Addressing Gender-Based Violence in the Craft Beer World
Imagining the Post-#MeToo Brewery
by Kerri Brown
The beer industry’s “#MeToo moment” has been a long time coming. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexism in the industry most certainly did not begin when the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017, or even when Tarana Burke started the movement in 2007.
In fact, it’s discouragingly difficult to pinpoint where and how sexism in the industry starts. It’s in product names. It’s in product labels. It’s in who consumes. It’s in how women employees are treated by supervisors. It’s in how women employees are treated by customers. It’s in what company leadership looks like. It’s in how breweries were founded. Sexism is so deeply engrained in the beer industry that there is seemingly no beginning and no end.
Let’s start with the 2019 report on diversity in the craft beer industry released by the Brewers Association (BA), which contains the only set of systematically gathered data on the subject. The data show a worrisome gender and power imbalance among owners and employees in the industry: 77.4% of owners, over 90% of production staff, and over 62% of non-production staff of U.S. breweries were male. Women were the majority (54%) in just one category, non-managerial service staff, one of the most vulnerable positions in the industry. Non-binary individuals accounted for less than 1% of the survey’s respondents.
There are currently no data on sexual harassment and assault in the beer industry. But if the restaurant industry in general, where 90% of women and 70% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment, can be at all instructive to us, the reality is most likely sobering.
A slew of victims’ stories in recent years give voice to that reality. Media coverage around sexual harassment and assault in the craft beer industry has seen a staggering increase since #MeToo went viral, exposing a culture that many in the industry already knew existed. But how can these issues be addressed in a post-#MeToo world? After a hashtag is no longer viral, after lawsuits have been won, and after offenders and enablers have been fired, what can we do when the problem persists?
The most recent case of sexual harassment in the craft beer world is an informative tale. On January 23, a former female employee of the Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Company posted her experience of being harassed by a male supervisor because of her pregnancy on Reddit. She also recounted instances of sexism and sexual harassment experienced by other women at the hands of numerous actors at the company, as well as the negligence of the company’s HR department.
The former employee’s post garnered over 500 comments and over 2,000 upvotes. Numerous former employees responded to her post, corroborating her claim that the brewery fostered a sexist work environment and recounting their own stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and racism at the company.
Because I’m going to keep getting asked:
I am sick about the public allegations, and the allegations of many other women whom I know personally. I experienced instances of sexual harassment and violation there that I let slide in hopes of winning points or fitting in. https://t.co/pMXreocPRj
— Katie Camlin (@katie_cammm) January 26, 2021
The company’s response unfolded over the next several days. First, it promised to create a women-led taskforce to confront workplace sexism. It then issued an apology that included a plan to implement mandatory employee training and an anonymous reporting system for workplace concerns. Meanwhile, a group of over 100 employees from the company were organizing to oust the company’s upper management. What followed was a string of resignations, including the company’s President, CFO, and Vice President of Marketing (who happened to be a woman). The company’s founder, John McDonald, took over as president, admitting that the company needs “a more modern HR system to take care of these issues,” and vowing to make public the company’s plans for change.
Boulevard is one of several breweries to have to confront a sexist work culture in the past few years. In 2017, a few months after the emergence of #MeToo, Melvin Brewing, which had recently opened a location in Bellingham, Washington, posted various sexually inappropriate jokes on its website, including one that said “Show us on the doll where Melvin Brewing touched you.” In the same year, a female employee of a nearby brewery accused a Melvin employee of sexual misconduct. Community members and local businesses complained of the company’s “bro culture” and began to boycott the brewery, to which owner Jeremy Tofte replied, “We realize that that level of excitement does not work here, and we are going to pull it back a notch.” The employee accused of sexual misconduct was ordered to attend a drug rehab program, but continued to be employed by the brewery.
Another high-profile case was that of Actual Brewing in Columbus, Ohio. In February 2019, a female employee filed a complaint to police accusing the company’s CEO, Fred Lee, of sexually assaulting her shortly after she was hired. Lee’s wife, who was also the co-owner of the company, almost immediately sent out an email to staff, stating that the “claims [were] entirely unsubstantiated,” but that the company would implement sexual harassment training and a reporting protocol. Continuing to deny the accusations, Lee stepped down as CEO while several women, local businesses, and former employees came forward about his sexual misconduct. The company went out of business less than two months later.
But perhaps one of the most hard-hitting cases for the industry involved Brewery Bhavana in Raleigh, North Carolina, formerly heralded for being an ethical, community-oriented company that represented an alternative to the white male-dominated craft beer scene. Founded by Laotian immigrants and siblings Vansana Nolintha and Vanvisa Nolintha, the company (which includes a brewery, restaurant, and store) gained attention in 2020 for supporting Black Lives Matter, despite protesters having damaged their property.
In June of 2020, employees and former employees began to speak out against the sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and coercion they experienced at the hands of Vansana Nolintha, who preyed on younger male employees and potential employees. Sexual misconduct committed by other employees was also silenced over several years, but the exposures came to a head when a white female supervisor referred to a black male employee as a “her slave.” After two weeks of other employees bringing attention to the situation, and after employees penned an open letter, Vansana Nolintha finally took action. Ultimately, by October of that year, the company’s entire upper management had resigned or had been fired.
These cases are far from isolated (see also companies such as Union Craft Brewing, Track 7 Brewing Company, and Heineken’s African division), and they offer us a glimpse into the conditions that perpetuate gender-based violence within the beer industry. So, what can we learn from them?
- Diversity quotas aren’t sufficient – It’s not enough to hire individuals from marginalized groups if they are forced to work in unsafe environments. If these individuals cannot speak up without being reprimanded, are tokenized, or are blocked from leadership positions, the structural inequalities of a company are unlikely to change.
This points to a larger question around the invisibility of marginalized groups who, in reality, are very much present and active in the craft beer industry. Checking off diversity boxes is futile when certain demographic data aren’t made available to begin with. The BA’s report on diversity in the industry, for example, does not include data on the LGBTQIA+ community, 68% of whom have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace across sectors, according to a recent study. The example of Brewery Bhavana, where some of the employees targeted by Vansana Nolintha were gay men but attributed Nolintha’s behavior to the overall company culture, is perhaps one of many in the industry.
An intersectional analysis is crucial here. It is important to remember that offenders do not always share the same profile, and that victims may be targeted because of one or more identities. Power can be wielded, and violence can be practiced, through identities that, depending on context, may be considered “oppressed.” What’s important is to create a work environment where grossly hierarchical power relations and violence of any kind are not tolerated and can be actively broken down.
- Strong HR departments and employee organizations are important – The phrase “bro culture” is commonly used to describe the craft beer industry. It points to a kind of institutionalized informality in which men agree on unspoken rules about the structure of a company and a company’s best practices. In the cases discussed above, HR policies were vague or nonexistent, and lawyers and/or third-party firms ultimately had the last word, fueling this institutionalized informality. In the absence of effective HR departments, employees’ collective organizing ended up being a crucial tool. Even with strong HR policies, employee organizations can help to create a concrete space for allyship by taking pressure off victims to resolve issues alone.
- Community matters – A craft brewery’s success often relies on its local reputation and its network of restaurants, bars, and resellers. Community members and local business owners might boycott a brewery that is known for sexism, but in many cases, a culture of silence enables a brewery’s continued offenses. Like employee organizations, local business associations and professional organizations can be important neutral bodies to confront misconduct. Social media has also become an important tool to collectively denounce sexism and racism in the industry. Social media posts demand a degree of accountability, forcing companies to publicly respond to their respective communities.
Industry-wide moves could, of course, be the impetus to these changes. The BA released its Member Code of Conduct in August of 2020, which mentions discrimination and harassment. Its stance, however, could be stronger and more specific. After all, sexual harassment and assault, particularly in the workplace, are not just HR issues, but in fact human rights issues that disproportionally affect womxn, trans, and non-binary workers. It is commendable that the BA has recently begun to gather general data on gender and race in the industry. But specific data and reports on discrimination and violence against a range of marginalized identities in workplaces would shed a more critical light on a glaringly persistent and urgent issue.