Busting Up the Brotherhood of Beer: Time to confront sexism & harassment in the industry

Photo by Anders Nord on Unsplash

Photo by Anders Nord on Unsplash

Last April, the Brewers Association announced that it would no longer publicize medals won by beers with sexist names or labels. From now on, beers like Thong Remover, PD (Panty Dropper), and Pearl Necklace could win in competition, but the win would not be published.

The comment threads and forum posts that followed the announcement were a study in misogyny. The Brewers Association was squashing freedom of speech. Women needed to lighten up and learn to take a joke. “Get over it. Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. You are the most overly sensitive pansies I’ve ever seen.” “Sex sells…I hope this article helped you get laid.” “Grow a pair. Men invented [beer] like everything else in this world and we can call it WTF we want.”

Nearly all such comments were written by men—the brotherhood of beer.

I am a cisgender, straight, white male. As such, I live in a culture that assumes my experience to be the norm. The world that I inhabit accepts me. It supports me. The starting point for my interactions with others is an assumption of competence. I live free from the worry that my gender, race, or sexual orientation will even be considered in the majority of interactions.

I live in the cozy embrace of normativity. My worry-free existence as relates to my various attributes blinds me to the daily worries of those who do not share my position. I need never see them. Those worries go unrecognized as they blend into the mundanity of the way things are. I can project my own worry-free experience onto others.

This projection comes easily in the community of craft beer, with its carefully cultivated image of collegiality. We’re part of one big collaborative family, pursuing a common cause, we say. It’s easy to think craft beer is different—it’s more progressive, more inclusive—than those other industries currently facing the realities of sexual misconduct by the #MeToo movement. We’re all in this together, right?

But the more I listen, the more glaring a light is shined into my comfortable darkness.

Ask women working in beer and it becomes obvious that the beer industry faces the very same problems of sexism, harassment, and even assault, that the rest of the country is facing. While the ranks of women are growing, the industry is still dominated by men. The majority of breweries are founded by men. The people who make the beer are overwhelmingly male. It is mostly men who distribute and sell it. If bathroom lines at festivals are any indication, it is mostly men who drink it.

I listened to the experiences of four female industry members, all who expressed their love for the industry and the people in it, but whose stories reveal that discrimination and harassment are a reality in craft beer.

Sarah Huska is the Northwest regional sales quality specialist for a major Midwestern brewery with eight years in the industry. She expressed a complaint that was common to all four women—a lack of respect from male counterparts. “I sit here with an MBA and years of experience in this industry and I still struggle to get people to take me seriously. Which is frustrating.”

Sales calls are a major part of Huska’s job. She is often accompanying a male sales rep and meeting with male buyers. “I used to walk into accounts with a male distributor rep and be greeted by a male buyer or bar owner and they would say, ‘Oh, you brought me a hot chick today.’ Just right off the bat. Before we even get to introduce ourselves.” In one instance, the rep she was riding with asked her to go to an event with him “because he needed more hot chicks there.” “[He] just really didn’t realize that he was saying anything inappropriate.”

“I sit here with an MBA and years of experience in this industry and I still struggle to get people to take me seriously.”

– Sarah Huska

Things like this happen on a regular basis, says Huska. When they do, she feels constrained in her ability to respond. Her job is to make the sale. She can’t alienate the buyer. She is put into a position of weakness for reasons that a male in her job would never face. “Every time it happens, it chips away at you a little bit.”

When Gabrielle Rudisill, Minnesota sale rep for Ballast Point Brewing Company, entered the industry, she saw it as a progressive place; a place where she could excel and grow without issues. The opportunity for growth was there, but the issues came with it.

“Somebody who worked for a distributor thought it was a good idea to just walk up to me and ask me what my pubic hair looked like. Out of the clear blue. I don’t know this man. […] I asked him if he really wanted to ask me that question and gave him a second to re-think. But he didn’t. He doubled down.” Adding insult to injury, when Rudisill discussed the incident with a male manager from another brewery, she was scolded for her response. It endangered her relationship with the distributor, he said. The distributor sells the beer to retailers. Does she stand up or make the sale?

Sexism in the industry isn’t limited to sales and distribution. Every female brewer I’ve spoken to has heard comments along the line of, “A female brewer. I’ve never heard of that.”

Cristina Spurr is a brewer and the mother of barrels at Indeed Brewing Company. When she told a food truck operator that she was a brewer, he asked if “she just swept up after everybody in the back.” A festival-goer once accused her of lying. “A gentleman came up to our booth. I gave him a pour of beer. He had quite a few questions about the beer. I had answers to all of his questions. One of the last questions he asked was, ‘How do you know all this? How do you know so much?’ I said, ‘Well I make the beer. I’m a brewer.’ And that was the first time anyone has been flat out like, ‘No. You’re not.’ Like thinking I was lying. That was really kind of disheartening.”

Hoops Brewing Head Brewer Melissa Rainville had a sexist encounter with a vendor selling filtration equipment. During their discussion, she detailed her 10 years in the industry. “And as he was leaving—I was showing him to the door—he managed to ask me if I was sleeping with [Dave] Hoops and that’s why I was the head brewer. Which I was completely blindsided by. I was like, ‘What?’ I still am sweating, I was so angry about that. […] It didn’t make any sense because we had just talked about all of the time that I had been doing this. No, that’s not why I’m the head brewer. You wouldn’t ask anyone else that. Needless to say I’m not buying anything from him. Ever.”

Although Spurr and Rainville say they generally feel supported by other brewers, the production side of the industry is not immune to the problem. In the brewers’ lounge at a recent out-of-state festival Spurr told another brewer her occupation. He responded with a “mildly loud announcement, ‘Hey. We got a pussy brewer over here, everybody.’ It was probably one of the most uncomfortable moments in my career in beer. And I was so caught off guard with other production folks [present]. And some other comment—I’m not even sure what it meant—‘If you take your shoes off I’ll kiss your feet.’ That came after. Nope. Keeping my shoes on. I didn’t even finish my food. I got up and he was like, ‘I’ve never been in Minneapolis. But when I’m there I’ll have to stop by Indeed.’ I said, ‘No. You shouldn’t. Please don’t.’ I don’t think he understood why.”

All four women mentioned alcohol as a contributing factor to not just sexual harassment, but also sexual assault. It’s beer. People drink at events. Inhibitions are lowered as are social controls. “It just amplifies things that are already there,” says Rudisill. “If you’re liable to do things that make ladies uncomfortable, alcohol will make you even more liable. It always makes people handsier and flirtier.”

Rudisill has witnessed incidents that go well beyond comments. “I watched a very high-up gentleman from a brewery take a female beer rep over his knee for a photograph. And the whole group of men stood there laughing. And I stood there just terrified for her and not knowing what to do. I mean a photo was taken. And everybody is laughing and it was a good time. But it wasn’t a good time for me or for her.”

Alcohol also provides an excuse—a way to minimize the behavior, says Sarah Huska. “People will say, ‘Well, you were both drunk.’ Or, ‘He didn’t know what he was doing because he was drunk.’ Or, ‘I was blacked out. I’m sorry. I didn’t even know that I did that. I don’t remember.’ It makes it difficult. I think what I’ve learned over the years is you have to basically manage yourself.”

Women are 51 percent of the U.S. population. They consume 15 percent of craft beer volume nationally, according to a 2016 presentation by the Brewers Association. And trends favor more women coming on board. A female perspective in the industry has never been more important. Yet incidents like these risk pushing talented women away. “I’ve had some bad experiences in this industry,” says Huska. “I’m not going to lie. It’s left me… I’m a little burnt out. I’m a little sour on the whole thing.”

So what’s to be done?

“Solutions would have to be multi-faceted,” says Rainville. “Acknowledging it when it’s witnessed. Calling it out. And trying to engage with people who are being blatantly offensive. All of those things can help. But there is no one thing that will fix it overnight. Or in my lifetime even.”

Sarah Huska stresses education. “I’ve requested this in the past, to have basically required educational seminars or training programs to educate the employees on how to discuss issues or how to approach certain things or that inequality shouldn’t exist, you know. […] I think that this industry is severely lacking in knowledge around these topics.”

“Better fruit will be born from a man approaching another man and saying, ‘Bro, not cool.’

– Gabrielle Rudisill

Getting more diversity in the industry is important to Cristina Spurr. “Having worked for a number of companies, with my background in human resources, those companies [with more diversity] seem to really thrive. Diversity only brings new ideas and viewpoints. Perspectives.” I would add that a solution will require more women in leadership positions in the industry.

For Rudisill, the responsibility falls to men. “You know, the problematic behavior, the preying on women, the negative feelings about women, that’s something that men have to kind of figure out in their own hearts. I can’t fix that,” she says. Men have to acknowledge the problem. Men have to learn to listen. Men have to hold each other to a higher standard and call each other out. “[…] Better fruit will be born from a man approaching another man and saying, ‘Bro, not cool. She didn’t like that.’ Or, ‘Don’t say those kind of things.’”

In the end, it’s on men to make beer a better place for everyone. Rudisill sums it up perfectly: “Turns out that when you’re the problem, you have to be the solution.”

About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.