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Beer Kulture, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit, is looking to make the world of craft beer more inclusive

The foundation raises funds for underserved communities while working to foster more diversity in the craft beer world.

When Latiesha Cook and her husband Dom first started visiting Florida craft breweries several years ago, one thing stood out.

“We were literally the only people of color in the room,” she recalls.

The problem wasn’t just the lack of Black customers in the local craft beer scene, it was the noticeable absence of Black employees in management, ownership and brewing positions.

“Our community is very colorful,” says Cook, who lives in St. Petersburg. “Craft beer is not. If you look at breweries, they are mostly in industrialized spaces. So, you’re in this space but the people who live there aren’t.”

In 2017, frustrated at craft beer’s limited reach despite the industry’s nationwide boom, the couple formed Beer Kulture, a marketing agency and lifestyle brand that worked to raise awareness of craft beer in communities of color. The aim was to bring those communities into craft beer spaces, both as customers and behind the bar.

A lot of the work was grassroots word-of-mouth. The couple would pack up their car with craft beer samples from breweries around the Tampa Bay area and drive into different neighborhoods, areas that were predominantly Black or Hispanic. With a handful of plastic cups, they’d start pouring.

A selection of beers is served at Cigar City Brewing in Tampa.

Both Latiesha and Dom became certified through the cicerone program, Latiesha as a certified beer server and Dom as a certified cicerone, a professional beer industry certification similar to becoming a wine sommelier, and the brand quickly took off. In July, Dom decided to step away from the organization and Beer Kulture was relaunched as a nonprofit fundraising foundation. His wife, now the CEO and president, has taken the helm and is refocusing the organization’s efforts to partner with breweries across the country to raise funds for underserved communities.

The move comes at a pivotal time for Black awareness in the craft brewing industry. Pittsburgh’s Fresh Fest, the country’s first craft beer festival dedicated to showcasing Black brewers, is now in its third year. Since forming a diversity committee in 2017, the Brewers Association, a trade group that tracks small and independent American craft brewers, has launched several initiatives to advance diversity in the craft beer world, including a diversity and inclusion grant program.

While craft beer sales continue to grow and account for more than 25 percent of the $116 billion U.S. beer market, Black-owned breweries make up less than 1 percent of the nation’s craft brewing scene, according to a 2019 report from the Brewers Association. And the majority of craft beer drinkers are largely white: A 2018 report from Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson showed that from 2015 to 2018, 81 percent of new craft drinkers were white and 19 percent came from minority groups.

“Given that only 68.7 percent of the 21 (and up) U.S. population is non-Hispanic white, that’s not progress,” Watson wrote.

Khris Johnson, the head brewer and owner of St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing, is the vice president of Beer Kulture’s foundation and has partnered with the organization in the past. He met both Dom and Latiesha Cook several years ago and quickly formed a tight friendship with the couple.

“There aren’t too many people of color in the industry, and we kind of gravitated toward each other in that sense,” Johnson said.

Last year, Green Bench Brewing partnered with Beer Kulture on a beer collaboration series called Kulture Khronicles, which raised close to $7,000 for Building Beds, a Pinellas County nonprofit that assembles and deliver beds and bedding to children in need.

Green Bench Brewing Co. head brewer and owner Khris Johnson, far left, gets a congratulatory toast by friends in the tasting room on Sept. 26, 2013, after the company had its soft opening. Johnson is now the vice president of Beer Kulture, a nonprofit that uses craft beer as a conduit to foster inclusion and diversity in the beer world while raising funds for underserved communities. [ Times (2013) ]

Johnson, a Tampa beer scene veteran who worked at Cigar City Brewing before opening Green Bench, developed a passion for craft brewing while in college, and was inspired by the home brewing his father did while he was growing up.

Johnson said financial barriers in communities of color are one of the largest obstacles keeping the craft beer scene from being more inclusive.

“I’ve never gotten an application from anyone in the brewery that wasn’t white,” he said. “It’s very much a white, cis male industry. It’s hard for anyone to want to enter it if the only people in it don’t look like you.”

Along with running the popular downtown St. Pete brewery, Johnson is one of the founding faculty members and instructors at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Brewing Arts Program. Part of the foundation’s efforts will be to raise funds for scholarships for minorities, something Johnson said he hopes will make entering the world of craft beer more inviting and less financially cumbersome to prospective brewers.

“The barrier is too high,” he said. “Unless there’s direct and purposeful help to groups of minorities that cannot reach that barrier, it’s not going to change. It’s up to us to purposefully and intentionally change that.”

Though there are several large projects being planned, fundraising during a pandemic in a space that has previously focused on large in-person events is difficult, Cook admits. Right now, a lot of the focus will be in the digital world with virtual events.

The foundation recently launched Kulture 4 Da Kids Back-to-School, a nationwide school supply drive where things like pens, backpacks, notebooks and binders can be dropped off at participating breweries before being distributed to children in need of supplies before the school year starts.

The drive, which runs through Aug. 20 for dropoffs, has more than 20 participating breweries across the country. Local breweries partnering with Beer Kulture on the event include St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing Co. and Dissent Brewing Co., Bay Cannon Beer Company and Hidden Springs Ale Works in Tampa, and Leaven Brewing Co. in Riverview.

So far, Cook has started three scholarship funds. The Sparks Foundation is named for her brother Darren Massenburg, who was killed in a shooting in the Bronx in 2017. It will work in partnership with organizations that help Black men and boys facing systemic barriers to employment and other opportunities. The Joshua Fund, which was created in memory of her 2-month-old son Joshua, who died from SIDS, will help families who have suddenly lost babies to SIDS with funeral expenses. And the This Ain’t the Beer that You’re Used To Fund will provide scholarships to minorities looking for educational training to expand their knowledge of beer with cicerone certifications.

“When we say that beer has the ability to change and shape the world, we mean it,” Cook said. “We have an opportunity to reach beyond the taproom and touch the heart of our communities, and ultimately, the world.”