Celebrating the legacies of two Black men who left their mark on Wisconsin's brewing industry
The history of brewing in Wisconsin is predominantly white-centered. But, in the late 1960s two Black men left their mark on the state’s brewing industry. Edward McClellan created a Black-owned beer brand, and contracted with a company in West Bend to brew their beer. Ted Mack, along with his business associates from the United Black Enterprises, purchased and ran the first Black-owned brewery in Wisconsin.
Dave Driscoll, the curator of economic history at the Wisconsin Historical Society, shares more about Edward McClellan.
"The Black Pride Beer, we have one can from the company in the collection that was brewed by Lithia, a company in West Bend, Wisconsin, [that] has been around since before prohibition," says Driscoll.
Edward McClellan was a former Chicago police sergeant and was a part of the Southside Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). McClellan saw African Americans drink a fair amount of beer and saw the money was leaving the community and going to white brewers, Driscoll recounts.
In 1969, McClellan founded Black Pride Inc. (BPI), creating a brand by and for Black people. He did not brew his own beer, but the brewing process was outsourced to a brewery. So McClellan and BPI struck a deal with Lithia Company to help. Eventually BPI was distributed across Wisconsin and in Chicago, marketing to African American consumers.
Simultaneously, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Driscoll says a Black man in Milwaukee by the name of Theodore "Ted" Mack was getting his start in the brewing industry at the Pabst Brewing Company.
Mack was hired by Pabst to bring the company's overwhelmingly white workforce into compliance with the 1964 Civil Right Act. He was also the head of production and industrial relations at Pabst.
Influenced by his time at Pabst, Mack led the United Black Enterprises (UBE), a group of local Black businessmen looking for a source of economic development. In 1969, Mack along with UBE saw an opportunity to purchase Milwaukee's Blatz Brewery.
"[Mack] also at the time was inspired by some of the same economic self-sufficiency ideals that the Black Pride Beer was. In his case, maybe because he came from inside the brewing industry. He thought the thing to do is own a brewery," says Driscoll.
However, UBE lost the bid to buy the old Blatz Brewery.
Then, in 1970, UBE and Mack purchased the Peoples Brewing Company located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Mack and UBE became owners of Wisconsin's first Black-owned brewery.
Driscoll notes that there was pushback from the community. He says that Mack dealt with racist rumors that the white workforce in the town would be entirely replaced by Black workers or the beer quality would drop. Mack even dealt with Oshkosh taverns refusing to serve their beer. But, he continued to employ the workers already at the brewery, did not change the recipe and bridged relationships with local tavern owners to keep Peoples Brewing Company open.
Unfortunately, both the Black Pride Inc. and the Peoples Brewing Company closed in 1972 due to economic circumstances that forced many small breweries nationwide to close.
But in 2020, the Oak Park Brewing Company (OPBC) based in Sacramento, California re-launched the People's Beer in collaboration with the Mack family.
Ted Mack's son, Theodore "Ted" Mack II remembers his father as someone who was "bigger than life", and he believes that his father would have been so excited about the re-launch.
Rodg Little and Geoff Scott are co-owners at OPBC. Little was already researching the histories of Black brewers, and he was really excited at the chance to work with the Mack family.
"It's definitely history in the making the rebirth of People's Beer, and we're hoping to just share the full story," Little says.
"I'm just very thankful to see the legacy grow and this legacy that we are continuing is our chapter," says Mack II.
Tavern Tuesdays is in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Old World Wisconsin to bring you stories about beer and brewing in our state. We'll be sharing these histories with you leading up to the grand opening of Old World Wisconsin’s new brewing experience.