category-iconWomen of Beer

Brewing Change: Inside the Beer Industry’s Fight for Equality

May 31, 2019

By Robin LeBlanc, May 31, 2019

It’s a small, regrettable part of the beer world, but it’s also difficult to ignore when it’s staring you right in the face in the grocery store: Panty Peeler, Leg Spreader, Naughty Girl, Deep Throat, Dirty Blonde, Happy Ending, Naughty Neighbour, Tramp Stamp, Barely Legal, Hoppy Ending, Stacked, Fudge Me Berry Hard, Top Totty, Stumptown Tart, Pearl Necklace, Double D.

These are the names of real beers, many of which are still available today.

This kind of sexism isn’t just happening in the beer aisle or your local taproom, however. It happens in the form of offensive social media posts and tone-deaf articles. I’m talking about the instances of sexism (and racism and homophobia) that often leaves us women (or other marginalized groups) to sigh, put away our plans for more productive activities, and explain once again why alienating broad swaths of people is not a good idea—a concept that should require no explanation in 2019, but here we are.

These lapses of judgement tend to lead to a routine cycle: A brewery messes up, outrage foments, the brewery either doubles down or briefly apologizes, and then everyone moves on. The essential thing that’s missing from all of this is change. Without change, we find ourselves stuck in this endless loop of offense and outrage that gets us nowhere.

It’s repetitive, it’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, and there are better ways to address these issues.

In order to do that, however, we must first understand the culture that created this behavior. Let’s start in the 1950s, when our brewing forefathers such as Budweiser and Miller, much like many industries of the time, regularly relied on sexist advertising to sell their products. This is well documented: Ads featuring the lowly housewife doting over her husband, beer in hand, were a common theme. Once the 1950s ended, however, the image of the housewife in ads was replaced by more salacious ones, under the premise that “sex sells.” Schlitz paid tribute to these ads with a 2008 campaign featuring nearly nude models of the time next to glasses of beer alongside the tagline: “Things had better body back then… Especially the beer.” Stepping out of magazines and televisions, women working as beer reps were encouraged to wear revealing clothing. As James Hibberd wrote in a 1999 Salon article, “Whether sweet or savage, all Bud Girls operate on the same basic principle: their well-endowed bodies become the curvy slates upon which beer slogans and men's horny dreams are projected.”

Decades of ad campaigns help set the stage for a culture that believed beer was exclusive to men. And while efforts to improve advertising have been underway—Budweiser recently redesigned its old ads for International Women’s Day and in 2015 then-CEO of SABMiller Alan Clark publicly called for an end to sexist advertising—the damage was already done. Sexist behaviors and jokes among male friends were largely deemed acceptable within society and as a result women felt like they didn’t have a place at the table. So how are these behaviors and views flourishing in the brewing industry? And what can be done to move past decades of misogynistic, racist, and otherwise exclusionary behavior?

A lot of folks just want a ‘to-do’ list that will result in greater diversity, but that list has to be thoughtfully developed with careful attention to—and hopefully collaboration with—the communities involved.”

Ren Navarro, who speaks on the importance of diversity in the beer industry as owner of the consulting company Beer.Diversity., has a theory. “I think a lot of breweries are surrounded by friends and people who are like them and look like them,” she says. “So they don't necessarily think outside of that bubble, because they're not facing folks who are ‘different’ from them. I think we get really lazy when we're not challenged or surrounded by diverse groups of people.”

Beer writer Carla Jean Lauter suggests one solution for breweries both large and small: diversify the staff. “Not a single woman or person of color on your entire marketing team? Then it might be hard to see when something may be inappropriate for that group,” she says. Good Robot Brewing Co. in Halifax did this. Half of the brewery’s staff is female. Encouraging and celebrating its diverse staff allowed the brewery to look outside the viewpoints of its founders and instigate change. The brewery regularly collaborates with women-focused initiatives and LGBTQ+ organizations such as FemmeBot, an event that celebrates women in brewing.

Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, the Brewers Association’s first Diversity Ambassador, travels the country informing breweries on the best practices for diversifying staff and audiences. “I spend approximately zero time convincing people that diversifying is a good idea. All of my work and all the hard questions center around ‘how,’” Dr. Jackson-Beckham says. “A lot of folks just want a ‘to-do’ list that will result in greater diversity, but that list has to be thoughtfully developed with careful attention to—and hopefully collaboration with—the communities involved.”

So while not being overtly tone-deaf or offensive can be an obvious tactic, asking a brewery to take a hard look at its role in the larger part of the community and work toward actual change within it is a taller order. But as Dr. Jackson-Beckham points out, if it were easy there wouldn’t be a problem. Besides, brewery owners are no strangers to daunting tasks. “Attempting to bridge cultural differences can be scary, but borrowing money to buy $50,000 worth of stainless steel that I might not be able to recoup sounds way more terrifying to me”.

Respond thoughtfully to criticism rather than brush it away or double down.”

Let’s say you’ve diversified your brewery, aligned with progressive organizations, but you still manage to fuck it up with an offensive label or in-poor-taste post. Now what? Instead of falling back into the cycle of outrage, how should a brewery encourage meaningful change? It’s simple, really: Respond thoughtfully to criticism rather than brush it away or double down. That’s exactly what Mother’s Brewing Co. in Springfield, Missouri did late last year.

The brewery received backlash for its “voluptuous sipper” of an imperial stout it called “MILF.” The name had largely gone unnoticed for years before receiving negative attention in November. Rather than fighting back, the brewery recognized its mistake and changed the name of the beer to “Materfamilias” in order to reflect the evolution of both its customers and itself.

In a statement, Mother’s Brewing said, “When we were a fledgling brewery, ‘MILF’ fit the irreverent stance we were introducing ourselves with. Over time, we’ve come to realize that what first seemed cheeky and funny no longer fits us or this beer. Nor does the name ‘MILF’ reflect the effort and devotion we put into making the liquid… It deserves a name that reflects its pedigree.”

The decision turned out to be a resounding success.

“We were really surprised with how vocally supportive people were,” says Mother’s Brewing liaison Kyle Jeffries. “This was a scary decision for us. This was our most highly rated beer and one of our most popular, and to change the brand seven years in was a daunting proposition, so the support we got vocally from people was very important to us.”

Holding breweries to account is critical, but so is lifting up and celebrating the people and organizations actively working to diversify the beer world.”

But what if a brewery decided against course correction? That’s where the consumer comes in. As beer lovers, we have the power to decide where our support—financial or moral—goes. For instance, back in March, Dave Hyndman, founder of San Diego’s Reckless Brewing suggested that the closure of his brewery was due to the public’s outrage over a beer he called “Black Lagers Matter. Hyndman faced an immense amount of backlash after not only releasing the beer, but initially making fun of critics, saying on Facebook, “Apparently there are some people that have no sense of humor.”

Holding breweries to account is critical, but so is lifting up and celebrating the people and organizations actively working to diversify the beer world.

In addition to hiring Dr. Jackson-Beckham as Diversity Ambassador, the Brewer’s Association now refuses to honor offensively named beers at awards. Industry organizations like The Pink Boots Society offers support, education, and scholarships to women in the beer industry, while consumer-focused groups like the Women’s Craft Beer Collective, Society of Beer Drinking Ladies, and Barley’s Angels host events that allow women to learn and find a sense of community. Organizations like Beer.Diversity., The Queer Brewing Project, and Beer Kulture are doing everything, from speahreading beer collaborations and writing books, to show that everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexuality, deserves a spot at the beer table.

Beer has always been a drink for the people and it’s one we love dearly. Even stronger is our need to share that love with as many people as we can find. Why wouldn’t we want everyone to feel welcome?

Illustration by Adam Waito

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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