UPDATED: 56 Brewing owner resigns after allegations of racial harassment against Black employee corroborated by eyewitness

56 Brewing // Photo by Kevin Kramer

56 Brewing // Photo by Kevin Kramer

[Updated: 1:12pm, July 2, 2020]: Kale Johnson, one of the co-owners of 56 Brewing, resigned as CEO on July 2, 2020, in the face of corroborated reports of racial harassment against a Black employee.

In a statement on the company’s Facebook page, Johnson says that he is “resigning as CEO effective immediately,” adding “it is apparent that my continued presence at the company is creating a negative impact to the company that I love. I understand now that recent and past events have caused people that I care about hurt and pain and for that I am truly sorry.”

It is unclear if Johnson or his wife Kerry Johnson, who also is an owner, plan to keep or divest their shares in the company.

[Updated: 5:20pm, July 2, 2020]: The company shared a message on its Facebook page in the wake of Kale Johnson’s public resignation as CEO. The statement explains that the company stakeholders are working to “restructure ownership via divestment.” The full statement reads:

“In no uncertain terms: Black Lives Matter; and being antiracist is not an option, it’s a requirement. We will work tirelessly with our actions to live up to these words and ideals (and everything they mean) and we are so very sorry that we have failed thus far.

“56 Brewing accepts Kale Johnson’s resignation. But we know that there is much more to be done. The company’s stakeholders are working to restructure ownership via divestment. We humbly request your patience as we work through the various legal and business issues necessary to carry this out. However, this should not cast doubt on where we stand as a company and a community. Please give our remaining team an opportunity to fix this.”

It is still unclear which, if any, of the owners were aware of the allegations at any time between the time of the former employee Mahad Muhammad’s resignation in August 2018 and when news broke about the allegations on June 29, 2020; and if so, if anyone took actions to address them. The Growler has reached out to the owners but has not received a response.

Allegations that Kale Johnson, one of the owners of 56 Brewing, tied a knot resembling a noose, waved it at a Black employee, and taunted him, saying, “Come here, boy,” have been confirmed by the former employee to whom it happened, Mahad Muhammad, as well as another former employee, who was an eyewitness to the incident and spoke with The Growler on condition of anonymity.

The racist incident was originally alleged in the Instagram page of Brewing Change Collaborative, a local advocacy group promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the brewing industry, on June 29. In a screenshot of a message from Caroline Brunner—who the brewery claimed was a former employee who was recently terminated but is in fact just a friend of Muhammad’s who has never worked at 56 Brewing*—Brunner writes, “Skip 56 Brewing. One of the owners (Cale) [sic] tied a noose and waved it at my friend, a Black employee, while saying ‘come here boy’.” *[Updated: 10:15pm, July 1, 2020] Caroline Brunner contacted The Growler stating that she never has been employed by 56 Brewing contrary to the company’s claim.

On June 30, Muhammad reposted the allegation to his personal Instagram account, saying, “What happened at @56brewing brewing is not a ‘construed’ injustice, it’s the truth. It happened to me. This was one of the lowest moments in my life, and I’m back reliving it.”

The eyewitness source confirms Muhammad’s account, saying in a statement to The Growler, “I was there that night and the statement is true. Kale, in fact, did this to Mahad in front of me.”

Muhammad and the eyewitness’ statements directly contradict Johnson’s Facebook post made on the company’s page on June 30 claiming that there was no “verbal discussion or talk of a noose or threat of hanging.”

[Updated: 9:35pm, July 1, 2020] This story has been updated to include a screenshot of 56 Brewing’s Facebook post. 56 Brewing took down its Facebook page since this story was first published.

“The verbal taunt was made twice,” Muhammad says. The eyewitness says Johnson told Muhammad to “Come here, boy” and does not recollect Johnson apologizing to Muhammad at the time. This contradicts Johnson’s claim that he “apologized immediately and said it was my fault for not realizing how it could affect others.”

A third source, who worked at the company during the time of the incident and spoke to The Growler on condition of anonymity, says that Muhammad had told them about the incident soon after it occurred, but the source did not bring it to the attention of the ownership and there was no HR person employed by the company.

Muhammad says he did, however, detail the racist incident in his resignation letter dated August 13, 2018. Johnson admitted that he had read that resignation letter for the first time on June 29, 2020, in the original statement posted to the company’s Facebook page two days ago. That post has since been edited to remove the section addressed to Muhammad.

The Growler has made repeated reach outs to the brewery’s owners listed on the company’s team page—Kale Johnson, Kerry Johnson, Kristin Noraker, and Joe Wirth—asking who is responsible for reading resignation letters at the company and who, if anyone, in the ownership group was made aware of the allegations. The Growler also inquired about what concrete steps are being taken in response to the allegation. We have received no response to our questions.

The noose is a potent symbol of racism, deeply rooted in the country’s long legacy of lynching Black Americans. According to reports by the Equal Justice Initiative, 6,500 Black men, women, and children were murdered by white Americans, often by hanging, in an effort to enforce racial subordination and segregation between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and World War II. In Minnesota, this year marks one hundred years since three Black men were lynched by a white mob in Duluth, after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. And nooses are still being used today to intimidate or threaten Black Americans. Recently, the FBI announced it was investigating a crude noose found in the locker of a Black firefighter at a Bloomington fire station on June 15.

Many members of the public have called for Johnson to step down and divest his share of the business and many others have called for a boycott of 56 Brewing as a result of the allegations. A Minneapolis-based graphic designer, who has done work for the brewery, has cut all ties with the company as has local nonprofit Fresh Energy, which partnered with 56 Brewing on its Solarama Crush made with solar honey.

On June 30, Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, an industry trade group advocating for the state’s craft breweries, announced on its Facebook page that “In light of recent reports by members of our community, we have begun investigating a violation of [the organization’s] Code of Conduct.” While the nonprofit did not name the brewery under investigation, 56 Brewing could face disciplinary action from the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild (MCBG), a nonprofit trade group for Minnesota’s craft breweries, if an investigation finds they have broken the organization’s Code of Conduct.

The MCBG Code of Conduct states that the organization will “not tolerate harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex (including sexual harassment and pregnancy), marital status, status with regard to public assistance, disability, sexual orientation, age, veteran status or any other status protected by applicable law.” If a member is found through an investigation to have broken the Code of Conduct, they could face disciplinary action including but not limited to: “Member expulsion; banning from festival/other activities; a written warning; or written censure. Disciplinary action will be determined based on the severity of the report, the number of reports filed against the individual/organization, and the number of times they have been reported. Any disciplinary action will be voted on by the Board and must receive a majority vote to be implemented.”

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) have long been underrepresented in craft beer, both on the consumer and business sides. And multiple high-profile instances of overt racism have surfaced in the industry in recent years. In August 2018, Tracy Evans brought a wrongful termination lawsuit against Founders Brewing Company, alleging he was fired after making complaints to HR about racial slurs being used around him and with other employees and about the facility’s upstairs printer used by management employees being named the “white guy printer” and the downstairs general employee printer being named “black guy printer.” The suit was settled in October 2019. In September 2019, beer blogger Chalonda White, who writes under the name Afro Beer Chick, received an email filled with racist and misogynistic slurs from a man who claimed she didn’t belong in the industry. White posted the email to Twitter and it sparked the online campaign #IAmCraftBeer meant to showcase the diversity of craft beer.

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.