Crowns & Hops’ Teo Hunter and Beny Ashburn Know Black People Love Beer and It’s Time We All Listen to Them
The craft beer industry is known for its community, forged both by the breweries themselves and the drinkers who can’t stop talking about, well, beer.
Despite the frequent usage of the phrase “craft beer community,” one group has long been left out: people of color. While many breweries appropriate black culture to name their beers or decorate their taprooms, the owners, workers, and clientele are largely white. As of early 2019, only 50 of the 7,000 craft breweries in the United States were black-owned, and according to the Brewer Association’s 2019 study, production staff at stateside breweries was 76.2% white and brewers were 89% white.
With that in mind, this is not my story to tell. I am a white woman. While I fully understand what it’s like to be a minority in the beer industry due to my gender, to feel uncomfortable if I saddle up solo at a bar or get mansplained to about hops I already know about, I do not know what it’s like to be judged by the color of my skin, to be completely misunderstood and devalued before I say a word. I have never felt unwelcome because of my race, nor have many other craft beer aficionados.
This story is Dope & Danks’, Crown & Hops’, Teo Hunter and Beny Ashburn’s. For far too long, they have had to shoulder the burden of expanding diversity in craft beer, not only in Los Angeles but around the world, but they are only two people. Though they’ve done an incredible job in proving to the masses what many of us already know, that black people love beer, it’s our job to listen to them and to help, not continue to put up roadblocks.
I spoke to Hunter and Ashburn 11 days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, not long after curfews were lifted in Los Angeles but just ahead of the massive weekend protests we saw in Hollywood, Downtown L.A., and across the Southland. “We’ve always moved at a pretty blistering pace. It’s almost been an exercise for moments like these,” Hunter admits to Hopped LA of how busy the past two weeks have been. It’s time we help Hunter and Ashburn, along with all black craft beer drinkers, take a breath and feel accepted in all taprooms. We live in one of the most diverse cities in the country, and it’s long overdue for L.A. breweries to look more like the communities most are in.
Below is my conversation with Hunter and Ashburn in full, save for edits for clarity.
Emily Krauser: Before we discuss recent events, I’d love for people to understand how Dope & Dank and Crowns & Hops came to be. It’s pretty well known that a lightbulb went off when you attended a craft beer festival a few years ago and realized nearly everyone was white, and that’s when the idea for Dope & Dank came about. When did you first get into craft beer?
Teo Hunter: Well, it started with me. And just to kind of level set for a moment, Beny and I have really been doing our best to have as truthful and authentic conversations as possible, so just know we lead with love and patience, but a lot of people are having a lot of uncomfortable conversations, and rightfully so. We’ve never steered away from that. I just want to start off with that.
I would say I got involved in drinking craft beer right after I got out of the military. I was in the military for 14 years, and as I started to transition into regular civilian life, I became a sales rep for a printing company that worked for the studios here in L.A., so a lot of my clients tended to be creatives and white people from the Midwest or other beer-centric regions. It wasn’t until I really hung out with some of these people after work did I realize that there were different kinds of beer other than what I grew up drinking, which was like malt liquor and regular mass-market beer. Fast forward, and that interest grew. One of the first things that I investigated was where craft breweries were in L.A. This was around 2008, and it blew me away that there were breweries. Then I went down the rabbit hole, went to San Diego, did all that, and I want to say right when I really started getting heavy into craft beer is when Beny and I met. I’ll let her pick up on that fun little tidbit.
Beny Ashburn: So prior to meeting Teo, I personally was not really a big beer drinker. Teo and I actually met on Tinder about six years ago. Within the first year of dating, Teo was a huge craft beer aficionado. Going to supermarkets, we would be in the beer aisle for hours it felt like. He would have conversations and provide guidance for people on what kind of craft beers they should purchase.
TH: It’s what craft beer people do!
BA: That was really my first insight into understanding that there was even a community in the craft beer space. My background is specifically in creative marketing and advertising. I used to produce TV commercials in New York and then Beats by Dre flew me out to L.A. to help build their internal creative team, so as I watched and really heard the passion and energy Teo had with regards to the craft beer community and product, we sat together and said, You know, there’s not a lot of people of color in this industry but there are so many people of color that do drink craft beer. So, that’s when we decided to really create a space for people of color to learn about craft beer and come together to share a pint. We started our movement, Black People Love Beer, around 2015.
TH: You’ve got to understand that we’re trying to really help people — especially in craft beer — notice some of these things. Like, most craft breweries will open up in either destination locations for y’all, for white people, but for us, it’s our neighborhoods. They tend to open in areas that are being gentrified or are ripe for it, but what’s been happening is these community-based businesses weren’t looking like the community. The community didn’t understand these businesses because the business inherently wasn’t diverse. So, there was always this kind of wall of the business not really being able to connect with the community but the people of the community always knowing about it. White people do have a tendency to find craft breweries, but it’s also, if you notice, like a flag saying, Hey, this neighborhood is changing, come check it out. Look at what’s happening in West Adams. I think Party Beer is gonna open up in the next few weeks. On the other side of Crenshaw is, I believe, another taproom that used to be the old Johnny’s Pastrami place. So you’re gonna have two breweries that flank Crenshaw Boulevard that black folks I promise you don’t know anything about. This was really interesting to Beny and I — we really wanted to unpack that nut for the industry initially. We were tired of going into breweries and not seeing our reflection, not seeing our culture, being forced to subdue ourselves a little because I didn’t even know if I could be myself in this environment. But real craft beer nerds just geek out on beer, and I was a real craft beer nerd at the time. But again, to Beny’s point, we realized that there was a discomfort or there had to be, otherwise why would people avoid something in their very community? So what Beny and I did was — and this is pretty widely known — pop-ups in the back of barbershops, because you can pour up to a pint of beer or a glass of wine in a barbershop or salon. We used that as an opportunity to introduce people to craft beer in a way that was organic, where we could customize the experience because we realized your palate is connected to your experience. If you are having a fucked up, awkward experience, you’re probably not going to really enjoy anything else, so we decided to curate that.
EK: When you started Dope & Dank, did you know right away that you wanted to one day have a brewery?
BA: As we spent a few years really building a community and seeing the emotional connection and excitement that so many people had to our overall movement and to the importance of creating space for us by us, it was inevitable. It’s just a natural progression to finally have our own space. I know Teo always really wanted to have his own brewery, but from my perspective thinking of how to build this brand, we really wanted it to be more than just community events and activation. We really felt that there was a strong foundation in our overall messaging and mission to create a space for people. Be it a brewery, be it a taproom, it was really important for us to have a safe place to go.
TH: We were doing a lot of events in other people’s spaces, and we had to ask permission on playlists, on everything. An impact that a lot of people didn’t realize was not only were we introducing people that weren’t even familiar with craft breweries to craft beer, we were also introducing them to new businesses in or around their neighborhood. And if we did an event, we took the brewery over — it was a takeover. We created a vibe that was conducive to who we were culturally and the vibe that we would hope would be there to make it conducive for us to want to continue patronizing the business. Once we realized that it was never going to go back to that vibe unless patrons asked for it, we had a serious job to do, and that’s to make sure that we created a permanent space for that. That’s where bringing Crowns & Hops to actual fruition really became a mission of ours.
EK: Has the coronavirus set back your timeline for opening?
BA: Our goal was to open this year, but we were still in the process of raising funds to open up our space because opening up a brewery can be expensive. If anything, what COVID-19 has done has allowed us to rethink our business strategy, which I think several breweries are now being forced to do, to not rely so heavily on the taproom-patron model and really focus a little bit more energy on product, online distribution, sales, and stuff like that. So, it has pushed us back in terms of timing only because no one’s really doing too much right now, but the great thing about that is we now are building a plan that can help prepare us for this kind of situation to possibly ever happen again.
TH: Yeah, it really forced us to take a step back and be very conscientious. It was fortunate for us, with all due respect to all of our brewery friends that really had a huge challenge of dealing with this, that we had the ability to one, understand our biggest tool is still social media and two, we’re able to take lessons from this and put it into our model. This was really important for our potential investors that are currently evaluating and looking at investing in Crowns & Hops, but also, we were really fortunate to already have beer in market before everything happened, otherwise it would have been a true disaster for us with regards to getting to that next stage. Right now, we’re looking at 2021. We don’t have a hard date. But it was a pause that the world had to take and one that we took an opportunity to pivot and make sure that we could be beneficial to ourselves and to the community.
EK: When Crowns & Hops opens, it will be the third brewery in Inglewood. Seven years ago, Inglewood didn’t have any. You have done a great job of branding on social media, but when the brewery opens, how do you make sure the community knows you’re there and you are the ones running it in order to provide a space for everyone?
BA: What we’re doing now is really setting a tone of precedence for how people will feel, that this is a brewery that does speak to all diverse cultures and is really welcoming for all. That’s part of why we had to do a lot of the legwork over the years to create that community and show people that there is a brand and there will be a space that will feel inclusive in an industry where it has felt very void.
TH: To Beny’s point, that’s why we took this road, this path of creating community first, because, again, the benefit that a lot of current white craft beer drinkers have is that they already know about it for the most part. We realized that if we took the approach of creating a community, utilizing social media in order to launch events, in order to launch initiatives, in order to connect with other breweries to do a better effort of diversity and inclusion, that we would start there. The goal to that is, if we have already created our community, once we do have a brick and mortar, there’s already a buzz, there’s already an education within the black community and the brown community specifically here in L.A. that we exist. We do our best to integrate our culture and our vibe into everything we do. There was one point in time where we did a takeover of a craft beer tour. We actually pre-designated the breweries that the beer tour was going to go on, and we themed it with a different period of hip hop. As soon as you hit Boomtown, they were playing old school hip hop. As soon as you went to Mumford, they were playing J Dilla and boom bap and A Tribe Called Quest, and then you get to Dry River, and it’s another experience. For black and brown culture, hip hop culture is like religion. There haven’t been [many] breweries outside of Monkish or Other Half that have that community considered, so we want to make sure that is something that people feel immediately when they step into Crowns & Hops. You’re able to capture the vibe and the spirit and the ethos of a brewery as soon as you step foot there, and we’ll be no different. We’ll reflect naturally as us, which is our blackness, our dopeness, and our overall commitment to the community.
EK: I actually accidentally joined that tour. I was at Indie and walked over to Dry River and was afraid I wouldn’t fit in the taproom because it was so small!
TH: You should have said hello!
EK: I know, but it was such a large group that I got shy! But you mentioned something that I really want to make sure we bring up, because there’s not a lot of breweries that represent the community they’re in but there are a lot that appropriate hip hop culture when they make beer labels. How can we ensure that the beer community stops this from continuing to happen?
TH: Going to where we are today and understanding the significance of that, we have an opportunity in history right now to address and really do some heavy lifting as it relates to social injustice, racial inequality, and social inequalities, and that is specific to the black people in this country. If you look at the premise that craft beer breweries are supposed to be community-based businesses and the community that is in pain, that is hurting the very most right now, is the black community and you are also a brewery that uses black imagery or hip hop imagery and lines in naming conventions of your beer and then you also don’t have a position or voice out or speak up on any level during this time? It really, to be frank, was a huge opportunity to turn the mirror on the craft beer community and go, ‘Are you serious? Is this how you show up for your community, the very community that you also utilize for profit?’ To be honest, this isn’t the first time that this conversation has come up. There have been a lot of people in the black beer community that have brought this up, there have been articles on this stuff, and it just got swept under the rug. [Those breweries were] like, ‘We’ll continue to do what the fuck we want, and you’ll have to be okay with it because hip hop is for everybody and attribute isn’t that big of a deal.’ It’s something that I think is an issue that’s caused from a lack of diversity — if there’s no diversity, there’s no accountability, no checks and balances. So the response to that is, are you connecting with these artists? Are you connecting with this culture? Are you playing to the same vibe you’re suggesting in your marketing as you are in your taproom? If this is what you see in breweries, you need to start asking questions, and if those questions come off to be related to appropriation, then it’s your duty to check that person, to check that business, because to take IP without giving attribute is stealing.
BA: To take that even another step further, look at who your patrons are and some of the messaging that a lot of those breweries are projecting on their social feeds and through their websites. With everything that’s happening right now, it is forcing people to do a clean sweep of who their patrons are, because I feel like they’ve seen a lot of comments and things mentioned over time that they possibly ignored or didn’t really respond to, but those are the people that are part of the bigger issue here, and if those are the people that you’re not checking, then are you playing your part to make it safe and responsible for everyone that’s coming into your brewery? We’ve had a couple of people tell us that they’ve lost a lot of followers because of the messaging that they’re putting out and they’re embarrassed that it took them this long to say anything at all, and that’s another way to really make change for yourself and how you can contribute to everything that’s going on right now.
EK: A lot of patrons in the L.A. beer community have been very frustrated by how quiet our local breweries have been over the past couple of weeks. One of the things I personally love is something you’ve mentioned, which is that the craft beer community, as a general concept, is supposed to be a community. It is generally like-minded individuals who nerd out over beer, and it’s nice to be able to go on these taprooms and speak to people and have what we consider community. It was frustrating to see only eight or nine breweries that have said they’re going to donate or do something.
TH: One of the things that we also realized and again, this is nothing new to us, is that there is a very specific position in craft beer that the ownership will do what they want. It is this idea that the people will find me and they will kind of adopt me and my ideas and my philosophy, so if you have a position, you can’t make me have it. There’s almost that stubbornness of not seeing something. For example, a ton of breweries have always put human rights and racial inequality into the bucket of being political and that has probably been the biggest mistake, to put something that is community-centric, that is important to the people that reside around your brewery, into a bucket that all of a sudden you are not putting in a category of even having a conversation about? If you minimize a conversation or put it into a place of not even being something that you can talk about, how the hell are you going to come up with any solutions? So, it didn’t shock us to see everybody waiting for someone to do something before you actually had a position or showed publicly what that position was. Especially with the significance of social media during COVID-19, you’re telling me that you can operate a business on the one thing that you’ve been demonizing and talking shit about, and now all of a sudden, social media is your best ally, now you have an opportunity to use that same platform that helps save your business to save lives, and you’re fucking silent about it?
EK: Especially in a city like L.A. and the history we have here, the quiet has been disheartening.
TH: You know, what’s even crazier? Beny and I keep our finger on the pulse of the community globally, and this conversation we’ve had not only in the States, but also in other countries. The first brewery to post Black Lives Matter that we saw was The Alchemist in Vermont. Even before it became something that was trending, you had one of the biggest leaders in craft beer having the position that black lives matter, and they were very specific about it. They wrote a long-ass post about it, and I’m thinking to myself, Okay, they’re one of the best in the game. They are probably one of the most sought after. You don’t think that maybe you should have a position or at least investigate the fact that you are not showcasing one if one of the leaders in our industry is having a position? It took almost until Tuesday for people to understand that the community that was protesting on the street was also in their taprooms. It’s sad that it took that long for a community-based business to acknowledge that.
EK: I want to be very careful to not ask the question I hate, which is along the lines of, ‘Can you please tell us white people what to do?’ That’s not your job. What I am curious about, however, is how you specifically think the craft beer scene in Los Angeles can move forward so everyone feels included.
TH: I don’t want to make it sound like it’s simple, but I think breweries need to truly understand that they have the privilege of being in one of the most diverse craft beer cities on the planet — and we can say that wholeheartedly. This scenario of lack of diversity in craft beer is happening in every corner of the world. How the incumbent and majority community is addressing that is what now people are being forced to address. It’s not something that you only address during Black History Month, it’s not something that you only address when a black man or a black woman dies in your neighborhood or somewhere in one of these local communities that a lot of times has a craft brewery in it. It’s something that is a consistent thing that we have to do in terms of dismantling white supremacy and really working towards ending systemic racism. That is a personal decision, and it is a business decision to be consistent along with that. On the statement that we posted [on Instagram], I wanted very much to be clear that there’s been information and documents and articles and journals and books written on how to dismantle white supremacy for generations, since post-slavery. So we tell our craft breweries to do the same shit you did when you wanted to be a brewer. When you wanted to learn a recipe, you Googled that shit. You went and you dug and you found out. You did it yourself! This is no different. If you want to do that work, then do the work. Don’t ask someone to give you the answers to the test so you can just fucking fill in the bubbles and get an A and wave around and say you checked the box. No, you’ve got to study. You’ve got to research. You’ve got to know the history of your community. You’ve got to understand that you are the beneficiary of white privilege and even in its subtle ways, it’s still a way that reinforces racism. So, the message to the craft beer community is to stop sitting by, to stop sitting idle, to stop waiting for other people to do it, especially in L.A. The fact that Beny and I had an event that acknowledged the people of color in craft beer was, to my knowledge, one of the only times that’s ever occurred is ridiculous.
BA: You know what’s kind of funny, too? We were recently the winners of the Brewbound [Pitch Slam Competition], and part of our presentation that really stood out was we were talking about creating and introducing a new consumer base to craft beer. Many other people are like, let’s do seltzers so we can have more products so we can give people more stuff to drink! The most obvious answer is to open up the doors and expand your existing consumer, and it’s so funny how that was never really a thought or consideration; people immediately thought a new product SKU would do it. So, that alone is a lot to think about in terms of how many breweries understood or even saw this void and how they actually have been reacting to it over the years.
EK: You two shouldn’t be two of the only voices, to hold this much responsibility in teaching others.
TH: We’ve been saying that for years. The goal was to have awareness and to empower the community that wasn’t here. We’re not about tearing down these breweries. It is about tearing down paradigms that don’t support community, but it is more about building something that wasn’t there and that’s why we named our first can release BPLB. That was very specific to the community of people that were brave enough to buy that [Black People Love Beer] shirt and go into whatever white festivals they go to and go to every white taproom and know that they were potentially going to face the same scrutiny as the loud and boisterous and excited Teo and Beny, and they fucking did it. I couldn’t be more proud of black and brown people in craft beer. Shout out to black and brown people in craft beer!