Las Vegas craft beer evangelist Ashlie Randolph is not the type of person to back down from a challenge. Instead of barriers, she sees growth opportunities. And being a female brewer of color in the white-male-dominated craft beer industry is just the sort of challenge she hopes to build off. “When I first started looking at craft beer, I was like, OK, this is a very white male space,” she says. “That didn't deter me so much, but it made me very attuned to other people from underrepresented communities in the craft.”
Since that time, Randolph has become the co-founder of minority-focused beer club Mo’ Betta Brews, a social club that she expects will transition into a merchandise business that focuses on marrying craft beer culture and urban hip-hop culture. She’s also the Duvel brand ambassador for Las Vegas, an NAACP branch member and the Las Vegas chapter president of the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit that supports female brewers. She’s currently in the funding stage of opening a craft brewery in the Caribbean, a region she fell in love with during the time she lived there off-and-on for 20 years while running her own travel agency, Ebony Excursions.
How did you get into beer?
I was in my mid-20s in 2013 and working in Jamaica with my travel agency when I got my thyroid cancer diagnosis. I also discovered craft beer at this time and dove into it headfirst as a distraction.
When I started doing research on craft beer after returning to Vegas for my treatment, I found out there was an upcoming beer festival put on by Motley Brews that fall. I booked my ticket straight away and went with a mission: to taste as many different styles of beers as possible. I was 100% in R&D mode and came prepared with my little black notebook and a map of which stalls I needed to check out based on the beers they were pouring. I think I found myself searching out any hefeweizens I could at that festival.
When my parents would visit me in Sydney, where I went to college, we would go to Munich Brauhaus The Rocks. It does a lovely hefe with freshly squeezed mango juice, and I loved it because it didn't "taste like beer.” Without having the knowledge at the time, I knew super-hoppy beers weren't my thing. But give me something that's fruit-forward or malty, and I was in.
At the Vegas beer fest, I met Aussies and then-brewers at CraftHaus Brewery Steph Cope and her partner, Steven Brockman. We connected instantly, and I told them, “Hey, I don't know a whole lot about beer, but I really want to learn.” Long story short, those two were my guides into craft beer here locally. They would let me come in and observe brew days, and they answered any questions I had. They've been a phenomenal resource.
What sort of challenges do you think people of color face in the beer industry?
I know how to brew. I've done a brewery operation course hosted by Oregon State University and Ninkasi Brewing in Oregon. But I will not be the person brewing day in and day out in my brewery. For me, that’s not a good utilization of my talent as an entrepreneur. One challenge is simply knowing how to bring the skill sets you already have to the industry and how to market yourself as being the person a brewery needs on their team.
As the saying goes, “You can't be what you don't see.” Craft beer is perceived as not being very inclusive. If a person doesn’t feel like they would be welcomed into a brewery, they won’t feel comfortable asking questions like “What are all the things that you have to do to run your brewery? What's the thing that you absolutely hate doing that you pay somebody else to do?” For a lot of the brewery owners I know, asking those questions is how they've obtained many of their service providers like attorneys, accountants, etc.
Not seeing enough of a reflection of a culinary legacy for people of color is another challenge. Some of the reference points included in the Cicerone program, which certifies beer professionals, is an example. One of the things that you’re tested on is your points of reference for aroma. Most people of color come from cultures where we’re not around a barn or wet horse blankets, so how are we to know what those smell like?
You’re working on opening a brewery in the Caribbean. Why there?
I have found a home in the Caribbean. The culinary and musical heritage can be expressed through craft beer. My desire is to bring together these two communities that have enriched my life through beer in a location where I can access Caribbean ingredients. This vision wouldn’t be the same launched in Vegas.
My commitment to my brewery and the community that we will be opening up in is that I won’t be going there and saying, Here's American-style beer, and either you like it or you don't. It’s: Here are flavors and aromas and flavor combinations that you're familiar with, and we happen to be putting them in a beer.
I don't want to be the only craft brewery on the island. Instead, I want to be the first brick that's laid in a path of a craft beer community, because I know how important having that community has been for me, and I would love to pay that forward over there. I can't wait for the day when one of my brewers comes to me and says, “I think I want to open up my own brewery,” and I can reply, “Awesome, what do you need?”
What sorts of local ingredients and traditions do you want to incorporate in your beer-making process?
For me, beer really is anthropology in a glass. Using indigenous ingredients from the Caribbean in the beers of my brewery is essential. Whether it’s using the best mangoes during mango season or brewing a beer that pays homage to the Christmas tradition of Guinness Punch. Additionally, we look forward to collaborating with Olympic athletic greats of past and present to brew one-off beers honoring them.
By keeping our beers artisanal, we can be more flexible and creative. Brewing smaller batches allows us to try something, and if it works, great, and if it doesn't, no harm, no foul; we can pivot and try something else, as opposed to it being mass-manufactured and you have three or four staple beers that you're producing year-round.