As Millions of Dollars Pour into Black Alcohol Makers, One HBCU is Also Making History—And Money—With its Own Craft Beer

The effort to get more Black people into wine, spirits and beer has long been underway and it has now found a new partner: HBCUs. Since the beginning of the year, at least one global alcohol brand has made financial pledges to support the work of HBCUs, but one in particular, Alabama A&M University, is taking the revolutionary step of entering the market with its own craft beer.

The global alcohol market is massive, valued at more than $1.4 trillion in 2018. At the beginning of June, to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, Fawn Weaver, founder and CEO of the whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, announced a $50 million fund to invest in rapidly growing, minority-founded and owned spirit brands.

Just one week before the Uncle Nearest announcement, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey announced a grant to Kentucky State University. The distiller’s parent company, UK-based Diageo, will be providing a $25,000 scholarship annually for the next five years intended to “promote diversity in the beverage alcohol industry and provide opportunities for future leaders from underrepresented backgrounds in the brand’s home state of Kentucky,” a Diageo spokesperson told The Plug. Back in February, Diageo North America had also pledged $10 million to fund permanent endowments at 25 HBCUs.

One of the more than two dozen schools to receive the funds is Alabama A&M University, a school founded in 1875 by a formerly enslaved man, William Hooper Councill. Alabama A&M will receive $250,000 from Diageo, Dr. Archie Tucker II, the school’s vice president for marketing, communication and advancement, told The Plug, and the money will help fund scholarships. But beyond this endowment, the school has also started brewing up another opportunity — revenue from its own beer.

A beer more than two years in the making

It all started in January 2019, with an idea from Michael Colston, a development associate at the university. 

“I wanted to come up with a unique way to help diversify revenue, connect with the community, to have the students get some experience in a field that they’re not familiar with and haven’t really been introduced to,” Colston told The Plug. “This is a market that has not really been penetrated by people of color that much.” Black brewers make up less than one percent of brewers in the US, according to the Brewers Association. 

From that sprung a collaboration with Straight to Ale, a craft brewer with a 45,000-square foot facility just five miles down the road from the university’s Normal, Alabama-based campus. In May, their American-style lager called the Alma Mater officially debuted.

Colston said the collaboration is something out of the box, and beyond the city of Normal (both figuratively and literally). By all indications, this is the first HBCU to have its own beer and the school receives an undisclosed percentage of the revenue. University officials are still discussing how the money will be used.

“It’s important for colleges and universities to have unrestricted revenue, because you never know what will come up,” Dr. Tucker said. “We typically don’t have a lot of unrestricted funds, but this is an opportunity to really create an unrestricted source of revenue that the institution can apply to its greatest needs at that particular time.”

Beyond providing funds, the collaboration has also given some Alabama A&M students industry experience. Four food science students were involved in the actual brewing process in Straight to Ale’s facilities. They helped mix the materials – the hops, malts, barley and wheat – Colston said, and assisted in the other steps in the process to end up with the dark gold brew.

About three MBA students were also involved in promoting the beer, working alongside the university marketing team and Straight to Ale’s team to come up with the name, brand awareness strategy and rollout of the product, Dr. Tucker said.  

And the rollout so far has been successful. The first launch event was the Thursday before Memorial Day at the brewery and cases sold out before the event even started, Dr. Tucker said. “You could not taste Alma Mater in any form at Straight to Ale after Memorial Day weekend.” 

A week later, their second launch event took place at a craft beer store in Birmingham, where Dr. Tucker said they sold out of at least 100 six-packs in the first 20 minutes.

Alumni and supporters celebrate release of Alma Mater beer in Birmingham June 3, 2021

Overall, they have sold the equivalent of more than 8,400 cans of beer since May 27, Adam Maderra, the sales manager for Straight to Ale, told The Plug. “It has been the best taproom release for our brewery to date and we have sold out in the market in less than a week,” he said. “This product had high expectations and it has exceeded my lofty goals.”

Estimates for sales so far are above $16,000.

For Colston, he hopes this becomes a staple beer, saying that it’s not a seasonal or limited edition product. “As long as the sales are there, we’re going to continue producing it, and continue pushing it out to the market.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.