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EMU professors and local entrepreneurs team up to racially diversify craft beer industry

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Cathy Shafran
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89.1 WEMU
734 Brewing Company in Ypsilanti

Intro: The National Brewers Association confirms what most people already knew about the beer brewing industry– it is dominated by white men. The most recent study found 76 percent of brewery owners are male and 93 percent are white. But there are efforts underway to diversify the market, based right here in Washtenaw County. The efforts are being led by an Ann Arbor Developer, an Ypsilanti entrepreneur, and a pair of Eastern Michigan University scientists who raise interest in brewing through chemistry.

Gregg Wilmes: This is what we train students on here.

Cathy Shafran: Biochemistry and chemistry professors Cory Emal and Gregg Wilmes are eager to show off what amounts to a small commercial scale brewery in the science building at Eastern Michigan University. When you enter their classroom on the fifth floor of Mark Jefferson Science Complex, they first walk you past the Fermentation Science lab filled with pots and pans for cheese fermentation and jars for pickling.

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Eastern Michigan University
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Gregg Wilmes

Gregg Wilmes: There’s some left-over pickled vegetables.

Cathy Shafran: Then they take you past the kitchen setup and down a short hall, where their tour takes you to the real showstopper: a large room, fitted with a half-dozen, 7-foot tall, stainless steel brewing tanks, connected by tubing. They first walk you past the three vessels on the hot side.

Gregg Wilmes: It's essentially a giant hot water heater.

Cathy Shafran: And then, step around the corner to show you the four tanks on the cold fermentation side.

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Eastern Michigan University
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Cory Emal

Cory Emal: So, we can make about 100 gallons of beer at a time on this system.

Cathy Shafran: When the professors organized the Fermentation Science program into a major back in 2017, they were looking to teach practical applications of chemistry.

Gregg Wilmes: Lactic acid fermentation, which helps to make natural pickles. There’s fermentation in cheeses, alcohol fermentation.

Cathy Shafran: But what became clear as interest in their course grew, was that the makeup of the class was different from what they knew to be true about the national beer brewing industry.

Cory Emal: It's still very largely very white and very male.

Cathy Shafran: Many of the seats in their classes filled with females and minorities.

Cathy Shafran: You’re having an impact?

Cory Emal: It's not entirely white. It's not just okay. We are having an impact.

Cathy Shafran: It’s a direction they have since embraced.

Cory Emal: To be very direct and intentional about trying to improve diversity, that's been a big goal of ours.

Cathy Shafran: So, the two EMU Chemistry professors were thrilled when they were contacted by a restaurateur who asked them to join a brewery school in Detroit’s gentrifying Midtown neighborhood.

Cory Emal: Everybody was excited from the word go.

Cathy Shafran: It was scheduled to be of the first schools dedicated to diversifying the industry with at least 50% of the applicants to be from the city of Detroit with a focus on training women and minorities.

Cory Emal: We are going to target underrepresented groups and provide these opportunities to them. And so, we were really excited to jump in and help with that.

Jon Carlson: And we thought the three of us together could start a program and have some change in in Michigan.

Cathy Shafran: That’s Michigan developer and restaurateur, Jon Carlson. He is a partner in a number of brewpubs across Michigan, including Ann Arbor’s Grizzly Peak. Carlson had been looking for the opportunity to diversify the brewing industry ever since his mixed-race daughter said, as a child, she wanted to follow him into the business.

Jon Carlson: And I'm like, "Hmm, I don't think there's anybody. And certainly not when she was little. Anybody like her in the industry.”

Cathy Shafran: And so, when Carlson began plans to move his successful Michigan brewpub business into Detroit’s midtown section, he felt it was time to create that opportunity.

Jon Carlson: We’re putting a focus on women and minorities.

Cathy Shafran: Working together with Midtown Inc, and the EMU Science Fermentation professors, Carlson developed a school program at his new Nain Rouge Brewery and adjacent Smith & Company restaurant. Then the search went out for prospects from underrepresented groups who might help build diversity in the industry.

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Cathy Shafran
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89.1 WEMU
Nain Rouge Brewery

Lamont Lindsey: I noticed the advertisement and I thought, "Gosh, like, this is something I'm quite legitimate, legitimately interested in."

Cathy Shafran: That’s Lamont Lindsey. He was already active in Detroit redevelopment as a facilities manager for Midtown Detroit when he heard about the brewery training program.

Lamont Lindsey: I always knew I wanted to start a successful business. I just didn't know what direction that I really wanted to partake.

Cathy Shafran: Industry officials believe it’s the invisible barriers that may have kept people, like Lamont, from engaging in the craft-brew industry.

Lamont Lindsey: As an African American male myself, I wasn't introduced to this life.

Derrick Hudson: This is my first time ever hearing about it.

Cathy Shafran: That is Derrick Hudson. Like Lamont, he had never been introduced to the craft beer industry growing up in Detroit. Derrick and Lamont became part of the first cohort at Nain Rouge brewery school. Its makeup was comprised of at least 50-percent from Detroit and minority communities. Over 12 weeks, they took a deep, hands-on, dive into the brewery industry. They studied the process alongside the Nain Rouge brew master and the fermentation process with the EMU professors. They experimented with the brewing process with different blends of products and experienced unusual blends during tasting tours of other breweries in the area.

Lamont Lindsey: Once I understood the dynamics of brewing, I kind of opened up the floodgates.

Derrick Hudson: I do have a much greater appreciation for it. And now we know how to pick out the different notes a flavor testing and actually find out what makes flavor in everything.

Cathy Shafran: They now laugh a bit when asked to reflect on their old go-to beers of Budweiser Light and Corona, with a lime, of course.

Derrick Hudson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a completely different experience.

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Eastern Michigan University
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Lamontt Lindsey and Derrick Hudson studying craft brewing as part of the Nain Rouge Brewery School in Midtown Detroit.

Cathy Shafran: And they’ve come to appreciate the possibilities for expanding brewery businesses in their town and neighborhoods.

Derrick Hudson: Maybe opening a brewery one day may be something that's actually, ah, I'm looking to invest in.

Lamont Lindsey: Detroit is the perfect place. Not only do we have, like the best water system, but, you know, we have true Detroiters who know, who are really empathetic about, you know, things that are being done locally.

Cathy Shafran: Meanwhile, an Ypsilanti entrepreneur with similar goals, has started a project with a different approach: Taking brewpubs directly into historically black neighborhoods. EMU Biochemistry and chemistry professors Cory Emal and Gregg Wilmes were thrilled when they were contacted by a local restaurateur who asked them to join a brewery school in a gentrifying Midtown neighborhood in Detroit.

Cory Emal: Everybody was excited from the word go.

Cathy Shafran: It seeks to be one of the first schools dedicated to diversifying the industry with at least 50% of applicants to come from the city of Detroit with a focus on training women and minorities.

Cory Emal: We are going to target underrepresented groups and provide these opportunities to them. And so, we were really excited to jump in and help with that.

Cathy Shafran: They believe their efforts to bring fermentation education into the first-ever graduate cohort class at the Nain Rouge Brewery in Midtown is already showing progress.

Derrick Hudson: Maybe opening a brewery one day may be something that's actually, ah, I'm looking to invest in.

Cathy Shafran: That’s Derrick Hudson, again. He’s convinced, building his foundation, with good education, gives him a leg up in a business he had never really considered before.

Derrick Hudson: I believe that the program definitely will bring up a lot of minorities through it that wouldn't have the opportunity to actually go to meet different brewery owners or management personnel in the breweries that are in the area.

Cathy Shafran: While supportive of any effort to broaden the brewery base, Brian Jones-Chance believes there may be a more direct route to diversifying the market. Jones Chance is co-owner of the 734 Brewery Company in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. He says bringing the brewpub experience to historically black, non-gentrified neighborhoods will help grow interest in the craft brewing industry from the other side of the bar.

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Eastern Michigan University
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A developer and partner in 734 Brewing in Ypsilanti, Brian Jones-Chance is aiming to open Detroit’s first Black-owned brewery near Livernois and McNichols later this year.

Brian Jones-Chance: We want to create a space that is obviously intended for our target demographic with the hopes that, if we bring in more customers, then they'll get interested in the brewing industry. And, you know, we pick up a lot of our staff. That way people will begin to learn to distill or learn to brew. Once they're interested as a customer.

Cathy Shafran: Jones-Chance and his partners will put that theory to the test later this year as they launch the first, Black-owned, brew pub in Detroit. It’ll be located in the Bagley neighborhood, near Livernois and McNichols.

Brian Jones-Chance: Creating a space that is intended more directly towards Black folks and other people of color, so that when they walk in, even if they don't see anyone that looks like them, they feel like it's a space for them.

Cathy Shafran: While coming at it from different angles, the EMU professors and Ypsilanti entrepreneur agree: Education will drive a new, minority interest in craft beers, and eventually the growth of breweries in non-traditional groups. Hudson and his fellow students agree.

Derrick Hudson: I believe that the program definitely will bring up a lot of minorities through it that wouldn't have the opportunity to actually go to meet different brewery owners or management personnel in the breweries that are in the area.

Cathy Shafran: Because beer, as they say, knows no color.

Lamont Lindsey: The only color line is the color of the beer. There's something that I think we can all appreciate. We can all congregate. And just really capitalize on a beer movement.

Cathy Shafran: All agree, there is a great deal of work ahead to achieve meaningful diversification in the craft brewing industry. For his part, Jones-Chance hopes his plan begins to fall into place when his brewery opens in the Bagley neighborhoods of Detroit, later in the year. Meantime, the Nain Rouge brewery school will start accepting applications for its second cohort of brewery students in July. The EMU Fermentation Science professors say they hope to see some of the future graduates in their Ypsilanti classroom as they pursue a future in the industry. Cathy Shafran, WEMU News.

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Cathy Shafran
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89.1 WEMU
Nain Rouge Brewery in Detroit

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Cathy Shafran is WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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