Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at podcast@vinepair.com.

In this episode of “Next Round” VinePair Podcast host Zach Geballe speaks with Crowns & Hops Brewing Co. founders Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter about their 8 Trill Pils Initiative, four new flagship beers, and what they’re doing to combat systemic racism in the craft beer industry.

While Black Lives Matter has recently shined an essential spotlight on the need for Black and Brown representation in the drinks world and beyond, Teo and Beny have been advocating for the Black community for several years and began creating safe spaces well before 2020 BLM activism.

Most notably, they recently created their 8 Trill Pils Initiative to provide funding for new Black entrepreneurs within the beer industry. The name alludes to a report released by the Kellogg Foundation, which makes a business case for racial equity. The study found that most industries’ lack of diversity and inclusion is a result of systemic racism, and that if we focus on racial equity today, our country stands to see a GDP impact of $8 trillion.

By partnering with BrewDog, Ashbury and Hunter have helped raise $100,000 in grants available to Black-owned craft beer businesses — but it doesn’t stop there. The Crowns & Hops founders have been working hard to encourage conversations about diversity and inclusion in craft beer, in which less than 1 percent of breweries are Black-owned.

In this episode, they discuss the harms of cultural appropriation, their relationship with craft beer, and how consumers and producers alike can improve BIPOC access to craft beer and brewing.

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Zach: From Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is “Next Round,” a VinePair podcast conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to examine how we move forward as a drinks business during the Covid crisis. Today, I’m talking with Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter, co-founders of Crowns & Hops. Thank you both for being here.

Teo: Thank you.

Beny: Of course. Thank you.

Z: Let’s start where I love to start these conversations, which is how did the two of you first get into beer? Were there any particular beers that stand out as being influential, or experiences? How did you come to the beer world?

T: Well, first and foremost, thank you for even having us in this conversation. I think anytime we have an opportunity to talk about our platform, the movement that we’re a part of, and ultimately our business, is great. So thank you for that. Personally, I got into craft beer over a decade ago. I’m going to say probably about 12, 13 years ago. I think with a lot of individuals, primarily in the entertainment industry, a lot of people here in L.A. are not from L.A. So one of the things that was pretty common was people seeking out local beer, and I just wasn’t aware of that concept. So once it was introduced to me, I just kinda got bit by the bug. I would say the first beer that really changed things for me was Pliny the Elder. But fast-forward about five, six years after that, I met Beny. And Beny and I started to realize that there was just a lack of diversity and culture in craft beer. Because at the time we were dating, and we would visit a few local places and often saw that we were the only people of color. And just being in the industries that we were in I think that that appeared to be a unique opportunity for us to say something. And I’ll let Beny chime in and talk about her experience at that time.

B: I think when me and Teo first met, again, the funny joke is we met on Tinder. So we always say we’re the most successful slash unsuccessful Tinder couple of all time. I wasn’t that familiar with craft beer. Like most people of color, Black people, I knew beer from the Heineken and the Coronas and the malt liquors, et cetera. But Teo really introduced me to the world of craft beer. And for me, the excitement about it was more of the culture and the community aspect of it. He brought me to the Stone facility and I didn’t even know that something like that could possibly exist where you can have families hanging out playing games but also drinking this wide variety of different styles of beer.

And I think that’s what I fell in love with, which made it really easy for us to partner to help identify “How do we create a lot of these same safe spaces and this culture for Black people, for Brown people? How do we do that?” And that’s really how we started. By curating experiences and content that truly opened up, and expanded the palate, and preserved the culture for people in the craft beer space. And that’s what we’ve continued to do all the way up until today.

Z: Awesome. So on that topic of creating space and protecting the culture, did you find when you were getting into craft beer, and as you’ve continued down this path of trying to create these spaces, that there was a lack or is a lack of diversity? Something that’s a tough question to ask, I suppose, but is it the idea that there needs to be spaces that are more inviting to people of color? Or is it more just that breweries need to be inviting to everyone?

B: I think it’s a little bit of both, right? I think it’s the lack of ownership. It’s the lack of overall consumers that you see physically inside of breweries. And then it’s the lack of overall understanding of what craft beer actually is. And I think that’s where it starts, and we don’t think it’s been personally people absolutely excluding Black and Brown people from the craft beer space.

It’s just, you don’t know what you don’t know. And a lot of breweries you’ll see are in a lot of areas and communities of color. So if you walk by a brewery, and you don’t see anybody in there that looks like you, oftentimes you’re not going to go inside. You’re not going to feel comfortable. You’re not going to want to be a part of it. And that’s what we need to change. And that’s how we’re moving forward. And that’s how we really led into our 8 Trill Pils initiative and dealing with racial equity. But I’ll let you explain more about that.

T: Sure. And one of the things that I think is unique about both Beny and I is we really approach it from two different perspectives. I kinda came in from the craft beer connoisseur position. A Black man appreciating craft beer and befriending, and really working to build trust with a lot of the craft breweries in my community. And Beny really approached it from just being brand new and not knowing anything outside of what she was experiencing for the first time. That was not only through her lens, but through seeing me negotiate space, and obviously you can only solve a problem or an issue if you recognize it. And that’s probably been up until this point the biggest hurdle. People did not recognize it as an issue or a problem.

Rather, they would continue to snowball it into something that’s political or something that is taboo to discuss or to talk about. And if you keep a problem or a dilemma in that taboo space, to where you can’t even have an opportunity to have a discussion or explore it, then it’s impossible to solve it. There’s no way to solve that. So I think Beny and I, we always try to create a space to not only talk about it. But as most times at any craft beer bar, the likelihood is when people start talking about things, it ultimately will come down to one or two things: “How are you doing? How’s your family doing? How’s your kids doing?” And, I think that’s where we really leaned into the concept of our racial equity initiative, 8 Trill Pils.

Z: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I know you’re giving away money for Black people in the beer industry, but maybe you can give a little more detail.

T: Sure. The concept came from a report that we read that was written by the Kellogg Foundation on a business case for racial equity. And it was one of the first times that we saw as entrepreneurs an actual case study that was created that showed the benefit of accomplishing racial equity and, and ultimately what the report identified is that most of the lack of diversity and inclusion is a result of systemic racism. And if we start to diminish that, and if we start to focus on diminishing the areas that eliminate the opportunity for someone to be productive — so in housing, in education, in criminal justice, in entrepreneurship and employment or all domains that there tend to be disparities for people of color, there’s probably going to be a lack of productivity.

So, our goal was to really try and impact that as much as we could as entrepreneurs and shed a light on that, so that people understood that accomplishing racial equity isn’t a zero sum game, but rather, as an industry and as a community, we get stronger, for ensuring that these disparities don’t exist in those domains.

So, we created the 8 Trill Pils fund, which was a figure that they called out based on if we focus on racial equity today, our country stands to see a GDP impact of $8 trillion. And you know that clearly is something where we all win. And we kicked that off with an 8 Trill Pils beer and 8 Trill Pils Fund that is supported by BrewDog, and I’ll let Beny get into some of the details of that relationship.

B: Yes. So 8 Trill Pils, and then going into the fund and BrewDog. So, two years ago we were recipients of BrewDog’s development funds. So they have been really supportive of us in everything that we’ve been doing, which has been great. Even before Black Lives Mattered, so to speak.

So as part of our 8 Trill Pils initiative, they are working with us for this $100,000 grant that we like to say we’ll be giving back specifically to Black-owned craft beer businesses to help them financially, in terms of sustaining growth and really establishing their businesses inside of the craft beer space, as less than 1 percent of craft breweries are owned by Black people. We would really like to make a dent in that number and change the conversation. And our fund is opened up to more than just brewery owners. Because as we know, opening a brewery can be extremely expensive. We’re talking specifically to Black-owned craft beer businesses who want to just take space inside of craft beer. So that could be just a taproom, or a bottle shop, or even a mobile craft beer truck. There’s so many ways and points of entry. We really want to help change the narrative in the industry to have more cultural and physical ownership inside the space.

Z: I’m curious, you mentioned all the various ways in which systemic racism creates these massive challenges and also hampers entrepreneurship and opportunities for economic growth. I’m wondering, one of the stories I’ve heard many, many times from craft brewers is, “Oh, you know, I got started homebrewing” and we know that Black homeownership is a huge challenge in this country. You know, as with everything else, there’s just incredible inequality. Are there ways that Black people or other people of color who may not have a garage, or a space to homebrew in the way that might be commonplace, or in areas that are more densely populated, and there’s less space period. Are you doing anything or working to create that base of “brewing know-how” that feels critical to developing a brewery? You know, you have to know how to make beer to start out there.

T: Sure. Well, I think one, you have to consider the privilege and or the mechanisms that would need to be in place to allow someone an opportunity to understand how they could brew beer. And to your point, it helps to have a garage or a space to be able to do the beer itself. And also when you first got exposed to the concept of brewing, traditionally people were exposed to it in college, or they’re exposed to it because a family member did it, as well. If it’s intrinsic in that community for information and or exposure to happen on that, then you have to look at why there wouldn’t be that type of exposure in the first place. And that’s where we ask for people to investigate. I think one of the things that we also have to consider is, we weren’t the first person or the first Black-owned brewery.

We weren’t the first Black brewers. There have been amazing individuals in the space, to include homebrewers, that we probably have never heard of. I think what we then challenged people, especially the income and industry to explore, is again, what was the paradigm that allowed for someone to not only pick up that passion or pick up those skill sets, but also to develop it? To grow it, to have the audacity to say, I’m going to try this out. And if it doesn’t work, I’m not going to lose it all. I think a lot of people might project that they had that amount of risk involved, but ultimately, there are a lot of brewery owners that I know of that had homes, that had a mortgage paid for, that inherited capital, or whatever the case might be. That’s not every situation, but it’s more often than not. And I think one of the things that we ultimately tried to do with our initial entry into the industry was to provide a level of exposure, because ultimately once you get exposed to something you investigate it yourself.

And that’s what wasn’t happening, Zach. There was a lack of exposure, a lack of opportunity, a lack of opportunities to gather and celebrate something that ultimately you can make at home.

Z: I want to shift gears a little bit and just ask about something else that feels very topical right now, although obviously has a long history, not just in beer but, I don’t know, America? And that’s this idea of cultural appropriation, especially in beer. And I would just love to hear from the two of you, your thoughts. I don’t even necessarily have a question other than just an observation that I’ve seen plenty of examples of Black culture being appropriated in white spaces in beer. And I would be curious to know each of your thoughts.

B: Yes. So, there’s been a lot of that that’s happened over the years, particularly in craft beer. Knowing that a lot of these cans are “limited edition” and they’re kind of “one-hits,” the amount of culture or misappropriation of culture that’s used to sell beer quickly happens quite often. A more recent example is Evans Brewery put out a beer called “WAP.” What did it stand for?

T: Wet Ass Pilsner.

B: Right. And used pretty much Cardi B and Meg Thee Stallion’s likeness completely.

T: No, they used it exactly.

B: They used it exactly. Let me be very clear. They used it exactly. And with no regard for the culture of what that actually represents to the community. They’ve not said or done anything as it relates to even discussing or mentioning all of the issues that are literally going on right now in this country. But yet, they took something super specific, something very personal and popular in the Black community, and used it to sell beer. And that happens pretty much all the time. And I’m sure Teo has more to say to that.

T: Yeah, and this is where the problem lies. The argument that we’ve heard and that we’ve seen — to include from Evans Brewery — was that it’s an ode or a parody or in some way to poke fun, which we get. We’re not without a sense of humor, we understand that people have a love or appreciation for something. In this particular case, it took the exact acronym. It took faces of Black and Brown women, that don’t appear anywhere within a way they project their community and their current company. To us again, if you just look at the sheer definition of cultural appropriation, it is essentially using someone else’s culture and identity for benefit by a dominant culture.

And if you look at that from a craft-beer lens, the reality is no one would have heard of that beer if it wasn’t for them using that acronym. Regardless if they shifted it or if they used their image, it’s really unfortunate that you have to argue against an industry that clearly understands what it means to protect your IP. What it means to protect an idea. And for someone to not understand the difference between leveraging someone’s culture, especially a culture that does not have the significance — again, less than 1 percent of all breweries in the country are Black-owned. So where are the checks and balances going to come from if it’s not going to come from the industry internally? And unfortunately Vinnie and I, there may be a few other influencers, are part of the few that have dedicated ourselves, regardless of the impact, to drawing awareness to this. Because it ultimately is theft, and it’s even more so when we’re in a climate like we are in today to where people now have a clear understanding of what systemic racism is and the impact of it. So to culturally appropriate, especially in this era, is just completely ridiculous.

Z: And you mentioned the current climate, too, and so I wanted to ask about that as well. Do you get the sense that maybe — setting aside the last example, because obviously that is one side of it — but has the discussion about a lack of especially Black ownership in the craft beer space become easier? At least maybe more digestible for people, particularly white people? Since the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a lot of conversations happening in spaces all over the country and in all kinds of different industries, have you noticed a change, or is it still the same uphill battle?

B: Yes, we’ve absolutely noticed, but I think what’s so crazy is the first step that everyone noticed is that there aren’t any Black consumers or Brown consumers, even in your brewery. So, we’re moving into the space of ownership because that’s progressively how this evolves. But I think the first jarring thing that everyone identified was, “Wow. We didn’t even realize there weren’t Black people in our taprooms or having our beer, or in any part of our consumer base.” And that’s where it started. And now we’re evolving into creating more space where ownership is an option, and I’ll let Teo chime in.

T: To your point, would it expose the most specifically in craft beer? Just saying that you weren’t a racist isn’t enough as it relates to doing the work that’s needed to dismantle white supremacy and racism. I think many breweries started to understand that they were essentially creating havens for racist activity and rhetoric and thought. And I think if you look at the pillars in craft beer being community, being selfless, being supportive of small business and entrepreneurs and mom and pops, it’s all centered around protecting and creating safe spaces for the community.

If you as a business owner do not take actions to be anti-racist, then you were essentially creating the space for people that experienced racism to not feel safe. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest things that the industry has finally started to understand, in addition to understanding that wearing a “Black People Love Beer” shirt isn’t a sign of racism. It’s a sign of showing that a conversation needed to be had. And also a sign of saying, “Look, I’m open to having a conversation about why you might be experiencing a lack of diversity and our thoughts on how we can solve it.” And Beny and I have been pretty consistent about that for the past six years. So I think if anything, it truly amplified what we had been doing the entire time and why we were doing it and why it was really for the benefit of everyone. Because at the end of the day, we all win if there’s more craft beer drinkers. Right, Zach?

Z: Absolutely, and I think it’s important to note, what you said about creating spaces that are actively anti-racist as opposed to, “Whatever, we’re just a brewery. We don’t think about those kinds of things.” This is important and something for listeners to note, for sure. But I am wondering, too, obviously it’s a bigger conversation or a longer answer than we can get into in all detail here, but besides things that I would assume are meaningful — but I don’t want to assume too much — whether it’s signage or the PR presence on social media, that may indicate an avowed anti-racist stance, are there other things that breweries can do? What are some ways that they can be more inclusive? Maybe especially if they’re not aware so far in the ways that they haven’t been inclusive.

T: I think one, we don’t ask that anybody pander, we’re not looking for people to all of a sudden adopt a culture or become something that they are not intrinsically. I mean, that’s ridiculous. What we are asking for people to do is to not treat this like it’s something political and to not treat this as something that we can’t discuss and can’t have a conversation about. It’s exactly why we created the 8 Trill Pils Initiative. To give individuals, industry leaders, industry professionals — everything down from a CPA to a law firm to a brewery that just wants to help — an opportunity to help people that are interested in creating these spaces and growing this community, and an opportunity to contribute in any way that they can. It doesn’t always have to be monetary. It doesn’t always have to be time, it could be mentorship. It could be offering the services or paying for some services so that someone can have their books looked at. Whatever the case might be.

I think it’s a matter of understanding that there is a disparity in resources, and what we can do in terms of filling that gap with regards to what a brewery can do, specifically. Again, I think messaging says a lot. Especially if you are in a Black and Brown community, and I think Beny can probably speak to a few of the strategies as it would relate to making sure that when you showcase community, that you’re actually showcasing the community that you’re in versus just a community that’s in your living room.

B: Yeah, I think, a lot of it comes from just having employees and people that look like the community physically working inside of the space. It really does change how the consumer interacts with the business. Really, just having any kind of relatability inside the space really changes the tone of the overall business. And that’s really just the first place to start. Let’s get more people in the door that look like the people that you physically want inside of the space. In terms of marketing and promotions, a lot of these breweries are now leaning towards social media just to talk to consumers. If you’re only promoting consumers that look one way, how are you expecting anybody else to care or get involved or want to support your brand? Because they won’t feel like you’re supporting them. And those are just some very basic ways to change the conversation and change how you’re seen in the space. But you know, as small as those are, a lot of people aren’t even acknowledging or identifying. That’s step one. That’s how you can move forward.

T: In the digital space, I guess the best way to say to any brewery or anyone: Change your algorithm. And stop creating a situation where you’re only looking at the things that only serve you and look like you and sound like you. When you change that algorithm and when you consider something that’s bigger than just you, that’s community. And I think that’s what we would ask for breweries in this community to do.

Z: Gotcha. Let’s talk a little bit more about what you all are doing right now, not that these efforts are not obviously hugely important, but my understanding is besides the 8 Trill Pils, you make some beer. What is the status of that? And how is it going in this very strange year of 2020?

T: Yeah, it’s definitely strange. But I think Beny and I really focused on creating a plan of essentially contracting, because what we realized is that there was nothing on the shelf that really represented who we were and who we are as a community. So we wanted to deliver on a promise of making sure that the Black community, that people that love hip hop, that people that love culture, had a product that they could support. That has alignment with the founders.

So we’ve been able to really get some exciting recipes throughout California, some parts of Oregon as well. We’re in about 400 retail locations right now that can be found through our store locator or beer locator on our site that you can access on your phone as well. But the goal has really been just to work with our team and put out some incredible recipes. This month coming up, we have four flagship beers. A stout called Urban Anomaly. IPA, which is already out now, called Elevated Cipher. Go out and get it. Pilsner, that we have called Beat Messenger, and we are going to make BPLB, which is our hazy IPA, one of our flagships as well. So they’ll be on shelves all together for the first time at the beginning of November. So we’re excited about people getting these recipes as we continue on a path of working towards our brick and mortar.

Z: Awesome. Well, I really appreciate the two of you taking the time. Super-interesting and insightful and meaningful conversation. And I certainly encourage people, if you’re curious to learn more, to check out our other content on VinePair that we have written about Crowns and Hops.

T: You guys actually made one of the coolest illustrations of us, which is pretty cool. I think we’ll probably blow that up in the brewery at some point

Z: You should put it on a can! Actually, I don’t know that I can sign away the art. But like I said, I really appreciate your time and insight and look forward to revisiting some of these topics down the road — hopefully, as the craft beer industry has progressed and evolved.

B: Absolutely

T: Vote early everybody! Vote early, and especially, if you don’t mind me saying, make sure you’re reaching out to your grandparents, your great-aunts and uncles, and people that can’t, and help them as well. This is definitely a time where we need to make sure that everybody’s voices, regardless of what they believe, are heard and that they just don’t assume that it happens automatically. So we’re excited about, and motivating people to do that. And Beny, any last words?

B: In addition to that, if people are able to mail in their vote, know that there are very specific mailboxes that are safe and guaranteeing your vote will make it and be counted. So please consider that as well if you are not able to get to the polls.

Z: Yeah, absolutely. Voting is a fundamental part of living in a democracy. And if we don’t all do it, democracy stops happening. So thank you both so much. And, I look forward to talking to you again in the future.

T: Likewise, Zach.

B: Absolutely. Thank you.

Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.