Is Craft Beer Inclusive? - Sheep in Wolf's Clothing Brewery

It’s been nearly a year since we in the craft beer industry were forced to acknowledge a sinister and uncomfortable truth. In May of 2021, Brienne Allan, Production Manager at Notch Brewing in Massachusetts, made an Instagram post. It was a reaction to yet another frustrating experience of dealing with sexist comments while performing her job.

The off-the-cuff social media post soon garnered much more attention than Allan expected. Her inbox was flooded with hundreds of appalling accusations of sexism, racism, and overall workplace toxicity. Perhaps most importantly, women made up the overwhelming majority of the people getting in touch.

Across the pond, a similar tale was to unfold. Only this time, it was writer Siobhan Buchanan opening her Instagram account as a safe space for victims’ voices to be heard. Similarly to Allan, Buchanan’s account was flooded with DMs painting a mirror image of misogyny, sexual harassment, bullying and other atrocities. 

This was shocking information for many in the beer community. Buchanan stated she was surprised by the “sheer volume of stories” but not shocked by what she read. 

We like to think of our industry as progressive and inclusive. However the beer and travel writer says, “[The craft beer industry is] not actually as much like that as you would think. It is very much like a boys' club."

Toxic Culture in Craft Brewing

Whether people want to admit it or not, you can’t run from the victims of harassment and discrimination. At a minimum, the craft beer industry is weighed down by inequality and discrimination issues that plague other industries around the globe. With evidence increasing, it appears the beer community is lagging behind in many areas.

Craft beer as an ideal has always sold itself as being about passion and people. It’s the evil big corporate brewers that nurture a culture of greed and numbers. Craft brewing is hip, fun, and inclusive, right?

As with most things in business, not everything is as it may appear. Since people like Brienne and Siobhan have become a mouthpiece for the victimised and marginalised, many allegations have come to light. 

The seriousness of each incident and the roles of the accused cover just about every possible form of harassment and discrimination imaginable. However, many of the victims have shared stories involving brewery owners and those in management positions. 

This indicates the problem starts right at the top. If the leaders of these companies feel that their position allows them to get away with anything, why isn’t anyone speaking out against them?

Culture of Fear

Last month, Good Beer Hunting’s Kate Bernot wrote about the cautious tale of Sarah Hite where a bright young career was derailed due to abuse. If you haven’t read it, We recommend getting the full story after reading this article. 

Anytime something unexpected and uncomfortable happens, people assume something will be done about it. Oftentimes, as in crimes like rape, this is not the case. There is a complex set of psychosocial factors that contribute to the non-reporting of both verbal and physical violence (sexual or otherwise).

When it comes to harassment in the workplace, the victims are likely dissuaded from taking any action due to fear. A recent study by OnePoll found that nearly half of women had considered changing jobs due to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Dirty Dogs

The BBC’s Disclosure recently aired an episode titled The Truth about BrewDog. In the documentary, a slew of accusations, hypocrisies, and bald-faced lies are revealed about CEO James Watt and the Scottish brewers. While many of the allegations come from Watt’s time spent “checking up” on the company’s handful of bars in the US, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots.

Here are just a few of the accusations brought forward from former and current BrewDog employees:

  • The company illegally shipped hundreds of kegs of beer for sale in the US that contained US-banned extracts.
  • Anti-corporate punk James had at least £500,000 of shares in Heineken.
  • Many company stories such as Michael Jackson (no not that one) telling James to start a brewery, a beer made during a flight in an aeroplane, or a rogue employee adding vulgarities to the date code on cans are staged or completely false–but as James says in his book, Business for Punks, everything is about marketing. 
  • Watt and Martin Dickie made at least £100m from a favourable deal with a TSG Consumer and then quickly turned around and asked their fans to invest with another round of Equity for Punks.
  • James is a “starer” - he likes to stare at young female employees and bar patrons.
  • Female staff have been warned not to be “alone” in a room with Watt.
  • The CEO fancies himself a bit of a midnight brewery tour guide, well as long as you’re an attractive young woman.
  • Mr Watt was witnessed by staff kissing an intoxicated customer on a roof terrace bar.
  • James flirted with a staff member before taking her to the roof of a Brewdog building in the view of the staff.

I think we can all agree that the allegations about James' behaviour with women are the most concerning. But the important point to glean from the other stories is that doing whatever you want and getting away with it is in the brewery’s blood. In other words, it’s in their culture.

Those at the top like Mr Watt are allowed to behave inappropriately and ignore societal rules and norms. And they fully expect zero consequences. This can be inferred by actions such as engaging in sexual behaviour with an intoxicated female in front of staff. 

These types of narcissists and megalomaniacs expect one rule for you and one for them. Sound familiar Boris?

At this point, with everything that has come out about other well-known breweries, we should not be surprised. We should be angry. In fact, last June, hundreds of former and current BrewDog employees wrote an open letter to the company appealing for understanding and a desire for a solution. 

As bystanders, it’s easy to ask why no one reported or tried to stop this behaviour? What we can conclude from the Disclosure programme and Punks with Purpose is a simple answer. Fear.

Fear of not being listened to or believed.
Fear that nothing would change.
Fear of repercussions including being fired.
And in this case, fear of the CEO himself. 

Now, this article isn’t a hit-piece on Watt and BrewDog (Kendon will save it for his personal blog). We just wanted to make the point clear. This is the culture of the biggest and most successful craft brewery to rise in the UK. They have been on the scene since 2007. 

BrewDog may be an extreme example, but one can expect a somewhat similar culture of misogyny and workplace toxicity throughout the craft beer community. 

The Stats

It’s no secret that the US boasts the largest and most mature craft beer industry in the world with nearly 8,800 operating breweries. But just how mature is the oldest craft-spawned movement? Well, in 2019, the Brewers Association (BA) put out its first diversity report ever published. 

The report's findings were disappointing, to say the least. Data from the BA survey shows that women only make up 7.5 per cent of brewing staff. While 37 per cent of non-production, non-service staff roles were taken up by women. And lastly, women took up the majority (54 per cent) of, you guessed it, brewery service staff roles. 

Here in the UK, we don’t have any reports like that of the BA to glean insights. It’s safe to say that most craft breweries are dominated by male employees, especially in the brewhouse. What we do have is access to governments gender pay gap data for companies with 250 or more employees.  

According to an analysis by The Drinks Business, pub companies suffer from huge gender pay inequality. Behemoths like the El Group and Punch Taverns pay their female employees on average 47% and 41% less than their male colleagues. A closer look at the data shows that this is mostly due to men occupying the majority of higher-paying positions like management. 

This overarching trend encompasses all job types here in Great Britain. If women are restricted to the lower-paying roles, simply hiring more women won’t completely fix the bigger problem. 

Time’s Up

Heading into the summer of 2021, it appeared just like the #MeToo movement, time was up for the perpetrators and victimisers. As an industry, we would now be united to eliminate purveyors of sexual harassment, discrimination and other toxic behaviours. A cleansing process was initiated of the breweries themselves but also the taprooms, bars, festivals and any other space that craft beer occupies.

In the US, Allan was able to help create Brave Noise. This collaboration movement has been formed with the specific purpose of “end misogyny and misconduct in the beer industry.” Breweries are invited to sign up and pledge to create safe spaces and inclusive environments by putting transparent policies in place. Partners include Notch, Yakima Chief, and White Labs.

The American BA has put out the Brewing Respect and Unity (BRU) Coalition to help bring about change. Back at home, the Society for Independent Brewers (SIBA) will soon be unveiling a new member charter that will outline a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discriminatory behaviour and other unacceptable conduct. 

These types of actions are a good start, but we have a long way to go. 

There’s Still a Lot of Work to Do

We have to look no further than our original example of BrewDog to see just toxic company cultures can become. As part of a reconciliation process, the brewery hired the HR consultancy Hand & Heart to oversee a new website. The site is supposed to be a safe space for current and former BrewDog employees to report allegations of abuse and misconduct. 

However, as usual, things are not always as they seem. A recent story has come out in which a representative is attempting to break platform rules and gain access to private user data. Hand & Heart founder Kate Bailey has stated that these actions from BrewDog have “contradicted the good faith” of the programme and could jeopardise the entire thing. 

Continue to Good Fight

The fight for equality, inclusion and abuse-free environments has only begun. It is up to us as drinkers, brewers, and insiders to maintain momentum and lead the way for positive change. Craft beer should only exist in spaces that are safe for everyone. Each and every one of us is responsible to call out inappropriate behaviour on the spot and without fear of any consequences. 

Gender equality in many ways is only the tip of the iceberg. Racial diversity is also extremely lacking in the craft beer community as well as open. For example, the BA’s report found that 88 per cent of brewery owners were white (in the UK, this number is likely higher) And Hispanics and Blacks were found to be completely underrepresented as employees at 7 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively. 

Sexual preference and other personal identifiers are also ripe with discrimination. What it all boils down to is that the craft beer community can no longer sweep its problems under the rug. Here at SiWC, we are all about inclusivity and community. Together we can eradicate the darkness and create a safe space for one and all to share tasty beers and set the world to rights.

1 comment

Mar 28, 2023

I’m not part of this industry, I work in education. I was asked to look at EDI when designing training materials for the managers of one of the micro-breweries in the UK. This and other blogs, videos and articles make a disturbing reading.
I’m very grateful for all the information included in this entry. We’ve got some much to learn! Keep up the good fight!

Leave a comment