Monday, November 13, 2017

Give Me Five With Black Line Star Brewing

Recently I was contacted by one of my craft beer friends in California about a brewery that I should check out based in North Carolina. The beer world has no sense of operation, lol, as I am in Kentucky and my friend on the West Coast had to clue me in on a brewery that’s pretty much next door to me. Well, no one ever said the grapevine made sense. This being said, the name of the brewery is Black Star Line Brewing and they are based out of Hendersonville, North Carolina. And I have to tell you, I am highly intrigued by many reasons but I don’t want to give you too much too soon. But I love their thinking behind the brewery and the thought processes behind the beers that are being brewed. The craft beer world is always recreating itself to try to stay different, but what has not changed as much has been that of the diversity of it. And I admire and love Black Star Line for challenging this.

But before I get into the “Give Me Five” questions let me give you a little back drop to why I am intrigued and hopefully you will be as well. As a Black person that often drinks craft beer, I often come across pieces asking about where are the Black people of craft beer. It really is an annoying question in my opinion, but it is one that we as Black craft beer drinkers I think get used to over time. Fact is though, there are many that do drink craft beer but those that are asking just aren’t aware in my opinion. However, not having many faces in the front of the breweries and as visible is something that I believe leads to this misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. Hopefully over time this well change and with the likes of breweries like Black Star Line Brewing, I am optimistic about it being so. This all being said, let’s get into the “Give Me Five” and learn more about Black Star Line Brewing.

1) When did the brewery become established?

Black Star Line Brewing Company began in the mind of founder at the age of 15. L.A. McCrae is a visionary who is often inspired by their dreams. They (their preferred gender pronouns) had a dream about creating a 24/7 community center that would incorporate aspects of entrepreneurship, collective work, religion/spirituality, liberation, healing, organizing, performing arts, and more. Over the years, L.A. has been working on manifesting this idea of “Home” wherever they are. While an undergraduate student, L.A. worked to create the community they had been dreaming about for years. Later, they co-created a spiritual community, the Village Project S, in Southeast Baltimore County. While living in Western Massachussetts, L.A. and their community created TRY/IBE, which moved even closer to manifesting the full vision of home. It was while L.A. was collaborating with a group of entrepreneurs in Knoxville (2014), that the vision became refined.

While in Knoxville, L.A. was engaged in several networking groups including the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, BNI, and the Total Networking Team (TNT). They also founded the Knoxville LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Quickly, L.A. realized that many of these meetings were happening and bars and breweries where there was almost comical homogeneity behind the bars and making the beers. At this point, L.A. noticed that the culture followed that of the mainstream culture and that those who did not share this particularly demographic were often invisible and absent. L.A.’s background in pastoral ministry, community organizing, and collective economics led them to understand their dream of creating “Home” in a new lens. The idea of having this place called “Home” was to gather together those who were often pushed to the margins of society. To create safe space, to hold sacred space, and to be Sanctuary.

At this time, L.A. was working Downtown Knoxville (TN). Many entrepreneurs, community members, and friends would gather in L.A.’s office on Friday afternoons to unwind, share space, build in community, and “just be.” Folks would remark that it often the only place they could be themselves and connect with people from different walks of life. Essentially, L.A. and their entrepreneurial colleagues had effectively laid the groundwork for “Home.” One Friday afternoon, L.A. and Jon Coffee were talking about, what is now called our “liberation libations” and having a vision of a bar named “Spiritz.” This would be a “whosoever” bar that would exist at these various intersections. That conversation happened in the Fall of 2014.

L.A. fell in love and crossed the mountains from Knoxville into Asheville, NC. While in Asheville, the dream and the vision began to come into alignment and manifest into the seeds of the whosoever brewery, now known as Black Star Line Brewing Co.

Over the course of the next year, L.A. had the opportunity to share their vision of Home with those who would listen. One person in particular, Steve Cooperman, was inspired and helped L.A. refine the vision and make it actionable. By March 2016, Black Star Line Brewing Co. had been named and began to manifest! Over the course of the next year and a half, L.A. and Steve would spend countless hours designing the future, looking for funding for the vision, and incubating the idea of a community center brewery.

Black Star Line Brewing Company has an “official” birthday of May 17, 2017. May 17 was chosen symbolically as this is the date of the Brown v Topeka Board of Education decision that declared “separate but equal” as unconstitutional. Similarly, Black Star Line Brewing Co. radically proclaims that “separate but equal” is not acceptable in the brewing industry either. The name “Black Star Line” comes from the historical legacy of the company started by Marcus Garvey of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The brewery “dropped its anchor” in Hendersonville, NC on October 12, 2017.

2) How did you come about starting the brewery?

L.A. started the brewery by answering the calling to ministry at a very young age. For the founder, this is not just about making great beers this is about connecting with people at the core of their souls so we can practice collective healing and liberation. This is a whosoever bar and brewery where all are welcome. L.A. is self-taught and listened to the guidance of their family and ancestors as they designed recipes and followed their intuition. They refined their skills and continued to seek advice and wise counsel from new found friends in the brewing industry. Without a doubt, the brewery could not have been started without the mentorship of Steve Cooperman and the tutelage and friendship of Joe Dinan and Lisa McDonald of Sanctuary Brewing Co..

3) What makes the brewery unique?

There are many ways that Black Star Line Brewing Co. is unique!

  • We are the founders of the #sweetbeermovement that intentionally offer sweet and less hop forward beers to appeal to those who are not usually craft beer drinkers and to offer beers that are in alignment with the palettes of those from the African diaspora
  • This beer is inspiring and motivating a movement of folks who had never supported craft breweries, who were not fans of craft breweries, and who felt as if craft breweries did not represent them and their communities.
  • Our commitment to supporting the transformational healing and liberation for our people and communities is demonstrated by our community engagement work, our monthly offerings, and our dynamic collaborations through 314 West.
  • We are inviting socially conscious economic development with an empowerment focus.
  • People really enjoy and appreciate the intentionality with each brew process, the naming, and the ritual of giving birth to new brew babies.
  • We have grown out of the roots of a rich historical legacy.
  • Our products uniquely stand apart from others in the industry while maintaining a high quality
  • It is the first out, Black, queer woman owned and operated brewery. 
  • People are excited about the Black Star Line brand as a grassroots movement that is birthing an unapologetically Black and queer brewing operation that has the potential to be the largest employer for Black LGBTQ folks in the region and thus providing pathways out of poverty for those involved.
  • We’re both a “least of these” brewery and a “whomsoever” brewery

The value our products/services give the customer groups

  • 1: A sense of individual and collective community tastes reflected in each of the brew cycles
  • 2: An opportunity for clients and businesses to participate in a movement of collective economics and liberation for marginalized and disenfranchised individuals and communities
  • 3: A sense of belonging, value, and life-affirming products and spaces in a broader movement to create healing and empowerment zones

Products are different from competitors this way:

  • 1: Sourced from people of color communities first, no-harm, reduced-to-no waste processes and products
  • 2: Business, as well as its leadership, partners, investors, and collaborators, are radically committed to social justice, healing, and collective liberation as evidenced by corporate and individual work and donations
  • 3: Opportunities for education and intellectual emancipation with each product – sharing historical facts and opportunities for direct engagement – create #blackbrewculture area with market, such as tap handles

What Makes Us Unique

1. Social and Economic Justice Focus

The social mission of Black Star Line Brewing Co. is core to what makes us unique.
We believe in “Ujamaa”, which is the ability to “build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other business and profit from them together.” Ujamaa is the fourth principal of Kwanzaa and a reminder about collective living and interdependence. Cultivating collective opportunities and prosperity (financially, spiritually, and otherwise) are the goals of Black Star Line Brewing Co. It is our intention to partner with local businesses and organizations to assist job-ready candidates in creating financial stability and economic freedom.

All employees, particularly those who have been left behind due to politics of pigment, would be paid a true living wage - no less than $15/hour and then adjusted for inflation. We also hope to provide a robust benefits package with certification and degree assistance programs. In addition, the brewery staff would not discriminate based on criminal records which are often barriers to employment and economic liberation in people of color communities. In addition to filling a need in the community, we will be strengthening our brand.

A percentage of proceeds will be donated to local community initiatives and/or organizers that have a social and economic justice focus. Ideally, these monies will flow to support other micro-enterprises through the 314 West collaboration.

The brewing operation will help establish us as a hub for social justice activity in WNC. Our tasting room, Larry’s Lounge, will be a unique, multicultural, progressive gathering spot for activists, artists, educators, community organizers, and others that uses the model of the successful, ever-expanding DC-based Busboys and Poets: a social justice concept restaurant and bar. We will host regular social and cultural events such as performances, live music, speaking engagements, meetings, drum circles, fundraisers, more. Our goal is to promote cultural diversity in Hendersonville & Burke County, to create a more unified community. We intend to be a safe space, a sanctuary, for all movements, organizations, and activists. We will welcome people “home.”

We will also partner with other minority owned businesses and organizations to create a professional network. We will create a robust professional organization, in collaboration with our community partners, to serve as a clearinghouse, mentoring, networking, and referral organization. Western North Carolina does not have a Black or LGBT chamber of commerce. We aim to take the lead in cultivating community and professional excellence through this grassroots movement of collective economics, liberation, and community building. At our core, we take community development seriously and encourage other local businesses and business owners to do the same. We are invested in community, in the building up of people who have historically been torn down, and in the liberation of souls. To that end, we are founding the “Black Brewers’ Guild” and hosting the first gathering in the Fall of 2017.

2. Historical Legacy

A strength of the business is the historical legacy that the brewery builds upon.

First, we will be the first Black queer woman brewing operation. The brewery name comes from the Black Star Line (1919−1922), which was a shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey, the organizer of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and other members of the UNIA. The shipping line was created to facilitate the transportation of goods and eventually African Americans throughout the African global economy. The Universal Negro Improvement Association gave birth to movements and organizations around the country such as the Montgomery Improvement Association. Black Star Line Brewing Co., models itself after the ideas of the early UNIA and the modern-day movement for the liberation of Black lives, the Black Lives Matter movement.

3. Quality & Uniqueness of Products

Several factors contribute to the quality and uniqueness of BSLB products.

We will focus on unique flavors, styles and aromas that are not available anywhere else in the area. Natural herbs and fruit flavorings will be used to give a twist to basic beverage flavors. When possible, local herbs will be used. We will also make efforts to source materials, equipment, and ingredients from other marginalized folks across the United States. We will be the first brewery in the area that is producing and serving indigenous African-style beer and our version of pulque, and one of the first producing ginger beer. Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. This sacred Aztec drink is traditional to central Mexico, where it has been produced for millennia.

We will also focus on developing beers in the style of indigenous cultures from around the world as we use the beers as an opportunity for cultural education. One of the major aspects of the craft beer world is community. People enjoy their favorite beer with friends and family. We are seeking to continue in that tradition and make the circle even wider by inviting the community to be a part of the brewing process.

With the “open” brewery and tasting room, community members will be able to see each stage of the brewing process as we cultivate Umoja (unity) and Ujima (collective work and responsibility). Additionally, the members of our brewery incubator will have the honor and privilege of being a “guest brewer” and seeing their beers on draft each month.

Our production process will also be unique. The process will combine time-honored art of classical craft brewing with carefully applied state-of-the-art modern methods. Our beers will be handmade from an all malt mash in our uniquely built brew house.

In addition, we will be the only pico-to-nano sized brewery in town and one of very few pico breweries in existence.

A nano-brewery usually uses a 7.5 barrel system, 1/3 to 1/10th the size of a microbrewery, and produces beer at the rate of a few batches a week, which puts the total output of a nano-brewery at 1,000 barrels per year. A pico-brewery is even smaller. The common definition for pico-brewery is a brewery that uses a 1-3 barrel system to produce 200 to 1000 barrels a year. This means a brew pub and nano-brewery produce about the same volume of beer each year. We intend to grow to the size of a microbrewery within 3 years.

As we have realized, there is a gaping need in the craft beer community for small start-up breweries and craft breweries with a 7.5 barrel system or less. We intend to take Ujima seriously! We will assist other small (specifically pico and nano sized) breweries as they are in the dreaming, designing, and launching process of their business through our Business Incubator program.

Additionally, it is our intention to be able to produce raw materials on urban farms as well as the equipment small brewers need. In later years, we will partner with business schools, technology institutes, and organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, and the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, Inc. It is our goal to make craft brewing more accessible for those who have a passion and Nia (purpose) to create opportunities for marginalized and disenfranchised persons to enter the industry. Therefore, costs must be reduced. By producing items like hops, berries, and grains, not only will we be able to offer more jobs with pride and educational opportunities, but also affordable ways to brew. Moreover, collaborating with engineers and holding contests to design more affordable small batch systems that are employing green technologies, is not only a “win” for the start-up but a “win” for our environment.

It is our goal to continually reduce our carbon-footprint, while building community: doing something that we love. We encourage and invite our local brewers and businesses to think about ways that we create “low waste” and “no harm” brewing systems.

It should also be noted that apprentices will have an opportunity for a robust on-the-job training program, access to experienced industry leaders, and use of the Sanctuary at the Lake in Lake Lure for resting, centering self-care as a testament to our company’s commitment to emotional justice and radical self-care.

4) Where do you envision the brewery heading in the future?

It would be our expectation that the operation will meet production demands for the first 18 to 24 months. After that, additional production, sanitizing (low waste), canning, and bottling, facilities would be secured. We are hoping to secure a flagship location in Charlotte, North Carolina. This facility would be large enough for us to scale up our production, as well as provide space for our wine and whiskey (in future years).

By year three, we would hope to be in a position to not only be growing our own hops, but to also be selling them to other local and national breweries. By the end of our 4th year, we hope to begin planting for a Black Star Line wine small batch line. By the end of year 5, it is our hope that we can begin making small batches of whiskey and other liqueurs.

We believe that the model can be replicable in other cities. For instance, in Baltimore City, the model lends itself to a partnership with the Baltimore Blacks in Wax Museum, beers would focus on Baltimore and Maryland natives such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and so forth.
It would be our hope that this model would be developed first in cities where there are large people of color populations. Similar to the Busboys and Poets model in Washington, D.C., this brewery, coffee house, bookstore, bar concept partnered with social justice activism and a living history project, is absolutely essential to creating Black enterprise in economic depressed areas. Through the various partnerships BSLB would forge, these economic depressed areas would be turned into economic empowerment zones and stations of liberation and hope.

The first cities targeted for expansion would include Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville, Baltimore, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Oakland, Atlanta, and DC.

One of the judges at Brewbound mentioned that our plan was aggressive. Indeed it is! We are aggressively pursuing our liberation and manifesting vibrant communities with hope!

5) How many offerings does the brewery provide?

We’re pretty ambitious brewers! To that end, we have over 25 recipes on rotation! Our tap room can, hold 14 beers at a time. For our Grand Opening, we’ll have the following beers as our lineup:

  1. Honey Cream Ale
  2. The Lorde Honey Pilsner
  3. Creamsickle Ale (Vanilla, Orange, Honey Ale)
  4. Dat Dere Ginger Beer (Flagship)
  5. Stokely Stout (Flagship)
  6. Amber’s Ale
  7. Pullman Porter
  8. Lil Sneak Hot Honey Saison
  9. Prusia IPA
  10. Karma Citra IPA
  11. Smokey’s Table Porter
  12. True Tale Pale Ale
  13. Momma D’s Brown Ale
  14. Black Belgian Triple

6) Conclusion

Black Star Line Brewing has a lot going on for sure and I say if you find yourself down in this part of North Carolina and Appalachian country then jump on board and cruise on through and not only may you find some pretty good beer, but you may gain some other knowledge on things which you may not be aware. Thanks for checking out another "Give Me Five" and here is one more link to their site for you to check out:! Cheers, and Keep Getting Your Beer On!

L.A. McCrae - Black Star Line Founder
Footnote: See more on Black Star Line Brewing from this piece done by Vice which provides another nice rundown of the brewery and served as the piece that got my interested initially:

Rod J BeerVentures Swag