Today is National Black Brewers Day in the United States. October 10th is officially designated as a day to recognize and celebrate the rich heritage and contributions of Black beer brewers throughout American history. To commemorate National Black Brewers Day, I am taking this opportunity to tell the story of Ted Mack and Peoples Brewing.
The establishment of October 10th as National Black Brewers Day was a primary focus of the newly formed National Black Brewers Association (NB2A). While only a few states and cities have officially proclaimed it National Black Brewers Day thus far, 2023 is the first year. In fact, the NB2A itself was just officially introduced a few months ago. Momentum is expected to grow.
Why October 10th? On this date in 1970, Theodore A. (Ted) Mack, Sr., and his associates, officially acquired People’s Brewing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Ted Mack made history that day by becoming the first Black brewery president in the United States, and People’s Brewing Company achieved the distinction of being the first Black-owned brewery in the nation’s history*.
It is still exceedingly rare. There are over 9,000 breweries in the U.S. and only about 100 are Black-owned. Of Washington’s 400+ breweries, just three are Black-owned: 23rd Ave Brewing (Seattle), Black Label Brewing (Spokane), and Métier Brewing (Woodinville/Seattle).
Thanks to efforts from lawmakers, brewers, and beer lovers, 12 states and municipalities have officially recognized National Black Brewers Day this year:
- City of Sacramento
- Los Angeles County
- City of New Orleans
- City of Cleveland
- City of Toledo
- City of Las Vegas
Peoples Brewing – An Important Place in American History
By all accounts, Theodore “Ted” Mack was a man of determination. In 1969 he formed a business group, United Black Enterprises (UBE), to purchase Blatz, an iconic Milwaukee-based beer brand. That effort ultimately failed, which is a story unto itself, but Mack was not deterred and set his sights on another Wisconsin brewery: Peoples Brewing of Oshkosh. The brewery had been in business for over five decades.
In 1970, Mack and his group purchased Peoples Brewing, making it the first Black-owned brewery in the USA. Ted Mack worked as the head of production and industrial relations at Pabst, so he knew a thing or two about the beer business when he stepped out on his own. A longtime community organizer and activist, he also knew a thing or two about the fight for equality. No doubt, he recognized that a Black-owned brewery would face challenges in the overwhelmingly white beer industry, but that did not deter him and his partners.
When the new ownership group took over, all the taverns in the Oshkosh area stopped pouring Peoples Brewing’s beer. Mack was able to overcome this initial hit, using his determination and sincerity to regain all but two of those lost accounts.
Upon taking over the brewery, Mack retained all the employees, including the brewmaster. Still, rumors began to circulate that the beer was being watered down, or otherwise altered and was now an inferior product. It was a baseless claim and Peoples Brewing went to great lengths to disprove it. The brewery sent samples to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, which analyzed the beer and reported that it was a quality product.
Although Peoples Brewing retained the entire employee base, the buzz on the largely white streets of Oshkosh suggested that the new owners intended to replace all the brewery’s white employees with Black workers. Another unsubstantiated rumor. Still, the largely white community of Oshkosh seemed determined to turn its back on its local brewery and used such rumors as an excuse.
Despite the challenges, Peoples Brewing was now producing more beer than it had under the previous ownership. In 1971, Peoples Brewing bought another local brewing operation, the 107-year-old Oshkosh Brewing Company, and its brands. Reportedly, Mack bought Oshkosh because “he felt big breweries were trying to squeeze out the little man and he did not want to bow to the pressure.”
Mack and his group made efforts to distribute the beer to other communities, especially those that they hoped would be more accepting of a Black-owned brewery. For various reasons, those efforts presented more challenges. Peoples Brewing also made a bid to get contracts with the U.S. government, which led to an unsuccessful lawsuit.
After making several strides in the right direction, the business struggled to survive in the face of the changing business environment, which continued to see more and more consolidation at the hands of the largest breweries in the nation. As for Peoples Brewing, it was essentially done by the end of 1972.
Many of the challenges that Peoples Brewing faced were not unique. Across the nation, the biggest industry players were gobbling up smaller breweries and consolidation was making it increasingly difficult for smaller, regional brands to compete. Beloved local brands were disappearing. Still, it is fair to say that Mack and his business partners faced an even more difficult battle.
*While Peoples Brewing is most often cited as the first Black-owned brewery in the nation, some people suggest that two other breweries deserve that distinction: Colony House Brewing Company in Trenton, New Jersey, and Sunshine Brewing Company in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Sources and more information: