Craft Beer’s Sexist and Racist Reckoning Has Come Again

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Craft Beer’s Sexist and Racist Reckoning Has Come Again

As last week began, the beer world was poised for its annual celebration of American Craft Beer Week. After an entire year lost to the COVID-19 pandemic—a year that devastated the craft beer industry, which declined 9% in volume and lost several points of market share in 2020—this week had an air of high hopes, an unofficial proclamation of “let’s get back to normal.”

And unfortunately, that’s just what happened. The week did indeed end up being emblematic of craft beer in America, but not for the reasons intended by event organizers at an organization like the Brewers Association. Instead, the industry again finds itself facing down its very worst and most noxious identity—as a safe haven for sexism, racism and harassment of every variety. While drinkers were toasting to the health of craft beer last week, an undercurrent of online discussion was gathering strength, cresting this weekend as a tsunami of accusations, recrimination, and the sharing of incredibly painful experiences. Craft beer’s reckoning has come again, more visible than ever.

If there’s one thing we shouldn’t claim to be, it’s “surprised.” These kinds of stories have effectively become a cycle at this point, ebbing and resurging annually throughout the #MeToo era, and every time things go pretty much the same way. Outrage flares up around an inciting event, inspiring brave women and others to share their stories. The industry acts horrified and naive about the scope of the problem, with luminaries saying “we need to do better.” A few new diversity promoting positions are created. Occasionally, a few scapegoats are identified and successfully removed. And then slowly, the white-hot anger and drive to hold breweries accountable peters out, as the average beer drinker is content to reason that perhaps things have now changed. Maybe things are better now! Maybe they’ll be able to simply enjoy their beer—provided they can find a drinkable, non-pastry beer—and feel confident that their reverie won’t be broken by these feelings of guilt once again. Or to say this all in a single sentence:

But of course, that’s not how these things work. The roots of sexism and racism within the beer industry remain as insidious and widespread as ever. Like an untreated illness, they fester and grow. Worse still, they actually become more resistant to change, as the average beer drinker attempts to reason along the lines of “didn’t we already address this?” The desire for these issues to be a “thing of the past” is extremely strong, because it absolves us from having to continue thinking about them on a daily basis. But there’s no issue in beer that is more a thing of the moment.

This was all thrown into sharp relief in the last few days by the Instagram feed of brewer and production manager Brienne Allan of Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts. It started simply, with Allan simply sharing a few of her own sexist experiences as a professional brewer in the craft beer industry. But Allan then opened up the floor to others, inquiring about what sort of sexist and misogynistic treatment they might have encountered. Soon, the replies were picking up steam, expanding to include countless stories of racism, prejudice and sexual harassment within brewery settings, with Allan’s feed serving as a massive platform for the airing of grievances and sharing of devastating stories. And the replies are still pouring in—although Allan clearly had no idea of the breadth of what would come spilling out of the Pandora’s box she opened, she has remained committed to sharing all of the hundreds, and possibly thousands of accounts that have been sent to her in the last five days. Just going through all of the DMs has surely been the equivalent of a full-time job, but Allan has shouldered the responsibility with grace. In response, she’s already been threatened with lawsuits, leading others to crowdfund for any potential defense she may require.

What those hundreds or thousands of accounts reveal are acts of sexism and racism shocking in their sheer brazenness. There are stories of brewery owners refusing to look at the resumes of qualified “chicks” who apply for brewer positions. There are countless stories of public groping and sexual assault, often in the context of major beer festivals. There are ethnic and racial slurs, and stories of rooms full of men chuckling at a sole female brewer being chewed out (or propositioned) by her superiors. There are countless instances of women and minorities being made to feel powerless and ostracized from the beer community, until many of them simply choose to leave it rather than attempt to swim against an unstoppable tide. These are accounts that demand to be read. In fact, the more you don’t want to hear these stories, the more you probably need to read them.

Nor have all the accusations simply hinted at perpetrators—many well-known and beloved breweries have been directly named in one account or another, along with several superstar male brewery owners. The likes of Hill Farmstead’s Shaun Hill and Tired Hands’ Jean Broillet have seen their names crop up not in just one account, but many. These are men hailed as icons of the modern craft beer industry, credited with helping to develop some of the most popular styles in beer today. As such, the significance of these accusations cannot be overstated—these are figures of great influence in craft beer as it exists today, and the ripple effects of these accusations will travel far and wide. The brewery responses, meanwhile, haven’t exactly been inspired—more continue to roll in, and several are featured in this VinePair feature from Beth Demmon.

Naturally, the flood of stories and accusations has brought out the usual cast of characters to the industry’s defense, waffling between “not all men” soliloquies and those voicing “concern” about how unverified stories might “ruin the lives” of various “family men.” These defenders often seek to put the onus of change onto not the men who dominate the industry but the women and minorities who accuse them of abusing their power, demanding literal, physical proof for any claim of wrongdoing, followed by subsequent and publicly available legal charges—charges that would be next to impossible for most of the women in most of these situations to bring. All too often, those defending the breweries demand these women effectively sabotage their own careers within the industry in order to make a symbolic moral stand—and even then, many wouldn’t believe them.

The experiences seem so universal, in fact, that it challenges one’s ability to assume the best of any brewery. If these things are being experienced by female employees and minorities at seemingly every brewery under the sun, then can you really walk into your favorite local and feel confident—for no particular reason—that this place is sacred and immune to all of the same problems? Is it delusional to look over at that white male owner you’re kinda-sorta friends with and just assume he’s nothing like the other men being named in so many other accounts? Is beer itself inherently corrupted? Or, as journalist/beer writer Beth Demmon observed on Twitter, is this just the beer industry’s time to grapple with the same indefensible awfulness that permeates every other corner of our society?

But this is beer—it’s the area we’re passionate about, and it’s the place where we have to focus our attention at the moment. It begs the obvious question: Who should we be expecting to step in and affect change here? Some observers in the Beer Twitter sphere have pointed fingers specifically at the Brewers Association, seemingly suggesting that the organization should be able to police its member breweries and somehow root out their sexist or racist employees. This is of course well beyond the scope of what the trade group was ever intended to do—although the organization does now possess a Code of Conduct with a complaint reporting procedure, the ultimate result of such an offense, after months of deliberation, would be stripping a brewery of its status as a BA member. Which is fine—sure, by all means, ban the lot of them—but simply being stripped of a BA membership hardly makes any kind of discernible impact on the culture of the craft beer industry. It’s not as if customers check whether their local brewery has lived up to the BA’s code of conduct before buying a six-pack. Stripping a brewery of its BA membership is a fine, symbolic reproach to the conduct issues of the industry, but it does little if anything to keep the same issues from continuing to happen.

Other beer industry women with online presences have suggested more concrete steps that could be taken, and indeed should already be obvious features of events such as beer festivals, where so many of these offenses have occurred. Dovetail Brewery (Chicago) brewer Jenny Pfäfflin raised one such “of course, why aren’t we doing this?” question on Twitter the other day when she pointed out that many beer festivals have no system for safely and confidently reporting incidents of sexual harassment.

Such a system, however, is totally dependent upon the user’s confidence that it can be trusted, which is the same problem that plagues breweries themselves in terms of how they respond to incidents of harassment, racism and sexual assault. Or in other words: If you’re a male brewery owner, the path to creating a safe and respectful brewery must begin with creating a system by which offenses can be reported, but also the realization that no one will ever use that system if it exists in a company culture where female or minority employees assume or fear that nothing will come of it. Half of the stories shared on Brienne Allan’s Instagram feed are the experiences of women who did exactly what they were meant to do, reporting their instances of harassment, only to find themselves being summarily fired from their positions in the near future. Men ask why women don’t “just go to HR” with such stories, and the answer couldn’t be more obvious—because often when they do, they end up jobless, and their abuser ends up getting promoted to give them more “distance” from other female staffers.

In the end, the only thing we can conclusively, concretely say that any of us can do—especially the men reading this—is to support these victims in whatever way they say they need to be supported. That begins with belief, and progresses to the point where we are ready to physically step in and intervene when we witness sexism in action. As beer writer Carla Jean Lauter put it on Twitter:

This is what we need to be ready to do—to look around ourselves, the next time we’re in a brewery setting, and realize that there’s a very possible likelihood that half the population feels unsafe in this space because of the other men surrounding you … and that you may have unwittingly made them uncomfortable as well. And if you don’t want to be part of the segment making craft beer into a daily struggle for so many of the industry’s most talented professionals, then the time to step up is now.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.

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