When there is talk about encouraging more diversity in craft brewing, people often focus on the financial opportunity it affords. They point out, for instance, that craft beer is an $83 billion industry, employing more than a half-million people, but only 5 percent of those who work in the industry are people of color.
But as important as these stats are, Jamal Robinson, director of sales at New England Brewing Co. (NEBCO) in Woodbridge, has an additional reason to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to enter the craft beer world: so that they can experience its culture and community. “Craft beer has given me so much, from a career to some of my best friends and my girlfriend, to the awesome people that I know,” he says. “That's what craft beer is about. It's one of the things that drew me to this side of the business. I originally started on the Anheuser-Busch side and kind of fell in love with craft and moved over to the craft side. I want people that look like me to be able to have that same experience.”
Robinson is the driving force behind the NEBCO African American Brewers Scholarship and The Connecticut Brewers Guild African American Brewing Scholarship. The NEBCO scholarship will launch this year and provide tuition for one aspiring Black brewer per year to attend the 11-month brewing science certificate program at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, launched last year. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Brewers Guild, with the support of NEBCO and other Connecticut breweries, has embarked on a five-year fundraising effort to create a $250,000 endowment for a second scholarship that can be offered in perpetuity.
Connecticut breweries with representatives on the fundraising committee for that scholarship include Twelve Percent Beer Project, Two Roads Brewing Co., Great Falls Brewing Co. and Rhythm Brewing Co., which is the first brewery in Connecticut to be owned by a Black woman.
The first NEBCO scholarship recipient will be selected in May and start the program shortly afterward as part of its second cohort of students.
The scholarship, like many initiatives in the past year, came as a result of the protests and racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd last May. Due to coronavirus safety restrictions at that time, Robinson was only working at the brewery on alternate weeks. “I had a lot of time to self reflect; I was just really caught up in my emotions,” Robinson says.
When he talked with the team at his brewery, they enthusiastically agreed to start an internal equity committee focused on diversifying the beer industry, bringing awareness to racial injustice and helping the Black community. The scholarship was conceived as a way of helping to achieve those goals. When Robinson shared the idea with Sacred Heart University and the Connecticut Brewers Guild, it was met with incredible enthusiasm.
“The great scarcity of minorities in the industry is stark,” says Geffrey Stopper, a professor at Sacred Heart University and director of the 22-credit brewing science certificate program. “Now that we intend to be an important part of the pipeline feeding brewers into the industry in Connecticut, we’re in a position to do something about it.”
Stopper had been looking for ways the program could help foster diversity but had no way of getting funds for the scholarship on his own. “Never did I dream an avenue to offer that scholarship would open so soon,” he says. “I feel incredibly proud to be a part of making this happen for young Black brewers year after year, and to play a role in helping increase diversity in the industry.”
Robinson says he’s thrilled that the state's craft beer community has embraced the initiative. “I think it's important for it to be seen and to be known and understood that the craft community as a whole, is a generally very welcoming, open-minded, and maybe it hasn't been framed to look that way, but I think the heart and the bones of it are very much that regardless.”
Asked how breweries and beer bars can make their spaces more welcoming to minorities, Robinson says, “It's one thing to say everybody's welcome here. But does everybody feel welcome there? Feeling welcome means having people that look like you in that space.”
He suggests hiring people of color and says that creating a truly welcoming environment “means actively finding ways to be inclusive, as opposed to just saying anyone is welcome.”