Crowns & Hops isn’t your ordinary brewery. The founders, Benny Ashburn and Teo Hunter, weren’t homebrewers who turned pro after quitting their day jobs and washing kegs at their local brewery. In fact, they didn’t work in beer at all — before launching Crowns & Hops, Ashburn worked in marketing and advertising at companies like Beats Electronics and Sony. Hunter was involved in creative production in the entertainment industry.
However, both Ashburn and Hunter shared a passion for quality products and compelling storytelling, and craft beer offered an outlet for their creativity. More importantly, they noticed an opportunity for change, as a significant portion of the United States wasn’t contributing to the craft beer conversation. As BeerAdvocate founder Todd Alstrom noted in a recent article about representation in the beer industry, “Today, there are roughly 8,500 breweries in the US alone with hundreds, if not thousands, in planning. But how many are Black-owned? Less than one percent and not all of them are open yet.”
But Ashburn and Hunter are trying to change that. “When we started there were probably 6,000 craft breweries,” Hunter recalls. “And at that time, I’d estimate there were maybe 30 black-owned breweries. Of those, probably half of them had brick and mortars.”
Originally, Ashburn and Hunter had launched a brand focused on events and merchandising, hoping to bridge the gap between brewers and drinkers of color. The project began as Dope & Dank but eventually grew into what is now Crowns & Hops, an Englewood, California-based brand and brewery with a brick-and-mortar location in the works.
Crowns & Hops has been around for a couple of years now, but with production ramping up at the end of last year and beginning of this year, and with a physical location planned for the end of 2021, Hop Culture named the brewery our “Best New Brewery of 2020.”
Who Are Teo Ashburn and Benny Hunter?
Teo Hunter and Benny Ashburn are the founders of Crown & Hops.
Hunter’s first interaction with craft beer was the same moment of eureka that most of us have felt, the realization that beer could contain a multitude of flavors.
“Someone unintentionally left a craft beer in a cooler after a little jam band session that a bunch of co-workers had together,” Hunter shares. “A Rogue Dead Guy ale. It just blew me away. I had never tasted anything like that.”
As Hunter sought out more unique and flavorful beers at local bottle shops and liquor stores, his appreciation turned into an obsession. However, the quest left him wondering why it took so long for him to discover craft beer.
“The opportunity doesn’t happen in communities of color,” Hunter explains. “You don’t often have that person to explore with for the first time. To make recommendations with you for the first time. It’s all about pushing cheap, tasteless beer in communities of color. Ultimately, it was that idea that became a bit of an obsession.”
After sharing this experience with Benny Ashburn (Hunter revealed the two had dated at one point — “We were the most successful unsuccessful Tinder story in history.”), the two realized there was an opportunity to bring more folks into this exciting community.
“I realized beer was so much deeper than anything that I was aware of,” Ashburn says. “I just wanted to understand it and learn more about it.”
She and Hunter recalled an experience where Teo was attending a beer festival in Santa Barbara, California. “Teo called me and said, ‘Oh my god, I’m the only black person here. Out of like thousands of people.’ It was just so jarring to really feel like he was the only one.”
But, Ashburn encouraged Hunter to continue enjoying the festival and document his experience with photography and videos.
“When we got home we looked at the footage and it was just Teo doing Teo,” she shares. “He’d go up to booths and they’d shout ‘Teo’ like they had known him for years. I think they were excited to see a) someone of color really caring about craft. But then b) someone capturing content to show and feature the experience of a craft beer festival. We immediately realized there was an opportunity to focus on the lifestyle of craft beer. And diversifying that by showing content with us inside of the space as well as behind the scenes at breweries.”
When Was Crowns & Hops Started?
For many years, Ashburn and Hunter pursued the Dope & Dank lifestyle brand. However, they quickly realized that if their mission was to create positive change in the industry, they’d need to be in the industry.
“Every time we did an event, it was asking permission from someone or borrowing someone else’s time to bring our vision to life,” shares Ashburn. “We realized we just had to have our own space. My focus was on curating experiences and curating safe spaces even if you’re not a beer drinker, where can you go and have these same kinds of family moments that you find in breweries. Unfortunately, for people of color, there aren’t those spaces.”
After immersing themselves in craft beer as consumers, promoters, and invested participants, the next logical step was having a stake in the industry. Both Ashburn and Hunter were skilled marketers, storytellers, and creators. Hunter learned how to build beer recipes and worked with brewers in California to improve his own abilities. And both team members developed dialed-in palates through conversations and tasting events with industry veterans.
“It took years of cultivating [relationships] to get us here,” says Ashburn. “Three Weavers was one of the first breweries we did an event with. When we tell our story, it’s really important that people understand this took years and years of groundwork. It took years of dedication and it took me and Teo putting ourselves out there in such a way that if it was to fail it would’ve failed directly in our faces.”
In 2019, Ashburn and Hunter started Crowns & Hops Brewing Co.
What Is The 8 Trill Pils Initiative?
As devastating as 2020 was, there were several members of the craft beer industry that stepped up to offer a bright light. From the Black Is Beautiful campaign from Weathered Souls to Other Half’s All Together movement, there were several brewery-led initiatives launched to fuel positive change from economic and social justice standpoints.
In August of 2020, Crowns & Hops announced that they had partnered with BrewDog to launch the 8 Trill Pils Initiative, a $100,000 grant opportunity for Black-owned breweries.
“Craft beer offers such an incredible example for accomplishing racial equity,” explains Hunter. “It wasn’t until we were given this document called a business case for racial equity that was generated by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that we were able to put language with our mission. Up until that point, it was just diversity and inclusion, diversity and inclusion. Even though that sounds great, it’s still only one-sided. It doesn’t speak to empowering the community to have a stake.”
But, by providing a grant opportunity to Black-owned businesses, the Crowns & Hops team could help Black brewery owners create their own destinies. They finally had access to resources to establish themselves.
“What we were doing with starting Crowns & Hops Brewing Co. was creating racial equity,” says Hunter. “Which is ultimately a plan for economic growth for our country, with the 8 Trill Pils Initiative. The craft beer industry offers such a great opportunity for that to take form. It changes to a strategy for economic growth versus charity. Charity is a one-way street. When you talk about a strategy for economic growth, everybody wins.”
The 8 Trill Pils was launched in 2020, but Hunter and Ashburn shared that they’d like to see the program continue to develop in the future.
“Until we put a dent in this less than 1% black-owned breweries, I think it’s our obligation to stay committed to 8 Trill Pils,” Hunter shares. “We absolutely will be relaunching it.”
The Future of Crowns & Hops
If 2020 was laying the foundation for change, Ashburn and Hunter are taking action in 2021. At the start of year, Ashburn and Hunter hit the ground running with several beer releases. Between collaborating with BeerAdvocate and introducing a Whole Foods-exclusive beer, the Crowns & Hops team has kept themselves busy.
On the beer side, Hunter has continued experimenting with recipe development and plans on introducing a series of artist-inspired beers with unique art from Black creators.
Moreover, the team hopes to finally build out their physical location and offer a space for members of their community to enjoy their beer. That’s something they felt has been lacking in a lot of breweries: true representation.
“If you’re a community business, why doesn’t your business look like the community?” asks Hunter.
Plus, launching their own production space will offer Crowns & Hops the chance to brew more beer and dial in their day-to-day processes. With a clear, authentic mission and high-quality beer, Benny Ashburn and Teo Hunter are prepared to create meaningful, fundamental change in the craft beer industry.
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