Anheuser-Busch’s first Black female brewmaster on the beer industry’s diversity gap
Few people have more influence over the beer made by Anheuser-Busch InBev than Natalie Johnson. Johnson oversees North American brewing operations for the world’s largest brewer. She is also a Black woman, which makes her a rarity in an industry dominated by white men—a situation she is determined to change.
“When I walk in a room and I am a part of a conversation, a presentation, it’s very easy to spot me. And knowing that, I know that eyes are on me more readily,” says Johnson, who in 2014 became the brewer’s first Black female brewmaster in North America at its flagship St. Louis brewery. She recently was promoted to brewing director for all of North America. “I want to be the example so that people are ready and willing to let more people that look like me—give them an opportunity, give them a chance.”
Today, Johnson and her employer are taking a step towards getting more people like her into the field by announcing a scholarship program backed by the United Negro College Fund that benefits students pursuing STEM majors applicable to careers in brewing. With the program, called the UNCF Budweiser Natalie Johnson Scholarship, the brewer is committed to awarding 25 scholarships annually valued at $4,000 apiece. The company will also give five candidates paid internships in brewing, plus $6,000 toward the final year of earning their degree.
The effort, which comes as more companies prioritize diversity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, amounts to an incremental move toward closing a racial gap plaguing the beer industry. Only about 1 percent of craft brewery owners are Black and fewer than 1 percent of brewery production workers are Black, according to a recent report from the Brewers Association, which represents small brewers. The nation’s largest brewers—AB InBev and Molson Coors—have not publicly shared diversity data, but concede that a disparity exists.
Molson Coors has hired a consulting firm to assess its culture and has a goal of increasing the representation of people of color in its U.S. operations by 25 percent by the end of 2023, according to a spokesman.
Monica Rustgi, VP of Marketing for Budweiser, says, "We know that there is work to be done in the brewing industry.” Pointing to the scholarship program, she adds that “we thought this was the perfect moment for us to accelerate all that we’ve done and really use the power of our scale as well as our people.”
Those people include Budweiser endorser and National Basketball League legend Dwyane Wade. He appears with Johnson in a new video the brewer released today plugging the scholarship. The five-minute film, called “Brewing Change,” was created by the brewer’s in-house agency, DraftLine, and will get paid support on social media. It features Wade informing Johnson that the scholarship will carry her name, which prompts tears. The director is Ritesh Gupta, who also directed an emotional video for Bud in 2019 starring Wade that went viral. Wade’s relationship with the brewer keeps growing; he is listed as co-founder of Budweiser Zero, a new no-alcohol version of the brew.
The beer launch and scholarship promotion are part of his strategy to move beyond the court. “I am not posted in an ad with a basketball at all,” he said during a joint-Zoom interview with Johnson. “It’s just me sitting down with Natalie and really telling a human story. And I love that. Because I don’t want to always just be known as a basketball player.”
Johnson first got interested in brewing days after she graduated high school when she landed an internship at Anheuser-Busch. It was a lab job in which she analyzed raw materials used in the beer-making process. “Just knowing there was that much going into making every glass was just fascinating to me and it drew me closer to wanting to be part of that meticulous process.” She returned to the brewer after graduating from Fisk University in Tennessee, where she earned a chemistry degree, and worked her way up the corporate ladder.
“I had a lot of people that helped develop me—and believe in me,” she says. “Everything I knew about brewing Anheuser-Busch taught me.”
In her conversation with Wade in the video, she addresses the pressure of being a Black person in her position. “I can’t mess up. I don’t want to be the only one and then fail at something—so that is a driver in itself, but then also really hoping to create a pathway for other people that look like me,” she says.
She adds: “When I receive an email form an employee that doesn’t know me very well but they’ve seen my career but they are a Black employee that works on a bottle line at a brewery and they say we are so proud of you, that hits home for me.”