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Oakland’s Only Black-Owned Brewing Company Is Here to Make Craft Beer More Diverse

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ver seen a scraper bike mob pull up to a brewery in Jack London to get a taste of the latest saison? Up until recently, I hadn’t either. But with the arrival of Hella Coastal, Oakland’s only Black-owned brewing company, functions like this are bridging over into the region’s beer culture.

“The whole idea stemmed from what we thought was missing in the community that could bring us all together,” says Mario Benjamin, co-founder of Hella Coastal. “We already enjoy making beer, so we might as well do something bigger than ourselves with it.”

Benjamin and his homie, Chaz Hubbard, started out brewing in their backyards as young fathers whose sons now attend the same school in Oakland. As the friends started brewing more often, they realized something was missing in the beer industry: Black folks. So, in December 2020, they decided to turn their years-long work into a legitimate brewing company, with the goal of emphasizing their local authenticity as an essential ingredient in their beer-making process.

And that’s exactly what they’ve done from the jump. 

I discovered Hella Coastal at the start of this summer when they teamed up with Federation Brewing and The Original Scraper Bike Team to launch their Scraper Season Saison. The craft brew, which is made with fresh chamomile flowers to highlight summery notes of peach, citrus and peppercorn, is an ode to East Oakland’s iconic scraper bikes—those colorful and vibrant street bicycles that any true Baydestrian would recognize from the Hyphy Movement. For the first time ever, I felt like a beer was being made for those of us who grew up in Bay Area subcultures as people of color. I was hooked before I even took my first sip.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Original Scraper Bike Team (@scraperbiketeam)

The release party featured a live DJ slapping “Blow the Whistle” and “I Got 5 On It” while Baybe Champ—who started the scraper bike movement—and his crew hung around Federation’s outdoor patio in Jack London with their wheels on display, as the buzzed crowd rapped along. Because Hella Coastal doesn’t yet have a brick-and-mortar location of its own, the business has been collaborating with nearby breweries to produce its beers—and to offer events like this one, all themed to promote diversity and cultural accessibility within the majority-white mainstream beer world here in the Bay Area.

If you’ve spent time in the craft brewery scene, you know there is a glaring absence of Black visibility. In fact, less than 1% of breweries in the U.S. are Black-owned and operated. Despite the Town’s much-vaunted diversity—and despite it being home to one of the nation’s first Black-owned beer companies, Brother’s Brewing Co., which had a short run during the late ’90s—Oakland is surprisingly no different. 

Historically, craft beer hasn’t been inviting for Black Americans, the owners of Hella Coastal say. Years of systemic racial segregation, economic displacement and practices such as redlining and blockbusting have made it so that white-owned businesses can succeed without even having to consider Black clientele. This feels especially true in the beer industry, which has long been dominated by big corporate names like Budweiser and Miller that have done very little to reach out to non-white beer drinkers. If anything, the artisanal craft beer scene of the past couple of decades has felt even less viable for those who don’t fit the stereotypical image of a European-heritage, flannel wearing, bearded fellow sipping on a pale ale. 

Generally speaking, craft beer just isn’t being made or marketed with Black or brown customers in mind. Today, that might translate into someone from a historically Black West Oakland neighborhood going to the corner store to buy an affordably priced commercial malt liquor rather than driving to an upscale area to purchase a $9 pint of oatmeal stout—especially since those smaller, higher-end craft joints aren’t typically opening in Black neighborhoods. 

This is the blindspot that Hella Coastal is putting into view. And with carefully thought out collaborations, they are addressing this disconnect in creative ways.

Part of that has to do with their choice of ingredients and niche themes for the beers they produce. But both Benjamin and Hubbard also hold strong convictions about giving back to their community in real ways, especially in light of the social injustices that have long prevented Black families like theirs from pursuing certain business opportunities.

“As Black men, going to the banks and knowing the history of what our grandparents went through, we have to go all gas and no brakes,” says Benjamin. “We’re not doing this for no trend. We’re coming from a place where a lot of options aren’t guaranteed. We want to change that narrative. We’re building this for our kids, to create generational wealth. And we’re very grateful to be in this position right now.”

Their gratitude transcends rhetoric and slogans. A portion of the proceeds from Scraper Season Saison, for example, went to the Original Scraper Team’s nonprofit, which “empowers urban youth living in underserved communities through self-expression and creativity” by providing a space for teens and adolescents to build and customize their own scrapers. In addition, the art for the can was designed by a local artist, who was commissioned to paint her rendition of young Oaklanders popping wheelies on rainbow-rimmed bikes around Lake Merritt.

Despite being around for less than a year, Hella Coastal has already gotten its name out, collaborating with respected local brewers such as Drake’s, Oak Park (a Black-owned brewery in Sacramento), and Hunters Point Brewery (which is the Bay Area’s only other Black-owned brewery at the moment, located in the HP district of San Francisco). It’s how they spread love, the liquid way.

Making beer at Sacramento’s Oak Park Brewing. (Hella Coastal)

Their partnership with Berkeley’s Rare Barrel was part of a national “Breathing Conversations” series, in which brewers of all backgrounds united to raise awareness for social and racial issues by printing questions on cans and bottles to facilitate dialogues between diverse communities of beer drinkers. In this case, the Rare Barrel took it one step further by offering to donate $10,000 to an organization of Hella Coastal’s choice: Youth Spirit Artworks, a nonprofit that builds tiny homes for unhoused youth in East Oakland. Benjamin and Hubbard say they were happily surprised by the size of the check, and that they’ve been thankful for the support from these larger, more established (and usually white-owned) breweries who appear to be genuinely invested in creating more equity within the beer-making community.

At the moment, Hella Coastal does not have a physical brewery of its own, though they say they’re “one step away” in their licensing process from being able to open one. Once that becomes a reality, Benjamin and Hubbard plan to offer workshops and guest lectures, inspired by the work of Oakland-born groups like the Black Panther Party.

In the meantime, they’re teaming up with breweries like Federation to help conceptualize, produce and distribute their thoughtful releases. This includes everything from their first-ever beer, “Bomba Nights”—a cinnamony coconut stout inspired by Benjamin’s Puerto Rican abuelita’s holiday coquitos—to their recent drop, “Shock G Forever Golden Ale”—which honored the passing of golden era hip hop legend, Gregory Jacobs, with ingredients that were selected by his Digital Underground partner, Money B. My personal favorite is the Fresh Pils—a smooth pilsner whose label design was inspired by the ’90s staple The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

With each release, the intention is clear: to promote the visibility of Black and brown experiences with a California lens, and to give back to marginalized populations. “Bomba Nights” raised money for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, while another collaboration of theirs, “Black is Beautiful,” contributed funds to Campaign Zero—a movement that aims to end police violence by supporting policy change. 

For Hella Coastal, being socially involved isn’t just about pouring good beers; it’s about pouring resources into positive community actions, and demanding more in an industry with tremendous potential to bring people together.

“There’s a little over 60 Black-owned breweries out of over 8,500 in the country. That’s a small number,” Hubbard explains. “We don’t only want to diversify the beer industry by producing it and normalizing us in this space, but we also need equity and ownership, that piece of the pie. This is for Black and brown folks. And maybe we can change some minds along the way, too—those who aren’t allies yet, they can become allies.”

The brewery’s work has already made an impact on the Bay Area craft brew scene. Hella Coastal’s involvement with the Bay Area Brewers Guild, for instance, helped local brewers envision the Inclusion Beer project, in which participating breweries “are required to create a DE&I committee within their brewery regardless of size.” Hella Coastal’s work and advocacy with partner breweries has also created a blueprint for new pipelines into the industry. Most notably, they are currently raising funds with the Bay Area Brewers Guild to provide stipends for POC, nonbinary and women brewers to attend UC Davis’s brewing program, in hopes of further diversifying the field. In a profession that has been disproportionately and overwhelmingly white, Hella Coastal is making waves—especially here in the Bay. 

There is much work to be done, but still, this gives hope. Hope that more brewers like Hella Coastal are able to change the beer industry. Hope that more hops will be brewed for various forms of cultural consumption—from Juneteenth to Puerto Rican Christmas. Hope that Hennessey and craft beer—a combination that Hella Coastal has already experimented with—are indeed mixable.

Here’s to raising a glass (and a fist) to more independent craft beers (and revolutionary traditions) in hand.

Copyright 2021 KQED