‘We Need to Act Now’: Garrett Oliver Launches Foundation for POC in Beer and Spirits

Garrett Oliver Fresh Fest
Courtesy Fresh Fest Beer Fest

The idea for a brewing and distilling scholarship program named after drinks writer Michael Jackson was born decades ago. But the last several weeks of social unrest have added urgency to today’s launch of the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, says Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster.

He was approached to spearhead the initiative by Tom Potter, one of the founders of Brooklyn Brewery, and founder of New York Distilling Company, last year.

“I said I’d be very happy to help you, but only if these scholarships are distributed predominantly to people of color,” says Oliver. “At first I don’t think Tom understood how serious I was about that stipulation, but I said, ‘If that is not what we are doing, I am not going to be involved.’ And he eventually understood.”

The Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling was unveiled today and will soon begin accepting applications. It’s financed by the Michael Jackson Fund, which was established by the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF) in the 1990s, and a 2014 fundraiser at Brooklyn Brewery that raised $30,000.

“In 30 years of sitting in the chair running breweries, I’ve not had a single African American applicant for a brewing job, ever. Not one.”—Garrett Oliver, brewmaster, Brooklyn Brewery

Jackson was an English journalist who wrote about beer and spirits, television host and author of several books that are still relevant to today’s drinkers. He died in 2007. He was, according to people who knew him, a proponent of social justice and inclusion.

Scholarships within the foundation include two named for people of color in the drinks business. The Nathan Green Scholarship for Distilling is named for the formerly enslaved distiller who taught whiskey-making to Jack Daniels in the 1800s. The Sir Geoff Palmer Scholarship for Brewing honors the Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, who is a specialist in brewing grain and a human rights activist.

Many drinkers and industry members have scrutinized the lack of diversity in the beer and spirits businesses. Over the last few months, there have been numerous threads and conversations on platforms like Twitter and Facebook about de-centering the predominantly white and male perspectives of some drinks companies.

“I think that we’ve seen from the past [is] that, despite everyone’s best intentions, momentum is eventually lost so we need to act now,” Oliver says.

There is still work to be done to bring real changes to these industries, he adds. “In 30 years of sitting in the chair running breweries, I’ve not had a single African American applicant for a brewing job, ever. Not one.”

One brewery that has already announced a donation to the foundation is Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn, New York.

“Garret Oliver is a legend in our industry and without his leadership in craft beer during its infancy, the landscape of beer would look entirely different than it looks today,” says Matt Monahan, co-founder, Other Half. “It only makes sense that he has once again stepped into a leadership role for the rest of us to follow, setting an example for how needed change begins and endures in our industry.”

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Oliver has launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the foundation that he hopes will initially raise $200,000 in donations. He is also looking to tap into distilleries and breweries for additional funds that will help pay the tuition for courses and full trade educations.

“That’s on the public side,” he says. “What I am hopeful for is that we are going to see intake from individuals with means, from breweries and distilleries, and that eventually people will stand this thing up into something that can send 20 people to brewing and distilling school every year.”

Published on July 24, 2020
Topics: Latest News