With the nationwide focus on systemic racism brought about by the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black individuals in the United States, Marcus Baskerville wanted to provide an opportunity for craft breweries to participate in social justice efforts.
Baskerville, originally from Rancho Cordova, is the African-American head brewer and co-owner of San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing Co. In June, Weathered Souls launched the Black Is Beautiful beer initiative, in which breweries were provided a base recipe for a deep black imperial stout along with artwork to produce labels, and participating breweries were asked to contribute 100% of proceeds from beer sales to local organizations that support police reform, legal defense efforts and equality and inclusion.
As of mid-August, more than 1,100 breweries in all 50 states and more than 20 countries across the globe had signed up to participate. Baskerville encouraged breweries to add their own creative touches to the recipe, and many of the brewers in California did so.
The Black Is Beautiful beer initiative clearly struck a nerve, as many breweries have sold out quickly and a robust online trading community exists as craft beer lovers and social justice activists across the country have sought the beers produced by both big-name breweries and small producers not previously known outside of their local areas.
I have not yet had a chance to sample all of the 120-plus Black Is Beautiful beers produced in California, but here are some brief notes about the ones I have enjoyed, as well as the community organizations each brewery is supporting. All brews are imperial stouts unless otherwise indicated.
• Almanac Brewing, Alameda, 10% alcohol by volume (ABV) (Black Lives Matter and National Black Farmers Association). Almanac brewed a wonderfully dry, roasty stout, with a distinctive complex toasted bready malt base.
• Alvarado Street Brewery, Monterey, 12.5% ABV (NAACP). Brewed with cacao nibs and vanilla beans, this variation showcased rich, deep dark chocolate and caramel flavors and aromas without being cloyingly sweet. The dryness of the brew is accompanied by substantial alcohol heat.
• Belching Beaver Brewery, San Diego, 7.5% ABV (San Diegans for Justice). A milk stout variant with added chocolate, vanilla and coconut, the beer was moderately sweet, smooth and easy drinking. All of the added ingredients were present in the aroma and on the palate, but without the complexity or intensity of Flatland’s version.
• Bike Dog Brewing, Sacramento, 8.4% ABV (Know Your Rights Camp). Right at the intersection of moderate bready malts, gentle roast character and medium hop bitterness, you will find Bike Dog’s Imperial Brown Ale interpretation.
• Blue Oak Brewing, San Carlos, 9% ABV (Know Your Rights Camp). Blue Oak’s version had a distinctively strong roasted malt character, along with noticeable hop bitterness.
• Cellarmaker Brewing, San Francisco, 10% ABV (Anti Police-Terror Project). Brewed with peanut butter and cacao nibs, the beer showcased a light, sweet peanut aroma, with a flavor that highlighted molasses notes and relatively high alcohol heat.
• Clandestine Brewing, San Jose, 10% ABV (NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Black Lives Matter). A classic American take on the imperial stout style, this was the hoppiest of all the versions I tried, with a nice roasted malt balance as well.
• Crowns & Hops Brewing, Inglewood, 7% ABV (Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Anti Police-Terror Project). Billed as a Pecan Pie Stout with added pecans, molasses, vanilla and sea salt, most of the adjunct ingredients were difficult to detect. However, the beer was definitely a well-made American stout, with assertive roast and hops. The sea salt did come through, lending an extra layer of interest.
• Drake’s Brewing, San Leandro, 10% ABV (Black Futures Lab). Drake’s never shies away from bold roast character in its stouts, and its take on Black Is Beautiful was no exception, with a pleasantly assertive dry bitter coffee quality.
• Firestone Walker Brewing, Los Angeles – Propagator R&D brewhouse, 10% ABV (NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund). A blend of 30% Parabola, 15% Velvet Merkin and 55% Weathered Souls’ Black Is Beautiful recipe, the smooth oak and moderate bourbon character lent the complexity of barrel aging without going over the top.
• Flatland Brewing, Elk Grove, 10.1% ABV (Voice of the Youth). Brewed with coconut, vanilla and cacao nibs, this rich and sweet, yet highly complex, pastry stout showcased intense coconut aroma and flavor to complement the dark malts.
• Fruition Brewing, Watsonville, 10.5% ABV (American Civil Liberties Union). Blending fresh imperial porter with a single malt whiskey barrel aged stout with vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, Fruition’s variation was one of the richest, smoothest, most decadent versions I tasted.
• Gilman Brewing, 10% ABV, Berkeley (Anti Police-Terror Project). Brewed with brown sugar and molasses, this brew was roasty, boozy, licorice-y and tasty. The molasses was definitely the star of the show.
• Humble Sea Brewing, Santa Cruz, 12.4% ABV (African People’s Education and Defense Fund). Chocolate and vanilla (which shone on the aroma) and bourbon-soaked pecans (which stood out on the palate) mirrored the ingredients, flavors and rich, velvety smoothness of Uhuru Foods & Pies’ chocolate bourbon pecan pie. It’s packaged in striking matte-black 16-ounce bottles.
• Laughing Monk Brewing, San Francisco, 10% ABV (Ground). In collaboration with its neighbors Auntie April’s Chicken, Waffles & Soul Food, Laughing Monk brewed its Black Is Beautiful with maple syrup. The rich, bright, caramelly sweetness of the syrup popped in both the aroma and the flavor of this fine breakfast brew.
• Loma Brewing, Los Gatos, 9.1% ABV (RYSE Youth Center). Loma added cocoa nibs to its brew, resulting in a smooth, chocolatey stout that also highlighted rich dark fruit character.
• Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, 10% ABV (Legal Aid of Sonoma County and California Innocence Project). With perfectly balanced aromas and flavors of dark cocoa roast, firm hop bitterness and mild toffee sweetness, Russian River’s version was my favorite of all the straightforward imperial stouts.
• Three Mile Brewing, Davis, 10% ABV (Know Your Rights Camp). Balancing relatively high levels of both hops and roast, Three Mile’s brew gave the impression of black licorice on the palate.
• Urban Roots, Sacramento, 10.2% ABV (Voice of the Youth). Significant roasted malt character with just a touch of residual sweetness gave this stout a rich, espresso character, despite there being no coffee in the brew.
Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.