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Major in Beer

by | Jul 13, 2020

Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing, is probably not an oracle, but he sounded prophetic on Feb. 28 of this year when he told the New England Brewers Summit, “There are tough times ahead, and beer is not immune to market forces.” The growth of hard seltzer’s popularity seemed like more of a threat than coronavirus, but two weeks later, all those brewers had closed their tasting rooms and stopped kegging beer. Most furloughed some or all of their employees. Tough times, indeed.  

Allagash was in a better position than most to adjust. “We have kept all of our staff employed without furloughs,” Tod told me. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we completely reconfigured our financial plan around the goal of keeping our team employed.” Tasting room staff were reassigned to packaging, and sales staff shifted from bars and restaurants to grocery and liquor stores. Allagash also redirected some employees to assist food pantries and other philanthropic agencies. 

More recently, Allagash announced it’s brewing a stout called Black is Beautiful as part of a project initiated by Weathered Souls Brewing Company, in San Antonio, Texas. Marcus Baskerville, co-founder and head brewer at Weathered Souls, created and released the recipe and label, asking only that participating breweries donate all proceeds from the beer’s sale to organizations that support equality or police reform, or that provide legal defense for those who can’t afford it. More than 900 breweries in 17 countries and all 50 states have joined the initiative, including over a dozen in Maine. 

Jeff Pillet-Shore, Allagash’s marketing director, said this special stout is part of the brewery’s larger commitment to equality. All profits from online sales during one week last month were donated to three groups fighting for racial justice. Allagash also used its considerable social-media presence “as a way to amplify more Black voices in the beer community and beyond,” Pillet-Shore wrote.   

Bissell Brothers, which also avoided layoffs, is releasing its own version of Black is Beautiful. Their in-house distribution team enabled them to pivot to home deliveries, and that’s been so successful that monthly sales figures are roughly even with last year’s. The Portland brewery will be donating $5,000 each to Portland Black Lives Matter, Maine NAACP, and Maine Initiatives.

Like Pillet-Shore, head brewer Noah Bissell acknowledged that donating money is the easiest part. “I’m a white man that has lived in Maine his entire life,” Bissell said. “The understanding of how removed most people at Bissell Brothers really are from [black Americans’] experience only illustrated how disturbingly privileged we are to not have to fight prejudice literally every day.” Donating money “is simply an easy first step in what should be a lifelong commitment to trying to better our awareness and understanding of the country’s race problem.”

Many other Maine breweries have struggled to keep the lights on during the pandemic. Ellsworth’s Fogtown Brewing furloughed all employees except one brewer. Founder Jon Stein continued to work 70-hour weeks without paying himself, and yet Fogtown will also brew a version of Black is Beautiful. Stein said he sees his brewery as a community hub, and part of its mission is to direct money to areas of need. Stein believes the community will in turn support Fogtown as they re-open for outdoor service. “It’s not completely selfless,” he said, “but it’s hopeful.”  

Several brewers emphasized that racial justice is neither a political issue nor a charity — it’s about basic human rights, said Abe Furth, founder of Orono Brewing Company. Orono made their version of Black is Beautiful on Juneteenth and invited Jamaica Ford, a Portland bartender who Furth called “a fixture in the Portland civil rights community,” to help them tweak the recipe.  

Like Fogtown, Portland’s Austin Street Brewing is just beginning to bring its staff back from furlough, but still wanted to contribute. Co-founder Jake Austin said, “We feel very strongly about human rights issues here, so we wanted to make this beer happen regardless of the current economic situation.”  

Foundation Brewing, in Portland, had already committed to another collaborative fundraising beer, People Power, a benefit for the American Civil Liberties Union initiated by Threes Brewing, in Brooklyn, N.Y. But co-founder Tina Bonney said, “When we learned about Black is Beautiful, we decided we had to figure out how to rearrange our production schedule to be able to participate in that project too. Its focus on justice reform resonated with us.”

“This project supports an effort to ensure equal rights for people of color, a cause that is much more important than the short-term success of any business,” said Michael Rankin, a founder of Definitive Brewing, which is also making Black is Beautiful. “We believe every brewery should be brewing this beer.” 

Sadly, not every brewery can do that. “While our brewery has been incredibly lucky through the pandemic, not all have been,” Noah Bissell said. “Frankly, at the moment it’s not easy, or even possible for many breweries to make donations when they are trying to keep their businesses alive.”  

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