So, yes, there will be unlimited pours from six Black-owned brewing companies and a lineup of food trucks, but leave the lederhosen T-shirts at home: Megafest features a lineup of party-rocking DJs you might find in the city’s coolest clubs, including Mathias and Bri Mafia. And the ubiquitous giant Jenga or cornhole? Probably not. “This is really more of a dance party, in my mind,” Johnson says. “I mean, if you’re sitting down playing games, that’s cool. But we want you feeling the vibes.”
Let’s back up. The reason for the celebration is Soul Mega’s third anniversary. Despite being unveiled less than a year before the pandemic, Soul Mega beers, led by the crisp, orange-forward Worldwide American Pale Ale, have established a foothold in the D.C. market. The flagship Worldwide is on the menu at neighborhood beer-and-a-shot bars as well as restaurants with Michelin nods, and 16-ounce cans are sold at stores as disparate as Trader Joe’s and Craft Beer Cellar.
But when planning their anniversary party, Soul Mega’s founders chose not to hog the spotlight and invited other Black-owned brewers to join them at the party: two others from D.C., plus three from Maryland. “Although we’re celebrating our three-year anniversary, we want to make sure we put everybody else on, too,” Johnson says. “And so what we’re trying to do is level the playing field, and get everyone an equal opportunity to let their brand shine.”
Soul Mega is the middle child of D.C.’s three Black-owned beer brands: younger than Sankofa, which debuted in 2017 and went into production the following year, and older than Urban Garden Brewing, D.C.’s first Black woman-owned brand, which released its first canned beer in 2021. None of these companies owns a brewery; Soul Mega’s beers are brewed under contract at Calvert, in Upper Marlboro; Sankofa’s come from Black Flag, in Columbia; and Urban Garden’s flagship Chamolite was made at DC Brau, though founder Eamoni Tate-Collier has also brewed with Right Proper and City-State.
Of the Maryland breweries appearing at Megafest, only Patuxent Brewing has its own facility, which is located in Waldorf. Montgomery County’s Black Viking and Baltimore’s Joyhound are both produced at Oliver Brewing in Baltimore.
Not having a physical space can be a problem for beer brands trying to raise awareness about their latest offerings. Craft-beer nerds and casual beer consumers alike have come to see brewery taprooms as another form of bar, with pinball machines, live music and special events encouraging them to hang out and sample beers. When a new IPA or limited-edition sour drops, all the brewery has to do is encourage people to visit for a taste. Without a built-in outlet, contract brewers have to be more creative. For Soul Mega, that has meant exposure through events like the Trill Grill Fest, headlined by Rick Ross at Gateway D.C. in Congress Heights in 2019, or the Black Beer Garden at the annual Black Greek Fest. “It is part of our model to make sure that we do experiential marketing and give people an idea of our brand outside of just seeing it on the label,” Johnson says. “Our business model is multitiered. We consider ourselves a lifestyle brand as well as a producer and distributor of craft beer.”
Others take different approaches. “We’ve got a small but passionate following,” says Kofi Meroe, the co-founder of Sankofa. So Sankofa likes to host pop-up happy hours and events at bars that already carry its beers. One event at Metrobar, for example, featured DJs spinning Afrobeats and West African cuisine from the Petit Afrik food truck — a perfect pairing for Sankofa, reflecting its origin story: The founders met as elementary school students in Nigeria, and their beers embrace flavors from African ingredients such as hibiscus and cocoa. They’ve also appeared at events at the National Museum of African Art. But Meroe doesn’t just think local: Sankofa has collaborated with some of the biggest names in craft brewing, including Allagash and Brooklyn, and he’s a fixture at festivals such as Barrel and Flow, which brought Black-owned breweries together in Pittsburgh earlier this month, and Blacktoberfest, which returns to the Atlanta area in October.
Urban Garden’s Chamolite, a refreshing blonde ale with honey and chamomile notes, made its debut at the Black Beer Garden, an outdoor pop-up in Shaw during the 2021 D.C. Beer Week, and Tate-Collier says those sorts of events, whether a happy hour at Serenata or a pairing event with the roving Bite Club pop-up, are key. “Festivals and events allow Black-owned breweries to be introduced to a broader audience, and enable consumers to experience the brand directly,” she says. “I’ve participated in events where many people are surprised to see Black brewers and owners, and sometimes even more baffled to see Black women behind a brand.”
That sort of interaction is key to Megafest, Soul Mega’s Johnson says. “I think it’ll be a good chance for consumers to connect with the people that actually create the brands. They can ask whatever questions they want, if they’re not familiar with our brand.” The Black Brew Movement, which organizes tastings and events to introduce craft beer to diverse audiences, is also going to have a table at the festival, “and they’ll have some interactive stuff going on, for people to be educated about craft beer in general,” Johnson says. Saturday also provides a chance to sip some beers that aren’t at local shops: Urban Garden’s AllHomage, a pale ale produced in collaboration with the local clothing brand Eat, sold out earlier this summer, but “we saved a little AllHomage beer just for the Megafest,” Tate-Collier says.
Brandon Miller, the festival’s co-producer with the Usual Suspectz, met Johnson a few years ago, and they bonded over their shared experiences — both are from Chicago, both Howard alumni — as well as a love of beer. They had begun planning a festival before the pandemic hit, “focused on Black beers and Black breweries,” but everything was pushed back. However, when a friend recommended they check out the lawn at Walter Reed, things began to fall into place. “The importance is the opportunity for people to experience cultural events in settings that they wouldn’t normally interact with,” Johnson says. Whether beer or music, “it’s important to bring that to people, because a lot of times people don’t go out and seek that if they’re not familiar with it.”
People might not be familiar with all the breweries pouring this weekend, or the DJs, or the food trucks. But the opportunity to discover something new is right in front of them.
Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m. The Parks at Walter Reed, 1010 Butternut St. NW. theparksdc.com. $50.
Where to find these beers around town
This weekend puts D.C.’s Black beer producers front and center, but there are other chances to find their beverages around town. While each producer offers a “beer locator” guide on its website, these are some highlights. Craft Beer Cellar on H Street NE sells cans of Sankofa, Soul Mega and Urban Garden, as well as Maryland’s Black Viking and Joyhound, both of which will be at Saturday’s festival. If you’d like to try them at a bar, Edgewood’s Metrobar, which has hosted happy hours for Urban Garden and Sankofa, generally has all three D.C. producers available in cans. 1921, the beer garden behind the historic Heurich House, also frequently stocks those breweries, as well as Black Viking, and Serenata, the bar inside the La Cosecha market, makes a point of having Black-owned breweries available.
Sankofa generally sells its beers in cans at bars, but it can also sometimes be found on tap. The most probable location is the Midlands Beer Garden in Park View. “Midlands was our very first account,” co-founder Kofi Meroe says. “Midlands is like family to us, and Midlands gets most of our kegs.” The others are Shaw’s Lost and Found, which Meroe says is “one of my favorite craft beer destinations in the city,” and Free State, Lost and Found’s sister bar in Penn Quarter, which is focused on drinks from the Mid-Atlantic. Hypebiscus pale ale is on shelves now. Cocoa Coast, a chocolate milk stout, could return this fall.
Soul Mega’s beers are widely available. The Rhythm & Beauty black lager was on tap at the Passenger in Shaw last week, and co-founder Elliott Johnson says the rich, toffee-and-coffee-accented beer will return in cans “probably in the next six weeks or so.” Favorite spots for drinking Worldwide include Sandlot Southeast, near Nationals Park; Lydia on H; and Mount Vernon Triangle’s Bar Chinois. It can also be found at multiple Trader Joe’s locations.
Urban Garden has “a couple of new beers in the pipeline,” says founder Eamoni Tate-Collier. To mark the brand’s first anniversary, she worked with City-State Brewing to brew a sorrel saison called Solar Return, which will be released at the Edgewood brewery on Sept. 23. She adds: “I’m also working on releasing an IPA this fall.” In the meantime, try Chamolite while listening to a band at Union Market’s Songbyrd or checking out Addis Paris Cafe, an Ethiopian-meets-French restaurant in Mount Pleasant.