Ren Navarro’s first job was in a call center. She didn’t love it, but it paid the bills while she was in school. She ended up spending a good chunk of her early working life in one such center or another, taking calls about credit cards or life insurance. Little did she know it was the best possible training she could have had for the work she does now.
Eventually, she got sick of call centers and took a gig with Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto, though she’d never really paid beer any mind. “In university I drank really shitty beer like everybody else,” Navarro tells me. “There was never a moment where I woke up and said, ‘I’m going to work in beer, and it’s going to be great.’ I just needed a job.”
Within a year she was fully immersed in the beer world and discovered she wasn’t satisfied with what she saw. The scene was very white and male, and Navarro felt it could use some shaking up. Five years ago she and some friends started the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies (SBDL), a craft beer appreciation club in Toronto. Local media jumped on this quaint story (women like beer!), and she was suddenly giving lots of interviews and being asked about the craft beer scene as a woman, and as a black person. She hadn’t really considered this before.
“I had a look around, and I notice there’s not a lot of me. Why am I not reflected in the industry that I’m working in?” She pauses for a minute, adjusts the heavy silver skull on her ring finger. “I know some people would argue that happens in a lot of industries. But that doesn’t mean that’s how it should be.”
Some time later, after Navarro had been working as a craft beer rep for a few years, she was interviewed by beer writer Ben Johnson for an article entitled “Why Is Craft Beer So White?”
“He had done his research and he told me I was the only queer black woman working in beer in Ontario,” Navarro says. “After that I almost became hyperaware of it. It’s the thing that, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” As a frame of reference, Ontario is almost twice the size of Texas and contains the city of Toronto, widely recognized as the most multicultural metropolis in the world, with 200 ethnic groups and more than 140 languages spoken.
It’s a gig economy these days, and this survivor of the call center world decided she would write her own ticket; spurred by the knowledge of her unicorn status and the success of SBDL, Navarro began a new endeavor in the spring of 2018. No longer working as a rep, she launched Beer. Diversity., a consulting company and platform designed to “create an open dialogue about the need for diversity/inclusivity in the craft beer community via talks and workshops.” Now, instead of getting screamed at by strangers about their life insurance premiums, she gets trolled by internet beer bros wanting to know what her problem is.
“It’s just beer,” she says, “We’re not saving lives. My sister works for Doctors Without Borders and is currently in Bangladesh. She’s literally saving lives. So when people get so upset about this, it’s like, ‘Relax.’ There’s so many things that are so much more important. Why you so mad, bro?”
Navarro believes that the trolls who've come out against diversity are less angry at her personally and more at what they perceive as a threat to the status quo, not seeing the need for change. But in an industry that needs to continue to grow to survive, she argues that building an inclusive consumer base is just good business. “Giving a shit about diversity is about dollars and cents,” she says.
“It’s crazy when you go through the history of how women are represented in beer,” Navarro says with a laugh. “Historically, the first brewers were women, because it was women’s work, because they did the cooking, right? The whole advent of the witch with the cauldron and the hat —when women would brew, they would do it in these huge cauldrons. And so, you know, guys realized that they could monetize this. So the witch image becomes this evil woman cooking children in a pot. Then in the ‘70s with Colt 45 and the ‘80s with the whole Spuds Mackenize thing. Now women were accessories, and remained so for a good two decades. And you get to this point where shit’s got to change.”
She compares it to the situation in restaurant kitchens where women are fighting for representation as chefs. “Women can brew, women can cook. They can be an executive chef or a head brewer. But, when it happens, people are like, ‘Ooh, she did it.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, she’s been doing it.’”
If you open this up to the group of people you’ve been ignoring, they’re going to come back and they’re going to pay you and they’re going to bring their friends.”
Diversity also gives brewers an edge in a business where competition is not slowing down. According to the Brewer’s Association, there were close to 4,000 craft brewers in America in 2014; as of 2017 there were 6,266. In Ontario, there are currently almost 300 breweries. “Every brewery has at least one sales rep; when you think of the bigger breweries they can have up to ten.” She can name six people of colour working as reps right now. The numbers have gone up since Johnson’s article went live three years ago, but not by much, and there are still no black females.
One thing about Navarro: She’s eternally hopeful. Those call centers did something to her psyche; she emerged from their dark cubicles into the sunshine of the beer world. Navarro beams as she talks about Good Robot in Halifax, where half of the staff are women and they have the only black brewmaster in the country.
“I’ve been really lucky; the people I’m talking to face-to-face are really receptive to this.” And the diversity they bring to their brewery floors is showing up in their brews. “Merit in Hamilton has a beer with cardamom in it. Falcon Brewery in Ajax has done sorrel beer, so has Royal City. Side Launch made a chai ginger stout, Grain & Grit did a guava beer. Elora Brewing does a sour with guava and mango.”
Navarro now spends a lot of time on the road, consulting on beer lists for bars and restaurants, training servers and bartenders about craft beer, and giving sold-out public talks about the lack of diversity in the beer world and how to change that. In April, she will be the sole Canadian to speak on a panel devoted to diversity at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in Denver.
The secret to Navarro’s optimism may be that she knows change is coming. Because it all comes down to one simple thing: “You open a restaurant or a brewery because, at the end of the day, you want to make money. No one does it out of the goodness of their heart. If you open this up to the group of people you’ve been ignoring, they’re going to come back and they’re going to pay you and they’re going to bring their friends, and those friends are going to pay you, and, boom! The lights stay on.”
She smacks her fist into her palm and her smile is huge.
“You don’t have to embrace it. But if you know that you can up your profit margin, then why are you fighting me?”