The fact that sexism has been pervasive in America’s craft beer industry is not breaking news to any woman, whether brewery owner or casual drinker. Social media is filled with stories of customers bypassing female beertenders to get recommendations from their male counterparts, industry professionals undermining a woman’s skill in the brew house or drinkers asking to speak with a brewer’s husband, who they think owns and runs the business.
These stories are ubiquitous, even here in Colorado. But a recent social media movement revealed an even darker underbelly to the world of craft beer, one that’s sending waves through the global industry and inspiring women in Colorado to combat on-the-job sexual harassment.
Brienne Allan, who works in a brewery in Massachusetts and goes by the handle @ratmagnet on Instagram, asked others on the platform what kind of sexism they experienced after she received two condescending comments in a day, reported VinePair. Her inbox was soon flooded by women whose experiences ranged from subtle microaggressions to allegations of sexual assault.
The stories have been shared, many times anonymously, on Allan’s account and others since mid-May and led to several high-profile firings. Importantly, they’ve sparked conversation about how beer culture should evolve to become more inclusive and safe for women and people of color.
At least one Colorado brewery owner, Kyle Carbaugh of Wiley Roots Brewing Co. in Greeley, has issued an apology for workplace culture in response to allegations that surfaced on Instagram.
“It has been time for a radical change for a very long time,” said Kelissa Hieber, owner of Goldspot Brewing Co. in Denver. “People are leaving this industry in droves. How many women have left the industry forever?”
Part of the reason the boys club ethos has been able to persist throughout the modern craft beer era is systemic, Hieber said. Most people get into the beer business because they’re passionate about the product and working for a small, independent company has more of a familial vibe. But that kind of drive can be exploited when employees are expected to work extended hours for little above minimum wage.
“That is such crap. All this toxicity is related to how we treat service industry people,” said Hieber, who started as a bartender at Goldspot before buying a 25% ownership share in 2018. In February, she bought out her partner to become the sole owner — a rare opportunity.
“That’s almost never how it works for a woman,” Hieber said. “I have been lucky to have a very good culture at this brewery even before I was an owner. I’ve been supported as a female brewer. That has not been a lot of people’s story and especially if you are someone who has to do a bunch of beer fests and inevitably are put into these really toxic environments.”
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Alyssa Thorpe was studying nursing when she began home brewing as a hobbyist. Her classes in microbiology coincided with beer competition wins, and ultimately she was inspired to pivot to brewing as a career. Thorpe earned a certificate in applied craft brewing from Regis University and worked in several brew houses before landing the head brewer gig at Denver’s Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery more than two years ago.
Despite her credentials, Thorpe said she’s continually undermined by men in the industry who assume she can’t lift bags of grains or do other manual parts of the job because she’s a petite woman. She’s had uncomfortable interactions with drunk guys at events, and with more than 34,000 followers on Instagram, she also fields harassment online.
“It’s just constant comments on my appearance and that’s supposedly the reason why I don’t brew beer,” Thorpe said. “When I see comments like that I fear the industry is never going to change or never going to get more diverse because it’s such a boys club.”
Jessica Fierro, founder and head brewer at Atrevida Beer Co., can relate. Fierro opened her Colorado Springs business to much fanfare in 2018 after winning the first season home brew TV competition, “Beerland,” a year prior. She heard some folks in the tight-knit community chalked the buzz up to her “pulling the Latina card and the woman card.”
“Every day that I wake up, I’m a woman and I am a Latina. This is who I am,” Fierro said. “Atrevida is the name of my brewery and that itself translates to a bold, daring, fearless woman, and I think in this industry, that’s exactly what you have to encompass to make it.”
Emily Wang and her husband started a company called Fermly, which offers quality assurance and quality control analysis to breweries that don’t have onsite labs. A few years ago at the Great American Beer Festival, a brewery owner made lewd comments about Wang in conversation that made her feel so uncomfortable, she made what she calls “the ‘we need to go’ signal” to her husband across the party.
Because of her position at an ancillary company, Wang didn’t feel like she could be confrontational about the situation.
“When you’re a third party vendor, it’s difficult because every brewer is a possible customer,” she said. “You don’t want to upset them because you’re creating a reason not to work with you.”
In late May, as the reckoning around sexual harassment was sending shockwaves through the industry, about 100 people met at Lady Justice Brewing Co. in Aurora to both share their experiences as well as brainstorm potential solutions to bettering craft beer culture.
Cammy Smith, co-owner of LUKI Brewery in Arvada and one woman who attended the discussions, said one of the ideas was for professional organizations like the Brewers Association and the Colorado Brewers Guild to set the tone for behavior with something like a certification that comes with financial penalties for violation.
Wang at Fermly suggested something similar. The Brewers Association already has a seal breweries can put on labels and marketing materials that denotes they are an independent business. Why not have one that shows commitment to a code of ethics, she said.
The women interviewed for this story acknowledged a small portion of industry personnel account for the majority of offenses. The first step to address these issues should be to weed those folks out, said Karen Hertz, owner of Holidaily Brewing Co. in Golden.
“A lot of people in companies — and I’m glad they do it — they put reporting processes in place. But if people need to report things it’s too late,” she said. “What we need to focus on is not having it happen in the first place. I think we do that by injecting women and diversity into our culture at all levels.”
In early 2021, Hieber at Goldspot and Betsy Lay, co-founder of Lady Justice, began developing a diversity council to bring more members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color into craft beer. Their hope is to help fund racial justice and sexism training at small beer companies, and outreach to underrepresented communities throughout Colorado.
Diversity can only benefit the industry, several women attested.
“When you come in here the point is to have a sharing of cultures, not for me to shove culture down your throat,” said Fierro at Atrevida. “It’s to be able to share the excitement of our own cultures and to learn and have this appreciation for who we are individually.”
Representation on industry panels and in the media is one of the easiest and most actionable ways to make change, said Ashleigh Carter, head brewer and co-founder of Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver’s RiNo district. She’s in favor of zero-tolerance policies and said it will require action on the part of men to push back against others who make condescending or questionable comments.
“The men I trust, it’s going to take them asking, ‘What do you mean by that?’ and being kind of confrontational,” she said.
These are important — and necessary — steps toward building a better culture, the women said. Change won’t happen overnight, but that won’t discourage them.
“We are Colorado. We are one of the main places that people go for beer in this country and the world. And if we don’t stand up and work together, then no one is going to care,” Wang said. “We are examples. We have to work for it. And if we set the pace, we can help the rest of the country do the same.”
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