By Bob Townsend
His moniker is a playful provocation. And as he likes to point out, “How I talk is how I write.” Which is amped to the sound of cool and the cadence of hip-hop.
Ale Sharpton, otherwise known as Dennis Malcolm Byron, is a lid-wearing, signifying trickster of a beer preacher, best known for his long-running “Cruisin’ for a Brewsin’” blog.
Mostly, though, Byron, who also contributes lifestyle and entertainment stories to a long list of publications and websites, from Ebony to Jezebel, is one of those people who always seems to have something dope going on.
Usually, there’s a swank new car he’s test-driving. Or a new spot he’s lovin’ on. Or a scene he’s making with his brother, Lamont, and the various beer geeks, rappers, sports figures, and media friends that roll out with his posse.
Not long along, we sat together in a quiet corner of the Belgian Bar at Atlanta’s Brick Store Pub, and talked about Ale and Dennis, how they fit together, and what they think about when they think about stuff like beer and black culture.
Growing up in the historic Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Byron remembers getting into sipping a few beers, beginning at a young age.
“Mostly bullshit beer, 40s and that stuff,” he says. “But I was always a connoisseur of design and being different, so I got into Lowenbrau as my drink of choice. The foil cap and the blue paper and all that.
“When I got to Cornell, there were a lot better beer choices. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout was one of my favorites. Ithaca was a little bit hippie but very together in terms of racial diversity and harmony and a lot of community. I was born there, so going back from Shaker was always fun.”
While Byron was in college, his father took a job at Emory University and his family moved to Atlanta. Visits to the city in the early ’90s left him thinking it wasn’t exactly a beer mecca.
But when he decided to make it his home, too, he joined up with some like-minded people who were trying to change that.
“I really got serious about beer around ’95, and that’s when I started writing about it,” he says. “It was right before the Olympics, and I was writing for this local hip-hop magazine called Cypher.
“I created my own cartoon logo because I wanted to have an alter ego. It was this black Barney Gumble from ‘The Simpsons.’ I was ‘Justin Case’ back then, and the column was called ‘Brew For The Pour.’”
Later — after the laws in Georgia changed to allow for sales of higher alcohol beers in the state — the character Ale Sharpton was born. At the time, he was the executive editor of the lifestyle magazine, J’Adore, and Sharpton was his clever way of separating himself from that role to and create another voice for his beer writing. The image blew up as he went online, and eventually Ale Sharpton became a brand unto itself.
“I liked the fun in the name,” Byron says. “But I also liked that Sharpton stood for a cause, even if you didn’t agree with him. My cause was bringing out the cool in craft beer and what it was about in a different way. So, part of it was letting people know I was a brother. But mostly, it was about having fun.
“I think it still raises eyebrows. But hip-hop comes with me. It’s my life. It’s about me being a beer writer who loves culture. I love everything. My family is Jamaican, and I love reggae. And I love rock. Whatever’s cool is what I like.”
Like Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, before him, there were many occasions when Byron was the only black man in a room full of white beer aficionados. But that only seemed to bring out his inner Sharpton.
“I went to Cornell, so I got used to it,” he quips. “But I embrace it. It’s fun to be that dude, sometimes. You bring a different personality and perspective in a lot of ways. And I love to have a different opinion. Beer attracts cool people and brings people together.”
Of course, as the number of craft-beer drinkers has grown, diversity has become much more commonplace. And in cities like Atlanta, it’s not unusual to see black, Latino, and Asian millennials drinking together and discussing the newest buzz beer or brewery.
“I think it’s just exposure,” Byron says. “With the internet and Twitter and Instagram, people can see us imbibing craft beers. And I make it a point to make sure those bridges are crossed with celebrities who might be MCs or rappers I have beers with.”
One of Byron’s most innovative ideas is an online video series called “Interviews with Brews.” He escorts hip-hop artists like Ed Lover or DJ Quick to a beer bar where he conducts a tasting and records their reactions in hip-hop terms. Here, for example, Lover compares a watermelon wheat beer to Biz Markie.
“I speak a little differently, so with Twitter and on my website I have a different tone to my writing,” Byron says. “I always have. I think that’s what gets me a lot of gigs. Overall, man, it’s my voice with words you can read.”