Barrel & Flow, the “best beer festival in America,” celebrates Black brews – and Black artists

Barrel & Flow Fest, recently named the best beer festival in America by USA Today readers, is internationally known for its celebration of Black-owned breweries. But even if you don't drink alcohol, there's still plenty to celebrate. Namely, the amazing Black artists helping to also make Barrel & Flow one of the best arts fests around.

And Barrel & Flow doesn’t just celebrate Black artists and entrepreneurs. It includes them in all aspects of the festival from the organizers to the performers to the artists behind the festival’s beer labels. The event also features an Art Enthusiast ticket option, giving sober art fans the opportunity to enjoy the artwork – without the tasting glass – at a discounted rate.

An illustrated beer label featuring a photorealistic image of a space theme featuring a Black person with a third robotic eye, and a family of Black astronauts
An illustrated beer label created for Barrel & Flow by artist huny young

"America loves Black art, but hates paying or accrediting Black artists,” says Day Bracey, co-host of the award-winning Drinking Partners Podcast and co-founder of Barrel & Flow. “This festival showcases the benefit to both art and industry, by facilitating partnerships of mutual respect and adequate compensation."

This year’s event, held from 12-9 p.m. on Sat., Aug. 12 at The Stacks at 3 Crossings in the Strip District, features a wide range of paid Black performers and artists. Music fans can listen to sets from hip-hop artists Mars Jackson and Kuf Knotz & Christine Elise, R&B artists Kenny Stockard and A’leighsha, gospel and blues artists N3ptune & Rusty Steve, jazz artists Lee Robinson & ISKA, and multidisciplinary artist Anqwenique, as well as spins from DJs Arie Cole, DJ Femi, DJ Shay, and dagm.

There will also be live art demonstrations throughout the event from Corey Ochai, Juliandra Jones, Onyx Green, Patrick Everett, Alero Warcloud, Sasha Igwe, Cara Torcasi, and Malcolm Xavier.

An illustrated beer label featuring a cartoon mermaid, an octopus, and a treasure chest
An illustrated beer label created for Barrel & Flow by artist Shawn Atkins

But perhaps the most exciting celebration of Black art happens in the over 50 collaborations between breweries and artists and entrepreneurs, creating cans of brews that, as Barrel & Flow boasts, each feature the artwork of “a PAID & ACCREDITED Black artist.”

And the artwork? It’s killer.

"I'm always glad to help further promote Black art as much as I can."

Like Pittsburgh cartoonist Shawn Atkins’ label designs for an exciting new two-part collab between East End Brewing and Black Frog Brewery, the first Black-owned brewery in Northwest Ohio. It took less than a week for Atkins to create two nautical-themed labels, one for the alcoholic “Razzler” and the other for a can of Barmy Soda’s raspberry soda, a concoction meant to be served together in a glass full of equal parts of both.

Atkins says he’s proud to be part of the fest. "I like beer, and I'm always glad to help further promote Black art as much as I can."

It’s the artist’s second time creating label artwork for East End’s Barrel & Flow contribution, and he credits owner Scott Smith for giving him creative freedom. This year’s two labels complement each other, each illustrating fun and colorful underwater scenes. The alcoholic can features a mermaid, wearing a tongue-in-cheek shirt reading “Brody shot first.” (It’s a “hodgepodge of two fandoms,” according to Atkins: a play on Chief Brody, the shark killer from Jaws, and “Hans shot first,” an expression that will resonate with hardcore Star Wars fans). On the soda can, a shipwreck scene featuring a giant blue cartoon shark with menacing teeth, paired with a cute little fez cap, a bowtie, and a voice bubble shouting, “Hug me!”

An illustrated beer label featuring six screenprint-like images of an older Black man holding up a beer glass
An illustrated beer label created for Barrel & Flow by artist Cue Perry

Pittsburgh artist Cue Perry’s label design, on the other hand, takes a more serious approach to the artwork, which features a local historic Black figure. “Mayor Ajax,” a collaboration between Pittsburgh’s Strange Roots and Atlanta’s Black-owned Khonso Brewing Company, is named after Charles “Ajax” Jones, who the label credits as “PGH 1st Black Mayor.” According to NEXT Pittsburgh, Ajax was “a Black City of Pittsburgh employee who served as interim mayor for three days in 1901, making Mayor Ed Gainey only the first elected Black mayor of Pittsburgh, technically.”

Perry says that after learning about Ajax Jones from Khonso Brewing, he was excited to merge various aspects of Pittsburgh’s history into an image. He used old printed photos, “kind of like how Warhol used screen prints,” and says he worked with his close friend, digital artist Raymont Youngblood, on the concept. Together, they printed three photos of Ajax on the top of the label and three on the bottom, representing the year the Pittsburgh Steelers were founded in 1933. (“I’m a huge Steelers fan.”) An additional local touch? He incorporated a triangle silhouette into the design to represent Point State Park. “Innovation, creativity, and history is what this label is about,” he adds. “When I think about Pittsburgh, those are the things that come to mind.”

"This year, the art is next level for every one of them!"

On social media, Barrel & Flow's team has slowly been unveiling the label designs ahead of the festival. A recent Facebook post previews incredible label artwork by Pittsburgh artist huny young – another repeat Barrel & Flow designer, and one who’s created two labels this year including a gorgeous photorealistic image of an intergalactic scene featuring a family of Black astronauts and a beautiful Black figure with a third robotic eye for a collab between Trace Brewing, Windy Bridges Brew, and Philadelphia's first Black-owned brewery, Two Locals Brewing.

The artwork was celebrated by Facebook commenter Kristen Crawford, who wrote, “Every year the can art is amazing. But I feel like this year, the art is next level for every one of them!”

An illustrated beer label featuring portraits of four musicians
An illustrated beer label created for Barrel & Flow by artist Marlon Gist

Among the many other notable designs which will be featured at the fest include a label showcasing stunning portraits of the musicians from local band Nash.vill by local artist Marlon Gist, as featured on a collaboration between the band and Fermata; “I am Root,” a fun vegetable-themed parody of Guardian of the Galaxy’s popular character for a collab between Two Frays Brewing and illustrator Patrick Everett, owner of More Graphics and co-owner of Level Up Pittsburgh; and an island-themed design, featuring a sharp-dressed dancer with a pineapple for a head, created by Pittsburgh artist-owned brand Social Living for Windy Bridges Brew and Hershey’s Tröegs Independent Brewing.

See them, and many more, this Saturday. But hurry! With a fest this popular, there’s always a chance tickets will sell out. 

Barrel & Flow 2023. 12-9 p.m. Sat., Aug. 12. The Stacks at 3 Crossings, 2875 Railroad St., Strip District.