As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the craft brewing industry is currently amidst a reckoning over an outpouring of stories detailing sexism, discrimination, and sexual harassment and abuse women have experienced in the craft beer business. The stories are horrifying and traumatic, and together they reveal (yet again) that the craft beer business was never “99 percent asshole-free.” Thanks to the many women coming forward, and the brave efforts of Brienne Allan, the production manager at Massachusetts’ Notch Brewing who has surfaced these thousand-plus accounts via her Instagram account (@ratmagnet), more people are waking up to that.
The sheer volume of the allegations, and the outrage they’ve inspired, makes progress seem inevitable right now. But as any seasoned activist can tell you, turning online anger into consistent, ongoing offline action is akin to alchemy. As Advanced Cicerone Em Sauter told my colleague Beth Demmon, who reported VinePair’s initial story on this grim situation: “This is one of those things where I’m worried we’ll all talk about it, and then we don’t talk about it anymore.”
It will require more than outrage and promises to “do the work” to parlay the energy of this watershed moment into a real, sustained movement that makes the industry safer and more equitable for women-identifying workers and drinkers — and BIPOC, LGBTQ+ community members, and everyone else, too. It will require ongoing pressure on bosses and industry leaders to secure lasting changes. Craft brewing workers possess powerful leverage to exert that pressure. Organizing and strategically withholding labor is a time-tested way for marginalized workers to build power and use it to create a better workplace together. If craft beer’s workers are tired of the status quo’s dehumanizing cruelties and want a stick to herd the industry towards the carrot of progress, collective action is the biggest one available.
Over the past few years, America’s craft brewing workforce has been awakening to the power it can collectively wield. Union drives at Anchor Brewing Company, Surly Brewing Company, and Fair State Brewing Cooperative have helped to mainstream the idea of labor organizing in a business that barely has any. And just this year, craft beer employees have responded to allegations of sexism and harassment against their colleagues with another type of collective action: ad-hoc work stoppages.
In January 2021, a reported 100 employees at Boulevard Brewing Company came together to publish this open letter demanding action following accusations of discrimination and sexual harassment against women employees spanning back years, and the company’s initial HR response to it. “They’ll need to do better immediately, or they risk losing everyone,” one worker warned Kansas City’s The Pitch. Within days, Duvel USA, Boulevard’s parent company, dismissed its chief financial officer; the company’s president resigned.
Four months later, as allegations poured forth from Allan’s Instagram account, some brewery workers announced plans for work stoppages of their own. At Tired Hands Brewing Company, whose co-founder Jean Broillet IV was named in several allegations of sexism and racism, workers reportedly shut down production, delivery, and on-premise can sales on both Monday and Tuesday, according to an anonymous account posted to @ratmagnet’s stories. “Current employees [are] not happy with ownership’s response and lack of culpability and accountability,” it said. A Tired Hands representative, Chris Howard, declined to confirm the stoppage at the Pennsylvania brewery before publication, saying only that the brewery would eventually issue a statement on the matter. But a former employee told me on background that workers there did stop work Monday and Tuesday with the goal of forcing Broillet to resign. By Tuesday afternoon, a post attributed to Tired Hands’ staff went up on the brewery’s Instagram announcing that “[b]y our request” Broillet had stepped down from daily operations.
At the Oakland location of Modern Times Beer, whose CEO and co-founder Jacob McKean was also alleged in stories Allan posted to have fostered a hostile work environment, workers announced Tuesday on Instagram: “We will not be pouring beer in Oakland until we feel company leadership acts in a way that aligns with our personal values of inclusion and equality, and that appropriate measures and actions are put into place to prevent further discrimination and harassment.” Via DM, I contacted the six workers, who asked to be interviewed collectively as a staff.
“We weighed our options, and ultimately felt that shutting down the tasting room was the most impactful and would be the most meaningful,” they said. “We hoped it would inspire other brewery folks to take stronger stances against toxic work environments.” They told me they submitted a list of demands to brewery leadership, and that it did not specifically call for McKean’s resignation. Nevertheless, later that day, he announced he’d step down in a blog post that outlined the steps the company would take to move forward without him. By Saturday, the Oakland staff announced it would return to the tasting room, having concluded that company leadership was willing to “realign with [their] values” of inclusion, diversity, and equity.
Did these collective actions directly precipitate the exits of those breweries’ key executives? Hard to say, barring internal emails saying as much (though if you want to leak me stuff confidentially, you can always do so right here.) Modern Times employs over 300 people in locations across California, and the Oakland staffers told me they hadn’t coordinated with their colleagues elsewhere, so their stoppage in Oakland was probably more directional than anything else. But keep heading in that direction. When workers are truly organized, when they truly control production, they have leverage over a firm’s profits. That’s the ballgame. There are plenty of bad bosses in craft beer who don’t care about women’s safety and wellbeing; there are none who don’t care about money.
It’s not coincidental that the stories that Allan has surfaced are often set in workplaces — taprooms, brewery parking lots, beer festivals, and so on. The culture of sexism that the craft brewing business has long tolerated (and that some breweries have actively cultivated and profited off of over the years) draws power in no small part from the inequality that underpins our economic system. Bosses (who have money) pay workers (who need money) a wage, sell the fruits of their labor for a price, and pocket the difference as profit. This inequality is economic in nature, but it creates a power imbalance with broader consequences for all workers, and particularly workers from marginalized communities — many of which are, of course, women.
“Women in the United States are stuck with bosses who abuse them, because to walk out could mean living in their cars or on the streets — or taking two fulltime jobs and never spending a minute with their kids,” wrote the veteran labor organizer and author Jane McAlevey in a 2017 essay on the broader #MeToo movement for In These Times. “Unions — warts and all — are central to a more equal society, because they bring structural power and collective solutions to problems that are fundamentally societal, not individual.” She argues that the only way for workers to address these issues is to leverage the collective value of their labor into economic and political power — in other words, to organize.
Speaking of politics, that dynamic — by which I mean the imbalanced relationship between capital and labor that’s remained almost entirely papered-over in this industry by a thick layer of marketing — is also why I’m dubious of the idea that the Brewers Association will, or even can, “fix” this problem. Whatever you think of the BA, there are good people there, and I’d guess many of them are as horrified about this situation as you are. But the BA is a trade organization. In the final analysis, it exists to advance the interests of its dues-paying members, which is to say, capital. Accordingly, the BA has addressed this crisis with resources and tools that will not change the power dynamic that has fueled it. Besides, there are 8,000+ breweries in this country. No centralized organization, however well-meaning, can challenge individual bosses’ malice and negligence the way rank-and-file staffers can when they get organized. If workers wait on the BA for a top-down solution, rather than build power together to advance their own interests, they’ll be waiting for a long time.
To anticipate the obvious criticisms here: there are plenty of owners and bosses in the craft beer business who are not abusing their women-identifying staff or standing by complicitly when other staffers or patrons do, are also disgusted by this situation, and genuinely want to make the industry better. I’m sure many of them will reject the idea that their relationship with their workers is inequitable. But what do their workers think? Do they have a seat at the table? Do they feel safe and supported? Are they confident that their bosses will follow through on their commitments to progress once the moment passes and the priorities of profit crop back up? I hope so. But if Allan’s efforts have shown us anything, it’s that workers — especially those from marginalized communities — have very different answers to these kinds of questions depending on who’s asking.
I asked the Modern Times Oakland staff (all of whom, by the way, have either vested or unvested shares in the company, which has been employee-owned since 2017) if they had any advice or message for other craft beer workers considering the idea of taking collective action. “We felt like a work stoppage was necessary to stand for what we believe in,” they wrote back. “We believe that workers have more power than they’re made to believe and hope that others will think about what changes they would like to see in the industry and in their own workplaces and take action for a better future.”
Why wouldn’t they? After all, these stories are not new, and the craft beer business has had plenty of opportunities to address its issues via top-down change. Sure, there have been resignations, and there will likely be more, but they’ve come at enormous cost to all the women who’ve suffered in silence for years (not to mention Allan herself). And once the moment recedes, the forces of capital will pull the industry back towards the status quo if left unchecked. This is a moment where labor may check it. After all, spontaneous actions like the ones that have already arisen in the craft beer industry typically only happen when workers are all extremely pissed off about the same thing and have no faith that the bosses’ solutions will yield results. There’s a classic labor organizing axiom: “The boss is the best organizer.” Organizing into unions is no silver bullet, and will not magically fix the industry’s ills. But it can be a powerful tool for those workers who want to try.