representation of minorities at these events is far from proportional. We’d all like to see the beer world start to look more like the real world, and Black Star Line is the first step to making that happen in Western North Carolina.

      It is my belief that most people are fundamentally good, even if they’re operating under significant misapprehensions about the world around them. Because I’ve gone through life with my eyes open, I’ve come to recognize that not everybody gets a fair shake. That’s not right, and it’s not the way things should be, but that’s the way it is as of June 7, 2017. Yes, significant progress has been made, but we’ve got a long way to go before the differences between human beings are legitimately outweighed by the undeniably unifying similarities inherent to the human experience. Black Star Line is doing its part to advance this process in the small corner of the world that is the independent beer industry. I don’t think there’s anything “ridiculous” about that.

      • The Real World

        Scott – Here are my problems with what you’ve said.

        1 – “my perspective on race was not much different from your own” — you don’t know my perspective! But have decided that you do and have assigned me one. Do you see a problem there? (Btw, if you take 10 steps back, you’ll likely see how this singular predisposition on your part influences much of the remainder of what you said and declare that you believe).

        2 – The guilt you’ve decided to assume because of your skin color is your issue. You have no right to infer that others of your color should feel the same as you do. Do you even remotely grasp how utterly racist that concept is? I’ll bet not. While 10 steps back, think about that one.

        3 – Not ever, do I hear or read about the “enlightened” folks saying one word about people with brown or yellow skin. Concern for any discrimination they experience is conspicuously absent. Why is that, Scott? And do you notice how, for example, Hispanics and Asians aren’t wallowing in pity. They’re too busy living their lives, working hard, raising their families, etc. Which means they are, of course, capable just like the rest of humanity. So, look how this circles around to a certain portion of white people wanting to regard black people like victims and inepts. As if they’re automatically downtrodden and need your white help. Do you see how racist and arrogant that view/behavior is?

        4 – And because you’ve displayed that you feel entitled to assume — you have assigned me my politics and suggested that I may not belong here. Do you see more problems with your massive assumptions? And, oh dear Scott, what happened to diversity and tolerance? Aaah, yes, you don’t actually believe in it. You only believe in YOUR version of diversity. Please.

        5 – “I’ve come to recognize that not everybody gets a fair shake.” — ok, that was downright funny and I chuckled. Do you think? You certainly evidenced yourself a youngster on that statement. But, I don’t hold it against you. Would you like to hear about the numerous RAW deals I’ve experienced in my life? Yea, I figured not. Interesting how that works.

        • Scott Douglas

          1. I’m referring specifically to the perspective you elucidated in your initial comment. You said, and I quote: “[…] the numerous interactions I had and also observed between black and white people were utterly contrary to what loads of people here and elsewhere seem to want to believe and promote,” later adding: “The black and white skin color obsession is substantially a Southern and/or uber-liberal thing.” The perspective implicit to your statement is that racism is a fictional construct that exists only in the minds of those silly ol’ Southern liberals. If I really have to tell you how wrongheaded that position is, this is going to be a long conversation. The level of hypocrisy here would be laughable if it weren’t so sad, as you not only assigned a presumptive position to me, but also to all Southern liberals — and bear in mind, I am not even the only commenter here that interpreted your position as such. So it’s fine when you make baseless assumptions about a huge subset of the populace, but when somebody reads the words that you wrote and accepts them at face value, you feel that you’ve somehow been wronged and take offense?

          2. At no point did I say that I feel guilty about the color of my skin. I’m very proud of my Scottish, Irish and German ancestry. I did, however, acknowledge that in my youth I failed to adequately empathize with people of different ethnic identities due to my lack of life experience. What’s your excuse?

          3.If this is the case, then you must not read or listen enough. Are you unfamiliar with the ongoing controversy surrounding the whitewashing of Asian characters in American film and television? Many media outlets have reported on the phenomena and its deleterious effects on race relations and multicultural representation in popular media, and I myself have participated in that particular conversation through my film reviews. And perhaps you have managed to turn a blind eye to the persecutive implications of our President’s proposed border wall? Or is that just another story that you feel has nothing to do with ethnicity? And just FYI, referring to specific ethnic groups as “brown” or “yellow” is not really considered to be in good taste in 2017.

          4. I never suggested that you don’t belong here, I suggested that you may not be happy here — big difference. Based on your apparent disdain for Southerners and liberals (and before you protest, I don’t think there can be any doubt you were using those labels pejoratively) I can’t imagine why you decided to move to one of the most liberal cities in the Southeast. This place and its people must annoy the hell out of you on a daily basis. But cheer up, I hear Cincinnati’s nice this time of year.

          5. Before I read this follow-up rant, I would’ve been happy to hear all about your life story, good or bad. Now? Meh.

          You have made several highly offensive accusations of a personal nature against me here, none of which are defensible or have any basis in reality — in psychological terms, this is referred to as “projection.” You think I’m not in favor of diversity? The entire point of my article, the very point to which you originally objected, was that I wanted to highlight and encourage the growth of diversity in an industry that I care about. You think I’m a racist? Only one person in this conversation comes across as a racist — here’s a hint, it’s not me. Am I intolerant? Yes, I am intolerant — of bigoted blowhards who don’t have the sense to quit while they’re ahead.

          I made great efforts to be deferential and diplomatic in response to your initial tirade despite the fact that I sensed a distinct undercurrent of bile and vitriol in your statements. I’m truly sorry that you weren’t willing to gracefully accept our difference of opinions. It’s a shame that, even in this day and age, people can’t respectfully disagree on divisive and sensitive issues without devolving into name-calling and finger-pointing. But rest assured, your misguided accusations of racism and intolerance reflect far more poorly on you than they do on me.

          • The Real World

            Rather than an ounce of humility of recognition that you have no right to assign people their views or objectives, instead you double and triple down on that very presumptuous behavior. Amazing, but not especially surprising.

            You are utterly off-base on so many things I’ve put forth and, clearly, do not care that you are — otherwise you would have posed clarifying questions. There is nowhere valid and reasonable to go in discussion with a person that operates that way. So, good day.

            Separately, for any readers interested: the color of the skin, sexual or gender orientation, height, weight, political philosophy, ETC. ETC. of business owners have no bearing on whether their businesses will succeed or fail. The market doesn’t care. Consumers value and will support businesses that offer quality products, at appropriate prices and provide reasonable service. Miss on any of those, let alone more than one of them, and it’s only a matter of time before the lights go out.

            My congratulations to the McCrae’s for having the guts to put it on the line and I wish you much success.

    • Jeff

      Racism doesn’t exist because I saw so in my little trip to exotic Cincinnati. Ha!!

  2. Alli Marshall

    While the hope is that we can one day live in a post-racial society, much work must be done to reach that point. But this story addresses both issues with access and inclusion — which are real — and also shows inroads to a solution. As the writer notes, racial and gender proportionality are known disparities within the craft brewing industry, and that makes it a very big deal that L.A. McCrae and their crew are making a go of Black Star Line. The brewery is also noteworthy in that it’s leveraging an intersectional love of beer as a platform for conversations around race, and it’s experimenting with different flavor combinationss that commemorate black artists and innovators while pointedly appealing to African-American tastes.

    Racial disparity is real in this country. The system is set up so that those of privilege (whites) don’t notice, because we don’t feel privilege until we don’t have it. Look at the statistics around race and incarceration, educational achievement gap, home ownership, high-ranking positions in corporations, unemployment, health care, and wealth distribution. The numbers don’t lie. But until we make sure that people of color are included in the conversation and visible in all areas of American life — from diverse communities to diverse breweries — those disparities are unlikely to change.

    • The Real World

      “The numbers don’t lie.” — oh, my my ….. a totally inaccurate statement. Another youngster.

      Alli, every single day of the week — regular people, businesses, politicians and agenda-driven political groups, non-profits, governments and on and on — manipulate numbers to suit their purposes. This is not new but probably worse now than, say, 100 years ago. There are deceptions deployed every single day. Turn on your TV or computer and false information will be offered continuously. It’s called ‘programming’ for a reason.

      • luther blissett

        “It’s called ‘programming’ for a reason.”

        Yeah, just not the reason you think. Contrarianism for its own sake — and for the sake of showing off how much of a contrarian you are — quickly becomes a tired schtick.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.