The first thing one notices about the can — after it’s bright lime-green color — is the intense stare of writer and activist James Baldwin. One of America’s most celebrated thinkers, Baldwin is joined by three other Black icons and Civil Rights leaders, each looking out from their own brightly colored vessel.
Together, they comprise the latest collaboration between Oakland’s Hella Coastal Brewery and three other regional breweries — Fresno’s Full Circle Brewing Company, Sacramento’s Oak Park Brewing Company, and San Francisco’s Hunters Point Brewing Company — all four of which are Black-owned.
The eye-catching IPA four-pack, designed by Oakland artist Milton Bowens, features the faces of Baldwin, Ella Josephine Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Fred Hampton — and each carries an accompanying quote.
They arrive in time to mark Black History Month and to be enjoyed during California Craft Beer Week.
Hella Coastal Brewery is about more than just beer. Founders Mario Benjamin and Chaz Hubbard’s mission is to use the designs on the packaging to increase awareness and education around race and diversity.
“I know that we’re making beer,” Benjamin says. “But at the same time, it’s a lot of people that are drinking this stuff and they’re not being educated.” Benjamin is referring to what he sees as a general lack of understanding of the contributions Black people have made to the craft industry.
There is a history of White owned and operated breweries releasing craft beers with likeness of rappers or naming brews after rap songs. In 2020, Evans Brewery released Wet Ass Pilsner — riding the coattails of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s internet-breaking summer jam, “WAP.” The product was packaged in a pink can and featured the cartoon image of a Black woman, licking a pineapple wedge. Back in 2015, MobCraft’s Sippin on G&J, played on Snoop Dogg’s 1993 hit “Gin & Juice,” and pictured a hop-headed, pig-tailed character leaning against a lowrider Impala.
Benjamin recalls a time when he and friends went to breweries and saw that there was a disconnect with the breweries, the patrons, and the environment where the beer was served. “We’ll see a lot of culture appropriation,” Benjamin says. “Either with the music or the art on the wall, or even with some of the styles of beer, maybe named a certain way. But the thing is that the patrons were never really respecting where they came from.” Using images from rap culture without involving the people who create it in the manufacturing or distribution process, is textbook cultural appropriation.
Black breweries using Civil Rights activists on the can serves as a reminder there are other stories to tell — and that Black and brown people not only enjoy craft beer, but produce it as well.
According to Benjamin, there are only 60 Black-owned breweries nationwide. “We are pushing diversity, equity, and inclusion where we [Black breweries] make up just over 60 [breweries] out of 8,000.” (As of 2019, there were an estimated 8,275 breweries in the U.S., according to the beverage trade publication beveragedaily.com.) As craft beer has become more popular, brewers like him have watched the industry become a space that has little representation for people of color.
What began as a hobby 10 years ago turned into a passion project for Benjamin and Hubbard. The duo have been distributing for the last two years and gained popularity with their first distributed beer, Black is Beautiful. Hella Coastal has been working in collaboration with multiple breweries throughout the Bay Area, including Temescal Brewing, Federation Brewing, and The Rare Barrel.
Hella Coastal is only the second Black-owned brewery in the Bay Area after Ces Butner’s Hunters Point brewery in San Francisco.
Hella Coastal’s first collaboration with Hunter’s Point brewery resulted in Town & City, an 8 percent hazy double IPA with notes of stone fruit. “It tastes light, but it’s definitely one that creeps up on you,” Benjamin says.
“What we wanted to do is to put something more thought-provoking as opposed to just having something to be a mass market product,” Benjamin says. “We wanted to reach out to local artists and get their artwork put onto the cans so that way they can benefit and get their art out to the masses where they normally wouldn’t be seen.”
Another of Hella Coastal’s offerings, found at Federation, is Bomba Nights — a coconut stout brewed with hand-toasted coconut flakes, whole cinnamon sticks, and Madagascar vanilla beans. The brew was inspired by the age-old Puerto Rican Holiday drink, Coquito, and dedicated to Benjamin’s mother in law. A portion of the proceeds go to the Maria Fund supporting communities in Puerto Rico.