How culture and beer are coming together for social justice

The beer handles inside the tap room at the Guinness Brewery just outside Baltimore look like the tap room at any other local brewery.

While it’s known for its century’s-old stout — and its blonde ale too — there’s also a large number of other beers similar to what you’d find in other tap rooms: IPAs, porters and lagers that often display the creativity you might expect from a brewery, though not necessarily the one associated with Ireland.

But Guinness is about more than just Irish beer now. It’s increasingly embracing its new neighborhood in Baltimore, and now that’s shining through in a series of beers that does more than just celebrate Black culture — it also funds positive change.

To some extent, the pandemic and the social uprising happening simultaneously helped Guinness go in that direction.

“In many ways, [the pandemic] allowed us to take a step back,” said Ryan Wagner, the Brewery Ambassador. “But that momentary pause I think couldn’t have come at a better time because it allowed us to stand up and be counted and really understand how we can best impact our community.”

It led to a partnership with the Baltimore-based Jobs Opportunity Task Force, which mixes job training with other social justice advocacy causes to elevate low-income residents into higher paying jobs.

“Guinness was very intentional with identifying individuals and organizations who can highlight a bit of their culture of the community,” said Caryn Young, Jobs Opportunity Task Force CEO.

The first beer rolled out through this collaboration was a sweet potato pie ale created in part by Jackie Wonsey.

“We decided we wanted to take a staple African-American dessert — the sweet potato pie — and create it in beer form,” Wonsey said. “This was a huge opportunity, but I think it also has the ability to have a greater reach.”

Wonsey hopes it’ll help inspire more participation between brewers and the Black community. “Something as large as Guinness helps demonstrate the importance of initiatives like this.”

Wagner called money “critically important.”

“But I think more than that, it’s being intentional with what you do. I think too often in times like this, money becomes sort of an empty promise. You throw money at something and then you step back and say, ‘Look at what we did. We donated money.'”

And it’s happening in a way that isn’t seen as patronizing.

“Many of the ingredients that are highlighted in these beers are ingredients that I still eat to this day with my family,” Young said.

Besides the sweet potato pie ale, there’s also beer made with lemon pound cake and even the Jamaican drink known as sorrel, which was suggested by an employee who works in the packaging department.

The person tasked with making all the thoughts and intentions come together is Hollie Stephenson, the head brewer at Guinness.

“It was so cool to watch the whole thing evolve,” she said. No matter how outrageous the ingredients or flavors might sound,” she laughed. “If I thought they weren’t going to be good, we wouldn’t have made them.”

“It gives everything more purpose,” Stephenson added, who, like many involved in this series, is also a Baltimore city resident. “We want our brewery and our tap room to reflect the community we’re in. If it doesn’t then we’re failing somehow.”

How well is it going over?

“Apparently, so delicious that they’re selling out immediately which is totally a great thing for JOTF,” said Young, who admits the partnership is “interesting” and that big businesses have typically opposed the advocacy work that her group does. But she said this line of beers is changing that.

“Now we’re at a point where businesses and corporations are starting to recognize that whole communities that lack access to this thing called opportunity,” Young said.

“The fact that we have an iconic brand like Guinness that not only says ‘I get it, I want to learn more, but we’re actually going to put our money where our mouth is and really invest not only in community but in the work that you’re doing and willing to see where this goes.’ That sends a message to the larger business community where we’re already starting to get calls from entities asking, ‘How can we hire from your job training program? Is there a way that we can donate to the bail fund? Can we hear more from your organization?'”

“In terms of advancing our mission, it’s almost like should we be writing them a check,” Young added.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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