The first time I experienced a brew festival more than 10 years ago, my only expectation was to see a lot of people, try some new and interesting beers, and to enjoy myself. My vantage point was as a volunteer, serving beers to the masses along with my husband. Two of the first things I noticed immediately were: 1. The disproportionate number of men compared to the women in attendance; and 2. The fact that I was one of the very few people of color in attendance. As a second-generation Mexican-American from upstate New York, I have always been aware of my social surroundings wherever I am, and this was no exception.
Later, as I attended fest after fest across the Northeast, the disparities became hard to ignore. I’d say to my husband, whose family hails from Eastern Europe, “Do you notice that I’m the only brown person here?” to which he would reply, “No, I hadn’t really noticed.” Was I uncomfortable? No. Did it bother me? Somewhat. My observations were always there, nagging me to speak up about the industry’s lack of diversity. Later, I started a beer blog, but chose not to write about racial inequalities in an effort to “stay out of it” and let others tell their stories if they chose to do so.
Over the past decade, I’ve immersed myself in the craft beer world. I’ve worked for several breweries as a brand ambassador, as a bartender, and as a sales rep throughout the Northeast and in South Florida. The racial disparities have felt most pronounced to me in the Northeast, as I had more Latino colleagues while working in Miami. In New York, I wanted to capture the essence of the craft beer community I was a part of in Florida — partly pachanga (party atmosphere), mixed with a common understanding of beer, community, and acceptance. In the Northeast, I longed for the inclusivity that seemed to automatically come easily to my white counterparts who put on a brewer’s shirt, wore a long beard, or looked like the St. Pauli girl serving to the masses at Oktoberfest.
For my first gig as a brand ambassador, I worked for a brewery in Ohio with Irish American roots. While going through training, I was the only non-Irish-American employee. I felt awkward, like a sore thumb. It was a friendly enough environment and everyone was nice, but I still felt a sense of marginalization. My presence was certainly acknowledged, but I felt like more of an afterthought. I was the last person to be addressed and the last person to get handed a glass while sampling. I tried so hard to prove my worth; I was the person who always engaged, asking questions and starting conversations because the others would not.
In seeking recognition and acceptance, I pushed harder than my colleagues. I memorized every detail of the brewery’s beer profile, its history, and interesting anecdotes. Customers were gracious, inquisitive, and appreciative of my advice and conversation. I felt really good about my position and I loved talking about craft beer to anyone who would listen. During my time as a brand ambassador, I also became a writer for a local newspaper. Strangers recognized me and complimented me on my informative articles on beer. Things seemed to be going well.
Over the years, I built a reputation in the industry for knowing beers inside out, and for my friendly, can-do attitude. None of this took away the fact that I still noticed the lack of women and BIPOC at events. More and more it was starting to bother me, but I went on about my business and poured beer after beer. There never really is a “getting used to it” feeling about being the only minority in the room or the only female in a sea of beards — or in my case, both. I really wanted to see some diversity in the field but didn’t think I could do anything about it. Other than representing myself, I didn’t see how I could make an impact.
Over time, my desire grew to connect with BIPOC and women beer professionals and enthusiasts. In 2014, I started a Meetup group in Syracuse, N.Y., for like-minded women who wanted to learn more about craft beer and socialize. My goal was to see more women interact with each other, to meet local brewery professionals, and to grow a noticeable female representation at local events. More than 100 women came out of the woodworks and were grateful to have a “safe space” to congregate. I was ecstatic that my idea would get such a response! For a time, we gathered regularly, set up information tables at beer festivals, sold pretzel necklaces, and recruited other women to join the group.
This type of group had not been done before in my community, and members looked forward to our monthly meetings where we would get together at local breweries and beer businesses, learn something new, and enjoy a few pints with one another. Our voices were heard, our questions were answered, and our taste buds were satiated. Yet, despite the success of the group, there was still something lacking — while I had tapped into a vein of women who loved beer, they were largely white. I was still unable to find beer professionals or enthusiasts who looked like me, a brown-skinned American woman.
Fast-forward to 2019, I landed a job representing a craft brewery from Kilkenny, Ireland. This was an international brand looking to find American fans that weren’t necessarily craft beer snobs. My goal was to reach 35- to 50-year old men and women who were accustomed to a pint of Guinness or Killian’s. My bosses and colleagues were wonderful people who looked to sell this unknown name in America. And I was ready for the challenge. After 10 years in the business I felt confident that I could represent the brand well. Despite the fact that I was neither Irish nor Irish-American, I was comfortable in my role.
That’s until I experienced racism first-hand from a consumer. While serving samples of an Irish red ale at a local Irish-American bar, a patron said to me, “You’re not Irish. Shouldn’t you be Irish or Irish-looking if you’re going to represent that beer? Why did they hire you?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but deep down, the racist customer tapped into my feelings of not belonging, of “otherness.” The only response I could give to this guy was, “Because I know my stuff.” But he didn’t care. He didn’t want to see a brown girl talk European beer. Normally I would brush off such a crude question but I couldn’t.
I began to doubt my validity to everyone and everything. I had worked hard to get into the industry and knew that my gender and race shouldn’t matter when it came to doing my job. Logically, I knew that I was an educated, smart woman who entered the beer industry on her own merits. I knew that I worked hard to switch careers from being a higher-educational professional to a beer writer and brand representative. Nobody could take that away from me, but in that one exchange, my pride turned to shame. Shame for not being able to control my outer appearance, shame for being born the “wrong” color, shame for not being someone I will never be. However, I continued on, with a little less pride for working in beer. Despite a company trip to Ireland and tremendous support from my Irish superiors, I didn’t feel a sense of belonging or teamwork in what I was doing. Unfortunately, my career as a brewery representative ended shortly thereafter.
I have never really spoken or written about the subject of race, mostly because it makes me uncomfortable. Just like religion or politics, I also lumped the subject of race as one of those things we do not speak of with others unless we’re looking for a fight. I’m usually an assertive, well-spoken woman with a lot to say. While I most certainly take the lack of diversity in most settings, until recently I have sort of shut my eyes and covered my ears like a child who tries not to see the monsters in the bedroom. I don’t want to highlight the things I feel I have to apologize for like my race or gender to anyone when really, there is nothing to apologize for.
Finally, I feel that the tide is turning. This time, it’s different. In 2020, the manifestations of racism are front and center. The Black Lives Matter movement, its protests, and the scores of new initiatives to empower people of color are taking shape. These are for people like me. I can now say with emphasis that I am proud of my Mexican heritage. I am proud to embrace it as a part of my identity. I am proud of all my accomplishments.
I love working in craft beer and have no regrets about changing careers. For me, the beer industry can be (and usually is) one of the friendliest and supportive communities. However, there are times when that one customer, that one distributor sales rep, that one colleague can take it all down with a word or a gesture.
Finally, I’m seeing more faces of color and hearing the voices rise in the industry, clearer than ever before. I’m drinking Black Is Beautiful beer knowing that it’s more than just the beer. While for the moment those faces and voices are on Zoom and YouTube because of the pandemic, I’m looking forward to the time when I go to my local brewery in upstate New York and see more people like me. I can’t wait to attend craft beer conferences and interact with new BIPOC colleagues in the audience and on the podium.
Yes, we most certainly have a ways to go when it comes to inclusivity in the beer industry. But now, I know that it’s time for me to speak, because I do belong to the community and what I have to say does matter. I’ve learned that in order to see change, you don’t wait for it to happen. You speak your truth, and your message will be heard.
Published: October 26, 2020