This is one of those special programs that deserves your attention and probably your generosity. Sacred Heart University (SHU) and New England Brewing Co. (NEBCO) — the latter being one of the state’s original craft breweries — have established a scholarship for Black students as a means to diversify the brewing industry. To ensure the scholarship support continues in perpetuity, the Connecticut Brewers Guild has initiated an endowed fund with SHU — the Connecticut Brewers Guild African American Brewing Scholarship.
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The guild is a nonprofit organization that promotes the interests of the state’s craft beer scene. Its goal for the endowment is to create a long-term collaboration with breweries in the state to provide continuous funding for the scholarship and, in turn, bring diversity to the industry.
While building up the endowment will take some time, the new NEBCO African-American Brewers Scholarship will have an immediate impact by awarding a Black student full tuition to SHU’s brewing science certificate program each year. This one-year program teaches students about scientific brewing theory, ingredient and recipe design, sanitation and safety, brewing management and brewing law. Qualified professors with brewing experience teach students hands-on lessons in SHU’s lab at Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford, Conn.. Participating students also intern at top breweries throughout the state.
The first scholarship recipient will start the program in May 2021.
How the scholarships came to be
At the end of May, Jamal Robinson, director of sales at NEBCO, was staying home every other week due to the pandemic. During this period, Robinson was watching news reports about the wrongful killings of Black men and women, such as Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I had a lot of time at home to think,” said Robinson, 34. “I was wrapped up in my emotions … I just felt this big call to action, knowing that we had come through so much progress as a country, but there is still a lot of progress to go.”
Robinson felt he had to do something to invoke change, to provide more opportunities for Black people who continue to be oppressed. The beer enthusiast couldn’t sit idle and watch. Robinson has worked in the beer industry since he was 18-years old, starting in distribution for Anheuser-Busch. He fell in love with the aromas and flavors of beer and felt connected to beer culture and its ability to bring people together. He worked for several years for Blue Point Brewing in Long Island before moving on to Stony Creek Brewery in Branford for five years. He joined NEBCO a year ago.
Robinson expressed his thoughts about cultural unrest with his NEBCO team, who passionately agreed to form an internal equity committee. It focused on three initiatives: diversifying the beer industry, bringing awareness to racial injustice and helping the local Black community. While NEBCO never shies away from giving back, Robinson said, he realized that with all the team’s good work, there wasn’t an initiative that focused specifically on the Black community.
The brewery already is involved in SHU’s brewing science certificate program, providing internships to students, so NEBCO’s brewery operations manager, Greg Radawich, suggested developing a scholarship with SHU. From there, NEBCO contacted Geff Stopper, associate professor of biology and director of SHU’s brewing science program, and the idea became a reality.
“I was ecstatic when I heard from NEBCO,” Stopper said. “I really wanted to find ways to support diversity in the brewing community. It is amazing this is happening.”
Stopper said that, right now, the brewing industry does not represent a cross section of society, and that needs to change. Scholarship opportunities would help fix that, he said. The initiative also aligns with SHU’s mission and core values, Stopper noted. The University’s mission states: “SHU embraces a vision for social justice and educates students in mind, body and spirit to prepare them personally and professionally to make a difference in the global community.”
With core values such as “promotion of the common good of society” and “recognizing the dignity and worth of every human being,” Stopper said the scholarships is a natural fit for the University. “We have a history of reaching out and being a community partner. This sets a good example for students, too.”
Sacred Heart and NEBCO are developing the annual scholarship, and the guild’s endowed scholarship guarantees funding will be available for generations to come. “We want to be able to put students through the program forever,” Robinson said. The annual NEBCO African-American Brewers Scholarship is funded by the brewery, which is allotting proceeds from sales of its “Black is Beautiful” beer to the cause.
The Connecticut Brewers Guild African American Brewing Scholarship is an endowment and its growth will rely heavily on the donations from individuals and breweries. Many local breweries already have expressed support for the scholarship and its role in diversifying the industry. One brewer who is on board is Alisa Bowens-Mercado, known in the industry as “Lady Lager,” the first African-American brewmaster in Connecticut. She founded Rhythm Brewing Co. in New Haven in 2018. The name relates to Bowens-Mercado’s two passions — salsa dancing and beer.
“What we’re doing with this program is going to provoke a conversation, a real conversation, about change needed,” said Bowens-Mercado, a professional salsa dancer who owns Alisa’s House of Salsa in New Haven. “There’s going to be a lot more me’s running around in the industry.”
Having grown up watching her grandmothers occasionally sip on Miller High Life ponies, she has long enjoyed beer. Then, a few years ago, she attended a beer festival in Cape Cod with her husband and was taken aback by the lack of diversity and lack of females among the vendors. From that moment, she decided she was going to launch her own beer brand.
“I knew I had to make a difference, or try to make a difference; to see where we can take craft beer,” Bowens-Mercado said.
When Robinson reached out to her about the equity committee and the scholarship, she was thrilled. “I know this is going to pay it forward and build the community, diversify and unify it, and that’s exactly what we are looking for,” she said. “We’re ready to tap into an untapped demographic.”
Last spring, Robinson also contacted Phil Pappas, executive director of the Connecticut Brewers Guild, a nonprofit founded in 2012 to promote the interests of the state’s craft beer scene.
“We all stand by diversifying the industry,” Pappas said. “This isn’t just a NEBCO fight; it’s a Connecticut Brewers Guild fight. It’s an initiative we all stand by, and it needs to happen across the board.”
In 2016, there were more than 40 craft breweries in Connecticut; now there are 116. “The industry has completely blown up in the past five years,” Pappas said. “We’re extremely excited to see it.”
However, the industry is largely driven by white males. Pappas believes the scholarship at SHU, as well as other initiatives, can change the imbalance. He hopes to see more women and people of color getting involved in brewing and also enjoying and consuming craft beer. Pappas echoed Robinson’s statements that the craft brew scene is a great, understanding, inclusive community. Pappas said he wants more people to experience that.
Why beer is mainly a white male thing
Anyone who looks back at beer-drinking in general will see it was originally a segregated activity, Robinson said. Speakeasys and taprooms and restaurants were, at one time, all segregated, he said. “Black people did not have access to beer and they also weren’t marketed to beer. Beer wasn’t originally made for people of color,” Robinson added.
When homebrewing started to become popular in the 1970s, the people who took on that hobby had disposable income, free time and basic knowledge of science or beer in general, Robinson said. People also were introduced to European beer when they traveled overseas. Once they came home, they could seek out higher-priced, imported beers. Those scenarios more likely were experienced by white males, he said. “Craft beer doesn’t intend to be that way, but that’s how it’s been. It was never promoted to Black people.”
Craft beer is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but only a small percentage of brewery owners and workers are Black. Yet, a diversified craft-beer industry is better for America, said Robinson. It means more drinkers, more jobs and an even bigger economic impact. “Let’s bring Black people into beer in a qualified way, with training and an education,” he said. “So when they get hired at a brewery, they have the ability to do well. That’s what it means to be equitable.”
To learn more and to donate to Connecticut Brewers Guild African American Brewing Scholarship at SHU, visit www.sacredheart.edu/blackbrewers.
Kimberly Swartz is the associate director of media relations in the Department of Marketing and Communications at Sacred Heart University.