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When Bobby Bump, a former lead brewer at Right Proper Brewing Company, first proposed having non-brewing staff members create their own beers, he thought they might suggest a name and possibly a flavor profile. What he didn’t expect was a fully-formed recipe, like the one bartender Eamoni Tate-Collier shared for Strawberry High in 2019. The hazy IPA is brewed with a strawberry purée, hibiscus, and rose petals. It sold well, and she brewed another beer with Right Proper in early 2020.
This fall, Tate-Collier will take her brewing aspirations further by launching her own company, Urban Garden Brewing. The beers will build on the style she developed at Right Proper where she brewed with herb blends. Chamolite, for example, is an ale brewed with chamomile and honey. To start she’ll use Right Proper’s existing facilities, doing what’s known as “contract brewing.” UGB joins two other Black-owned breweries in the District—Sankofa Beer Company and Soul Mega, that use the same strategy. Of the roughly 8,500 breweries in the U.S., less than one percent are Black-owned.
UGB will double as a distribution company with the aim of helping other BIPOC producers get their products in front of more Washingtonians. And after starting a brewery, structural barriers interfere with the next step of getting beers onto store shelves and into kegs at bars. UGB joins a recent wave of Black-owned local businesses working to help others succeed.
Tate-Collier’s interest in beer can be traced back to working in the hospitality industry as a teenager. Before she could legally drink she says she had to learn the difference between beer varieties based on their smell. When she joined Right Proper six years ago, a manager gifted her equipment so she could try her hand at home brewing.
While Strawberry High wasn’t her first beer, it was the one that focused her ambitions. “To watch it come from a thought in my head and for it to taste exactly like I thought it would, it was the best opportunity in the world,” Tate-Collier says. “It solidified that I can do this, that my beer will be good.”
Her clarity of vision impressed Bump. “All the questions that I would have asked she already knew the answer to,” he says. Bump admired the style and ethos of her brewing as well, from developing flavor through herbs and spices to sourcing ingredients from local, Black-owned businesses. Bump also started as a home brewer. Many commercial brewers start that way.
Tate-Collier decided to pursue commercial brewing in 2019 after attending a conference hosted by DMV Black Restaurant Week at Georgetown University. She met other Black brewers and interacted with representatives from city agencies who provided information on business licensing. “[DMV Black Restaurant Week] helped me figure out the next step,” she says, noting that she has attended other DMVBRW trainings as well.
Where DMVBRW and Right Proper supported Tate-Collier, she says others haven’t. An important step for upcoming brewers is collaborating with established breweries, like Tate-Collier’s beers with Right Proper. After being invited to collaborate by another local brewery owner, she says the onsite brewers shunned her. “I left in frustrated tears,” she says. “They looked at me like, ‘Who is this girl? Who is this Black girl?’”
Tate-Collier declined to identify the brewery. “I don’t want to throw an establishment under the bus as a whole,” she explains. “Because it wasn’t necessarily the brewery itself, but it was the people that work in the brewery.” The experience only further motivated her. “I learned, I grew, and I’m actually happy for the experience because it just gave me more fuel.”
Elsewhere she says her beer was dismissed as “girly.” “Baby, I lift kegs,” she says. “I don’t make ‘girly’ beer.’ There’s no such thing as ‘girly’ beer.” Her beer, however, does appeal to beer drinkers who don’t love an intensely bitter flavor profile, like her grandfather. She takes it as a positive sign that he requests a case of her home brew when she visits. “The flowers and herbs that I use balance with the hoppiness.”
Then there are market challenges. D.C. isn’t saturated with breweries like Seattle—which Red Bear Brewing Co owners cited as the reason for their move from the other Washington— but the current distribution system can keep newer producers from entering, according to Right Proper co-owner Leah Cheston. “They’re good at what they do,” Cheston says, referring to major distributors. “But they generally cater to the larger accounts.”
Bev (Anheuser-Busch) and MolsonCoors, for example, sell around 65 percent of beer available and are the primary clients of 90 percent of beer distributors in the U.S. Their dominance lets them sell at cheaper prices and sometimes even dictate who distributors work with, effectively outpricing smaller producers and keeping them from retailers. While D.C. does allow producers to sell directly to retailers, and many liquor producers take advantage of these policies, most beer sold in D.C. still passes through a distributor.
Tate-Collier saw these hurdles early on in a conversation with Cheston and realized that if she started a brewery, she might not find a distributor. In an “aha moment,” Tate-Collier decided to make distribution of her beer and others’ nascent products part of UGB’s ultimate goals once her business is fully operational. “What’s important for me is to be able to create an infrastructure that’s going to help the next brewers, the next winemakers,” she says.
Her mission echoes those who supported her along the way, like the founders of DMVBRW. “These small businesses are not only the fabric of our community, but they cycle the economy, keep the dimes, and keep the culture,” says DMVBRW co-founder Furard Tate. He’s also Tate-Collier’s uncle.
The name Urban Garden Brewing only partly refers to Tate-Collier’s penchant for sourcing fresh ingredients. It also hints at Tate-Collier’s goal of uplifting Black-producers. “D.C. began to feel like a garden of dreams deferred,” she says. “As we watch the city that we grew up in rapidly change, we wanted to begin ‘planting our seeds’ by starting a movement that uplifts the urban community.”
Try UGB starting Sept. 25 at Culture Coffee Too in Fort Totten and at Right Proper in Shaw for as long as supplies last. Chamolite, a light ale brewed with chamomile, will be available at the former in a can; and Collective Consciousness, a wild ale brewed with passionfruit and guava, will be available on draft at the latter. The Collective Consciousness is a collaboration with An Indivisible Art Collective. Both will be available on the 25th at Right Proper as part of the Black Beer Garden, an event celebrating Black breweries put on by the Black Brew Movement. DC Beer has more details about the event.
UBG is planning its first large-scale production for early November following a crowd-funding drive. The fundraising link isn’t live yet, but more information will be posted here.