Elliott Johnson of Soul Mega Beer Company and Eamoni Tate-Collier of Urban Garden Brewing
Elliott Johnson of Soul Mega Beer Company and Eamoni Tate-Collier of Urban Garden Brewing Credit: Darrow Montgomery

They call themselves “the collective” and in the informal group are many firsts. Montgomery County’s first and only Black-owned beer brand. The first woman-owned Black beer brand in D.C. history. The first Black-owned brewery in Charles County, which is also the only brick and mortar Black-owned brewery in Maryland and the D.C. metro region. 

“And we do not wish to be the only ones,” Eugene Lott, Patuxent Brewing Company co-owner and taproom manager, tells Washington City Paper.

According to the Brewers Association, 15 beer companies were operating in D.C. in 2021. Three of these companies are Black-owned. In theory, 20 percent of the beer companies in D.C. being Black-owned seems like a high percentage, considering the number of Black-owned breweries nationally is under 1 percent. But measuring equity is tricky, and the picture is more complex than the numbers make it appear.

“Unfortunately, there are not a lot of places that have Black-owned beer on tap,” says Black Viking Brewing co-owner, co-founder, and chief visionary officer Shaun Taylor. His is the first and only Black-owned beer brand in Montgomery County. “Most of the [Black-owned] D.C. beer brands, I don’t think any of them distribute in Maryland to my knowledge. And a lot of us [Black-owned] Maryland brands don’t really distribute in D.C.,” Taylor says. But he says, “I do really enjoy the fact that Erika [Geodrich] at Craft Beer Cellar is very intentional about carrying Black-owned brands.”

Taylor’s goal is to produce the first nationally distributed Black-owned beer. It’s a goal as big as the history of beer is deep. “The goal is for us to become the first but not the only,” he says. “It’s unbelievable that that hasn’t happened yet. That there’s no Black-owned beer that has national distribution.”

“We’re stronger together” says Eamoni Tate-Collier, CEO and founder of Urban Garden Brewing. Urban Garden is the first Black-owned brewing and distribution company in D.C. history owned by a woman. The brewing company does not own a production facility, so Urban Garden is what is known as a contract brewer. The batches of beer she’s released came from Right Proper Brewing Company’s facility in Shaw and DC Brau Brewing Company. Born and raised in D.C., Tate-Collier will celebrate her company’s one-year anniversary in September.

Soul Mega Beer Company, D.C.’s second-oldest Black-owned beer company, will turn three years old in August. Elliott Johnson, its CEO and co-founder, refers to his company as a “startup craft beer brand,” although the company doubled its production from 2019 to 2022. Soul Mega is also a contract brewery—its production takes place at Calvert Brewing Company in Upper Marlboro.

“It’s very impressive that Soul Mega has grown so much in their short time up and running,” says Michael Uhrich, founder and chief economist of Seventh Point Analytic Consulting. “It speaks to the tremendous opportunity for Black-owned breweries in D.C. and elsewhere,” especially given “D.C.’s per capita consumption of beer is not terribly high.”

According to Uhrich, who previously worked for the Beer Institute and MillerCoors, “D.C. has a lot of uspide in terms of potential per capita consumption of beer. Like most major metro areas, D.C. has a relatively low per capita consumption of beer and a relatively high per capita consumption of wine and distilled spirits.” But there’s an opportunity for beer to grow in the D.C. area without increasing the average consumption of alcohol. It just needs to gain greater share of the marketplace. “I think that there’s plenty of space for breweries to be opened by various marginalized communities including Black and Indigenous people, other people of color, queer people, loads of space,” he says.

Soul Mega’s third anniversary celebration will be a block party at the Parks at Walter Reed on Aug. 27. While many craft breweries celebrate themselves and their house brands of beer at their anniversary parties, Soul Mega has invited fellow members of the collective: Patuxent Brewing Company, Sankofa Beer Company, Urban Garden Brewing, Joyhound Beer Company, Black Viking Brewing, Liquid Intrusion Brewing Company, and Black Brew Movement.

Courtney and Charles Rominiyi are two co-founders of Black Brew Movement, an organization that aims to connect Black American culture with craft beer through educational events, industry consultation, and marketing. Black Brew Movement is the only non-beer/brewing company in the collective, but their importance in bolstering what is becoming a robust Black-owned beer scene cannot be overstated. According to Patuxent’s Eugene Lott, “the relationships we all have with each other are excellent and I have to throw in the Black Brew Movement … they’ve helped all of us and put that attention on Black brewers.”

“[Patuxent has] a brick and mortar and while they don’t always have all of these Black brewers on tap, they do make an effort to have them on there, and so the times where we do go in and make it out to Waldorf, it’s nice to go and enjoy Patuxent’s brew in their space,” Courtney Rominiyi says.

Patuxent does have some beer on offer at establishments outside of their taproom, having had their beer poured at Silver Diner in Waldorf, Bayou Girl Drink Factory in La Plata, and at The Brass Tap National Harbor.

“When we coined ourselves the Black Brew Movement we wanted to do just that: make Black brew move,” Rominiyi says. “We really serve as a platform for all parts of the craft beer movement, specifically focusing on getting more Black consumers in the craft beer space.”

Last summer, Rominiyi organized an event during Black Greek Fest, a festival that celebrates the Divine Nine—historically Black Greek letter organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council—and Black Greek culture. “It was the first time that a majority of the local Black-owned beer companies were together … we were also at a Black event. The Divine Nine Greek life is very important to the Black community, so this was us being at the epicenter of something that is very prominent. We saw it as a challenge and as a celebratory opportunity to market craft beer to our target audience, which is Black people.”

“We also were able to expose them [attendees] to types and styles of beer that they didn’t know about prior to us being there … when a lot of people in general think about beer,  they kind of think of traditional shelf mainstream … and they have that “beery” taste and one of the great things about all the brewers in the collective—all the local Black-owned brewers—is they have very unique brewing styles. Each one of their styles is unique to their story. Being able to capture those stories, tell those stories in person, I think really gave a layer of personality and humanity to craft beer that I think that particular consumer base had never seen before.”

At Right Proper in Shaw, you can order Urban Garden Brewing’s largest batch of beer to date, Chamolite. This first 30-barrel batch—about 60 kegs worth of beer—pours a pale straw color with golden highlights and is easy to drink the way a cup of chamomile cruises down the digestive tract and calms the system after a long day of existential dread.

Tate-Collier, co-founder of Urban Garden, describes Chamolite, a blonde ale brewed with chamomile and honey, as an easy drinking beer. “I created [the beer] with non-beer drinkers in mind, as well as women, and craft beer lovers. It’s something that’s very easy drinking, a nice introductory beer,” she says.

A can of Urban Garden Brewing's All Homage
A can of Urban Garden Brewing’s All Homage. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Tate-Collier has also had her beer poured at City-State Brewing Company. City-State had bought some Chamolite and “we had a party, just a ‘hey we’re here!’ party. I thought that was so awesome,” Tate-Collier recalls. This kind of pop-up event wouldn’t have been feasible five years ago, as no Black-owned beer brands existed in D.C. at that point in time.

In April, City-State released Alliance Saison, a Franco-Belgian Biere de Garde style, which translates roughly to keeping beer, a collaborative batch brewed with Soul Mega’s founders, Johnson and Jahi Wartts. City-State founder James Warner called the beer’s release date, April 3, “Soul Mega Day” at the brewery.

Johnson jokes that he sometimes calls Soul Mega, “Soul Michelin,” as his flagship brand World Wide Pale Ale is available at Bar Chinois and the Blue Duck Tavern (Bar Chinois was recognized by Michelin Guide USA and included in their 2022 dining guide and Blue Duck Tavern received a Michelin star in 2017, 2018, and 2019).

Johnson recommends drinking at Serenata, inside La Cosecha Market, as it’s “a good place to find Black Viking and Urban Garden” beers as well as his. He also mentioned his fondness for The Midlands on Georgia Avenue NW in Park View, which regularly carries Sankofa beer. In addition to the bars and restaurants selling Black-owned beer brands, all D.C. Trader Joe’s regularly stock Soul Mega and Joyhound Beer Company’s products.

“I always hate to call and shout out one particular place,” says Sankofa Beer Company cofounder Kofi Meroe. His brewery is also a contract brewer, and all of his beers, save the Sankofa collaborations, come from Black Flag Brewing Company in Columbia. “I will give special recognition to Metro Bar. They’ve been great supporters of our brand and it also happens to be a really cool and fun place to have a drink and meet people.” Meroe’s Sankofa became the first entirely Black-owned beer company in D.C. in 2018.

In those four years, the region has seen the opening of two more Black-owned beer brands in D.C., Patuxent’s physical brick and mortar brewery and taproom, and two more craft beer brands in metropolitan Maryland, Black Viking and Joyhound.

When Alfred Rotimi launched Joyhound in 2019, “it was all draft, all kegs,” he says, meaning there was not one can of Joyhound to be had. But of course, by the spring of 2020, nearly all local beer was in cans due to the pandemic. “There was no other choice,” Rotimi says. “I named the beer company Joyhound because I love dogs” and Rotimi’s beer has been bringing joy into the world ever since.

His IPA is named Oba IPA. “Oba means ruler” Rotimi says. Oba were leaders and kings in southern Nigeria, “the kings or emperors depending on what state it was and in what time in history used that title.”

“I wanted to bring some more exposure to Benin City and its artwork because that’s where my dad is from in southern Nigeria, known for its Benin Bronzes,” he adds. “The person on the label is based off of Oba Esigie who was a ruler during the 16th century.” In D.C., you can find Joyhound’s Oba IPA at every Trader Joe’s, Wardman Wines in Brookland, and at Craft Beer Cellar on H Street NE.

Similar African influences can be found with Sankofa and Urban Garden. Sankofa Beer Company was inspired by co-founder Kofie Meroe’s upbringing in West Africa. Urban Garden’s Tate-Collier says, “we’re inspired by ancient Egyptian practice on how they used to brew beer. They believed it to be used for its healing properties so we use flowers, herbs, and spices in our beer, that’s our thing, and things you can find in a garden, hence Urban Garden.”

As the American beer world begins to recognize the importance of beer brewing on continents outside Europe, overdue respect and centuries of neglect begin to be addressed. In his James Beard Award-winning book, The Cooking Gene, Michael Twitty writes, “Given some of the connections between indigenous foods and those found across the Atlantic, it might be more in the lap of West Africans that we owe the existence of beers made from persimmons mixed with honey locust.”

As July is America’s biggest beer-selling month, these new brewers are reviving ancient traditions that will carry us into the future. In August, at the Barrel & Flow Fest in Pittsburgh, Sankofa and Brooklyn Brewing Company’s collaborative beer will be poured, as will Black Viking’s collaborative beer with Tröegs Brewing Company. And as validation of our region’s breweries by older, bigger brewers is wonderful, it’s a strong sense of family that keeps the locals going.

“Our collective” says Patuxent’s Lott, “we can’t wait for more of us. We can’t wait for some of us to have a taproom like ourselves. We always say between all of us there’s no competition. We just want to see each other grow, and for the most part we’re a big family.”