Stories / Drinks, Interviews

This Beer Festival is All About Inclusion

Fresh Fest Digi Fest is culture first, beer second

Morgan Carter

August 20, 2020


Two attendees holding tasters at Fresh Fest 2019 (photo: Reddvision).

America’s first Black beer festival came to be because Day Bracey was tired of being the only Black man in the brewhouse. While the craft beer industry ostensibly encourages everyone to gather over a round of cold ones, those who come to the table are overwhelmingly white. According to a 2018 Brewer’s Association study, 85 percent of craft drinkers are white. And when it comes to ownership, less than one percent of breweries in the United States are owned by Black people.

Bracey and fellow comic Ed Bailey had been running the comedy and craft beer-fueled podcast Drinking Partners since 2016 as a way to branch out of their regular stand-up gigs. Finding a natural fit in the craft beer scene, the two began hosting live recording sessions at breweries all around Pittsburgh, to mostly white audiences. Bracey was used to being one of the few faces of color in the crowd when visiting local breweries, and chalked it up to the city’s demographics. It wasn’t until he interviewed Mike Potter of Black Brew Culture that Bracey realized this disparity was on a national scale.

“Pittsburgh is a very white city,” Bracey explained. “We're used to seeing a lack of diversity and industries here—comedy is white, podcasting is white, the craft beer industry is white. But meeting Mike [Potter] he said, ‘Nah, this is actually happening everywhere. It's hard to find Black breweries in New York, D.C., L.A., and Chicago as well.’ So having that conversation was a bit eye-opening.”

Immediately after the podcast, the three began discussing how best to bring Black people into the brewing fold. With Bailey’s and Bracey’s knack for event production and Potter’s connections to Black brewers in the industry, the three decided to build a festival grounded on “representation, building bridges, and local collaboration,” according to Bracey. In 2018, Fresh Fest held its inaugural event.

Fresh Fest 2019 (photo: Reddvision).

Over the next two years, the one-day festival swelled to a three-day celebration featuring 70 breweries—35 of which were Black-owned—a full day of educational seminars and panels, and a roster of live performances by Black artists and entertainers. As Bracey puts it, Fresh Fest is “an experience around Black culture that beer was invited to.” Not that the festival is exclusionary; in fact, over half of the breweries in attendance last year were white-owned. But in order to participate, white-owned breweries had to collaborate on a beer with a Black member of their community.

“In order for a white-owned brewery to be a part of the festival, they have to invest something. Not just show up with a couple of things, but actually invest in the career of a Black artist, entrepreneur, or politician,” said Bracey. With this small condition, the organizers ensured that conversations would extend way beyond the confines of the festivities. The first year the festival tapped 30 collaborations; by year two there were 45. “Our phone has not stopped ringing from breweries around the country, and even around the world, who want to do collaborations or partake in some way.”

Even with over 3,000 attendees last year, Bracey still fields a fair amount of backlash. “The beer crowd is mostly white males. Anytime you uplift an oppressed group in front of a bunch of white men, there's gonna be the one that goes, ‘Why do we have to bring race into it?’ or ‘Why does it have to be a Black festival?’” he says. “To that, our response was, ‘Why does it have to be a Polish festival? Why does it have it to be an Italian festival?’ Nobody's angry when there's a French cuisine festival because it doesn't remind white people of the shitty environment that America is for other people. It doesn't remind white people that if they pay attention, they'll realize that they're getting unfair advantages and privileges.”

The call for diversity in the brewing industry is loud and growing louder. In response to recent protests across the country fighting for justice for the Black community, a number of breweries showed their support: some by posting black squares in solidarity, and over 1,000 joining in the Black is Beautiful initiative, a collaboration to bring awareness to the injustices that people of color face every day. But for Bracey, paving the way for inclusion is constant work that goes beyond brewing a few beers. “It’s not just [putting] up a black square and forget[ting] about it, doing a can of beer with somebody and forget[ting] about it, put out an application and be like, ‘Nobody applied’ and forget[ting] about it. You have to be actively finding ways that you could be a better neighbor, finding ways you can mutually benefit individuals of oppressed groups, whether that's the LGBTIA+ community, women, Black folks—because it's not charity. Fresh Fest showed the power and the need for diversity in the industry.”

DJ Huny Young at Fresh Fest 2018 (photo: Reddvision).

As with many events in 2020, Fresh Fest was on the brink of cancellation due to COVID-19. But with a pandemic and racial unrest plaguing the country, Bracey felt he had to commit to producing a festival for the good of the culture. “Clearly the [community] wanted something to happen; it’s part of the reason why we did this. We kept getting this response: we need a break from all the anger, all the sadness that's on our timeline on a regular basis. We need a reason to celebrate.”

Despite the litigation between the founders and the festival, Bracey was determined to create an event that wasn’t going to be a “nine-hour Zoom call.” Enlisting the help of longtime supporter Work Hard Digital, Bracey gathered brewers, artists, speakers, and more for Fresh Fest Digi Fest, which kicked off August 8. The digital festival provides over 54 hours of content spread across six different YouTube channels—from panels and discussions featuring the likes of Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver and Craft x EDU founder and diversity and inclusion expert Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham; to cooking and beer demos; to live musical acts. Complementing the content is a FreshFest app, which houses the full schedule, swag, and a list of collaborations. The recordings will be available for viewing until September 8.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a beer festival without beer. Twenty-six breweries collaborated to create one-of-a-kind brews for the festival. Pittsburgh locals can find these beers through participating breweries, while out-of-towners (depending on your state) can order mixed packs of seven through the craft beer delivery app Tavour.

Although it can’t compare with a live event, Bracey admits this version of Fresh Fest helps the festival reach new audiences well beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. “Every time we do a festival [from now on], we[‘ll] have a digital component. You'll be able to join Fresh Fest anywhere in the world, no matter where the physical location is. It allows us to lower the barriers even more. All you need is $10 and an internet connection and you can be a part of this festival.”

Tickets for Fresh Fest Digi Fest are on sale. Learn more and get your tickets here. 

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Morgan Carter is branded content manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.