“One of the reasons we started a craft brewing company in the first place was due to the lack of accessibility of premium craft beer in communities of color,” explains Teo Hunter, COO and head of brewing operations for Crowns & Hops Brewing Co.
He says it’s easy enough to find craft beer at Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, and Trader Joe’s but, “as soon as you start going into the inner city, you don't see any of those establishments. You barely see grocery stores, and those grocery stores are inundated with mass marketed beer that don't have the quality attributes we would hope people would identify the same way Beny and I did.
“It’s amazing to see what has been accomplished over the past six years. Our efforts to push and truly achieve racial equity in the craft beer industry are being realized on so many levels—from Black beer influencers promoting the industry, to business owners that are now opening craft beer establishments from breweries to bars. We’re honored to be at the forefront of this movement. Black people have contributed to the beverage industry for generations. It’s like a full circle moment for us to now shine a light on these contributions along with leading the charge on cultural ownership in craft beer.”
Established in 2015 with CEO and co-founder Beny Ashburn, the duo’s Crowns & Hops is based in Inglewood, CA, and is currently brewing out of two facilities in the state—one in Santa Rosa and one in Inglewood. By the end of the year they aim to centralize all of those efforts in Inglewood to sell directly to consumers.
Packaging aligns with mission
Hunter explains that they package solely in 16-oz aluminum cans to align with current craft beer trends and to ensure the beer has the best protection and opportunity to survive. Full sleeved cans are from R.B. Dwyer supplied by Ball. Their next goal is to transition completely to sleeved cans versus labeled cans to boost efficiency and remove a process from the fulfillment stage.
With their package design, Crowns & Hops aims to resonate with consumers who have traditionally been overlooked in the craft beer market. Hunter notes, “Our goal from a visual standpoint was to communicate culture—in all the different varieties that Beny and I understand it—to the craft beer community so that our Black and Brown patrons could start to recognize themselves in an industry that otherwise they were invisible to.”
This means integrating Black culture into premium craft beer packaging. “We can execute that in ways beyond it just being some graffiti or a Hip-Hop verse on a can. Our goal is to really showcase in unique ways how we are not just this monolithic group of people,” says Hunter. “So we use monikers that are aligned with nostalgia, whether it's the cassette tapes on our Beat Messenger pilsner or the topography of Inglewood in Urban Anomaly stout. In Elevated Cypher IPA, we actually use script as if someone was writing verses.
“We're about to start segueing into other symbols that are significant to our culture in a way that frames it, but doesn't rip off someone else's IP, which is a huge issue in our industry. We think it's lazy creative. A lot of times it's utilizing and appropriating culture when it's not intrinsic to the ownership. But we certainly are hoping to make sure that you can identify Black and Brown culture in our packaging. I think it's important—if you see an Irish beer, you can tell pretty much immediately it’s an Irish beer. It's a Mexican lager, you can tell.”
Labels are designed by Matt Taylor from Varnish Studio, whom Hunter met 15 years ago through their backgrounds in packaging. Hunter explains, “At the time, he was doing a lot of design work for Warner Brothers music. He’s a Grammy Award-winning designer who’s designed for Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Roots…some phenomenal groups.”
The pair had a “wild idea” that they’d be in the craft beer industry one day. “Fast forward to today he designs for Mountains Walking, Coda Brewing, Eppig Brewing, Roadhouse Brewing, and Erosion Wine. He is probably one of the more impactful packaging designers I've ever met in my life,” says Hunter.
Because messaging plays such an important role, Crowns & Hops plans to eventually switch to printed cans versus sleeved cans to maximize print area for copy on the company ethos and each recipe’s story.
Packaging is performed in-house at the two California facilities. Currently, they package approximately four recipes a month, 250 to 300 cases per recipe.
When choosing contract partners, it was key that they had packaging in-house to remain as cost-effective as possible. “Craft beer is not cheap, so as many things that we could keep in-house just really allowed us to redirect those funds to phenomenal creative and digital marketing,” he says.
One striking thing about Crowns & Hops is the production value and frequency of its social media posts and videos. (Check out @CrownsandHops.) While both Ashburn and Hunter contribute, Ashburn’s extensive background in marketing production serves as the cornerstone. Hunter notes, “She helped build the internal creative team at Beats by Dre, worked at Sonos, and prior to that, she produced commercials for major marketing and advertising companies. So consumer products—framing them and presenting them to the community—is something that she's always been a part of.”
For Hunter, working in home entertainment packaging for Warner Brothers, Universal, Paramount, and others was where he built his attention to detail, packaging, pre-press, and complete project management. He says, “I think most people, when they work with us for the first time, think they're going to get home brewers that don't know how to position or project themselves. But Beny and I are very intentional and specific, and do our best to create a process internally that allows for that execution to reach people.”
Accessibility and opening doors
Currently, all sales are through their distributor and retail partners, partly because of COVID-19, but also to keep products accessible to communities of color. A transition to e-commerce will take place first, in Q2 of 2021.
Crowns & Hops holds its “8 Trill Pils” initiative, focused on achieving racial equity in craft beer by opening doors for the next generation. The 8 Trill Pils Grant, supported by Brewdog, is a grant program that awarded a total of $100,000 to five Black-owned craft beer businesses, to provide financial support in the areas of business development, growth, and sustainability.
Teo’s journey to packaging and beyond
Hunter speaks fondly of his packaging journey. He started as a salesman at Kinko’s, selling so many copies that a small commercial printer took notice and hired him. He sold color copies during the day, learned commercial printing and pre-press in the afternoon, and went to school at night. He adds, “I was presenting to a group, and I'd run outside and go over these proof corrections, then I'd go back in and do a presentation then go back out and do more corrections. One of the guys in the class had been watching me and he pulled me aside one day saying, ‘We have a company that does entertainment, pre-press color correction, and printing, we could use you.’ With one meeting and about 30 days later, I was the new Universal Home Entertainment representative.”
Hunter relays a story of success despite the lack of diversity in the packaging industry during his time in home entertainment packaging. “I would bring my proofs to go over with the vendors. None of the other reps knew who I was—they assumed that I was the delivery boy,” he says. “It worked out great for me because I ended up going in and getting right into the client first every time. I would end up getting the next project before the other vendors came in because they didn’t realize I was talking to the client. And it took maybe about a year before they all realized that I was taking all their projects. By that time, I had expanded to Paramount, Fox, and Miramax, but I had a pretty good run due to the ignorance of some of my fellow salespeople in the printing and packaging industry.”
Hunter gives credit to Patrick Seeholzer (formerly of Color Service in Monterey Park, CA) for taking him under his wing. “He and his brother, Ken, showed me the ropes of printing and packaging, things that I still carry with me today. I'm happy to say that he was one of our first investors when we were doing a crowdfunding campaign. Talk about emotional—when I saw Patrick’s name on our investor list, it rocked me. He taught me not only values in curating and keeping relationships and really honing my skills as a packaging professional, but also a ton of life lessons as well.”