Local entrepreneurs Billy Comer and Whitteney Guyton teamed up earlier this year to launch 1865 Brewing Company, Hampton Roads’ first Black-owned craft brewery. Distinction stopped in prior to the October grand opening to talk about blazing a trail in the business of craft beer.
What is 1865 Brewing Co.?
Comer: We are the region’s newest brewery, located on Mallory Street in downtown Hampton, opening in October. Our name comes from the year that slavery was abolished. And that, for us, was a starting point for this concept and the inspiration for our theme: Freedom starts here.
Is being a Black-owned business something you intend to be a prominent part of the brewery’s identity, or will this be more of a background feature?
Comer: My soul tells me to emphasize that, but I know that isn’t the only thing we want to be known for. I don’t want that to overshadow everything and I don’t want to sweep it under the rug either. I want our beers to speak for themselves. At the end of the day, it’s not a Black thing, not a white thing. It’s just a community thing.
Guyton: For me, it is our identity for today and it needs to be said today. Twenty years from now – who knows? Is it the one thing we are standing on? Not at all. We are businesspeople, we know how to put together a good product and to market that. We’ve been doing this for decades.
Black Americans are underrepresented as both owners, and drinkers, of craft beer. What else needs to happen to make it demographically resemble the United States?
Guyton: I see this more as a regional thing. I’m from Illinois, and if you go into breweries in Chicago or other big cities like Los Angeles or Atlanta, we’re not totally underrepresented there. Around here, unfortunately, breweries are considered something that we don’t go to because we don’t feel comfortable in those settings. So, we are working really hard to make sure that when you come in 1865 it doesn’t matter what you look like, you’re going to feel comfortable. And that can be an example for every brewery. Like we say, freedom starts here. That means different things for different people. When you walk through the door, you feel like you’re coming home.
The craft beverage space in Hampton Roads seems a little crowded. Is there still opportunity here?
Comer: The competition may be stiff, but we are bringing something different, edgy. We are brewing crisp, clean beers but we also have lots of other drinks for health-conscious consumers as well.
Guyton: We are not just a brewery that brews beer. We actually brew coffee in the morning. We offer pastries and other foods like salads and sandwiches, in addition to the food trucks that are here. My family comes from a gourmet food background. What we offer looks aesthetically pleasing and represents a diverse palette.
Who else has helped this come together?
Comer: We have a great team that is helping us build our brand, from the PR team to people in the community who are supporting us. (Head brewer Randy Jones) is a hard worker and knows how to make great beer.
What has been the feedback since you announced the project?
Guyton: Even the older church ladies tell us, “Baby, I don’t drink, but I’m coming to support you.”
– Condensed and edited for clarity by Ben Swenson