Film Fest Finds: Film Spotlights the Challenge for Black-Owned Breweries

Struggle is punctuated with joy in the Milwaukee Film Festival documentary One Pint at a Time.

It’s a fact that you know if you’ve been to a brewery or beer-centric bar just about anywhere: “Beer people” are overwhelmingly white. 

Brewery owners are even whiter, and the 2021 documentary One Pint at a Time excels by putting a face on that problem – and it is a problem – and showing the way forward to a more diverse beer scene.

A screening Saturday at the Avalon Theater was the second of two showings as part of Milwaukee Film Festival

Fewer that 1% of brewery owners are Black, according to One Pint at a Time director Aaron Hosé. The film’s bread and butter is depicting a handful of Black men and women who either opened their own breweries or aspire to do so. 

Many of their stories are common in the craft beer world – they happened into home brewing and discovered a passion, a chance sip of a stout or Belgian ale opened a new world to them – but all of them spoke of a desire to bring this good stuff to Black people largely ignored by the larger craft beer industry.

Another theme unifying the cast of characters is struggle.

Jon Renthrope founded Cajun Fire Brewing in New Orleans as a contract brewery in 2011, the first Black-owned brewery in the South. He’s faced one setback after another as he works to open up his own brewery – along with a culture hub to ignite his East New Orleans neighborhood. 

Alisa Bowens-Mercado speaks of the double-whammy of sexism and racism as challenges getting her Rhythm Brewing Co. off the ground in Connecticut. 

And the film follows brewer Huston Lett as he opens his Bastet Brewing in the Tampa Bay area with a partner; a friends-and-family opening night is followed quickly by the shutdowns and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At a talkback after the screening, Hosé described the pandemic as a “plot twist” that derailed the original concept: following the featured brewers to the prestigious beer judging contest at the Great American Beer Festival. 

The 2020 fest didn’t happen, but another unforeseen event provided the clincher to the film: In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, more than 1,000 breweries across the world participated in the Black Is Beautiful beer collaboration. Hosé noted that the effort to highlight and raise funds for racial and social justice ended up being the biggest cause ever undertaken by the brewing industry and a perfect positive note with which to tie up the film. 

Hosé began filming One Pint at a Time in 2018 at Fresh Fest in Pittsburgh in 2018, billed as the first Black beer festival. That footage provided the most engaging section of the film: people of all races smiling, laughing and talking over beer. It was a beautiful depiction of the joy, camaraderie and community that has long drawn me to beer culture – but of course, it’s much more welcoming to white people than folks of color. 

It was a powerful takeaway from the film – along with how abundant charisma and passion is in the African American corner of the beer business. From Fresh Fest co-founder Day Bracey to Brooklyn Brewing brewmaster and industry legend Garrett Oliver to Lett, Renthrope and Bowens-Mercado, nearly everyone on screen holds your attention and makes you believe that we all must do better by people of color in this industry.

That glow carried over into an event at The Sugar Maple that featured beer from two Black-owned breweries, 18th Street Brewery of Gary, Indiana, and the year-old Moor’s Brewing, which is based in Chicago and makes its three beers so far at 18th Street.  

The brain trust of Moor’s was on hand to discuss how Moor’s came to be and how they approach selling craft beer to their core Black demographic. Co-founders Jamhal Johnson and Damon Patton said they’re working on opening up their own brick-and-mortar brewery and taproom and expanding into new markets, with Milwaukee on their radar. 

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)