James Higgs says it’s a relief when he sees other black people working at breweries.
Higgs, one of only a handful of people of color in local breweries, works at Forager Brewery as a server and brews beers there from time to time. You may recognize his work -- he’s the guy behind their James and the Giant Peaches and Pass the Hops IPAs. Previously, he worked at Grand Rounds.
“It’s like, now I know I can go places and actually hang out with my friends, and it’s not about being white, it’s not about being black. It’s about being included as well,” Higgs said. “Everyone should be included in these breweries, in these establishments.”
Back in 2015, Higgs was just getting into craft brewing. He worked the Wings and Brew Fest in Red Wing.
“That’s when I first noticed color,” Higgs said. There were only four black people at the fest, one of whom was his mother. But just this year, he experienced a beer fest in August in Pittsburgh showcasing beer by black brewers called Fresh Fest. It was an incredible experience to see a fest filled mostly with black people, he said, which opened up to more of an even split after the VIP session ended.
Working toward diversity
Monique Sledd works at Little Thistle Brewing behind the bar and is learning all the tasks in the brew house. Sledd describes herself as a triple minority: she’s queer and a black woman.
And despite the occasional microaggression – customers trying to touch her hair, for example – she said Rochester’s beer scene feels open.
“I feel like I’ve been welcomed in the brewing community, for sure, much more than I thought I’d be,” she said.
Little Thistle plans to implement a paid internship that looks to recruit diverse applicants, Sledd said.
“Hopefully we can make something and be able to share it with other people in the industry too,” Sledd said.
Aaron Grier, who works at Thesis Beer Project, says you can’t discount what it’s like to see someone who looks like you behind the bar.
“When you do go into a space – brewery, restaurant, anywhere – and you see someone who looks like you or represents you, it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’” he said. “It snaps you back into I’m here right now, they’re here right now… maybe I can get behind it because they are.’”
Grier, also a Rochester Diversity Council employee, said entering the beer industry showed how eclectic and diverse beer drinkers can be.
“It’s a positive space,” Grier said. “The eclectic group of people who come in here, there hasn’t been any predictable demographic.”
That’s good to hear -- because outside of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester isn’t so diverse. Depending on your source, 75-80 percent of the population is white, and although this region is rife with art and cultural diversity, that’s not always represented in our city center.
Craft brewing also has a diversity problem across the board. Over the summer, the Brewers Association released a study (see sidebar) that was clear: beer lacks diversity, even when compared to other similar industries like bars and restaurants.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope. In mid-November the first brewpub in Minnesota owned by a black man, ONE Fermentary and Taproom, will open in Minneapolis. And large brewery Founders Brewing Co. only recently settled its racial discrimination lawsuit -- the company has received backlash for allowing racism against a former employee, including a boycott of their products.
But the industry can be an accepting one – especially in Rochester. Look around -- Thesis is full of people of color on any given night. Life’s Too Short (LTS) Brewing Co. held Rochester Pride events in September, and Little Thistle holds monthly LGBTQ+ meetups (the next one is tonight, Nov. 7!) called Kikis.
“The group that I’m in, the people I’m hanging out with, the environment that I’m in, I feel like it’s going in the right direction,” Higgs said. “There’s been some hiccups in the road, but everyone has to learn. Right now, everybody’s learning at a great pace, and I feel like soon enough, this topic, this discussion won’t even have to exist.”