A profile of Aaron Ellis in celebration of Black History Month
Craft beer: chances are if you’re over 21, you’ve heard about it, drank it, or even tried to brew it yourself. For anthropologist Aaron Ellis — a brewer, a Ph.D. candidate in IU’s Department of Anthropology, and an IU academic advisor in the departments of Human Biology, Religious Studies, and History and Philosophy of Science — craft brewing has become more than a hobby. It’s the focus of his academic research, in which he traces the rise of craft beer in America from 1980 (when craft brewing started becoming more popular) to today. He also explores the barriers to diversity that exist within craft brewing and suggests that such barriers might relate to the role of science within craft brewing culture.
Aaron first got into brewing as a hobby: while pursuing an undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College, he proposed that he and his fraternity brothers at Alpha Chi Alpha try to brew a beer together as a brotherhood activity. (Yes, the beer was good. So was the brotherhood.) After that, he began reading about brewing techniques and methods, mostly in online forums, all in pursuit of “making better beer.”
He then spent a semester making cider in the UK, where — in contrast to the online world of hyper-controlled brewing, quality control, and the like — he was exposed to people collaborating with each other and creating really unique ciders by trying to mash traditional and innovative methods of cider-making together. Making cider in the UK was illuminating to Aaron in that everyone was deeply tied to the experiential aspects of it: “[These] cider-makers weren’t trying to understand the science of it; they were feeling it out. They were trying 300-year old methods simply to see if they still worked; you had to be there to understand [the brewing process].”
Upon returning to Dartmouth, Aaron’s interest in brewing as a hobby took on an academic dimension when he took an anthropology class. For his final assignment, Aaron wrote a grant proposal to drive cross-country interviewing brewers, and to figure out exactly “what is brewing culture?” Much to his surprise — he got the grant! After purchasing his grandfather’s used Subaru Outback, which he still drives today, and a Parks Pass “to make it scenic,” Aaron spent the summer between his junior and senior years on a “beer road trip,” hitting 38 states, visiting breweries large and small, some of which he still works with today. After writing a 150-page honors thesis — he laughs as he remembers thinking “that’s probably a good place to stop” — Aaron applied to graduate school to keep studying brewing.
The Brewing of Boundaries
As a Ph.D. student at IU, Aaron was first interested in studying some of the scientific aspects of brewing, how brewers augment pH (acidity) levels, water hardness, specific gravity, and microbial landscapes, all in the name of perfecting their craft and highlighting local flavors, also known as terroir. He set out to do what is called a “multispecies ethnography” of brewing, whereby human activities are placed in the context of their interactions with the living world around them.
Only recently has his focus shifted towards questions of race and diversity in craft brewing: “I was actually really resistant to talking about race in this project, or class, and I still don’t love talking about class, since I think it oversimplifies some pretty nuanced problems.” But then he took Laura Foster’s Scientific Practices and Feminist Knowledge course here at IU. It was one of those courses that “changed everything” because Aaron’s intuition to study the culture of brewing in terms of race, identity, and power was suddenly affirmed. As he notes, “feminism doesn’t have to be about gender; it can also be about race or different ways people identify; really, the focus of feminism is power, and how power differences impact people’s lives.”
So Aaron decided to pivot to a topic which he previously thought was too emotional to study in a legitimate, (i.e., objective and unbiased) way: “I need to be looking at how power is functioning in this space” and that will maybe illuminate why craft brewing is dominated by white males. With his previous groundwork on the scientific and technological sides of brewing already done, Aaron thought,”What if science has something to do with the lack of diversity?”
The traditional analysis suggests that economic factors are to blame for the lack of diversity in brewing, in that it is a leisure activity, for which economically precarious individuals would rarely have time or money. Aaron is quick to dispel this notion, however, in light of the prevalence of moonshining, home wine-making using wild and natural fruits, and other brewing traditions in many lower income or African American communities. Furthermore, brewing itself, Aaron explains, has a very deep history — one that pre-dates “science” as conceptualized in the Western world and has a much more diverse culture than is acknowledged by some brewers today.
For instance, Aaron notes that only recently has brewing aligned itself with science. Yet, he suggests, brewing has a longstanding relationship to cultural activities that are not necessarily “scientific” — “What is the fundamental difference between brewing and cooking?” he asks. “When I describe brewing to people, I compare it to making soup — you’re boiling a bunch of stuff, waiting around and adding ingredients at specific times. That’s it! But brewers would never want you to know that.” To be fair, Aaron acknowledges that the prevalence of science-based discussion about brewing isn’t wrong or even misguided; brewing can be as much of a science as one wants it to be, as can cooking.
However, he has questions about the way scientific practices are being deployed, even in hobbyist communities. In most forums, Aaron notes, people assume that “if you’re having problems with your beer, it’s probably because you’re doing it unscientifically.” They will then suggest the multitude of tests one can run on their brew, with the help of specialized tools, in order to fix it.
The list of tools sounds intimidating: for instance, a civil engineer from Indianapolis has created an algorithm that helps people use reverse osmosis on their local water to make, for example, “German” water. This is the base of the ideal  craft beer (required for this: a way to measure specific gravity, pH and TDS meters, a sub-gram scale, Calcium Chloride (pickling salt), and Epsom salt, all on top of one’s basic brewing gear). This process, Aaron thinks, reflects the economically prohibitive aspects of brewing, but beyond that, “the focus on science becomes a boundary-making tool, which keeps out women and minorities, who are incredibly under-represented in the field, both in the profession and in the hobby.”
The craft brewing industry is beginning to take on the issue of diversity. The Brewer’s Association, for example, recently hired Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham as an Ambassador to their new Diversity Committee. Still, though, many people don’t recognize that diversity in brewing is even an issue, which is a barrier in itself to understanding the lack of representation and making change. So Aaron thinks it’s a step in the right direction that brewers are starting to ask: “How do we make this space more accessible and change the culture to make it feel safe and welcoming, so that anyone feels happy drinking and brewing.”
Fermenting Change in Brewing Culture
When asked about ways forward, he laughs, noting that he’s “not at the solutions phase” of his research yet, but he mentions that a lot of the reactions to his research are: “Do you want brewing to be less rigorous?” to which he replies “No. I want to make good beer all the time.” The perception that diversifying the field will reduce the quality or rigor of brewing is especially problematic, in that it implies an intellectual boundary between white brewers and the communities that they are only beginning to acknowledge and engage. Noting that a lot of the motivation for the new Diversity Committee is to increase the market appeal for craft beer, Aaron states that Dr. Jackson-Beckham is “doing great work… using their insecurities [about marketing to wider audiences] for a good purpose,” but that the community needs to strive for more. For instance, he thinks that community-based endeavors, apprenticeship models, and citizen science approaches are also needed to address issues of diversity within and beyond brewing.
Linking his work on brewing to the larger context of his career as a brewer and academic of color, Aaron is careful when discussing how his own experiences speak to the pervasiveness of the problem: he probably knows more about beer than anyone else you know, but many brewers he has meet feel the need to explain basic aspects of brewing or of its history to him . For much of his time studying brewing, Aaron thought of these experiences as invalid or irrelevant to his work, and that they might impact the objective nature of anthropological research. While Aaron’s experiences make for a more compelling and accurate characterization of issues in craft brewing, they are also grounded in empirical evidence. Using computer-mediated discourse analysis, a tool used in computational linguistics and information and library sciences, Aaron has confirmed that many discussions on online forums — even those armed with user anonymity — sit atop hostile and aggressive tones.
Looking beyond brewing culture, Aaron and I discuss the issues of diversity in STEM, and the historical failure of STEM fields to value tacit knowledge, real-world experience, and affect (or emotion) in general. It is important to mention that a lot of the communal, bottom-up approaches that Aaron sees as effective paths forward in brewing are only recently gaining traction within academia. “As an institution, more than a group of people, science has not reconciled with the fact that it has a dark history of exploitative, racist, and prejudiced practices, so it is not surprising to me that minorities don’t want to engage; and this breaks my heart, because science is really powerful.”
From brewing to science to academia, Aaron’s work is about identifying implicit barriers to minorities and challenging the misconceptions and cultures in which they ferment. As with brewing, he wants fellow academics and scientists to ask themselves: “How are you opening up science, and recognizing, instead of ignoring, that your academic lineage has this history?” He also thinks it’s important to expose people to counter-narratives through collaboration with historians and experts in other fields. For instance, the ‘Jack Daniel’s marketing schema’ is a myth of brewing as skilled, white labor, which stands in direct contrast to the historical truth that early American brewing was largely done by slaves.
Stepping back, his research has led him to more critically consider the way he and others choose to engage questions of identity and power in their professions more generally. He thinks it’s incredibly important for people to be able to deploy different aspects of their identity on their own terms. As for as his own professional identity: “I want to be known to my students as a black professor if that inspires some people in the room, but in cases where I am being ‘objective’ or ‘scholarly’ I don’t want that to be qualified by the fact that I’m black. I’m not a good black academic or colleague, I’m just a good one.”
 Speaking of the ideal beer: while many brewers today would tout Western Europe as the intellectual and historical home of beer, the truth is that many cultures across the globe were fermenting beer, wine, and other spirits long before the first European breweries were established. The deep roots of fermentation “science” — which extends back over 8,000 years — are not terribly Western, and certainly not white, at all.
 After touring the country visiting brewers, and even though Aaron worked at a home brewing equipment store for over a year, Aaron has only ever met two black home brewers. Aside from Dr. Jackson-Beckham (a home brewer), there are only two high-profile black brewers getting press. One, Drew Fox, head brewer at 18th Street Brewery in Gary, IN originally “didn’t want want to be known as a black brewer; he wanted to be known as a brewer.”