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crowns & hops: craft beer for us, by us

May 14, 2019
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“Um, do you want to try a beer?”

Early on in conversation, Teo Hunter is explaining how beer—specifically of the craft variety—should be respected in the same way connoisseurs appreciate wine. “It takes four ingredients to make a beer,” says the co-founder of beer brand and forthcoming brewery Crowns & Hops. “Water, hops, grain, and yeast. That’s it. If there’s more in it that isn’t fruit—or natural—it needs to be questioned.”

“Wine has sommeliers,” adds Crown & Hops co-founder Beny Ashburn. “Beer has cicerones. You have to take a course to be an expert at this.” Before long, there are three varieties of craft beer on the table. “By the way, you’re under no obligation to finish these,” Hunter jokes of the selection before us on this weekday afternoon. “This is the West Coast IPA that changed my life. This beer is intended to be a palate punch. Slightly bitter. It’s super floral.” After a taste, it’s clear that he knows his stuff. “It’s one of the flagship IPAs we’re going to have at Crowns & Hops,” he says, referring to the Inglewood, California brewery that he and Ashburn plan to open in 2020.

The pair met on dating app Tinder years ago. Depending on perspective, the match has worked out splendidly. No, they’re no longer a couple. But they did flip a hashtag — #BlackPeopleLoveBeer and #BrownPeopleLoveBeer — into a legit movement that has connected minorities (an overlooked demographic in the beer market), and propelled themselves to become an African American twosome who is, as Time Magazine proclaimed in 2018, “Changing the Face of Beer.”

Their story began when Beny invited Teo to a beer festival in Santa Barbara a few years back. Unsurprisingly, “He was the only Black person in sight,” she recalls. Hunter shot footage there of him bro’ing out with patrons and telling them he’s with “Black People Love Beer, Too” a moniker he made up on the spot. “We knew immediately,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for other companies for years [before Crown & Hops, Ashburn led creative marketing teams at Beats by Dre and Sonos, Hunter has done the same for the likes of Universal, Paramount, and Miramax]. There were zero businesses curating this space for us. There was a void. And we were like, ‘Okay!’” Their first mission was to build a community.

Within days, they created a website and social media pages for Dope & Dank, a craft beer lifestyle brand focused on curating experiences for people of color. It housed their content and spread their message.”We wanted to help people see that there’s a space for us here,” Ashburn says. “If there’s no community to talk to, then who is going to come? We don’t want it to be just them. That defeats the entire purpose.”

That “them” she’s referring to, as she subtly waves her hand, are the white people in this Los Angeles brewery we’re hanging in. It’s a chic enough for the cool, artsy type to swing by for the avocado toast and wi-fi, yet quaint enough to bring their children. An incredible playlist that dips from Marvin Gaye to J. Dilla, then bounces to Too Short is the only sign of Black culture. Well, that and the three of us tossing back cold ones in the corner. As is often the case, Hunter says, “You can hear our vibe, but you can’t see us.”

The reason Black people don’t frequent breweries, Hunter and Ashburn believe, is cultural upbringing. “Just think about most of us in college,” Hunter says. “We don’t do keggers. We’re in the club.” “And how are those clubs making their money?” Hunter asks rhetorically. “Off cheap spirits.” “And we’re not getting ‘How to Brew’ kits as gifts,” Ashburn chimes.

In turn, Black communities aren’t first on the marketing plan when it’s time to promote craft beers. “We’re more than dive bars and night clubs,” Hunter says. “We’re progressive. People forget that ‘Pub’ is short for public house.” To change the narrative, they brought beers to the two places that function as Black people’s default pubs: Barbershops and hair salons.

“We did our first events as pop-ups in barbershops or hat stores,” Hunter says. “And then we’d invite the brewers to come to that space. We’d have tastings of several different beers. In California you can serve up to a pint of alcohol at a barbershop or salon. We could do that in an environment that felt authentic and comfortable.”

All the while they were gaining attention. Teo hands over his phone, which shows an image on Instagram of singer and chef Kelis rocking their Black People Love Beer tee. And they proudly recall Canadian diversity advocate and beer lover Renee Navarro telling them they “created something that’s speaking to my soul.”

In 2018 Scotland-based craft brewer BrewDog made them the first to receive development fund and became minority owners in the Crowns & Hops company. Their assistance will allow the Crowns & Hops brand Stout and IPA (out this summer) to be distributed internationally. Weeks ago they wrapped a global crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo, meeting their $75K goal just shy of its deadline. “The community showed up!” Ashburn says. “They were not going to let us not make our goal. People are already hitting us for job opportunities. We haven’t even broken ground yet!” As they are courted by other investors, the cash will be used to power through the initial stages of opening their Inglewood brewery.

Harlem, NY-raised Ashburn says her time with Beats is where she learned how adding stories or through-lines to products can propel business. “[Beats] made you care about how and why you listen to music. We’re doing the same thing with craft beer.” Crowns & Hops aim to roll out a documentary series that follows their journey to opening their shop, an elevated version of what their social media followers are seeing daily.

“If I told you that the beginning practices of fermentation were originally found in hieroglyphics, would that shock you?” asks Hunter. It’s nuggets like those that he hopes to push to the forefront: Black people have been doing this.

“Crowns & Hops means to never forget that you’re royalty,” Hunter explains. “To never forget you are deserving of something premium. You would never see a queen or a king drinking a 40 ounce. They would demand the most quality thing go in their temple.” That’s another reason he was so dedicated to bringing the brewery to Inglewood—aside from being a native.

“When you think Inglewood, you think Black folks, families that have always been there,” he says. “And one of the first things we noticed is—whether it revitalization or gentrification—that one of the first things you see when that happens is a brewery. Their community will always find them. We never want people to forget the rich culture of Inglewood. We want to make sure our culture is always represented in these communities. Beyond just a playlist. You should care about your community.”