Taking Ownership: Oakland’s first Black-owned brewery mixes barley and hops with equity and justice

Mario Benjamin tells me that in the late 1990s two men tried to start the first Black-owned brewery in Oakland, but “it just didn’t take off.” Some 30 years later, Benjamin and Chaz Hubbard found the support they needed to co-found Hella Coastal brewery. He says that it’s tough to know that there could have been a Black-owned brewery back then. Benjamin said that other Bay Area breweries have been welcoming, though. “It’s not been about competition,” he says. “Breweries right next to each other could have the same recipes, the same hops, but the beer can come out completely different.”

Benjamin and Hubbard had careers outside of the beverage industry before starting Hella Coastal together. After considering the idea for nearly three years, Benjamin said, the timing was finally right. A domino effect started with the social unrest and Black Lives Matter movement during the pandemic last summer. Having more free time allowed them to focus on building a new brand. Familiar ingredients like grains and spices and citrus fruits are part of Hella Coastal’s beer-crafting formulas, but the owners are equally driven by their mission. Part of the Hella Coastal web site reads, “Our focus is to show the diversity and inclusivity of brewing in all aspects.”

While they wait for approval to come through on their Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau license, Hella Coastal has partnered with several breweries. “Collaborating with these breweries, we get to use their distribution as a way to get us into markets that reach all the way to Southern California and as far north as Shasta County,” Benjamin says. Having Hella Coastal’s name associated with an established brewery’s brand is the first step in gaining traction in markets where, at this early stage, they don’t have a distributor

Benjamin believes that, “If we can create these relationships in places where people wouldn’t normally see us, then it will be easier for us to reach out to them in the future, to let them know when we have our license—they’ll already know our product and our story.” Hella Coastal’s story started out as, “two guys that turned beer drinking into beer crafting.” Benjamin and Hubbard were friends before becoming business partners. From homebrew kits, they gleaned that making beer is a fairly easy process, essentially only requiring grain, yeast and water.

“We always loved craft beer over subpar, commercialized, corporate brands,” Benjamin said. “We wanted to see if we could make a similar craft beer and at the same time make it competitive.” It’s one thing to throw around ideas with a friend and another to follow through on a shared idea. Another catalyst for the co-founders arrived after they’d enjoyed beers at different Bay Area tap rooms and breweries. “As we ventured out, we noticed there wasn’t very much representation,” Benjamin said. At other times, they felt out of place or unwelcome.

“Getting microaggressive comments can be motivating,” Benjamin said. “You have to do things at a different percentage sometimes, to prove our worth and to prove people wrong.” After doing some research, they discovered that, in the United States, Black-owned breweries only hold 1% of the craft beer market space. “Out of about 8,600 craft breweries, there’s probably around 70 that are Black-owned,” Benjamin said. “Considering that Oakland is a diverse city, and it was known, back in the day, as one of the Chocolate Cities, we noticed that there weren’t any Black homebrewers in Oakland.”

The microaggressions haven’t been part of their collaborations, he said, but have taken place at events. Customers have asked the co-owners where Hella Coastal is from and why they are defining the company with beers tied to racial and social causes. “We want to be a brewery but at the same time we want people to know that we’re taking ownership,” Benjamin said. “We’re Black in Oakland, and there are no other Black breweries in Oakland—and that’s something, especially when it comes to ownership.”

Both Benjamin and Hubbard are fathers to younger sons. Without wanting to add additional pressure to them after living through a pandemic, Benjamin does want to make them aware of how important generational wealth is for the health of a community. While white-owned American beer companies like Miller and Budweiser became corporate giants, Benjamin mentions the name of Theodore Mack Sr. Mack was an African-American craft brewer from Wisconsin who created Peoples Beer in 1970. “Because of racism, the company never got the opportunity to become a Budweiser,” Benjamin said.

Peoples Beer, though, is making a comeback. Benjamin pointed out that Oak Park Brewing Co., in Sacramento, has partnered with Mack’s son to brew the beer again. “He called it ‘Peoples Beer’ because he wanted to make beer for everybody,” Benjamin said. “It wasn’t just for Black folks.” Hella Coastal also plans to pay homage to Mack and Peoples Beer with a new brew of their own. Benjamin adds, “We wanted to make sure that we highlight the people that came before us.”

When Hella Coastal’s license is approved—Benjamin believes it will happen within the next couple of weeks—they’ll be making beer two days a week at Federation Brewing on 3rd Street in Oakland. Until then, check out their website to read about past and upcoming collaborations.

Hella Coastal, hellacoastal.com, instagram.com/hellacoastal.

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