Dennis Malcolm Byron is trying to remain on a strict diet so he orders a salad and a beer. The reporter he meets at Felini’s Pizza on Ponce De Leon Avenue one warm weekday afternoon orders a slice of pizza and a sweet tea. The pair sit as Byron, 50, explains his choice of drink. “Beer is a very big part of my diet,” he said. “It has always resonated with me. The happiness, how it pairs well with food. Beer just exposes a lot of flavors.” Despite the diet he wasn’t going to forgo an opportunity to partake in his favorite beverage, an ale, and talk about all things beer.
Beer seems to mean more to Byron. After all his moniker is Ale Sharpton, a homage to Civil Rights pioneer and former United States Democratic presidential candidate Reverend Al Sharpton, whom he met in 2019. A man Byron respects and has met during his travels as one of Atlanta’s most well-known beer experts. He even has his own beer, “Piano Keys”.
More on that later.
“I just love teaching people about beer.”
An Ithaca, New York native, Cornell University graduate and veteran newspaper and magazine journalist, beer has been a part of Byron’s life as far back as he can remember. He tells a familiar story of uncles giving him “a little sip” during his visits to see family in Brooklyn and how beer had a way of bringing people together. As a college student and thereafter he would use beer to do the same; breaking the ice at parties or as a conversation piece during get togethers. “I would bring beer to parties and started being the beer guy amongst my friends,” said Byron, who has a number of chefs and caterers in his immediate family. His great-grandfather was a personal chef for the late Black freedom fighter Marcus Garvey.
Food and drink is something he focused on while in college, graduating with a degree in hospitality. That passion follows him today as one of Atlanta’s most respected beer experts. Not just Black beer experts, but beer experts, full stop. “I just love teaching people about beer,” said Byron midway through his beer and salad. “Beer was started by Black people in Egypt.”
After college Byron followed his other first love, journalism. First for the former Cypher Magazine, an Atlanta-based. There he talked his way into writing a hip-hop column, “Off the Record,” and a beer column, “Beer for the Pour.” Readers of the now defunct magazine might not recognize Byron’s name on the beer column because he wrote it under the pseudonym Justin Case. Get it, Jus-tin Case? “I owe that opportunity to a brother named K.C. Morton,” said Byron about the magazine’s owner. “I just asked if I could write a beer column and he said yes.”
His career would have him work as an editor at The Atlanta Voice and Atlanta Tribune, as well as a travel writer for J’Adore Magazine. Long before social media, travel made it possible to meet people in the beer industry, all the while continuing to earn a reputation for his own knowledge of all things beer. Byron compares beer to music saying “You have to know what to dance to because beer can pair with anything.”
Inspired by celebrity brewer and author Garrett Oliver, Byron kept getting his name out there in beer circles. The nickname “Ale Sharpton” has everything to do with his favorite type of beer, ale, a fast fermentation brew that usually results in a sweet, fruity taste. Despite his affinity for ales, he has reviewed beers of all types from all over the world. That level of experience led to the creation of his own beer.”It’s not a Black person’s beer or a white person’s beer, it’s a beer for everybody,” said Byron, now done with his meal and fishing a black box from a bag.
The black box wasn’t a box at all, it was a four-pack of beer. Byron’s beer, Piano Keys, an imperial stout with a blend of Atlanta-based XOCOLATL cocoa nibs and Ugandan vanilla extract, the beer is brewed by New Belgium Brewing, one of the largest brewers in the country. Think Guiness stout but stronger, a little sweeter, says Byron.
How Byron came to have his own beer is stuff of legend and the power of social media.
In 2017 Colorado-based brewing giant New Belgium, the maker of popular Atlanta amber ale “Fat Tire,” which got its name from the European bike trip the co-founder took while sampling beers, reached out to Ale Sharpton. By this point Byron had expanded his reach throughout the world of beer via his popular Instagram feed. His account, @RealAleShaprton, is a go-to for all things Black beer culture. Though quite popular, Fat Tire was most certainly not a household name among many Black beer drinkers. Byron wasn’t sure why that is so, but part of what he does is figure out a solution to problems. Why was one of the most popular beers in Atlanta, one of the country’s best food and drink scenes, not as popular in the city’s Black beer circles?
New Belgium decided to reach out to Byron about coming up with an original creation and Piano Keys was born. From the ingredients to the design of the logo including the teku glass design inside the a in piano. Byron had a hand in every detail. “I made a beer that could be a perfect introduction to people that don’t always drink beer,” he said. The beer is available in eight states, including Georgia where it can be purchased at Green’s Beverages, just a few blocks down Ponce De Leon Avenue where he sat telling the story. The journey to having his own beer coming full circle. The company flew him out to Fort Collins, Colorado to present his ideas. Byron was ready. “I’m in an office with the [New Belgium] CEO and the rest of upper management. I told them I want to make a beer that will be delicious, educate, enlighten, and give back to the underrepresented ,” said Byron as he recalled the moment.
A portion of the sales from the beer go to his BrewGether foundation which allows him to funnel the money to whatever Atlanta-based cause he feels needs support, including the Atlanta Music Project, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Truly Loving Well, Giving Kitchen, the Navigate Program, and Hey! Helping Empower Youth.
The education of Black beer drinkers is always the goal. “Every day it’s a job, but it’s a job I love,” said Byron, who is still writing in his spare time. He has had pieces on beer culture in USA Today and Thrillist, all while consulting breweries, photography for restaurants, and designing beer cans and logos for breweries, both local and national. “Educating people and helping people at the same time has always been my thing,” he said.
By the way, the logo for Piano Keys is one of his creations too.