The craft beer industry is in the midst of an unimaginable catch-22. At many of the country’s 8,000-plus small breweries, the struggle to keep the lights on has never been harder. At the same time, the events of this year have amplified the need for breweries — considered essential businesses and centers of community — to expand their reach into charity, advocacy, and activism.

The concept of social outreach has always been a core element of craft beer, but this year, it is glaringly apparent. The combined effects of the coronavirus pandemic and most recent spate of police brutality, including the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, have walloped 2020, exposing gaping needs in the beer and hospitality industries, as well as their communities at large.

Now more than ever, craft breweries are being called to action to meet those needs, from alleviating Covid-related losses to advocating for racial equity. Through initiatives such as All Together and Black Is Beautiful, hundreds, if not thousands, of breweries are rising to the task — even as they grapple with sales declines averaging 65 percent. But for real change to happen, the beer community needs more than that. Even as the industry’s humanitarian ethos is working overtime, its work is cut out for it on the road to improving equity and diversity.

Craft Beer’s Inherent Community Spirit

Craft beer’s very nature is social. While we are now learning to enjoy it in our homes much more than elsewhere right now, the general business model of a craft brewery involves the gathering together of friends, neighbors, and visitors in taprooms. Beyond that physical closeness, many craft breweries create community-oriented ways to connect with their patrons on a more meaningful level through charitable initiatives.

Community efforts have been centerpieces at breweries long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. In June each year, breweries across the country launch Pride-themed labels to show solidarity with the LGBTQIA community, and support related organizations with donations. Breweries in North Dakota and Florida have helped shelter dogs find homes by putting their pictures on beer cans — one even reunited a long lost dog with its owner nearly 2,000 miles away — and dozens of breweries release brands in partnership with a variety of water conservation efforts.

What annual Pride beers, sustainability-focused seasonal releases, and dog-donning cans all have in common is their aim to improve some form of social, societal, or political problem that the brewery has faced in its community or is witnessing at large.

Brewing for Equity Benefits All

On Jan. 20, 2017, Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing released a beer called Courage, My Love. It was released in response to President Trump’s inauguration, and would donate 10 percent of proceeds to the ACLU.

That project evolved into People Power, a collaboration project that in 2018 included 85 breweries in the U.S. This year, People Power is back and shaping up to have even more participants and impact.

People Power’s trajectory symbolizes an overarching presence of advocacy in beer, from the perpetually relevant to urgently necessary. In 2016, brewing a beer to benefit the ACLU made sense because it felt “important to shine a light on the work they do to protect the civil rights of citizens in America,” says Josh Stylman, Threes CEO and co-founder. In 2020, work like that is more vital than ever.

Fellow Brooklyn-based brewing company Non Sequitur Beer Project launched in October 2019 with charity woven into its business model. Each of Non Sequitur’s beers benefits a different charity, with a portion of sales proceeds going to that organization. Founder Gage Siegel says the approach has been part of Non Sequitur since day one when he was envisioning his brewery’s identity, an identity tied to the community that would be buying his beer.

“If any business wants to sell in a community and lean on the community, it’s really important to engage with that community,” Siegel says.

Since launching, Non Sequitur has raised funds and awareness for causes including Just Leadership USA, New York Immigration Coalition, and Make the Road NY. Recently, Non Sequitur donated to the Restaurant Workers Community Fund through its beer brewed as part of All Together, a collaboration spearheaded by Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing. All Together was one of the earliest resounding examples of breweries working together to soften the pandemic’s blow, with each brewery pledging to donate to hospitality-oriented charitable organizations in their respective cities. At the time of reporting, more than 855 breweries are taking part worldwide.

Bottleshare, a Kennesaw, Ga.-based organization, launched with a mission that seems tailor-made for the pandemic’s hardships: The foundation raises money and offers grants to brewing industry workers facing situations outside the workplace that affect their abilities to earn a living. But Christopher Glenn actually established Bottleshare in 2018, after he was hit by a drunk driver while driving home from his shift at Dry County Brewing Company, also in Kennesaw, Ga.

Glenn credits the beer community with some of the support he received, which sustained him through his recovery. For many, Covid-19 had a sudden, brutal impact, with many losing their jobs and livelihoods. Through the Bottleshare Organization, Glenn continues to aid industry workers and has pivoted to extended grants to entire breweries in need.

While Bottleshare is not a brewery itself, its operation depends on the communal aspect of beer. Breweries partner with Bottleshare to brew collaboration beers, donate sales proceeds, and hold fundraisers to help the organization raise its grant funds. Glenn says no brewery Bottleshare has approached has ever said no — breweries have been enthusiastic to pitch in before and even after the pandemic hit, which Glenn credits to a “community-over-competition” mentality.

“It doesn’t take much work to unite breweries, because they want to unite,” Glenn says. “It’s inspiring to see people who are suffering themselves put that aside and think about others’ suffering. It’s all about brethren right now, [not] profit margins.”

Breweries Against Racism

A standout initiative in the craft brewing world in 2020, Black is Beautiful is encouraging breweries to raise funds and awareness for the fight against racism and police brutality. The idea came from Marcus Baskerville, founder and head brewer at Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in San Antonio. The concept of a standalone beer named “Black is Beautiful” with proceeds benefiting the Know Your Rights Campaign evolved into a global endeavor.

“As a Black business owner, parent, and proud Black man, I had to do something,” Baskerville says. On the Black is Beautiful website, breweries can sign up and receive a base recipe and label to personalize. All Baskerville asks is that breweries donate 100 percent of sales to local foundations for legal defense and police brutality reform. As of this writing, 1,037 breweries in 20 countries have signed on.

Baskerville believes this is an example of the specific impact craft beer can have on improving the beer business and community at large because of the industry’s unified, humanitarian spirit.

“You look at this and you can say, there’s no other industry where there’ve been over 900 different businesses involved in one cause,” Baskerville says. “It says a lot about the brewing community.”

In Durham, N.C., Fullsteam has worked tirelessly to support the Southern agricultural community by painstakingly sourcing local ingredients, says taproom manager Ari Sanders. This year, the brewery is adding its voice to the racial equity conversation. With its Juneteenth beer, conceptualized last  November, Fullsteam is underlining the importance of raising awareness and amplifying Black voices specifically in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Through its Juneteenth pilsner, Fullsteam is giving 100 percent of proceeds to the Hayti Heritage Center, a Durham arts education facility, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Fullsteam also donated the pilsner to other Juneteenth events and Black farmers’ markets.

“Beer brings people together,” Sanders says, adding that she had suggested celebrating the holiday with a weekend-long event, before Covid-19 hit. “So it’s important [that] breweries know what they stand for and who they are. It’s very easy to do what’s right.”

In Detroit, Eastern Market Brewing Co. managing partner Dayne Bartscht says the murder of George Floyd refocused the brewery’s team on the importance of active engagement in the fight against racism. The brewery shut down to plan the next move — a move in itself that sent a message, Bartscht says. Jasmine Hairston, an employee at Eastern Market, pointed out the privilege in that pause, explaining that as a Black, queer person, she has to live with her experiences and doesn’t get to shut down to reflect.

Her comments had immediate impact. Acknowledging her aptitude for keeping the brewery accountable for its actions, Bartscht says, he promoted Hairston to a managerial role heading community outreach. Eastern Market has since restarted operations and held a (socially distanced) Juneteenth event and launch party for its Black is Beautiful beer. The launch raised $5,000 for Focus: HOPE, a Detroit-area organization fighting racism, poverty, and injustice.

Are Breweries Responsible for Community Outreach?

Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, diversity ambassador of the Brewers Association, hopes recent initiatives such as Black Is Beautiful and People Power “are going to be the start of [breweries] doing a lot of structured and sustained investigation into how they run their businesses,” she says. “If this inspires [the beer business] to become a more inclusive, equitable, and just place, that can have an untold impact.”

Of course, opinions vary regarding a brewery’s responsibility to incorporate outreach into their business plans. But for many small beer businesses, the positive return for equitable actions is that each effort paves the way forward. For Non Sequitur Beer Project, “the benefit is everything is better, the world is better, the community is better. Craft beer becomes more diverse, which is an issue we have [as an industry],” Siegel says. “In our communities, outreach and activism [are] key to diversifying our space.”

Choosing to act demonstrates commitment to the beer industry and beer drinkers. “The community has a great need in terms of employment and mobility,” Jackson-Beckham says, “and breweries have the power to do this.”