When Lawrence Pritchard opened Flatrock Brewing Co. more than six years ago, he was — as far as anybody knows — the first African-American to own and operate a craft brewery in Ohio.
But Pritchard didn't want the story at the time to be about his race. Instead, he wanted the focus to be on his beer.
"We’re all fighting to be relevant and to be taken seriously," he said. "And I think that's something I thought about from the very beginning and the reason why we didn’t really publicize it that much because there was a fear that it’s going to be harder for us to sell beer. You want to believe that people are fundamentally good and are going to look at you like everybody else but we all know that just doesn’t happen."
Today, Pritchard is proud of his place in Ohio craft brewing history and more than willing to share his experience as a black business owner in the white male-dominated industry.
Pritchard, whose Napoleon brewery in Northwest Ohio has since expanded into mead and spirit making, will be one of three black-owned breweries from the Buckeye State participating in the second annual Fresh Fest, the nation's first beer festival that focuses on black brewers. The other Ohio breweries participating are: Black Frog Brewery in Holland and Alematic Artisan Ales (co-founder and brewer Jerrod Fisher is black) in Huber Heights.
Fresh Fest, which takes place from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 10) at Nova Place in Pittsburgh, will feature nearly 30 breweries from around the country, including Thunderhawk Alements in San Diego, Harlem Brewing in New York City, Khonso Brewing in Atlanta and Weathered Souls Brewing in San Antonio.
Diversity is an issue in the craft beer industry. The Brewers Association, the Boulder, Colorado-based trade group, created a diversity committee in 2017 and hired a diversity ambassador, J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham. It also launched a grant program earlier this year to promote "a more diverse and inclusive craft beer community."
Chris Harris, the owner and brewer at Black Frog who attended the Fresh Fest last year, said the crowd at the event was a healthy mix of races, as opposed to being dominated by white men like other beer fests.
As a black brewer, he said that's refreshing to see.
"Beer is color blind," he said.
Pritchard, who is attending Fresh Fest for the first time, said he's looking forward to networking with fellow black brewers.
"There aren't a lot of us out there," he said.
The Brewers Association reported Tuesday that there are 7,480 craft breweries in the United States. Harris estimated that less than 1 percent are headed by African-Americans.
"It’s a little sad but I think strides are being made to change that," he said, citing the Fresh Fest event and the ongoing diversity initiative from the Brewers Association.
Pritchard and Harris said there's a perception from some people that only white, bearded men can make great craft beer.
"Just because I don’t fit the mold doesn’t mean I don’t have a good product," Pritchard said. "I’ve heard from other brewers who have had the same issue. So it's something that we definitely have to work on. There’s a level playing field but there’s a stigma there that just because you’re not a cookie cutter brewer that you can’t make really good beer."
Harris and Pritchard aren't sure why craft brewing has been dominated by white men. Part of the reason, they theorize, is that large national brewers have done a better job of marketing to minorities and craft beer isn't as readily available at stores in inner city neighborhoods.
"There are a lot of people of color who enjoy craft beer," Harris said. "I think that market share is growing every day where more people of color are discovering craft beer and are getting into it."