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Evelyn C. White: Changing the ‘sea of white dudes’ dynamics at Halifax brewpubs

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Having just amassed the zest of 85 jalapeño peppers and 50 limes, Giovanni Johnson is clad in surgical gloves. The scientific hand garb is nothing new for the man who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Mount Saint Vincent University and who stands as the only person of African descent employed as a microbiologist and assistant brewer in the booming Nova Scotia craft beer industry.  

Giovanni Johnson. Photo © Joanne Bealy

He’ll include the aromatic mix of limes and peppers in El Espinazo del Diablo (a homage to Mexican director Guillermo del Toro), one of several beers that Johnson brews at the Good Robot tap room (also home to the RumbleFish restaurant)  in North End Halifax. The native of the Bahamas applauds the brewery for valuing the skills that he —a trained scientist who’d previously worked in pharmacy — brings to his job.

“I’ve swabbed trees from the forest to make cider,” he explained. “I understand what’s involved with yeast management.” Thanks to Johnson’s talents and reputation for producing lively cultural events, Good Robot, which opened in 2015, is renown for drawing an ethnically diverse crowd.

That’s no small feat in a city with a damning history of racial strife recently detailed in Displacing Blackness: Power, Planning, and Race in Twentieth Century Halifax by Ted Rutland. Set against the backdrop of African Heritage Month, other businesses in the rapidly gentrifying North End might note the brewery’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Kelly Costello is an assistant brewmaster at Good Robot. As fate would have it,  she was working in the brewery’s retail shop on the day, in 2017, when Johnson walked in.  “He was very well-dressed,” Costello recalled, noting the “low standard for attire in the beer world.” “I noticed that right away.”

She asked Johnson if he wanted to sample a brew. He declined. She offered again. Same answer. On her third try, Johnson agreed. She poured him a sample.  “He took a small sip and then identified all the notes, characteristics and elements of the beer,” Costello said. “As if he’d brewed it himself. I was stunned.”

She said that Johnson thanked her and left. Unbeknown to her, he’d arrived that day for a job interview. “I had absolutely no idea that he was being considered for a position at the brewery. But am I ever glad he was hired.”

“Not only is Giovanni a scientist, he’s also an inventor, and a mycologist,” she continued, referencing Johnson’s vast knowledge of mushrooms and other fungi. “He brings an extraordinary creative ability to the process of making beer  My life has improved 100% since he came on as an assistant brewer. He’s changing the ‘sea of white dudes’ dynamics at brewpubs.”

As for Johnson, he maintains happy memories of his three-hour interview with the owners of Good Robot and other leaders in the local craft beer scene. “We talked about everything,” he said. “It was fantastic.”

He said the experience stands in stark contrast to a job interview he had at another well-known North End brewery. “I don’t think they were prepared for the fact that I’m a scientist,” Johnson said. “I didn’t fit the stereotype that a lot of people have about black men. They didn’t even have the courtesy to contact me and tell me I didn’t get the job.”

Soon to celebrate his 27th birthday, Johnson is poised to secure master brewer certification later this year.  He has flourished in a workplace where there is zero tolerance for prejudice. “No disrespect whatsoever is permitted at Good Robot,” he said. “If people get out of line, they are immediately checked. We aren’t having it.”      

About the calypso flair that infuses his beers, Johnson said that he revels in bringing flavours of his homeland to Halifax. “I grew up eating fresh coconut, mango, watermelon, kiwi, etc., in the Bahamas,” he said.  “So it’s natural for me to develop recipes that include tropical notes. I think people like them, too.”

Indeed, “Pink Flamingo,” a refreshing radler that Johnson crafted and named after the national bird of the Bahamas, achieved near cult status last summer at Good Robot. He aims to release a new specialty beer next month at a festive event that will feature Caribbean cuisine and a performance of the Junkanoo — the national music and dance of the Bahamas. Prepare to boogie down!

See also: Racism shapes this city and Black Halifax CFL players ain’t gonna roll with it

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