At Brewability Lab in Englewood, Colorado, customers order their beer based on the color of the corresponding tap—“blue” is a kettle sour brewed with orange zest and cranberries, while “purple” is a cold brew coffee porter. It’s a measure that allows employees on the autism spectrum, who may not be able to read, to serve as beertenders.
Alex Randall, an outgoing barkeep who knows all of the regulars, doesn’t pay attention to the color-coding. With only 5 percent of his vision, he is considered legally blind, but that hasn’t hampered his bartending abilities. He navigates the taps by reading the Braille markings and pours impeccable pints by weight.
“Alex may be blind, but he’s really good at beer pong. We had a snowball fight the other day and he pegged everyone,” says Tiffany Fixter, the founder of Brewability Lab. “When guests come in, there are subtler ways of mentioning it than saying, ‘This is our bartender and he’s blind.’ We might say, ‘This is Alex and this is his guide dog, Polo.’”
All 25 employees at Brewability Lab and the forthcoming Pizzability have a developmental or intellectual disability. Some require more direct supervision than others and not every employee has a safety clearance to operate the brewery, but all contribute. Fixter started the business to emphasize what her staff can do, not what they cannot.
“We want to highlight people’s abilities, not their disabilities,” Fixter says. “I do have a sign on the door saying, ‘By entering these doors, I agree to be patient and kind and respectful.’ I don’t think it’s appropriate to say ‘Our employees are disabled,’ but it is our job to educate people.”
Beer’s such a great social lubricant. It's a route for us to help people look positively on those with learning disabilities.”
Fixter came up with the idea of operating a brewery after seeing how deeply flawed our current system is firsthand. At present, only one in four adults with disabilities in the United States are employed. After aging out of the school system and being cut off from numerous social services at age 21, the remainder are often left isolated from society in group programs. It was while working in one of these adult day programs in Colorado that Fixter decided she needed to do better.
“I was really disappointed because I saw that all of our clients were just warehoused. We had so many people who were capable of working and only one had a part-time job,” Fixter says. “At that day program, I worked with a homebrewer and we had an area in the back and I was kind of joking with him and saying, ‘We should make it a brewery!’”
After testing out her idea at a local incubator, it struck Fixter that breweries are, in many ways, ideally suited to creating employment opportunities for those who might otherwise struggle to find them. According to Fixter, the detail-oriented, repetitive nature of brewing is something at which many adults on the autism spectrum can excel. More importantly, beer is a near-universal symbol of camaraderie that helps break down social barriers. In the right hands, a brewpub becomes a safe space that allows adults with disabilities to highlight their strengths while educating the general public.
She isn’t the only one who thinks so. A handful of establishments have cropped up around the globe that are dedicated to making great craft beer while giving adults with disabilities a full-time vocation, a sustainable source of income, and a voice in society. Operations range from Streetcar 82 Brewing Company, a Deaf-owned and operated brewpub in Maryland, to Derailleur Brew Works, a brewery in Osaka, Japan that employs roughly 70 people who are either disabled or recovering from drug addiction.
Another such establishment is Spotlight Brewing in East Yorkshire, England. Beers with names like Spectrum, Undiagnosed, and Fragile X—a chromosomal condition that leads to a higher instance of learning disabilities—subtly raise awareness. A paragraph on the side of each bottle provides information about each condition for those interested in learning more about it.
“I’ve worked with people with learning disabilities all my life. Whereabouts we’re based in Yorkshire, there weren’t a lot of things for people with learning disabilities to do,” says founder Ric Womersley. “I wanted to create something that was about meaningful activity that would pay for itself. I also quite enjoyed homebrewing, which is sort of how we got started.”
Womersley was adamant that he wanted to create a self-sustaining business, not a charity. Spotlight Brewing is still a small operation with three full-time employees, but Womersley has plans for expansion. This spring, he intends to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help get their taproom off the ground in the fall. By creating an open social space to the public, he hopes to break down some of the negative preconceptions that his staff have had to face all of their lives.
“Beer’s such a great social lubricant,” Womersley says. “I think beer can be a force for good. It’s a great route for us to take to help people look positively upon those with learning disabilities.”
Equally important is the fact that Spotlight Brewing gives its employees the chance to be fully-functioning members of the larger community while earning a living wage. While none are attempting to hide their disabilities, having a job helps shift the focus from them.
What you do for a living is such a big part of your identity. The guys we work with are so proud to say that they work at a brewery and that does absolute wonders for their self-esteem.”
“What you do for a living is such a big part of your identity. It’s part of the general conversation when you first meet new people and a lot of people with learning disabilities don’t have an answer to that question,” Womersley says. “The guys we work with are so proud to say that they work at a brewery and that does absolute wonders for their self-esteem. It’s a big part of their lives now.”
At Brewability Lab, Fixter has had a similar experience. She says her employees tend to come early, stay late, and complain if they aren’t getting sufficient shifts. There is already a waiting list for jobs. Spending the day in a laid-back social hub has given her staff the kind of community they might not otherwise have been able to find.
“Not all of my staff are friends with each other, but a lot of them are—not just with their coworkers, but also with certain customers," Fixter says. "We keep their schedules really consistent, which gives them the chance to foster those relationships. I have some who live at home so that’s really the only time they’re talking with other people besides their parents.”
Fixter acknowledges that meeting all of her employee’s individual needs presents certain challenges. In addition to the color-coded beer taps, she maintains a rigorously detailed series of checklists to help those with learning disabilities stay on top of tasks. For employees with autism who may become stressed during periods of high activity, there’s a “quiet room” in back with a bean bag chair and noise-canceling headphones available for short breaks.
In addition to problems within the brewery, Fixter says the reception from the public has not always been welcoming. Previously, Pizzability was located in the affluent neighborhood of Cherry Creek, where locals were so verbally abusive to employees that she was forced to close. Fixter told the BBC in an interview, “Since the day we opened we have had people stop and stare at us and we've heard them saying awful things like, 'This is where the retards work.'”
“People said some really nasty things. It’s an extremely wealthy neighborhood and they didn’t want us there,” she says. “I’m excited about our new location. It’s handicapped-accessible and it’s a very diverse neighborhood, which has been working well for us.”
Though it hasn’t been an easy road, Fixter believes it’s worth it.
“One of our employees has a rare blood disease and is terminal. He’s amazing, though—you would never know that he’s in chronic pain. He just got out of the hospital and all he wants to do is come to work,” Fixter says. “He wants to have that purpose. I think that’s just a testament to how valuable working is. You have to have a reason to get up every day.”