Barrel & Flow, which takes place in Pittsburgh during the second weekend of August, is the most wonderful time of the year for me. I don’t quite remember how I found Barrel & Flow for the first time, but I do know that it was the summer of 2021 and I was exhausted by what felt like an unwinnable battle with the world of corporate healthcare. I felt incurably alone in a city that often feels outright hostile to Black people. After months of medical gaslighting and chronic pain, I was seriously considering packing my bags and going back to Miami. But discovering Barrel & Flow—the country’s first festival designed specifically to highlight and pay Black brewers, artists and musicians—reminded me of exactly why I chose to call this city home. The Black creative community in this city is small, but it’s close-knit, welcoming and so incredibly vibrant. I sat down with the festival’s founder Day Bracey, to learn more about the inspiration behind the yearly gathering.
Can you talk about where you got the idea for the festival and how it’s evolved since then?
After starting the podcast Drinking Partners with my partner Ed Bailey, we began building partnerships in the brewing industry. It increased my income, but it also introduced me to a lot of disparities in the industry. Black beer drinkers make up 14% of sales but less than 1% of the supply side, including distribution, marketing and ownership.
So, we started the festival as a way to bring representation into the brewing industry. It provides a safe space for Black people to explore the industry and ask questions safely. Not just that, we’re building networking opportunities for the Black beer community. We ask for feedback from Black beer drinkers throughout the entire development process because the craft brewing industry has reached a plateau. Breweries want to shed the image of the bearded white guy. Barrel & Flow allows the Black community to participate in the entire brewing process while being compensated and offered more opportunities in the industry.
What is your process like for selecting the breweries you highlight?
If I can move backward a little bit, the entire beer festival model was dated. It was just a bunch of white guys getting drunk together. Barrel & Flow was created to change the festival model, to prove that when you pay people and pay them fairly, it changes how things get done. So, the application process had to reflect that.
Are you just coming to sell more beer and make money? Are you looking to add Black beer drinkers to your community or just sell them beer? What are your politics? Are you willing to partner with a Black artist and pay them for their time? You don’t just get to come and pour a beer you have too much of and want to offload. You have to produce a beer, specifically for this festival, and work alongside a Black artist during the process. You don’t get to just use the Barrel & Flow name and collaborators.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to compensation when we’re working with home brewers or breweries that have one barrel. They may not have the same financial means as these larger breweries, so as long as the collaborators are happy with their experience and what they’ve created, we’re good.
It’s a common belief that there’s no Black community in Pittsburgh, especially in the creative industries. Does Barrel & Flow correct this narrative?
I’ve been in the art scene here for a decade—10 years as a comedian and nine years as a producer. There absolutely are disparities in Pittsburgh that you don’t see elsewhere. We don’t have a Black middle-class neighborhood. We have the smallest number of Black-owned businesses in the country. It’s so hard to get hip-hop acts booked in venues here, and if you do, management gets uneasy if the audience gets “too Black.”
With Barrel & Flow, I definitely feel a sense of pride that Black people want to come to Pittsburgh. It’s a difficult place to live and thrive, but we can’t change that without uplifting the people already here. This region has been hemorrhaging young people for the last 40 years. We have to work at bringing in young, Black talent that wants to stay here. We have to invest in building relationships with the allies that want to support and work with the Black talent here. So yes, I definitely feel like there’s hope for Pittsburgh’s future and what Pittsburgh can look like.
What’s the future of Barrel & Flow?
People ask me all the time when we’re going to take Barrel & Flow on the road. It took a long time to get here and it was difficult, especially with the pandemic. I’ve always been a fan of slow and maintainable growth, and I think 2022 is the year we found the blueprint.
I always want Barrel & Flow to be in Pittsburgh during the second weekend in August. I think this region needs Barrel & Flow. People see the festival, they come, and then they bring their friends. Our growth has been organic and our ideas come from the community. Barrel & Flow feels like a Black family reunion—a beer family reunion.
I would love to see the festival travel the world, though. I get calls from South Africa, London, Los Angeles, down in Texas—people want to see Barrel & Flow in their area. I don’t know; maybe late fall or early winter of 2023, there could be a smaller Barrel & Flow somewhere down South, just to prove it can be taken on the road. In the future, I would love to see three festivals a year—all anchored around Pittsburgh in August.