Food and Farm Labor

Craft Beer Faces a Gender and Race Reckoning

Published by
Beth Demmon

In May 2021, an exasperated Brienne Allan had had enough. In a single morning, two different men had approached the now-former brewer at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, and questioned her craft-beer credentials.

“What sexist comments have you experienced?” Allan later asked her roughly 2,200 Instagram followers.

The offhand remark sparked the largest reckoning against misogyny the craft beer industry has ever seen, leaving her with nearly 60,000 new followers and worldwide media coverage. People by the thousands—nearly 100 percent of them women—shared stories ranging from harassment to assault, as well as prejudice in hiring, overlooked microaggressions, and more. The revelations were in direct conflict with the pervasive marketing in the craft beer industry, which tends to position itself as a kinder, gentler alternative to a heavily consolidated sector run by a handful of powerful multinational corporations.

Over a decade ago, Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, declared craft brewing to be “99 percent asshole-free.” But many question whether it has ever actually been a model of equity and inclusion.

“I’ve never known that to be true,” says Betsy Lay, co-founder, owner, and head brewer at Lady Justice Brewing Company in Aurora, Colorado. “We’re not doing ourselves any favors trying to believe that.”

Allan agrees. “I think it’s bullshit. I don’t think we [craft beer] have ever been a safe space for anyone,” she says.

“What sexist comments have you experienced?”

A demographic survey by the Brewers Association (BA) of the 9,000 narrowly defined craft breweries—independently owned, and brewing fewer than 6 million barrels per year—revealed that gender demographics within the industry skew heavily male, with women making up only 22.6 percent of craft brewery owners. Racial demographics also strongly lean toward white ownership; 88.4 percent of brewery owners identify as white, and just 1 percent identified as Black.

And despite the fact that the vast majority of craft beer employees and consumers are also white and male, those critical of the industry say it continues to promote itself as a bastion of equity, accepting of all races, sexual orientations, and identities. Some cite the lack of current requirements for craft designation to include diversity or equity considerations, and the lack of systemic demand for widespread inclusion, which they say has created a glaring disparity between perception and reality.

In the wake of nearly nonstop public callouts, and amid much broader societal reckonings about inclusivity for people who are not white and not men, craft beer’s disparity has led Allan, Lay, and many others to ask: What will it take for craft beer companies to start walking their talk?

Craft Beer’s Cognitive Dissonance Is Dissolving

Allan’s #NotMe moment is the latest in a long string of controversies plaguing the beer industry, which in just the past three years has included multiple accusations of sexism, racism, and even union-busting efforts. And her accidental crusade is far from the first time marginalized people in craft beer have spoken out against the industry’s nefarious—and often hidden—underbelly. In 2020, the global collaboration Black is Beautiful (BiB) launched in response to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. Its goals included brewing beer to raise awareness and money for Black people and other people of color most directly affected by police brutality.

Over a thousand breweries across all 50 states and 22 countries signed up to participate in BiB, although not every brewery has been transparent about where the charitable donations have gone. Even with such widespread participation, Marcus Baskerville, BiB creator and co-founder/head brewer at San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing Company, knows the initiative could have gone much further.

“The initial response [to] Black is Beautiful was amazing,” says Baskerville, with a caveat. “[But] in the grand scheme of things, we look at how large the [craft] brewing industry is: With 8,500-plus breweries only 1,300 breweries participated . . . that’s a huge gap.”

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find new bottles of BiB in any store coolers—although Baskerville is opening a second location of Weathered Souls in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2022. But the slow fade of BiB hasn’t stopped Allan, who, along with a number of industry partners, launched  a similar collaborative brewing initiative called Brave Noise, which aims to provide “inclusive and safe environments for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ throughout the beer industry.”

Fewer than 100 breweries have signed up to participate in the ongoing and feminist-forward Brave Noise collaboration so far, an even tinier fraction of the industry than those who participated in the one-off, anti-racist BiB initiative.

“Craft beer has always, always, always discounted the needs and the desires and the lived experiences of people of color, but specifically Black people.”

But shockwaves are still resonating from Allan’s initial query, both within and outside of craft beer. A number of new anti-harassment and anti-abuse resources have either launched or are in development, including the free third-party brewery reporting app #NotMe—which was developed in light of Allan’s shared allegations. Still, the overall microscopic participation in both of these campaigns punctures craft beer’s optimistically progressive narrative.

It’s telling that it took a white woman working as a brewer to capture the attention of those previously ignorant or apathetic to injustices within craft beer. Even Allan is uncomfortably aware of the disparity of her perceived power and authority to comment on the industry’s blind spots when it comes to intersectional equity.

“I don’t know why Black is Beautiful didn’t get that same recognition,” says Allan. “I wish [people] cared about Black is Beautiful just as much [as Brave Noise].”

Ren Navarro is an equity advocate for beer, as well as the Black queer woman behind Beer.Diversity, a Canadian-based consultancy and educational resource for improving inclusivity across craft beer. She’s well-versed in social justice movements in and out of beer, and she’s not surprised that Allan’s initiative against misogyny seemed to get more attention, although perhaps not participation, than similar movements related to racial injustice in the past.

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“It didn’t hurt that it was a white woman asking the question,” says Navarro. “Not to take away from the white women experience or the white LGBTQ+ experience, but I feel like if I’d asked the question, people would have just been like, ‘Well, yeah!’”

Ren Navarro. (Photo courtesy of Ren Navarro)

Navarro also cites the unique timing as an additional catalyst for the movement’s reach, calling the pandemic’s repression of human contact a “perfect storm” to grab people’s attention.

“Humans, in general, don’t care unless we’re [personally] affected by something,” she says. “I wish it weren’t like that.”

That tendency helps underscore the cool reception for both Baskerville’s BiB initiative as well as Allan’s anti-sexism movement, especially considering the demographics of the craft beer industry.

Who Is Craft Beer?

That BA demographic survey that underlined the whiteness of the industry also revealed substantial gender gaps at every level of craft brewery employment. Women are far outnumbered by men in every position save one: non-managerial service staff, where they make up 54 percent of tipped front-of-house positions, like beertenders. White people make up the vast majority of every single position outlined in the survey, with the highest percentage in production staff as brewers (89 percent) and the smallest percentage in production staff as non-managers (76.2 percent). And because the BA doesn’t collect data on LGBTQ+ people in craft beer, writer Holly Regan surveyed hundreds of people and found a similar absence—or erasure—of queerness in craft beer, noting that it was legal in the U.S. to fire a gay or transgender employee until June 2020.

“Craft beer has always, always, always discounted the needs and the desires and the lived experiences of people of color, but specifically Black people,” says Caitlin Van Horn, the former marketing coordinator for Brooklyn Brewery. Van Horn is white, and in 2016, she left the craft beer industry entirely, largely as a result of the pervasive sexism she experienced and the racism she witnessed.

Echoing Navarro, Van Horn believes a lack of empathy, along with general societal upheaval that took place during the pandemic, made craft beer consumers and/or employees who may have been less likely to emotionally invest in dismantling racism feel more personal connection to a gender equity movement.

“They can kind of pin [misogyny] on an individual bad actor versus systemic racism, which points its finger at every single white person who isn’t actively working against it,” explains Van Horn. The continued disenfranchisement of marginalized people, coupled with the insistent narrative that the craft beer industry is an exception to the rule, has struck some as a form of gaslighting.

It’s not that the industry, as a whole, is incapable of change. It’s that many of its most high-profile players seem unwilling to do so, says Lay.

“I think craft beer is really good at holding community within the spaces that we want to,” she adds. “I don’t know that craft beer has done much to show the world that [there are] Black and brown men and women and queer folks, or anything more than just white dudes with beards.”

“Craft beer needs to listen to Black and brown voices. They need to listen to queer voices.”

But even attempts at addressing the issues marginalized people in beer have repeatedly spelled out tend to get dominated by white men. This year’s Mikkeller festival, hosted by craft beer powerhouse Mikkeller and called “the world’s coolest beer festival,” is facing a significant backlash, with dozens of breweries backing out of the festival as the result of repeated accusations of abuse and workplace hostility from former employees and equity activists. Festival organizers responded by offering to host a panel at the event to publicly share those concerns—a suggestion that was widely panned, and led to more breweries leaving the festival.

Whose Voices Need to be Heard?

With the dismantling of craft beer’s fantasy image, activists who have been ignored or silenced may now have a fresh opportunity to educate those who are finally listening.

“There have been Black and brown women and trans and nonbinary folks who have been saying this over and over again, who were not heard by the wider community,” says Lay. “Craft beer needs to listen to Black and brown voices. They need to listen to queer voices. They need to continue to get better at listening to the voices of women in general.”

Lay and Navarro both point to BlaQ & Soul, a mostly virtual space “centering Black LGBTQ+ folks through food and beverage, community activism, and lived experience-based education” as a valuable, and sometimes volatile, resource for people serious about instigating change. Navarro explains that BlaQ & Soul co-founders Toni and April Boyce’s unapologetically blunt critiques of craft beer culture tend to provoke strong responses—often in productive ways.

“The Black perspective gets drowned out quite a bit, and we pick those who are ‘safe,’” Navarro says. “No one wants someone of color to be in their face saying, ‘You suck.’ What BlaQ & Soul does is say, ‘You suck, here’s why, and here’s how we can fix it together’.”

That’s not to say people of color who prefer polite approaches should be considered less credible, says Navarro. But she adds that they’re not the only ones worth listening to.

Betsy Lay of Lady Justice Brewery. (Photo credit: TruBlue Photography)

“Every time something big happens, we pick one person out of that crowd and say, ‘That’s the person,’ because they’re palatable. Because they look ‘safe’. Because they’re not screaming at white people,” she explains. “We’re losing out on hearing really fantastic opinions from people who know what we need to do.”

And according to those interviewed for this article, even if some people do begin to accept their role in beer’s exclusionary hierarchy, marginalized folks in craft beer will still likely face insurmountable barriers to equity unless organizational leadership and decision-makers relinquish their need for control. “There are a lot of spaces in which white people, and especially white men, still hold power,” says Lay, who notes that history has shown that redistribution of power rarely comes by asking nicely.

Where Should—and Where Can—Craft Beer Go Now?

Virtually all segments of hospitality have faced or will face their own reckonings, whether related to #MeToo, recent acknowledgments of systemic racism, or otherwise. But craft beer owes its currently murky situation in large part to the facade it’s built around itself as an exception to society’s ills.

“Craft beer gets very defensive over this idea that, yes, you are just like everything else. You are a part of these systemic issues,” says Van Horn.

Dismantling existing systems tends to be a more difficult endeavor than starting fresh, but Navarro believes any challenges should be viewed as opportunities rather than hurdles.

“[The industry] will never be ready [to change],” laughs Navarro. “[But] I don’t think there’s ever been anything with this level of accountability,” referring to the Brave Noise initiative, which requires participating companies to establish a Code of Conduct, donate funds to a recommended nonprofit, and publicly commit to “long-term work for inclusive and safe environments to best support staff and customers.”

Similar levels of accountability exist in a new collaboration spearheaded by the BA, the Brewing Respect and Unity (BRU) Coalition. Intended to prevent discrimination, harassment, and violence in the industry, the BRU Coalition requires members to implement codes of conduct for events, utilize anonymous third-party reporting systems, and provide training for employees, including a specific requirement for sexual harassment training. Although the coalition has not disclosed how it intends to approach racial discrimination, in a statement provided to Civil Eats, a spokesperson noted their goal to “drive industry-wide adoption of evidence-based best practices for preventing discrimination, harassment, and violence within the brewing industry.”

Whether these promises change anything in craft beer for the long-term is yet to be seen. But, as Lay sees it, the possibility now exists where it didn’t just a year ago.

“The door has been opened,” she says. “It’s going to be very hard to shut it now.”

Beth Demmon

Beth Demmon is a freelance writer, journalist, and podcast host who specializes in conversations about the culture of craft beer. She is the founder of the Diverse Beer Writers Initiative, a founding member of the San Diego Brewers Guild Diversity, Equity + Inclusion Committee, and creator of Prohibitchin’ on Substack.

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Published by
Beth Demmon

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