BJ Dennis has grain on the brain. Ancient African grain, that is.
"I mean, sorghum is actually used to make beer in many parts of Africa,” says the award-winning Gullah chef.
Dennis' passion for Lowcountry foodways and culinary history has earned him a national profile as an unofficial chef-ambassador of the Gullah-Geechee community, and a feature in Bon Appetit to boot. Now he has brought that focus to bear on a new project, one with a historic grain at its center and a coastal community at its back.
Behold Sea Island, a watermelon-driven beer brewed with malted white African sorghum by Dennis' collaborative partners at Revelry Brewing Co. in downtown Charleston. Revelry's wholesaler will distribute the beer, packaged in haint-blue cans with a wispy illustration of sorghum front and center, throughout the tri-county area. "It'll go fast," predicted Dennis. "I don't think nobody's really done the sorghum in this way."
While a few craft brewers and at least one macrobrewer actually do offer sorghum beers in the United States, it's hard to imagine any of them have such a strong claim to intercontinental history and Lowcountry identity as Sea Island does. Here, let the grain explain.
Sorghum’s long saga
According to the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, sorghum’s journey to Revelry’s brewing tanks began in ancient Egypt, where the crop was used to make millet for stews and flour for baking. It arrived on American shores in the 1700s as cargo on slave ships navigating the Middle Passage from West Africa to the West Indies. In the Southeast, farmers have grown sorghum strains commercially ever since.
The grass, stalks of which can grow to 10 feet and are topped with clusters of seeds about the size of coffee beans, are enmeshed in the traditions of African and African American cooking. In a 2018 post to Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s blog, Zoe Nicholson and David Shields detailed how the grain has remained vital, if not prominent, in American cuisine for nearly 300 years.
“In the South, Guinea corn was mainly known for its excellent use for livestock fodder, generally not seed for human consumption, except by the people who had traditionally eaten it: the impoverished and the enslaved,” they wrote.
Although many African culinary traditions for the ancient grain survived across generations and the trauma of American slavery, one application did not make it across the Atlantic: brewing. Sorghum beer hardly appeared on American shelves (in commercial form, at least) for centuries, even though African beermakers cherished it in that time.
"The Oxford Companion to Beer," as venerable a reference tome as exists for this sort of thing, defines the grain as “the oldest ingredient in African brewing,” further noting that “(s)orghum-based alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages have been made on a small homebrew scale for centuries” throughout the continent.
For Dennis, the Sea Island beer (named for the barrier isles that stretch South Carolina to Florida, where many Gullah-Geechee have lived for centuries) offers an opportunity to close the loop. Revelry secured 500 pounds of white African sorghum via a donation from Columbia’s Anson Mills, an influential player in the national effort to revive farmer and diner interest in ancient grains.
“You have this heritage grain that’s a part of the Gullah-Geechee culture that a lot of us don't really know,” he says. “This grain used to be grown by our people a long time ago. To do (a beer) with it is fascinating.”
Speaking of ancient history: in 2016, Dennis' partners at Revelry touched off a moment of outrage in the Gullah-Geechee community with another beer called Gullah Cream Ale. "We’ve been past that. That’s a long time ago,” Dennis says when asked about the controversy. The chef calls the brewery’s co-founders Ryan Coker and Sean Fleming “associates” and “colleagues,” and the commissary kitchen he uses is adjacent to The Hold, Reverly’s sour-beer outpost on Romney Street.
“That’s an old conversation,” says the native Charlestonian. Not as old as white African sorghum, but ... y'know.
If you missed what the Revelry co-founders refer to as the cream ale "dust-up," a brief primer. After winning a gold medal at the 2016 U.S. Beer Open for Gullah Cream Ale (brewed with grits from Edisto Island's Geechie Boy Mill), the brewer began to can it. The packaging featured a palmetto rose and a pamphlet touting the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor, but some members of the Gullah-Geechee community were irate.
“(I)t’s the beginning of the mascotifcation of our culture,” KJ Kearney, a writer and self-described culture advocate who was then running for state office, told the City Paper at the time. Others balked at the idea that the GGHC spoke for the entire community.
The brewers maintained (and still do) that they had acted in good faith, and the flareup didn't last. “Once I sat down with Sean (Fleming) and got his perspective on the situation, it really shined light that this wasn’t done in malice,” Kearney told The Post and Courier when asked for reaction on the 2019 project. Besides, he added, Sea Island is totally different, specifically because of Dennis' involvement.
“I tend to give BJ way more latitude on something like this than I would, you know, even myself maybe,” he says.
Fleming says, “Our relationship with BJ predates any Gullah Cream Ale dust-up, and it certainly has lasted through that."
A chef’s co-sign
No one person can speak for the entire Gullah-Geechee community, but if anyone did have the authority to co-sign Revelry’s good intentions, it would probably be Dennis.
“BJ's mission is the exploration of the African diaspora, and he does that through this food and he's a mouthpiece for his culture,” says Coker, Revelry’s head brewer. “We certainly want to highlight his passions and things that are near and dear to him.”
One of the things — maybe the thing — that Dennis is passionate about is showcasing Lowcountry ingredients that are integral to Gullah-Geechee cuisine to a broader audience. “We’ve got to know our history” he told The Post and Courier in 2017 as he tried to re-create a candy that was popular in 19th century Charleston using know-how gleaned from a research trip to Trinidad and Tobago. “Food is one of the best ways to tell history.”
No surprise, then, that brewing a craft beer with a grain whose roots date back to 3000 B.C. Africa would catch his fancy.
Collaboration is key
In talking with Dennis, Revelry's Coker became fascinated by sorghum’s narrative richness. “Anytime we do a specialty brew like that, we really like to have some concept or thought behind it,” the head brewer says. “It just seemed like a natural segue to use this sorghum” in collaboration with the chef.
Revelry’s nonspecialty brews are fairly special on their own. In October, the brewery won its third gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, the industry’s biggest and most important annual awards show. (And don't forget that hardware for Gullah Cream.)
Despite that prowess, brewing with sorghum posed challenges for Coker. The grain he and Dennis got from Anson Mills was raw. To brew, grain must be malted — partially germinated, then stopped from sprouting — to expose key enzymes and sugars.
Malting sorghum “has not been done, at least here locally,” Coker says. (High Wire Distilling Co. in downtown Charleston produces a sorghum whiskey, the syrup for which is made from sorghum stalks and unmalted sorghum grain on "a Mennonite farm in central Tennessee".) But he and Dennis lucked out when Carolina Malt House in Cleveland, N.C., agreed to test the grain’s viability for beer-making.
The test came back showing marginal prospects. The white African sorghum’s kernels offered less sugar and enzymes than, say, a purpose-bred strain of barley. “We get a very low extract potential (from the sorghum) compared to all of our other brewing grains,” says Coker.
As a result, the brewer struggled to get early sorghum-only batches of Sea Island to even 4 percent alcohol by volume, because the sorghum's seed heads simply couldn’t yield enough fuel for the yeast to turn into booze. (On the flip side, white African sorghum's stalks are so full of sugars that they were used as a substitute for cane sugar in the 19th century. Sorghum varietals are used to produce molasses even today.)
“We did trickle in a little bit of buckwheat, just to try and make sure that we had enough sugar there to convert,” Coker says. Because neither sorghum nor buckwheat contain gluten, Sea Island is naturally gluten-free — something Coker says has been confirmed by third-party lab tests.
(The sorghum's finicky nature as a brewing ingredient means Sea Island will probably be a one-off, Coker says. Dennis indicated that there would be other collaborative beers to come, though.)
The beer’s fruit element, by contrast, was blessedly straightforward to work with. “I wanted something fruit-forward, so local watermelons were a plus,” says Dennis, who gravitates to shandies and fruit-forward beers himself. To get their hands on those, the chef and brewer had only to look a few blocks east to GrowFood, where they picked out a pallet of Brent’s Sweet Gem watermelons to give the beer flavor and color.
'It’ll go fast'
Dennis says that there’s growing curiosity about craft beer among Charleston's Gullah-Geechee community. "You have a few folks who are beer connoisseurs, but you also have the elders who talk about the ancestors making backyard beer,” he says. “The craft beer movement is slowly catching on in the Gullah community.”
As for the 10-barrel batch of Sea Island, he's optimistic. After all, it's an easy-drinking, gluten-free fruit beer with a great story and a package to match, brewed by a Gullah culinary celebrity and an award-winning brewery. And there are only 150 cases all in, some of which were already vanquished at the beer's release party on Sunday, Nov. 24, at The Hold.
Proceeds from the party, and a portion of proceeds from all beer sales, will be donated to the Jenkins Institute, the Jenkins Institute, a 128-year-old orphanage for African American children, confirmed Revelry's Fleming.
For Kearney, Revelry’s one-time critic, the project represents growth for Revelry — and opportunity for his community. “There's nothing more authentic than Gullah-Geechee people, our food, our dialect, our stories, our rhythms, so I think it's smart business,” he says. “There's a very wise poet by the name of Calvin Broadus. You may know him as Snoop Dog, who said ‘the game is to be sold, not told.’”
Dennis doesn't seem particularly concerned about the socioeconomic mobility his emerging beer career might offer: He's more interested in what other aspects of food culture he can showcase.
His next collaboration with Revelry might use an heirloom rice style. And why not? It's just one more ancient grain on the Gullah chef's brain.