In the past two weeks, the male-dominated craft beer industry has been deluged by complaints from women at every level of the business, who are calling for wholesale reform.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 20, 2021
In the past two weeks, the American craft beer business has been upended by a steady stream of allegations of harassment, intimidation, and outright sexual assaults on women working in the business.
The testimonials began flowing by the hundreds from the Instagram account of Brienne Allan, a brewer and production manager at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, after Allan asked her colleagues in the business to share their experiences with sexism in their profession.
They implicated such high-profile industry pioneers as Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead in Greensboro Bend, Vermont; Jean Broillet of the Ardmore, Pennsylvania-based Tired Hands Brewing; Jacob McKean of Modern Times in San Diego; and Søren Wagner of Dry & Bitter Brewing Company in Copenhagen, Denmark, as reported by Vinepair.
Several of the men named have stepped away from their businesses amid pressure from employees (The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Broillet’s departure from Tired Hands earlier this week); others have made public apologies of some form or another.
But the tide of stories themselves remains undiminished, and several of them weren’t unfamiliar to Erin Wallace, co-leader of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Pink Boots Society, an industry group designed to uplift women working in the fermented beverage trades.
“Some of those stories posted from @ratmagnet (Allan’s instagram handle) were from me, and reading the other ones from the area, I knew who those women were because we’ve been talking about this behind the scenes for years, offering support and guidance where we could,” Wallace said.
Many of the women who stepped forward have taken their cases to their human resources departments, to the owners of their companies, or filed complaints in other ways, Wallace said. But few of them have gotten resolution to their concerns.
“I’ve seen e-mails,” she said. “Nothing’s been done, or very little, and the people who keep perpetrating these things see it’s okay to do this because they’re not getting in trouble. And it keeps escalating.”
Wallace said she’s read “every single one of those stories” shared online, noting that the women who are telling them “want to be seen and heard because they haven’t been heard for years.
“It’s liberating and freeing to be able to tell it, but it’s a been a painful week as well to relive those experiences they’ve been through,” she said.
‘It takes a lot for women to come forward’
Sexism and racism have been prevalent in the craft beer business since its inception, Wallace said.
Women working in a male-dominated industry routinely field unsolicited comments “from customers, from brewers, from other men,” about whether they know what they’re doing at their jobs; if they like beer, or know how it should taste, she said.
With the emergence of the brewery tasting room and onsite service, however, she said those encounters have escalated from misogynistic comments to unwelcome advances from patrons, coworkers, even supervisors. Victims of such behavior are likely to stifle their responses amid fears of retaliation in a small and close-knit industry, lest they chance losing future work as well.
“You take the risk of being blackballed in the industry,” Wallace said, “being worried that if you talk up too much, you’re going to be considered a troublemaker. And you’re not going to get hired if you leave your job and go somewhere else because people are going to say something to the new place, because everybody talks. It takes a lot for women to come forward.”
Some of the worst offenders are among the most successful in the business, Wallace said, their misbehavior born out of a celebrity status that fuels their egos. No matter how poorly they may treat their employees or even their customers, as long as people are lining up to buy their products, there’s no incentive for them to change.
“We’ve given these people this rock-star, godlike status, and guess what?” she said. “They just make beer. Some of it’s not that good. It just keeps condoning this behavior because they don’t think anything’s going to happen to them because of who they are.”
What can be even more frustrating for women who’ve suffered abuses in the workplace is summoning the resolve to report the incidents, but not getting any resolution to them.
Filling out a code of conduct complaint with the Brewers Association, which represents some 8,700 independent craft breweries, requires technical knowledge of the code itself and other detailed information that a victim may not be able to access in the wake of an incident. Furthermore, access to the system is limited to members of the association, and the consequences for breweries found to be in violation of its code don’t extend to those who aren’t members.
“What do you do then?” Wallace said. “I don’t know how you could be able to hold somebody accountable.”
Her organization, the Pink Boots Society, was founded to uplift individual women in a male-dominated trade. It’s not equipped to become the focal point of processing the collective trauma of an entire industry.
“It’s not the women that need to speak up at this point, and it’s not our job always to fix the problems,” Wallace said. “What would be great is if the men around that put that person in their place and stopped it.”
‘Every single woman in this industry has a story’
Jamie Queli, founder of Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing in Cherry Hill, is one of the few women in the brewing industry who can say that her business hasn’t experienced the same kinds of hostile workplace stories that have emerged in the craft beer industry.
But that doesn’t mean Queli and her employees have been spared the impact of similar behavior elsewhere in the beer business.
“I find more sexism and degrading comments coming at the store level, from managers of liquor stores and bars and restaurants,” Queli said. “When my female sales reps used to go to bars and restaurants, there were certain accounts they didn’t want to go back to.
“There’s some sort of hypermasculinity in the industry,” she said. “I really am at a loss for how to solve this.”
Queli tries to set the tone for an inclusive workplace environment, and hopes that her employees will carry it forward. Forgotten Boardwalk has hosted women-in-beer brew days, enthusiastically supported LGBTQ+ causes, and cultivated an atmosphere of equality among staff.
“My door is quite literally always open, and I also don’t make decisions in my brewhouse in a vacuum,” Queli said. “I think a part of that culture has helped people realize that they can just discuss things, no matter what the situation is.
“We do a lot of roundtables, we do a lot of staff interactions, and we try to stay together and talk things out as a staff,” she said. “If you’re making decisions in a vacuum, nobody talks to you.”
But Queli also knows that not every workplace environment is like hers. She theorizes that many small brewery owners struck out on their own “because they didn’t really want to work for anyone else,” and aren’t interested in cultivating a diversity of views on how to run their businesses.
“Sometimes you can’t tell anyone anything, and I think that’s really a part of the problem,” Queli said. “They’re so used to doing things their own way and not opening up discussions to anybody that they’re not really listening to what’s going on. Add that in to the [fan] hype, and it sort of perpetuates the entire thing, and compounds what was a slow fire.”
Queli is a past president of the New Jersey Brewers Association (NJBA), a trade group of some 60 small, independent brewers across the state. During her leadership tenure, NJBA hosted annual human resources seminars for its member breweries, emphasizing the importance of having a structured set of policies in the workplace.
“There’s a lot of first-time business owners [in craft beer],” Queli said. “I think if you asked how many breweries had an employee manual, you’d be shocked at how many don’t. You can hire outside HR people to put these things together; the bigger companies that are getting called out have a lot more resources in play.”
Until those safeguards are put into place, she has little expectation that the toxic workplace culture that contributed to the countless stories of abuse within the industry will diminish.
“I have talked to a lot of women in the industry, and every single woman has at least one story like that Instagram story,” Queli said. “Maybe it’s not as horrible and egregious, but every single woman in this industry has a story similar to that. I’m not shocked that it finally came through.”
Sitting in the discomfort of the moment
Lori White, co-owner of Zed’s Beer in Marlton, said that the wave of conversations that have been spurred by women in the brewing industry offers an important opportunity for everyone involved to decide what comes next.
“I don’t think anybody sets out to create a bad culture, but there’s always this tendency to become defensive when something comes up,” White said.
“I think that’s a hurdle we’re going to have to overcome.
“If we stay in the uncomfortableness of it, and ask ourselves how to fix it, then hopefully we won’t find ourselves in the same situation again and again,” she said.
White, who is the current NJBA board secretary and a Pink Boots member, says she’ll use her positions of leadership to set the tone for others in the field.
For a start, Zed’s is evaluating implementing “an explicit code of conduct,” that could help identify problems when they happen, while protecting those who report them with a confidential reporting mechanism.
“Do our employees feel like they have a safe space to come to us?” White said. “Are we creating the kind of culture that enables our women to feel safe, that there’s not going to be retaliation, their job’s not in jeopardy for speaking up?
“There’s always a tendency when these things happen to point fingers,” she said. “Eight hundred reports is not a few bad actors. Eight hundred reports is a culture problem.”
The emergence of so many stories at once has many within the industry retreating to their corners, which White said is especially difficult to process in smaller breweries with employees who spend long hours together. She described the atmosphere as “a lot of people wrapped up in defensiveness,” as they reckon with the news.
“There are cultural norms that need to be addressed,” White said. “It’s a problem with the power structure. Hopefully by looking at it systematically, we’re going to fix it.”
She also urged customers to help hold their favorite breweries to a higher standard, arguing that financial pressure from the public will help speed necessary reforms.
“You can’t force people to be considerate or to care about other people; all you can do is draw your own boundaries and say, ‘This is what I’m not willing to accept,’ and go from there,” White said. “As a consumer, you can put your dollars towards a business that respects you. You have a choice.”
Tara Nurin, a freelance journalist specializing in beer, and the author of an upcoming book on the history of women in beer, said she hopes that this moment will help all stakeholders in the craft beer industry to “stop what they’re doing and professionalize.
“Part of how we move forward is making sure that we take care of one another, no matter how long you’ve been in business, no matter how many people you do or don’t employ, no matter how small your budget is,” Nurin said.
“[Brewing] is not a hobby, it’s a business, and as such, you’re responsible to your stakeholders,” she said.
“Part of that responsibility is ensuring their safety and their comfort.”
“You’ve got to find the energy and the money and the time to train your staff, to write employee policies, to have a mechanism to safely report incidents without retaliation, and to ensure all of your business partners—from suppliers to accounts to distributors—align and sign onto those values of equity and fairness and safety for everybody,” Nurin said.
“People are more important than money,” she said. “Safety is more important than money. If you still are harboring a mentality that women are eye candy or can’t do the work, you’re on the wrong side of history at this point.”
Nurin advocates for everyone in the business to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and harassment—one with teeth. She believes that things might only change if there’s a hard push for accountability that involves refusing to do business with entities against whom credible complaints of abuse have been lodged.
“Maybe that does involve losing your best account, or kicking out your gang of regulars who’s been patronizing you since Day One,” Nurin said. “Every owner and manager has to create a culture where making an employee feel unsafe is unacceptable. Spend a little social capital; ultimately, it’ll be worth it.”
‘You get worn down’
Aside from the ethical cost of maintaining the status quo, failure of the industry to reckon with these rampant allegations of abuse and harassment takes its toll on women in the workforce in the form of sheer, overwhelming fatigue.
Chelsea Martin, who’s worked various jobs in the craft beer business for a decade, from distribution and events to laboratory sciences and quality control, said she’s just exhausted by the relentlessness of the behavior she’s encountered.
Emotionally processing the volume of stories Allan has shared from her Instagram account has wiped her out.
“I still feel like I’m in a fog this week,” Martin said. “It’s nice to see the attention this is getting now.
“At the same time, it’s like, this again?” she said. “Is it just getting attention now because it’s people like Hill Farmstead and Tired Hands and Modern Times? What about all the problems that are happening in the small breweries?”
Throughout her career, Martin said she’s encountered harassment of every stripe, from low-level remarks about which clothing she should wear at a promotional event, to feelings of imposter syndrome as one of a handful of women in her brewing science major.
“I feel so tired,” she said. “I used to have more energy to move forward; like, ‘I can prove myself, I am a woman in this industry.’
“I don’t want to be recognized because I’m a woman; I want to be recognized because I’m good at my job,” Martin said. “You get worn down.
“It’s having to check my tone, or having to work a little bit harder,” she said. “Seeing how you’re treated slightly different from everyone else, you go inward sometimes. I’m amazing at my job, but it’s just this culture, this sexism that exists, and I don’t think anybody else knows why.”
The cumulative effect of her experiences have even caused Martin to withdraw from pushing back against sexism in the workplace “because I just selfishly don’t have the energy to confront the problem anymore.
“Women have been discussing this amongst ourselves and behind closed doors, and there’s just no outlet,” she said. “There’s no way for us to report this; there’s no support of any type in this industry. It’s a lack of education. I think people don’t even realize they’re being sexist, racist, misogynistic.”
In order to drive wholesale changes, Martin would like to see more women in positions of leadership in the industry. She wants supervisors and business owners to “listen and acknowledge” complaints, and take cues from other industries “that parallel what we do but don’t have this culture.” And she believes every business needs a human resources department to help them get there.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a real human resources department anywhere in this industry,” Martin said. “It doesn’t exist and I don’t know why. That does not work for the underrepresented and vulnerable people in this industry.
“We can’t fix the idiot coming to the bar that’s going to verbally harass our bartenders, but we can have a zero-tolerance policy on allowing that type of behavior in our space,” she said.
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