Terry Rostic and Jamaal Ewing, the newest craft brewers on the Grand Rapids block, met about four years ago. The two were at an event to help minority subcontractors — veterans, women, people of color — land more work, Rostic recalls.
They hit it off right away.
“I didn’t know him from Adam,” Rostic says of Ewing now. But Ewing had already made an impression at the event as a sharp business mind. “I kind of just went up to him and introduced myself, and you know, basically asked, like, ‘Hey, do you want to start a brewery with me?’”
Just a few years later, Black Calder Brewing is turning out 10-barrel batches of beer — and selling them out — with thousands of followers on Facebook. Its menu boasts the Bishop, a “double juicy IPA,” per its website, and the BOUGIE S’more Stout, “brewed with graham cracker, dark chocolate, marshmallow and peanut butter with a yeast strain that studied abroad.”
And Black Calder is something of an oddity in the overwhelmingly white world of craft brewing — a Black-owned operation, and unashamedly so.
Rostic laughs now when he remembers meeting Ewing for the first time — the suddenness of it, the audaciousness of jumping into business with someone he’d just met. But he’s a Grand Rapids guy who got his business degree from Cornerstone University. He sees a little providence in the meeting, too.
“He was like, ‘Why’d you ask me that?’” Rostic said, laughing. “And we got to talking, and over time we kind of developed a friendship. We were both there trying to support other minority businesses. … Even when we first met, our mission pretty much aligned. We were there to help folks break into industries and get opportunities they typically don’t have.”
Things haven’t been easy. Both Ewing and Rostic describe a daily grind, balancing a scramble for funding and brewing their early batches alongside day jobs and families. When they get asked how big their operation is — how many employees, buildings, that kind of thing — the answer is still zero. For now, they’ve got contracts to get them started brewing their product on more established local breweries’ equipment.
Things have been doubly hard amid the pandemic, which has spawned tumult throughout the bar and restaurant and brewing industry. Fortune reports that 110,000 bars, restaurants and similar places shut their doors for good in 2020. In many cases, breweries have had to pivot to survive — just like Rostic and Ewing, who had to scrap plans to sell their beer in kegs and quickly scramble into selling by the can.
“You just keep looking ahead — looking ahead at what you want to accomplish,” Ewing said, pointing out that both of them still have day jobs and responsibilities to families at home. “It’s either do or die. You’ve got to get out there and put the work in or you’re not going to see results.”
“Even when we first met, our mission pretty much aligned. We were there to help folks break into industries and get opportunities they typically don’t have.”
Black Calder Brewing also is a self-styled Black business. It’s in the name, sure, but it’s in the logo, too: an African woman, drawn in gold on a black background, with huge, leafy hops standing in for a pile of tied-back hair. It’s part of its social media — with the company Facebook page posting an old Jet Magazine cover, constant wishes for a happy Kwanzaa and a story of an early Black brewer.
Brewing, in general, has historically been overwhelmingly white — and craft brewing remarkably so, with a 2018 Brewers Association report putting nonwhite craft beer consumption at about 14.5% of drinkers.
That’s perhaps no surprise. Nathaniel Chapman and David Brunsma, sociologists and authors of the book “Beer and Racism” — a racial history of the industry — wrote in October for “Transforming Society,” that the modern beer industry was a particularly hard market for Black outsiders to crack.
“In the Jim Crow era, the three-tier system (brewing, distribution and sales) effectively operated as a gatekeeping mechanism,” they wrote. “Industry insiders, brewers and wholesalers could decide who became a brewer, a distributor or a consumer of craft beer.”
And racism in the craft beer industry remains a difficult part of its modern history. In 2019, an employee of Founders Brewing Co. reached an undisclosed settlement with the company after a lawsuit alleging a “racist internal corporate culture” at the company. The case gained national attention when a deposition surfaced detailing a taproom manager refusing to say whether the Black employee pressing the suit was, indeed, Black — and would not say if other well-known Black men, like Barack Obama, were as well, because he had not met them.
Ewing and Rostic, though, say they’ve received nothing but support from the Michigan craft brewing industry so far from all of its biggest names — and they say they’re looking forward to pressing ahead. They’re not only founding a Black-owned brewery; they’re building a top-tier brewery in its own right.
“I always like to say, ‘people are drinking your dream in a glass,’” Rostic said. “But, you know, my whole mission in life was to do things that haven’t been done and to help out, and this is what’s been a great way to do that.”
This story can be found in the April 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here.