20. Catching Up with Craft Beer's Ambassador Extraordinaire, Ale Sharpton
A look at Ale Sharpton's incredible career (so far); plus what the Death tarot card means for the beer industry.
Chocolate Stouts, Aliases, and Bringing People Together with Beer: A Conversation with Ale Sharpton
This week, we’re chatting with Dennis Malcolm Byron, aka Ale Sharpton. Ale is absolutely one of the coolest, nicest people in beer—seriously always a joy to get to interview him for different projects—and he’s also been a mover-and-shaker in the industry for two decades, so he’s got some really interesting perspective on our little craft beer world. There are plenty of great stories here from how Ale got his moniker to how he created a huge collaboration with New Belgium, so without further ado…!
Can you talk a little bit about life before beer?
My mom and dad are from Brooklyn and the Bronx. [They] met each other in New York, and then they went to school at Ithaca and Cornell. And that's where they had me. So New York is all in my blood, from the city to upstate New York…And on both sides of my family, there are culinary geniuses. My great grandfather was a chef to Marcus Garvey—who was such an important person especially in the Black experience…He went from being an executive chef to running the first Black-owned catering company, in the Bronx, New York. And then my mom, being Jamaican as well, her side is just always about cooking. My sister's a chef, and on my dad’s side, there are plenty of chefs, too. So, flavor was always a big thing to me, and even during my transition from Ithaca to Shaker Heights, Ohio to eventually Atlanta, just food and flavor's always been important to me and it's been taught to always try everything and be open minded.
And so what was the first sort of entryway into beer?
My uncle gave me a sip when I was six one time as a joke, while I was hanging out with him and his friends. He’s like, "Watch this. He's going to spit it out." Thinking a little kid would be like, "Oh, this shit is gross." So, he gave me a little sip and I was like "Oh, that's what I'm going to drink when I'm your age. I like it." He's like, "Give me my damn beer back." He really was expecting more of a dramatic spit-out situation [laughs]. That flavor just always tasted different to me…even though it was a Miller High Life, still, it was something I never had before in my life.
Throughout my senior year in high school I started learning about different things, and I always came to parties with a different type of beer, and I thought I was doing the thing when I had a Lowenbrau because I always thought it looked cool, the foil on the cap and that bright blue. I was always trying different beers, but it was never like the beers that I was exposed to when I ended up going to Cornell University and going to hotel school. And then that's when I was really exposed to a lot of different flavors, around that time. And then when I ended up moving to Atlanta with my family, I had always loved the Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. That's what was dope, and I learned that it was a brother who was brewing it, Garrett Oliver.
How did beer start to transition from hobby to career for you?
[After college] I deferred my dream of owning my own bar or a restaurant or something along those lines, because when I started working in that industry, I was like, "Yo, I'm not feeling this. You have to live, sleep, and dream all hospitality"…And I wanted to be the person exploring all these different restaurants, with respect for the people owning them, but being on the other side.
Thinking about it, I was like, I really still have this passion about beer, but there was no beer around Georgia. Maybe there were one or two microbreweries. There was Dogwood and one called Marthasville, and then eventually Atlanta Brewing Company opened. Red Brick opened…Sweetwater eventually came. That was like in '96 or something, around Olympics time. But I was still like, "Damn, the beers are wack," around where I was living. I love Atlanta as a city, it's very progressive for especially minorities and Black people, and there are a lot of opportunities to do different things. So for beer, things had to change.
One of the reasons why the beer was so terrible in Atlanta then was because the limit to the ABV you could have was 6%. It was mostly things like Budweiser you could get…I love hops and Sierra Nevada was really the only thing I had exposure to around here, plus a couple other small breweries that were in North Carolina…Overall, I thought, “This has got to change.”
Meanwhile, my brother had given me a magazine, a hip hop magazine called Cypher. He said, “You know what? You should write.” And I was like, “Damn. Let me reach out to them.” I always got A’s in my writing classes in Cornell…but I always took it for granted. I wrote, I liked to write, but I’d never thought of it as a career. At school, you were kind of pressured to have a big corporate job or own something…but then I said, “That’s it.”
I was working all kinds of different jobs. I worked for Sony Music. I did construction. I served. I did internships at different restaurants just to hustle money. I ran an after-school program with my brother for the YMCA. It all helped to supplement and build my writing career. So, I talked to Cypher, and worked out having two columns of my own, one about hip hop, and one about beer…the one about beer, it was called “Beer for the Pour.” It was about understanding what beer’s all about, especially for the hip hop crowd. I used that column to get into other magazines, and started getting gigs and writing for people. Beer was always this ongoing thing. I then got a steady job being editor for the Atlanta Tribune, a Black business magazine. Which was dope, but…I didn’t feel I had time to do the other things I love, like covering travel and music. I ended up going to the Atlanta Voice, one of the first Black newspapers ever in Atlanta. It was a fun experience but I kind of butted heads with the owner because they wanted me to write more “hard news”—I hate that phrase…but I did end up starting to use [my time there] as a springboard to meet people who owned breweries and owned restaurants.
After I ended up splitting with Atlanta Voice, [I started working with] J’Adore, a really beautifully designed lifestyle magazine that just needed a little help on editorial…So, I became their executive editor, and was also a travel writer for them, a car reviewer, and I had a beer page. It was a win-win-win situation because then I got to travel and review hotels and so on, and get my name out there.
But the only thing I thought I needed to do was not use my same name as my executive editor name, Dennis Malcolm Byron—I always feel like it sounds like a law firm [laughs]. I said, “I need to make an alias.” One night, I had a blunt and two Black Chocolate Stouts, and at two in the morning, I thought: ale is the original beer. It’s from Africa, which a lot of people don’t know. It was created by a woman—that’s all me right there. This was before Instagram and Twitter when everybody got these kinds of nicknames. I thought, “Hip hop guys have these aliases, why not writers? Fuck it. I’m going to name myself Ale Sharpton.” I told my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, and she said, “Actually, it’s really, really cool. I like it. It’s catchy.”
I made that my name, and I created a logo with my friend I’d worked with at Cypher…and then I said, “Now, we need stickers.” You know, when you’re traveling, it was really only breweries then who had stickers, and they would just say the name of the brewery…No one as a personality had stickers. It was probably the best marketing decision I made in my career…Anywhere I went traveling to write, I would have my stickers with me…People were like, “Yo, what beer is this?” and I was like, “No, it’s me!” People loved the name, the logo—Black people, white people, Asian people, they see a Black man holding a beer up. My name got bigger from there and that really is what launched my career.
I was also getting into showing my expertise with pairing beer and food. Since I’m always around food, beer is such a passion to me because it’s the one beverage I think can emulate virtually any flavor in the world. You don’t really see a chocolate wine…beer can be sour, sweet, bitter, decadent, chocolate—I was like, “Yo, this is for me. I’m going to make a career out of this some way or another,” and it just worked.
It was also something where I was often the only Black person, but I was used to that. I was always one of the only Black people in my advanced classes in high school in Shaker Heights…at Cornell, we were like, maybe, 6%. But [in beer], I wanted my mission to be to teach people—not just Black people, but everybody—the origin of beer, how great it is, how it can be used. And this was before the craft beer boom was really happening.
My clout in Atlanta, though, was really defined because I was part of the politics of covering and interviewing people, and filming myself talking to politicians about pushing the agenda of raising the ABV limit of 6% to at least something in the double digits. The law finally passed in 2004 and pushed the beer limit to 14%…it opened the floodgates, and I became one of the pioneers who really helped push the beer game in Atlanta—Georgia for that matter, but especially Atlanta.
That got me access to people who owned breweries and we started doing events together, and I started a creative agency…I’d do events, like art shows at hotels, and people started hitting me up like, “Yo, we need dope beer for this,” and I started curating beer menus. That was my life to the point where I then started freelance writing for places like Thrillist, USA Today, MensBook, Atlanta Magazine…and now I’m at this point where I’m speaking on diversity.
Instagram just brought my shit to a whole other level. It brought the awareness that beer could be for everybody. So, when people see me as a Black person around beer on Instagram and Twitter, they’re like, “You know what? Let me try this.” And they see now that beer is not just for white people, or that brewers are not just big, burly white guys with big beards, or whatever the misconceptions and prejudices are in the beer industry. I just keep working to influence people and welcome people into beer—minorities, women—and support their causes while supporting those who have breweries…I think beer brings good people together and that’s what it is right now.
I want to talk a little about your collab with New Belgium, Piano Keys Imperial Stout.
New Belgium reached out to me—I’ve always visited their spot, respected their beers, and I knew all their people; they were great people. So, four years ago, they reached out and asked I would be interested in being a consultant to help diversify not only their audience, but their staff, their ideology, how their beer could come out to more people. They wanted to do all that, and thought I could be the perfect person to consult with. They were like, “How about we fly you out…we’ll talk with the CEO, the COO, and all these important people, and we’ll have a seat and talk about what your ideas are and how we can make this better. I was like, “Okay, fuck, yeah.”…I thought this was my time to say, “You know what? Let’s knock your socks off.”
So, I’m sitting there at the table with them…and they just went, “Hey, so what do you think we should do?” They were thinking I was going to say an event or something. And I said “We need to make a beer.” They weren’t expecting that. They said, “Why make a beer?” I said, “Beer brings good people together. You guys are one of the best in the world at making it. So, why not make one with me with my name attached to it?” They were like, “Damn, that’s a great idea. We love the idea. But the thing is, we’re going to need a name. We’re going to need a style. We’re going to need a design for the can.” I said, “I have all of them.”
I took out my notebook—I also do graphic design, drawing, photography—and I had drawn out the logo and I had the name…They were like, “Piano Keys? Why Piano Keys?” I said, “Because we’re going to make a chocolate-vanilla imperial stout…because y’all don’t make imperial stouts…y’all make some gangster sours, you make gangster IPAs, but where are your stouts?” And for the chocolate-vanilla, I said, “Ebony and ivory. Black people—black, white. You want diversity, everybody coming together.” They were like, “Oh, shit.” You should have seen their faces. [Laughs].
The can came out exactly how I had pictured it to be, working with their design team. And I also made sure…part of [the proceeds] would be going to people who really needed it, helping people who are underrepresented in the beer community. Servers who got cut off and who couldn’t work…Black farmers…just different initiatives I thought would really work. The money is funneled through an organization I created called BrewGether.
The beer is 10%, and we used chocolate from a local chocolatier, Xocolatl, that got their nibs originally from Uganda and Nicaragua, and we made sure they were fair trade on that and the workers were treated fairly. It’s dark chocolate and I made sure it wasn’t too sweet…I wanted to do something that wasn’t bitter but was decadent, and slightly sweet and complex, and that would pair well with the culinary side of things. It worked. A lot of people were like, “Yo, I never knew beer could taste like this.” A lot of chefs started cooking with it.
For the launch, too, I staggered the events so as places picked up the beer, I made sure I could be at each [event]…The owners would say, “That was the most diverse audience I’ve ever had at my place.” But then the pandemic hit, and we were still making the liquid and getting it out there but we lost those in-person experiences. That was a little rough. Now, we’re working on getting it into a lot more states.
Okay, I know this is going to be next to impossible, but because you’ve traveled so much and gotten to know so many breweries, I’d love to hear a few of your favorite beers and breweries.
I always get in trouble when I’m naming different beers [laughs], but I’m an IPA person all the way, even though I made an imperial stout, which was my first love. But, so, Creature Comforts makes a lot of my stuff…they make some really dope ones. One’s called Tropicália.
Then there’s Pliny the Elder, definitely messing with that as a go-to…there are so many great IPAs regularly in my fridge…Whatever the really good West Coast-style beers are, I’m reaching for those. Plus, I’ll always give a shout-out to the Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, and Garrett Oliver.
Of course, too, New Belgium—their whole Voodoo Ranger series. They make some good shit—the 1985 is fire…it’s a mango IPA that’s fucking killing it. I’m blessed that there are so many great breweries right here in Atlanta, too. Little Cottage is making great stuff…Monday Night, and their Space Lettuce IPA. And, of course there’s always Sierra Nevada, they’re always making good shit…Firestone Walker, Brooklyn Brewery…I know I’m missing a whole bunch of them…
Green Bench is dope, they’re doing their thing, and they’re starting to blow up. There’s also another here in Atlanta starting to make a lot of noise, that’s Black-owned, Hippin’ Hops. Once they get established they’re really going to be recognized…and HOMES in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they’re making great stuff.
Because you’ve been at the center of this industry for so long, I think it would be really valuable to hear your thoughts on how it’s grown and changed, and where you’d like to see it evolve to.
This is such a racially monopolized industry, but it’s also a gender-dominated industry. And it's like we're fighting together, which is cool. It makes more movement. I mean, the civil rights movement didn’t happen with only Black people; we need help from all sides. And I think that a lot more people are starting to come together and realize that beer is for everyone. And that it's okay to—on the minority side and woman side, and whatever else—it's okay to go to breweries…So I think the open-mindedness is helping.
As I said before, it helps, the fact that we see each other on Instagram going to beer festivals and or home brewing or attending events and going to breweries. All these things, we need to see it—it makes you more comfortable to do something. That's the way it is in life. And I think that visibility on social media has helped us tremendously.
Then also, more writers are starting to get jobs that are minorities in the industry and kind of getting there little by little. I'm still one of the few and I’ve got no problem with that because I worked so hard to get there, so that's all good. But I think now more magazines have started opening their minds to having different perspectives written, and becoming more courageous with addressing different topics and not worrying about, "Hey, we're going to lose money if we talk about minorities coming into the industry or collaborating on beers with other causes." Those kind of prejudices are kind of slowly leaving. And I think that's good. People are becoming more courageous and more open-minded, and it takes experience and time to get it across that, "Look, it's okay to talk about it. And it's okay to get uncomfortable." And that's something that breweries are especially learning now. How to get uncomfortable.
A lot of things are getting exposed now—racism, sexual abuse. All these things have started to surface and come out. Things that have been hidden for so long have started to finally come to light. And with that, I think that, overall, the brewing industry is going to win because it's becoming more progressive. And those people who are assholes or oppressors or racists or sexists, they're starting to get weeded out and addressed, and I like seeing that. But also at the same time, with fairness…These things have all started to come out and I welcome that.
A lot of breweries are now doing a lot more where they’re inviting people to come together trough collaboration—which they also benefit from, because it taps into a whole other market for them that they maybe had no idea how to attract before. So don’t think all these breweries are just doing it to be nice. They’re going to, in some ways, utilize these new audiences coming to them…It is what it is, game recognizes game. If we can all win and breweries can make more money, that’s cool.
This week I pulled Death. Uh-oh!
Fear not, the Death card famously does not actually predict your death. Unless we’re on “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” or something, which, I wish! I know it’s also the number XIII, like it’s trying to hit us over the head with ~bad omens.~ But breathe.
Death does mean an ending, but not of your existence; rather, it’s the ending of some phase or situation in your life. It subsequently also signifies change and transformation, because death is indeed just that—whether you believe we die and turn into worm food or glowing orbs or trees or pirate ghosts, we’re turning into something. So, you can expect a period of transition, whether it’s your job or where you live or a belief you have about something or a relationship. The message of this card is that these transitions are all natural, a part of life, and even necessary for our survival and growth.
Frankly, my overwhelming urge is to attach Death to the entire craft beer industry right now. Its current status must end; it must die. And in that, a new, better, safer, more equitable and diverse industry can be born. It’s a period of transition that is healthy, positive, beautiful, and absolutely, crucially essential. Stereotypes? Dead. Barriers of entry? Dead. An atmosphere of sexism, racism, discrimination, abuse, danger? Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead. And in its place, an industry that welcomes all and is better for it.
This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec
As someone who’s been into metal since they were 14 and craft beer since they were about 21, and who writes about the connection often, I’m always excited to discuss the ways metal and craft beer pair well together. Talk to any metalhead who runs a brewery or any drummer who homebrews and you’ll learn just how rich the bond is. But what we don’t need to read is just another list of metal bands who make beers. So, I especially enjoyed Brad Sanders’ “The Beer-Metal World Tour” for Bandcamp. Sanders makes his way through eight bands from around the world who write songs about beer or even name themselves for it: how well do they rep their countries’ beer traditions? This one is a fun read even if you’re only very casually into metal.
Until next week, here is Darby, sitting straight up as she is wont to do, at DSSOLVR in Asheville.