I’ve been writing about beer and women for more than ten years. Given journalists had barely started covering the subject at that time, I frequently asked my female sources about sexism in the industry. They all gave me variations on the same answer. It went something like, “Sometimes contractors, distributor reps, or doofuses at a beer fest assume I don’t know anything but I suffer no sexism at the hands of my co-workers.”
Two years ago, despite spending more than a decade cultivating trusted sources and friends within the industry, I finally learned that was a lie.
Socializing one night with three female industry friends in California, I at last uncovered the reality that discrimination within breweries ran rampant. One (a long-time brewer) felt repeatedly passed over for promotions by men with less experience and one (a former very long-time brewer) had worked for a world-famous owner who ran his brewery like an old boys’ club. Though they gave up what was then still a dirty big secret and identified the perpetrators, I couldn’t expose the truth. The entire conversation was off the record.
Then came the #MeToo movement, and at last people publicly named names. A female restaurant server in Washington reported to Wyoming’s Melvin Brewing that an employee groped her while she waited on him. Many bars and liquor stores subsequently stopped serving Melvin beers, the offending employee left the company, and the brewery implemented training and boosted its human resources department.
Just last week the founder and CEO of seven-year-old Actual Brewing in Columbus, Ohio, stepped down after multiple women accused him of sexually harassing and raping them. Other stakeholders are trying to buy him out of his company, and his satellite brewpub has closed after just one month. He denies the allegations.
Then Tuesday, the publisher of the national chain of Brewing News beer publications wrote a bizarrely misogynistic and creepy story on the cover of his Midwestern edition. Though he’s pleading for readers to understand he meant it as satire, judging from the online backlash, the staff writer who quit, the petition being circulated against the paper, and the six-or-more advertisers who’ve pulled sponsorship as of press time, I’ll bet money that within a week he resigns or the company sells or folds.
Regardless of whether said publisher means what he wrote or just made a bad error in judgment, it’s past #TimesUp for the ogres who do belittle or hurt women to face the scorn and punishment they deserve, and it’s about time we journalists started reporting on it. Early craft beer writers like Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt were cheerleaders for the fledgling industry, introducing and promoting it to a nation that knew literally nothing beyond domestic adjunct lagers. For the most part beer journalists spent the next thirty years following that model – avoiding controversy or talking about it in abstract, non-identifiable ways. The ethos of craft beer dictated that within the profoundly collegial industry, one should only bash a competitor if it owned a brand called Bud, Miller or Coors. Around the beginning of the decade, my beer-media mentor lovingly discouraged me from writing an exclusive story about an established beer professional who’d harmed the industry out of concern for my reputation.
Now that the craft industry has gained solid footing and we inhabit a society that shows its scars as crass entertainment, the beer press feels more – but not completely — comfortable speaking the truth. These days, that same beer mentor and I delight in the one-or-two repeat guests to our radio show who have the courage to call others out by name.
And now that #MeToo has created an incrementally safer culture for victims of sexual harassment and worse, they feel more comfortable speaking up. Truthfully, maybe there’s more now to say.
Some time ago, Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione famously labeled the craft brewing industry “99% a**hole-free.” At that point, the United States would have boasted at most 1,500 breweries. Around 2014, with 3,700 operational American breweries, I wrote in my Ale Street News “Athena’s Fermentables” column (RIP) that as more entrepreneurs began opening breweries, the parameters would stretch to include those who no longer fit the burly, bearded, love-the-earth-and-all-of-its-inhabitants hippie profile. Ironically, that column was about a strip club in Ohio producing pretty decent beer and a woman in the porn hub of the San Fernando Valley making a name for herself by posting racy pictures of craft beers getting fairly intimate with her only-partially-covered breasts.
That prediction has borne out. All types of people now brew craft beer, and when it comes to racial, ethnic and gender diversity, that’s a good thing. But a bit of bro culture has crawled into the community, and before I get accused of dissing millennials again, I rush to say that some of it has been with us all along. I’ve watched a 40-something brewery sales manager relentlessly hit on a very uninterested bartender at his own tap takeover; an unknown number of men happily attended one or more brewery-sponsored parties at a strip club during the 2015 Craft Brewers’ Conference in Portland, Oregon; and breweries have offended women with brand names like Thong Remover and Panty Dropper for years. (The Brewers Association trade group has issued a policy that aims to dissuade breweries that use these kinds of questionable names and labels.)
But here’s the difference. There are now enough women and “woke” men in the industry to speak out against this. Powered by the internet, groups like the Pink Boots Society, along with thousands of individuals, can share instances like these and shame, change and even break companies that violate the craft community’s standards. Stone Brewing founder Greg Koch profusely apologized and discontinued his off-shoot brand, Arrogant Bastard, after gadfly beer feminist Carla Jean-Lauter chastised him on Twitter for a sexist Tweet someone on the social media team had distributed under the notion that it would be funny.
In the case of the Great Lakes Brewing News publisher who penned sentences this week such as, “In the age of #metoo, … the pendulum has swung too far. … My instincts to bed every woman I see are reducing from a king-sized mattress to a cot. … Today’s rules put men like me in the equivalent of a feminazi re-education program instead of ceding to my genetic makeup and behaving like that great seducer, Don Juan,” the guilty party’s apology isn’t being heard. The writer, Bill Metzger, sent a blogger what is being generally considered a non-apology then followed up with a Facebook post arguing that the article meant to parody sexism.
Almost nobody’s buying it. Beer Twitter and Facebook are almost universally rejecting his explanation and ridiculing him for his strange, offensive and wholly irrelevant rant, as are a few bloggers.
He spoke to me by phone and struck me as genuinely and deeply pained that his admittedly misbegotten attempt to highlight the problem of sexual harassment and assault in brewing has backfired so badly.
“I really was building a character but I understand the sensitivity,” he says. “The main message I’m getting along with anger is that … given the long history of discrimination against women, especially in alcohol, this is not the forum to write that.”
I’m reassured to see that in these instances, beer lovers are holding themselves up as responsible watchdogs who won’t tolerate abuse of any kind. Late last year the internet outed the owners of Trillium Brewing in Boston for cutting hourly retail employees’ wages to nothing and a few days later the owners reversed course and increased their wages significantly. In 2017, the Kalamazoo, Michigan, beer community ran a growler-fill/bottle shop owner out of town for his history of posting racist and anti-Semitic comments and memes on Facebook, and the story I broke about it received more views than any of my other Forbes articles.
I hope that Metzger can survive the controversy. After talking to him, I believe his defense and wish he’d thought better of publishing his professed fiction on the literal front page. While he might never work in beer again, it’s too bad his publishing empire may go down in infamy. Many of its stories are well-reported and informative, and I’ve written several articles for Metzger’s American Brewer publication, ironically, beginning with a special edition on women.
We simply can’t afford to lose more beer publications, especially now that we in this media are investigating and exposing rather than just advocating, and especially now that women are seizing the time of #MeToo to force the industry to evolve. We critically need the beer press to survive in order to help tell both the good and the bad stories of beer. The time is now.