The Beer Issue: U.S. craft brewer Brienne Allan generates onslaught of whistle-blowing about sexism

In B.C., the association representing craft breweries issued a statement that it's on a mission to create safer workplaces

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      The craft-beer industry markets itself as hip, artisanal, and forward-thinking. But over the past month, many U.S. companies had to fend off accusations that they were back in the Stone Age in their treatment of female employees.

      The human-resources bomb was detonated by a Salem, Massachusetts brewer, Brienne Allan, through a simple question. On her Instagram feed, @ratmagnet, she asked women to share stories of sexism in the beer industry. This came after her credentials were questioned.

      What followed was a torrent of responses that named names and led to several resignations, including that of San Diego–based Modern Times Beer CEO Jacob McKean.

      "I’m sorry. I’m sorry that anyone has ever had to face harassment at Modern Times," McKean said in a statement. "No one should ever have to be traumatized at work, and it guts me that people have under my watch. I take full responsibility for that. My heart aches for anyone who came to work for us—full of hope for the career they expected to have with us—only to have that experience marred by harassment.

      "That is truly awful, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart to anyone who has had that experience. I also apologize to all of our staff and fans who rightly expect so much better from us."

      The brewery's staff then issued a statement, which began this way: "The reckoning our community is currently facing has exposed the culture of sexism, misogyny, racism, and otherwise abhorrent behavior that has long been overlooked in the beer industry. Modern Times is far from exempt in this. As Modern Times employees, we are hurt, angry, disappointed, and exhausted." 

      Then Evil Genius Beer Co. co-owner Trevor Hayward reportedly stepped down from the Philly Loves Beer board.

      One former brewing industry employee in the San Francisco Bay area told Allan that she had endured levels of misogyny beyond what she’d seen in any other profession.

      Another wrote of an older, married coworker offering her a lift home, then driving down a dark side street, where she was assaulted.

      “He choked me to the point of passing out and ripped out some hair as I was flailing to flight back,” the woman stated. “I was scared and decided it was better to pretend to go along with it, so as he’s ripping my pants off I asked him to get a condom and it’ll be fine.”

      As the man went to his trunk, the woman fled and called the cops. “He spent the next few weeks threatening me and pressuring me to drop the case,” she wrote, before naming his South Dakota bar.

      There were scores of other tales of sexism and abuse.

      “I thought maybe it would die down, and it’s just getting worse,” Allan, former leader of the Pink Boots Society’s Boston chapter, told the digital-media company VinePair last month. “I don’t know how to really handle it right now.”

      The executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, Ken Beattie, says that the Canadian industry is very focused on stamping out harassment and abuse.
      Amanda Siebert

      Canadian breweries woke up to the problem

      The Pink Boots Society advocates on behalf of women in the industry. Back in 2015, it awarded Allan a scholarship to advance her education.

      “Over the past few weeks, over a thousand accounts of sexism and harassment of women in our community have demanded bravery, compassion, and collective action from us all,” the society’s president, Jen Jordan, said in an online message to members. “Many members have taken the lead by creating safe space events where women can share their experiences. Resources are being collected and shared on the local level to support members, or any women who needs help.”

      It's not just in the U.S. where this has become an issue. A B.C. woman in the beer industry, Jake Clark, also posted a message on her Instagram account last month mentioning ways in which the beer industry can support its female peers.

      According to CBC News, she's received "abusive messages and threats" after sharing her own experiences, which included sexual assault early in her career.

      The stories of sexism reached such a crescendo this spring that the executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, Ken Beattie, posted a message on his organization’s site saying that it is “on a mission to create a safe workplace across the country for our industry”.

      According to Beattie, the industry has “failed its core purpose of taking care of its people while doing business”. The guild’s board applauded the courage of those who have spoken out on the @ratmagnet account.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Beattie said a great deal is being done to change the culture of the industry, enhance workplace safety, and introduce standards of reporting.

      This month, for example, there will be a survey of employees in craft breweries across the country.

      “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are now,” Beattie said. “Hopefully, that will establish the benchmarks that we need to provide the education and resources moving forward.”

      He also said that at the guild’s conference in February, Ontario-based beer-industry diversity consultant Ren Navarro was a guest speaker. In addition, a local company, Jalipeño, conducted workshops on inclusivity and diversity.

      “The industry is welcoming and a safe place to work, but minorities may not think that because it generally tends to be a white male–dominated area, historically,” Beattie said.

      One B.C. group, Diversity in Brewing, is dedicated to supporting more inclusion by amplifying the voices of BIPOC and LGBT industry workers on its website. A self-described “queer beer drinkin’ shark from the East Coast” posted a guide to LGBTQ2S inclusivity for breweries, listing 11 pieces of advice. They include using gender-neutral language when addressing patrons, respecting identities and pronouns, and offering to work with queer groups or individuals in the area to promote the brewery as a safe space.

      PhD student Benjamin Anderson says the lower people are in the pecking order, the more likely they are to face workplace harassment.

      Researcher questions degree of improvement

      A Simon Fraser University PhD student who studies craft industries, Benjamin Anderson, remains skeptical. He told the Straight that although he expects many workplaces to improve, long-lasting change will only occur when abusers are rooted out of workplaces. To date, he noted, virtually all craft breweries have avoided becoming unionized.

      “It seems to me that the industry is doing what an industry does at this point, and that is kind of insulating itself from critique,” Anderson said. “That doesn’t mean that good won’t come out of it.”

      According to Anderson, brewers and brewing assistants tend to have the most positive things to say about their working environments—and they very often tend to be white males.

      “But when you talk to someone who works in packaging or who works in service—somebody who is a bartender or wait staff, that kind of thing—you get a very different story.”

      The B.C. industry’s Me Too moment came last summer when another Instagram account, @NotOurP49, highlighted mistreatment of employees at the Parallel 49 craft brewery in East Vancouver.

      Since then, the company has gone out of its way to send a message that it has changed its ways, even stenciling the company values into the bar for everyone to see and hiring Navarro to offer guidance.

      “Front-of-house staff will be taking part in a session with the Vancouver chapter of Good Night Out, a volunteer society ‘committed to building community capacity to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault in all sectors,’ ” the company stated on its website.

      As part of his research, Anderson has heard narratives of abusive workplaces from about 10 to 12 craft-beer workers in the Pacific Northwest. None of them are employed by Parallel 49.

      “I haven’t been able to talk to anyone who works there,” Anderson said. “It’s a little shuttered up, especially because I’m a recognizable name at this point.”

      Sarah Polkinghorne says that more awareness is helping address the problem of sexism in the beer industry.
      Todd Duncan Studios

      At Black Kettle Brewery in North Vancouver, brewmaster Sarah Polkinghorne noted that the big push in 2020 and 2021 has been trying to hold breweries, pubs, and restaurants "accountable to today's standards".

      "It’s getting beter because people are bringing awareness to it," Polkinghorne said. "You can go on social media and call out breweries...people are getting fired for indiscretions and things like that. It’s not just getting swept under the rug."

      She feels fortunate not to have faced "full-on" harassment in any of her workplaces.

      But there have been occasions in the past where someone has told her that she shouldn't be lifting heavy objects.

      "This is my job," Polkinghorne said. "You wouldn't say that to a male brewer."