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BOTTLES

Black Massachusetts brewery owners share their experiences in a mostly white industry

Brewers from Crue Brew, Brockton Beer. Co., and White Lion weigh in

Kevin Merritt owns and operates Raynham brewery Crue Brew.
Kevin Merritt owns and operates Raynham brewery Crue Brew.Handout

There are five Black-owned breweries in Massachusetts, out of a total of around 200.

National data shows the state is representative of the demographics of craft brewing as a whole, rather than an outlier. In 2018, a study by the Brewers Association, a trade group of breweries around the country, found that Black people make up 19.3 percent of the workforce in craft brewing. At the ownership level, it’s 1 percent.

“We know only 1 or 2 percent of the craft beer trade are people of color,” says Ray Berry, founder of Springfield’s White Lion Brewing Co., one of the state’s five Black-owned breweries. “We’ve never approached the framework of our company as, ‘We’re going to be one of the first, one of the first in Massachusetts, or one of a handful in New England.’ But in any business, there’s always a handful of firsts.”

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In interviews, Berry and several of the state’s other Black brewery owners explained why they decided to join the craft beer industry, and discussed their experiences so far.

‘I’m trying to be delicate with this.’

Kevin Merritt has about an hour.

Merritt, a math teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, is preparing to teach, remotely, one of the last two classes of the school year.

“They’re reviewing right now for their final,” Merritt says of his students.

Merritt is also scrambling because Crue Brew Brewery, the Raynham brewery he founded in 2014, is trying to welcome customers back following Governor Charlie Baker’s order a few days earlier to begin Phase 2 of Massachusetts’ reopening.

“I know my wife wants to make it prettier than I had envisioned right now,” Merritt says of wife and business partner Tammy. “She wants lights out there for when it gets dark, plants. So we’ll see if we can make it better.”

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After contract brewing beers under the brand’s name for several years, Crue Brew opened a physical location in July 2018. Getting to that point wasn’t easy.

“Trying to get the financing, that was really impossible,” says Merritt.

To get the brewery built and open, the Merritts borrowed from the equity in their house, as well as taking loans from his brother and mother and friends.

“That’s how we were able to open our business, just piecing it together.”

Merritt, who counts many other craft brewers as friends, says he didn’t see it go quite the same way with his colleagues.

“We didn’t have the experience brewing that some others have had,” says Merritt. “And so — I don’t even know how to say this, I’m trying to be delicate with this: When you open a brewery a lot of people do not have experience running a brewery or a business at that point. They come from other jobs, other experiences. And it may have been tougher for us to find a place than some of the guys that have opened breweries around here.”

Merritt’s experience is not unique. Of the five Black-owned breweries in the state, his and 67 Degrees Brewing Co. in Franklin are the only two with physical tap rooms. Another, Brazo Fuerte, owned by Beverly Armstrong and founded in Watertown, is not currently making beer.

White Lion Brewing president Ray Berry (left)  and brewer Mike Yates.
White Lion Brewing president Ray Berry (left) and brewer Mike Yates.Handout

‘What we’re going through now is much more amplified’

In 2014, White Lion Brewing Co. became the first brewery in Springfield, Massachusetts’s third-largest city.

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Since then, owner Ray Berry and brewer Michael Yates have been producing the beer at other breweries while trying to build their own. White Lion has put down roots, making a beer for the 100th anniversary of the Big E, and releasing a limited-edition IPA for the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds. In 2017, Food & Wine named White Lion’s pop-up one of the best new beer gardens in the country.

Rather than sell its beer through a distributor, White Lion distributes its product independently. The five-year plan, according to Berry, always included a brewery and tap room. Now in year six, that tap room is coming together in downtown Springfield, with a goal of opening later this summer.

“We’ve been embraced by the city of Springfield,” says Berry. “When I go to have conversations with stakeholders in the city in trying to create the first craft brand in the city, it’s an open conservation.

“Now have there been challenges? Of course. We’re a small startup. We experienced the same challenges any other type of business would experience for the most part at the onset. We’ve been in positions where, are we gonna make it the next six months? Are we going to make it to the next year? And sometimes we have to pivot.”

Berry has a degree in finance, and a background in nonprofit funding for community housing. After the police killing of George Floyd, he says he’s been hearing from white colleagues in the industry who seem newly aware of his race and the challenges that may come with it.

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“What we’re going through now is much more amplified,” says Berry. “You have much more attention paid to injustice, some of the prejudices that we face as people. From what I see in my lens, there has been a tremendous amount of openness. A tremendous amount of associates, friends, and business partners wanting to know more. That’s how you move the needle. You’re not blinded. You’re not turning your head.

“Globally there are a number of challenges that businesses owned by men or women of color face. That’s been documented over and over. As a collective, it’s always good to be able to support each other and bounce off ideas on some of those challenges, to see if there are ways to change the outcome. When you have a collective of like-minded people, having intimate or important conversations, there’s a win-win at the back of that.”

In 2014, White Lion Brewing Co. became the first brewery in Springfield, Massachusetts’s third-largest city.
In 2014, White Lion Brewing Co. became the first brewery in Springfield, Massachusetts’s third-largest city.Handout

‘I’m not a fool, and you’re not gonna treat me like a fool’

After a week of shuttling their kids back and forth from after-school activities, Pierre Alexandre and Eval Silvera look forward to Friday nights.

“We have kids of similar ages, which rarely allows time for us to get together,” says Silvera, whose children are 11 and 14. “We started doing this game night on Friday nights after soccer practices, a bunch of us getting together and having some beers and having conversations. Once we got more into it we started saying maybe we could do something on our own, in terms of starting a brewery.”

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After many more of those Friday night chats, Silvera and Alexandre, along with friends Rowan Olmstead, Monica Renaud and Dr. Ed Cabellon, founded Brockton Beer Co.

“We have a Haitian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Polish, Dominican,” Silvera says of the group’s diversity. “It’s all over the place.”

Since becoming a licensed brewery, Brockton Beer Co. has churned out several collaborations, including a Black Friday beer last November with Merritt’s team at Crue Brew. Back in October, along with Weymouth-based Article XV Brewing, they brewed “49-0,” a double IPA tribute to local hero Rocky Marciano.

“It sold out in a couple hours,” says Alexandre.

Building a brewery and taproom has been less successful.

“We’ve been actively looking, for a year and a half now, for spaces in Brockton to facilitate a brewery,” says Alexandre. “We were circling a couple breweries right as COVID crept in. It kind of put a hold to all of that.”

The delays, they say, are multi-faceted. After closing in on a building earlier this year, plans fell through when the site required more work than initially expected.

“We’re working with another local developer who’s interested in that site,” Rob May, Brockton’s city’s director of planning and economic development, told The Enterprise in February. In the story, Brockton Redevelopment Authority head Robert Jenkins expressed doubts over whether the brewers could raise enough money to build out the space.

Alexandre says that’s exactly the problem.

“It’s interesting talking to other brewers, understanding that their challenge wasn’t the money side of it,” says Alexandre. “Their challenge was finding the location. When we’re talking they’re like, ‘Don’t worry about the money, the money’s just going to come.’ And that’s not been my experience.”

Lenders, Alexandre says, haven’t been as confident in plans to build a brewery in Brockton as the brewery founders have.

“We hear, ‘Brockton won’t support it,’ or ‘people won’t travel to Brockton. It’s dangerous.’ But when we had the beer garden, we had people from Somerville, people came from all over.”

“I think craft beer gets an identity as the upper-class echelon of people, that’s who drinks craft beer. That’s who pays $18 for a 4-pack, or $20 for a 4-pack. For us it’s just like, we constantly bust that myth. The Marciano beer that we did, it sold out in a couple hours, and it was 20-something bucks a 4-pack.”

Another aspect of the process that led to the building falling through in downtown Brockton earlier this year also bothers Alexandre.

“It became really apparent as we came deeply drilling down into it,” he says. “It wasn’t until we had another group jump on with us that had a lot of influence and started coming to the meetings with us that everything started to change. It was a blessing and a curse that you kind of see the different narratives play out.

“When we’re looking for a real estate play, they’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t think you have the funding.’ And then this other group comes in, and it’s like, ‘Oh we’re going to take your call, we’re going to sit down with you.’ It’s interesting to see the difference of what happens when you’re moving with a certain class of people — or white people, for that matter. That has been really eye-opening.”

Alexandre says the inability to bring a dilapidated building up to code — at great expense, and before paying to build out the brewery itself — should not be a disqualifier.

“I’m not a fool, and you’re not gonna treat me like a fool,” he says.

‘It would be a major impact’

Alexandre, Silvera, and their co-founders still plan to build a brewery in Brockton.

“It represents — it is literally us,” Silvera says of sticking with Brockton versus building something elsewhere. “When we talk about the families that are involved, it speaks to the diversity of what Brockton is all about.”

“Coming into craft beer, and seeing the very small number of people that looked like me, was amazing to me,” Alexandre adds. “And the ones that we did see, it gets even smaller when you talk about actual brewers.

“I drink craft beer, my brother, my friends. And I think there’s a lot of African American people that drink craft beer. But thinking about it and reflecting on it, when you go into these places, it doesn’t feel like it’s a place for you.”

The Mass. Brewers Guild is listening. More than a year ago, the Guild formed a diversity and inclusion committee, and held a job fair with a goal of attracting employee candidates from under-represented communities. Guild executive director Katie Stinchon has been calling brewery owners of color in the state asking what the organization can do to help.

“A lot of our breweries are in communities of color,” says Stinchon. “When you walk into a brewery that surrounds a big Brazilian population and none of those people are within our walls, you have to ask yourself why. You have to find a way to make people feel welcome.”

The brewers say they appreciate the support, but also that more money or special programs won’t solve what they see as a societal problem.

“I’m more encouraged by people coming up and offering what they can do, what actionable steps, how they can be an ally,” says Silvera. “And also those being receptive to me pushing back and saying, ‘It’s not really my problem to solve.’ It’s time to step up and be against racism and not sit on the sidelines and be a part of the problem.

“I always say you’re measured by how you are when people aren’t looking, and I wanna feel like you’re still out there, fighting the fight when I’m not around.”

Gary Dzen can be reached at gary.dzen@globe.com.