If women in general are underrepresented in beer, women of color are even more so. We asked Ren Navarro of Beer. Diversity. and Railyard Brewing Co.'s Airelle "Airie" Peters—who recently became the first black female brewer in the state of Alabama—to discuss their experiences in an industry that has been slow to change. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Ren Navarro: I worked in life insurance and call centers for a bunch of years, which I think just leads you to drink. I was going to go back to school to work on my masters and realized that school’s really expensive the second time around. I ended up getting a job at Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto. When I started I was really naive about how it is to be a person of color in beer, because I didn’t think about. I think I started noticing something was up because when I would do beer tours these guys would ask these ridonkulous questions. They’d be like, “How to you make is this? Why is it this hop?” They’d just start challenging my knowledge.
Airelle “Airie” Peters: Mmhmm.
Ren: Yeah, you know how it is. “Do you really drink beer? What’s your favorite beer?” C’mon!
I ended up getting into sales, and you go from people coming in for a tour to suddenly you’re going to places trying to sell beer, and holy shit, people are talking to you the same way the fanboys were talking to you when you were doing the tours. It’s like, “I know you’re not asking any guy who comes in to tell you this.”
I was pretty lucky because I had a lot of friends who had my back but I definitely had to prove myself. When I left being a sales rep last April, at that point in Ontario I was the only black female sales rep. It’s super mind-blowing because it’s one of those things where—
Airie: You don’t think about it!
Ren: Yeah! I’m a woman, and that’s why I know I need to push and really show myself, but then it’s like, “Wait, I’m also the only this.” Like the joke was that I was the beer unicorn.
Airie: Oh my gosh! The owner of the brewery I work at, that’s his favorite thing to say: “You’re my unicorn!”
We actually have similar backgrounds—I also worked in insurance, and kind of like you I wound up hating it. So I left and I ended up working at the Montgomery Country Club. They needed someone outside the cabana by the pool working the draft system. Our sales rep, he started introducing me to the behind-the-scenes aspects of craft beer—what goes good with what. He broke it down for me like that and it made me fall in love with it. Then I got pregnant, and after my daughter was born, I went back to working at the country club and I told them, “I’ll serve for a little bit but I really want to go back to what I was doing with the beer, learning more about craft beer.”
At that time we only had one brewery in Montgomery, and it’s the one I currently work at. They were going through a change of owners, and I was like, “OK, I’ll work there.” I walked up to the new owner and was like, “I want to work on the brewery side.” And he said, “Well, we need servers right now.” And I said, “Well, I’ll be a server and bartender.” He looked at me like I was crazy.
Airie: I literally walked up to him with a baby on my hip, so I guess I did kind of look crazy. And so one day when I was on the bar I finally got to meet the brewmaster. I love him to death—he’s my mentor and he’s taught me everything that I know. When I first saw him, I was like, “Hey, what days are you guys brewing? I want to learn about beer from you.” So he was like “We do collaboration brewing on Thursdays, so you can just come by then.” And he was shocked when I showed up. So I went every Thursday.”
I did that from the beginning of 2017 until February 2018. Then I had to deploy—I got called up for service. That’s actually where I’m coming back from—I came back in February. And while I was over there, I just did work on my own, reading about recipe formulations. I wound up studying for my Cicerone overseas—just my beer server certification. I really tried to study.
And then I started a beer lifestyle brand because I didn’t see a lot of women like me in my vicinity. There was a Pink Boots Society chapter—I went to one meeting there for an introduction and I hate to say that I didn’t feel welcome. Yeah, there were a lot of ladies there, but there weren’t a lot of ladies like me.
But in Atlanta, women of color have really been blasting off there. There’s been a lot of things, starting since about 2017, that are growing more cohesively around me, so I’ve started to feel a little bit more welcome. There’s things like Beer Kulture, and they’re a beer lifestyle brand as well. Toni...
Ren: Yeah! I met her in Denver. It was so great. It was that fangirl moment of “Oh my god, I want to be like you.”
Airie: Yeah, Toni is so awesome. Toni is the bomb dot com.
You know, I did pageants when I was in high school, so I’m what you would call prissy. Like, I brew with nails. I don’t wear makeup when I brew—that’s a no-no. But I go to events where I dress nice and I’m just like, why can’t beer be in these places? I want to wear a gown and drink beer. That’s what we have goses for! I think goses are classy beers.
Ren: Any beer can be classy! But we need to stop saying, “You can only have this thing.” Or “wine is always fancy and always considered perfect for women.” Goses, fruit IPAs—those are dead-sexy beers.
Airie: Exactly! And that’s what I want to bring about. I still don’t see a lot of women like me in the beer industry. We’re here and we drink beer, but why aren’t we represented?
Ren: We all drink it. But when you go to a spot where there’s a sales rep and a brewer, suddenly we’re not represented in these numbers. And thank goodness for Crown and Hops and Beer Kulture. These guys are doing these huge things to change how people see people of color in beer. Like we talk about this whole diversity thing and we say, “Yeah, the face of the beer drinker is changing and it’s more inclusive,” but I don’t know if I see it all the time. Breweries say things like, “We can’t specifically go after someone.” But if you’re doing a sporting event, you go after certain people and you tie into it.
Airie: Exactly. It’s just that you don’t want to take the risk.
Ren: Everyone takes a risk. That’s what brewing is. If you mess with a batch and at the end of the day you have to dump it, you’re not like, “Well, I can’t be a brewer anymore because I failed at something.” You learn and you move on and you do it again. They don’t want to take the chance to try to bring in new groups of people because they think, “What if I mess it up? If I fail at it, how do I bounce back from it?” But it’s like if you don’t create something incredibly offensive and racist and sexist and misogynistic and homophobic, you’ll probably be OK!
Airie: Just like what happened with Founders. I hate to even give it airtime but it’s like, you’re trying so hard to prove that you’re right and you’re just proving that you’re even more racist than we thought you were. I don’t want to say it like that but that’s what it comes down to.
Ren: And then they got their diversity director but they didn’t even talk about who they were. They just said, “We’ve got this diversity director and we’re working with the staff to make improvements.” But I want to see who this person is. So after the Craft Brewers Conference a few weeks back, I met the diversity director—black queer woman. She just came up to talk to me and handed me her card and I was like, “Oh, it’s you. Good luck with that.” And she was just like, “Yeah, I know.” She knows it’s gonna be a hard slog.
It was great to see a bunch of bars stand up and say, “We’re not cool with this.” I did a talk in Guelph, just outside of Toronto, a week ago and the owner of the bar was like, “Hey, I’ve got a keg of Founders CBS, and they won’t take it back and I’ve already paid for it. I’m gonna tap it for the talk and we’re going to donate every dollar to a charity around here.” There’s a black historical society in Guelph, so I was like, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” So every dollar went to a black-run group. And when we poured it out we all toasted with a huge “Fuck Founders!” I wish more places would be like, “Yo, that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re stuck with it anyway. Let’s serve it and help our community.”
If you don’t create something incredibly offensive and racist and sexist and misogynistic and homophobic, you’ll probably be OK!”
Airie: You’ve got those lemons, you make lemonade. There’s stuff going on right in your community—you just gotta look. I’ve had to change a lot of minds, and I still have to change minds. Sometimes I go to other breweries around me just to check out what’s going on. And I went to one and he had heard of my Black Mermaid brand, and I tried to start a business relationship with him. But he thought I was doing it for the wrong reasons because he tried, you know, to shoot his shot—he took it to an unprofessional area. And I’m like, “No, I have a business relationship with you. You’re a good brewery but I want to know about your products.” But he was looking at it like “hot lady coming into a brewery, she’s just looking for a guy.”
Airie: He started being like, “Oh, you’re so beautiful, maybe we can go have a drink outside of work, and let’s not talk about work.” And I’m like, “Uh, no?” So I had to cut ties with that.
Another time, a distributor we had at the brewery—I had to do a lot of sparging and I had nails on—he was like, “You not gonna break a nail?” And I’m like, “Nope, I’ve been doing this too long to do that now.” He’s like, “Those sure are some pretty nails, don’t ya think? You’re getting ‘em all dirty.” It’s those small, condescending comments. I think I know what I’m doing.
Ren: It’s so ridiculous. Like, do you ask that to a male worker? No!
Airie: “Oooh, that man bun sure is pretty tight!” I don’t ask about your man bun. I don’t ask about how you groom your beard.
Ren: “Your beard sure smells nice.” They make you second-guess yourself. Like, “Do I not care about what I’m doing? Should I try not to look this way?”
Airie: But you know, this is what I enjoy. And if you enjoy it, you should make it your life. But I think I keep trying to do too much. And we tend to do that.
Ren: Of course, because we constantly have to prove what we know and can do. It’s the same for me—like, I keep doing all these things because I know at the end of the say, someone’s going to be like, “Why should I trust you? What do you know?” A lot of other people don’t go through this. And these diverse groups of people have to do all of this emotional heavy lifting to teach everyone that we know what we’re talking about, we know what we’re doing—
Airie: And that we’re really serious about this. I had one guy recently come up to the brewery and the bartender was like, “Hey Airie, this guy liked your Lima Biscuit and he has some questions about it.” And the guy is like, “You’re the brewer? Oh, huh, alright. You do this as a little hobby?” And I’m like, “I do enjoy it but I don’t think it’s little because I’m head brewer. I have five seven-barrel systems—I don’t think it’s small.” It’s not a big scale, but five seven-barrels systems is a lot to handle for a girl who doesn’t even weigh 130 pounds but, cool, we can say it’s little.
Ren: Again, do you go into another brewery and say that to a male brewer? No.
We’re not going to wait for you to see, because we’re going to make you see. You can’t miss us.”
Airie: It takes an emotional toll and sometimes you don’t even realize it.
Ren: And you wonder why you’re so tired at the end of the day.
Airie: And then you add being a mom on top of it. “You’re a mom? Where’s your baby?” Uh, she has a father, and would you be asking her father this if he was in the same situation? I did bring her in once but she’s only three, so I don’t think she’ll be doing the mashing yet. She likes watching me keg. She loves coming in there but it’s just not a safe place for a three-year-old.
But I do love this. I hate to say it like this because it sounds a little toxic, but it’s like an abusive relationship that gets better and better. A little emotional abuse to start off with because they don’t know any better.
Ren: I think that they do know better. I think that we need to hold a lot of people accountable. I don’t think it’s about making it hostile; it’s about creating safe spaces where we can have conversations. A lot of people stutter, like, “I don’t know how to ask this, but…” Sometimes you have to approach it the way you would a five-year-old. Like, “Maybe don’t ask it like that, but here’s the answer anyway.”
Airie: It’s very hard to create safe spaces but they’re so necessary. Sometimes things just need a push. But I feel a change coming and I’m so excited for it.
Ren: We’re having these conversations and we’re starting to see these organizations really gain traction. Beer Kulture put out a book that was aimed at the black community, but everyone picked it up. Then there’s Crown & Hops working with BrewDog, “Death to the 40” and “Black People Love Beer.” And out here we have BAOS—it’s a podcast, Beer and Other Shit.
Airie: I love them. They wound up following me last month and I thought my head was going to explode.
Ren: I think that’s why I’m optimistic about it because there are so many groups and it means that breweries are able to talk to more people and get more feedback and guidance. And we’re starting to see more risky moves—they’re not crazy-risky, but people are a little less afraid.
Airie: Representation is coming about. You have these organizations, these people, these platforms. Social media is connecting us all over the world. People are paying attention now. We’re not going to wait for you to see, because we’re going to make you see. You can’t miss us.
Top photo of Ren Navarro by Chris Tiessen, Toque LTD; top photo of Airie Peters courtesy of Airie Peters.