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CASTLE MALTING NEWS in partnership with www.e-malt.com Italian
14 April, 2021



Brewing news USA: Molson Coors acquiring minority stake in North Carolina’s TRU Colors Brewery

Molson Coors Beverage Company is acquiring a minority stake in its latest craft brewery and this one is extraordinarily unique: it’s managed and staffed almost entirely by active gang members, Forbes reported on April 14.

TRU Colors Brewery, located in Wilmington, North Carolina, started in 2017 with the mission to reduce gang violence in the beach town. Serial entrepreneur George Taylor, who co-founded and headed the Untappd digital beer check-in platform, was catalyzed to launch TRU Colors by watching a news story about a drive-by gang murder in his hometown.

“I was pretty comfortably unaware. I didn’t even know we had gangs in Wilmington,” says the white 60-year-old.

Driven to understand how someone could carelessly shoot up a populated street, Taylor asked the local district attorney to introduce him to the area’s top gang leaders. Over the following few years, he traveled the country to get to know more affiliates, as gang members at TRU Colors call themselves, and hired a few to work at Untappd. His discovery that gangs originally formed to protect and serve disempowered neighborhoods and not to sell drugs and commit acts of violence led him to launch TRU Colors. TRU stands for “Truth, Responsibility and Unity.”

In turn, TRU Colors has led 55 gang members like Juan “Press” Bethea to commit to a full-time brewery job with a middle-class salary and benefits and the homeownership and stability they can provide. More important, though, is the primary lesson they learn to cast off the self-certainty they carry that their lives will inevitably end in prison or an early grave.

29-year-old Bethea, an original employee who works as director of brewing operations while holding on to his high status in a set of the infamous Bloods gang, says, “I have a legitimate way to provide for my family. I know I would be in jail (otherwise). It makes me sad that I had that mindset but now some people I may have terrorized in the past, they know I work at the brewery and they say, ‘Keep up the good work.’”

It’s Taylor’s commitment to cultivating this type of deep social change along with his success starting nine businesses that draws Molson Coors to him and his team of gang members. The conglomerate is buying an undisclosed share of the company, which will distribute exclusively through the Molson Coors network as it begins to sell across North Carolina, Virginia and soon, they hope, to at least 40 states. Paul Verdu, vice president and head of Molson Coors’ Tenth and Blake craft division, says investing in TRU Colors continues his company’s mission to dramatically increase diversity and inclusion in brewing.

“For a long time the reality has been of white men brewing beer for white drinkers,” he says. “We’ve got to change that.”

Even though Bethea says he initially applied for his brewing job for the money and not for any particular feeling toward beer or betterment for himself or others, he confronted the industry’s homogeneous reality quickly after getting hired as the first brewer. Not satisfied to “be stagnant waiting around for someone to train me,” the African-American two-time convicted felon with no previous brewing or craft beer experience spent two years offering himself as an unpaid intern at various unfamiliar and predominantly white breweries to learn the trade.

“One of the hardest things I had to do was swallow my pride and go to other breweries to ask for help,” he says. “I had to fill that knowledge gap.”

As of late 2020, Brian Faivre, longtime former brewmaster at Oregon’s influential Deschutes Brewery, oversees Bethea and his brewing team. But the fact that Bethea forced himself way out of his comfort zone shows that TRU Color’s intense onboarding process and development training works.

New employees — usually rival gang members — start in cohorts of about a dozen, getting paid an annual $30,000 and full benefits from day one. They go through two months of “boot camp” followed by a $5,000 annual raise and a three-month internship in a brewery department that interests them. But instead of learning about hops and grains, they spend much of boot camp partnered with rivals they don’t know, like or trust, learning how to resolve conflict and believe in themselves, often for the first time.

“Most folks coming into TRU Colors have a very short term view of their future,” says Taylor. “At first, we focus on getting everyone’s head around the fact they can and deserve to be happy. Then everyone gets to know each other and see commonalities like, ‘This guy’s got kids like I do, he’s got hopes and dreams like I do.’”

No guns enter the building and Chief People Officer Khalilah "KO" Olokunola says they’ve never had any incidents, though Taylor describes the first few days as full of “usually very loud discussions” as men (no women have answered recruitment calls yet) who grew up tough confront their biases, fears and limiting beliefs about themselves and one another.

As training proceeds, candidates, as they’re called at that stage, learn experientially and collaboratively how to stabilize their lives in the arenas of communication, relationships, finances, housing and transportation. All the while, they’re being taught how to turn their street smarts into business skills that they can apply to the brewery itself as well as the recording studio, TV production unit, fitness and wellness centers or community engagement space Taylor plans to build out.

“Even though we don’t necessarily hire for skills there are skills there — skills from the block to apply to the boardroom,” says Olokunola. “If somebody was really good at understanding products, marketing, their target audience, we give them the fortitude to be disciplined and have drive for their lives.”

The seven or eight cohorts that have passed through so far do comprise a somewhat self-selecting group to begin with. To recruit, Olokunola asks her gang-affiliated co-workers for recommendations then goes out to find them and others in, as she says, “the court house, the trap house, the jail house.”

Prospective hires show up for a scheduled open house then go through a weeks-long interview and vetting period. They get credit for showing initiative, say, by reaching out to talk with existing employees in their departments of interest, and Olokunola says they select applicants who demonstrate “influence, resilience and grit.”

Taylor says about 80% make it through training; most of those who don’t get let go within the first two weeks for being late; for just one second for just one time. Those who don’t last can reapply 90 days later. Once the successful candidates complete their two-month training, they have just one more obligation before getting their internship — they have to jump out of an airplane.

“The second their feet hit the ground their salary goes to $35,000,” Taylor says.

So far around 65 affiliates have completed their internship, been formally hired and received pay commensurate with their position. But the personal development doesn’t stop.

Employees get drafted into “tribes'' every six months, led by employee-coaches who rotate just as often. They compete and collaborate on community projects and earn wins, bragging rights and a trophy for achievements like getting off parole, buying a car, volunteering or hosting a community town hall meeting.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo says, “TRU Colors’ message of unity has brought people together and caused many in our city to reconsider their perspective on what’s possible in the future.”

Not only do affiliates’ communities benefit directly from the greater number of men setting positive examples for themselves and everyone else, they also reclaim a sense of pride in their native sons who for too long may have acted in the stereotypically destructive ways that give gang members a negative and not entirely accurate rap.

Latiesha Cook, who runs the Black beer foundation Beer Kulture, has spoken with the TRU Colors team many times over the past few years.

She emails, “Gang members where I’m from (born and raised in the Bronx, NY) are the people who take care of the community. The neighborhood. They are the protectors of the youth. The providers when there is lack. They are the elders, the OG’s, the ones who bring unity whenever there are disruptions in the neighborhood. They’re more trusted where I come from than the police.”

For his part, Bethea says he’s ecstatic to earn a legitimate living for his two young kids and spends a lot of effort encouraging his friends and neighbors to parent their own children in constructive ways. And by taking a central part in this story, he’ll have one particular proud moment to share for the rest of their lives.

“Is this the Forbes that writes about the billionaires?” he asked at the end of his interview, a grin slowly spreading across his face as he considered his upcoming coverage in the prestigious international publication. “I thought I had to be a rapper or entertainer or a rich white guy to get in Forbes.”





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