Microbrew with a macro vision: New Haymarket honey ale highlights industry’s need for diversity

By Beth Stewart
Medill Reports

A love letter to Chicago from two of its native sons — the soon-to-be-released Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale from Haymarket Brewing hopes to spark an important conversation about a thriving industry severely lacking in diversity.

Two independent brewers, Jay Westbrook and Samuel Ross III, are the brains behind the brew which Ross characterizes as “unapologetically Chicago and unapologetically black.”

The name is a nod to the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983 and a wink to another beloved Chicago institution.

“Our target audience eats Harold’s chicken at least twice a week,” Ross explained.

The well-rounded honey ale goes down easy with a subtle sweetness throughout and smooth finish.

Westbrook and Ross have worked at all levels of the restaurant and bar industry for a combined four years in positions  from doorman to bartender to brand ambassador. And while both have supported craft beer concoctions informally in the past, this collaboration with Haymarket is their first official release.

“We’re here to kick down doors, not [just] check IDs at them,” Westbrook proclaimed. “We’re not just making a beer just to make a beer, we’re making a beer to start a conversation,” he said.

The conversation about diversity in craft beer is a necessary one. Chicagoland boasts more craft breweries than almost any other U.S. metropolitan area. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of breweries and people employed by the industry in Cook County, has grown every year since 2015.

(Data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sept. 2019)

As of February, there are 67 active breweries in Chicago proper, and an additional 12 planning to open later this year.

Yet in a city that is 30% African American, there is only one active brewery in Chicago with a black head brewer, said Jason James at ALULU Brewery. The demographic disparities continue when including women and other people of color.

A few exceptions include women-owned Eris Brewery & Cider House on Irving Park Road, the Latinx owned 5 Rabbit Cevercia in Pilsen, and the forthcoming black-owned Englewood Brews. But the industry is predominately owned and operated by white men.

What Ross and Westbrook are hoping to accomplish with their partnership with Haymarket is to not only promote a dialogue about diversity, but to encourage the gatekeepers of a booming Chicago craft beer industry to invest in passionate independent brewers like themselves.

“I need people that are already in the industry to take a chance, just like the fellas from Haymarket did,” Westbrook said. While he, Ross, and others have worked hard to create opportunities for themselves in the industry, “opportunity doesn’t create itself without help from the outside source,” he says.

When the pair approached Haymarket operations director, Mike Gemma, with their honey ale idea he said the decision was an easy one to make.

“We opened this place for Chicagoans specifically,” Gemma said. “If we have the opportunity to be able to present them with the capabilities to make this beer come to life, then that’s our responsibility to do so.”

Every decision that went into this beer — from the name, to the ingredients used, to the locations where it will be served — were  deliberate. Ross and Westbrook with Haymarket hope to bring awareness and accessibility to people otherwise left out of the craft beer industry.

The honey, brewed into the ale, comes from beelove by Sweet Beginnings, an organization founded by Brenda Palms Barber as part of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN). The network provides job opportunities to unemployed and formerly incarcerated residents.

“We’re about putting our people back to work and giving them second chances,” said Daphne Williams, chief growth officer at Sweet Beginnings. She said she feels her mission is aligned with Haymarket, Ross, and Westbrook. This venture into brewing is a first for the organization and gives NLEN clients access to a whole new industry.

“Working with [Jay & Sam] has been very informative,” said DiAndre Massie, a member of the beelove team and NLEN client. “To know something that I’m producing with my company is being used to infuse this new beer, I’m grateful.”

In creating Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale, Ross and Westbrook have thoughtfully crafted a beer that sparks important conversations, even down to the locations the beer will be available on tap. In addition to Haymarket Pub & Brewery, the beer will be available at all 9 of the black owned establishments with liquor licenses in the city. One final way the brewers are highlighting the lack of diversity at every level of the industry.

“It’s all about creating opportunities for someone other than yourself,” Westbrook said. “Because it ain’t just a me thing, it’s a we thing.”

Representation matters. These impactful decisions that Ross and Westbrook have made with the support of Haymarket at every step of the beer-making process is a testament to that and set an example many others can follow.

“So that’s why it’s all about education and awareness,” Westbrook said. “Being knowledgeable about this industry and letting people know that they can get in at the ground level as well.”

Mikey Bryant, founder of Black and Brew Chicago, an organization with a mission to promote diversity in craft beer by way of education, does just that. She is hopeful about the opportunity for the craft beer scene in the city to diversify at every level from consumer to producer.

“I promise you Chicago can be the most diverse in craft beer because of the camaraderie of brewers,” Bryant said. “The ultimate goal is to start changing the conversation from the color of peoples skin to the color of the beer.”

Ross has even higher hopes for the future, as his eyes are fixed on real estate. “I want a brewpub in every neighborhood. There should be one in Pilsen, in Roseland, in Lawndale, and South Shore,” he said.

A release party and panel discussion for Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale is currently scheduled for Thursday April 2nd at Haymarket Pub & Brewery, 737 W. Randolph St.

Photo at top: Mike Gemma of Haymarket with brewers Jay Westbrook, Samuel Ross III, and Eric Morrissey. (Beth Stewart/MEDILL)