New program hopes to build racial diversity in Michigan microbreweries
- The Nain Rouge Brewery in Midtown Detroit opened this spring as a training brewery
- Diverse students can graduate from a 12-week program after learning how to make beer
- Out of the 350 Michigan breweries, only four are Black-owned and 15 are owned by women
Since he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1995, Jon Carlson has worked in the brewing industry. He’s terrible at actually making beer, Carlson joked, but he knows the ins and outs of the business better than the taste of a Corona with lime.
When he would come home from work at the end of the day, his daughter — who identifies as mixed race — would give him a hug and tell him she planned to one day follow in his footsteps.
“As a little girl she was always like, ‘I can’t wait to do what you do Daddy,’ ” Carlson recalled. “At the time, I thought, there’s nobody who looks like her actually doing that.”
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A past proprietor of several brewing companies including Northern United Brewing Co. — the company that oversees Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak Brewing Company — Carlson said almost every brewery owner and brewmaster he’s met over the years has been a white man.
“The majority of the owners and brewers in the craft industry are white dudes with silly goatees like me, and that’s just a mistake,” Carlson said.
The first Black-owned brewery in the state opened in Grand Rapids in late 2020, and Detroit got its first one in 2021 even though 77 percent of the city’s population is Black. Out of more than 350 Michigan breweries, there are currently only four in the state that are Black owned — or about one percent. Fifteen Michigan breweries are owned or co-owned by women.
“It certainly does not represent society,” Cory Emal, a professor of fermentation science at Eastern Michigan University told Bridge Michigan. “We know that's true.”
The lack of diversity is something Carlson said he’s wanted to improve since 2017 when he had the idea to open a training brewery in one of the properties he owned in Detroit — a brewery that would create career opportunities for people of color and women.
Emal said no one knows for certain why the industry is overwhelmingly white in Michigan and across the country. One possibility: the industry relies on apprenticeship programs to train the next generation of brewers, which often do not prioritize diversity.
From what Emal can tell, white men looking to get into the industry often have an easier time networking and securing an apprenticeship than minority groups and women, he said.
“That model perpetuates in-groups and out-groups,” he said.
There have been a couple of other initiatives in Michigan in recent years to diversify the craft brewing industry. In February, the Saugatuck Brewing Company in Douglas took part in the Black is Beautiful initiative, brewing and selling a special dark oatmeal stout. A percent of the sales went to the Harriet Baskerville Incubation Program, which supports racial minority groups and women looking to get into the industry.
According to the Black is Beautiful website, 34 other Michigan breweries have since joined the initiative.
Carlson said he is not aware of other breweries in the state specifically offering a comprehensive training experience for marginalized communities.
The Ann Arbor-based real estate company Carlson is a partner of, 3Mission, purchased several properties in Midtown with a local non-profit Midtown Detroit, Inc. over 10 years ago to develop, so Carlson still had vacant space to use for his passion project.
After construction and pandemic related delays, Carlson opened the Nain Rouge Brewery in 2022 in Midtown Detroit. In May, he partnered with EMU’s fermentation science program along with Midtown Detroit, Inc. to launch a 12-week intensive brewery training program at Nain Rouge.
Even though EMU professors are collaborating on the program, the students were not enrolled at the University, nor did they have to pay EMU tuition. They also do not receive college credit or a brewer’s license upon graduation.
To operate a microbrewery in Michigan and sell beer, graduated students would still need to apply for a state-issued license. That process can take several months since most breweries will purchase real estate and establish a corporation or LLC before applying for a license.
The first group of admitted students, four total, graduated from the Nain Rouge program on June 23. Since it was the program’s first go-around, Carlson said he wanted to keep the number of enrolled students low. Because of scholarship costs and spatial constraints, the next iteration of the program is also expected to have no more than six students.
Right now, accepted students with an income less than 80 percent the area median income in their county do not have to pay to participate, while other students have to pay $1,500 for the 12-week program. In 2020, 80 percent of the area median income in Detroit for a two-person household was $50,240.
According to Susan Mosey, the director of Midtown Detroit Inc., who was in charge of the application process, the program is structured so that at least half of admitted students are racial minorities or women from Detroit. The other half can be from any background.
The small class size means they are not going to change the demographics of the brewing industry overnight, Gregg Wilmes, Emal’s partner and an EMU associate professor of fermentation science, told Bridge. He said with every iteration of the program, the impact could be “magnified,” though, if those students start breweries of their own — hiring and inspiring diverse brewers.
“Obviously [four students] is not a gigantic number,” Wilmes said. “But this is the first time that we have tried this after five years of working, so I believe that it is a start. The perception that this industry is welcoming to all communities is going to be a big step. There's a high likelihood of a magnifying effect.”
Lamont Lindsey, who identifies as Black, was one of the students who completed the first run of the program. He graduated from Heritage High School in Saginaw before moving to Detroit to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business management at Wayne State University. He graduated in 2009 and started working in property management. But about three years ago, around the time he started working for Midtown Detroit, Inc., Lindsey had beer on his mind.
“I saw a lot of breweries popping up in the Midtown Detroit area,” Lindsey said. “I wanted to know more about the process.”
When he found out that the nonprofit he was working for was collaborating on the Nain Rouge training program, he decided to apply. For three months, his Mondays were spent touring local breweries and meeting with brewmasters. One day a week, Lindsey studied the science of beer in the classroom with Emal and Wilmes for four hours. The rest of the week he was at Nain Rouge for several hours a day learning how to make beer or practicing hospitality at Smith and Co. — a restaurant Carlson owns next door to the brewery that sells Nain Rouge beer.
Lindsey said while he enjoyed the time spent in the classroom, he appreciated that the majority of the experience was hands-on.
“It's a little difficult for me to sit and just retain information like in a classroom setting,” Lindsey said. “I always have to move around so the actual physical aspect of the job was more entertaining. It made everything else make sense.”
For the time spent in the classroom, Emal and Wilmes hope that their interactive lessons will be applicable to a successful career in the industry. Emal said the program helps circumvent the barriers that the apprenticeship model often presents to prospective minority and women brewers.
“Part of the hope is that these students will be able to much more easily walk out of this experience and into a new position somewhere,” Emal said. “The idea is that it could be this training program and that employers can start to rely on these particular students upon graduation.”
Mosey has been in contact with Lindsey and the other three graduates who recently completed the program about their future career goals. According to her, a couple of them are currently traveling the state — looking for jobs in the craft brewing industry.
“I know a number have already been pursuing further discussions on getting into the brewing industry in a variety of ways,” Mosey said.
Carlson said he’s happy to see the students pursuing career opportunities in established breweries, but he will personally not be satisfied until he’s drinking a stout with one of his former students at their own brewery.
“The end goal for us is not to train people just to get jobs,” Carlson said. “But to me, altruistically, the main goal is to help somebody open their own brewery. I’m going to feel successful once we do that.”
Lindsey, the student, said he would like to open his own brewery in Midtown. If he’s successful in starting a business, he wants to hire as many knowledgeable, diverse candidates to work alongside him as he can.
“I don't want a cookie cutter design,” Lindsey said. “I want to do something different, something unique.”
The program is now accepting applications for the second run of the program, which will start in the coming weeks.
Besides the program, Carlson hopes to use the Nain Rouge facility to offer weekend workshops for anyone in the community who wants to learn more about brewing beer. The workshops would also help foot the cost of running the program so that low-income students can participate for free.
“Those proceeds will go to a scholarship fund so that we can keep doing this,” Carlson said.
For people like Lindsey who are looking for a way to make headway in the industry, the Nain Rouge program presents a unique opportunity, he said. With every subsequent graduating class, he hopes to see the Midtown microbrewery industry become a bit more colorful.
“The cool thing about beer is that it’s different colors, different flavors,” Lindsey said. “I think we can apply the same idea to diversify the actual business itself.”
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