Toxic Brewing: Sexual Harassment Cloaking in Progress

Brienne Allan, brewer at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, shook the craft beer world when she vented on Instagram, asking if anyone else was experiencing sexist comments on the job. She didn’t know what to expect, but just needed to put it out there. Over a thousand responded. Stories went beyond sexist comments, describing events ranging from unprofessional to horrific.

When Erica DeAnda, brewmaster at Tumbled Rock Brewery and former chapter leader of Wisconsin’s Pink Boots Society, reached out to me to write this article, I had no idea what she was talking about. I hadn’t been paying attention. Sure, I’d followed the ongoing #MeToo movement and celebrated its exposing of some powerful and vial persons, particularly in Hollywood, but never did I take a step back to look at our own brewing community and consider it’s happening right here.

I struggled to even sort out my emotions on the topic. First off, I was angry…I’m still angry. Much of the craft brewing world is backed by ideas of social progress—some of the best labels promote important causes and constitutional rights. I know there’s a strong marketing aspect to it, but maybe I’ve been underestimating just how much.

After I’d sorted through my anger, or at least compartmentalized it, I talked through the right way to approach this subject. I thought about discussing toxic masculinity, the idea that harmful and aggressive traits have, for some, become determining factors for assessing manhood, but then I thought of those close to me who have experienced sexual assault. It became clear that this isn’t about educating others on heavily researched social theories, and it’s not about sex or gender. This is about returning voices to silenced victims.

I interviewed five people concerning their experiences with sexual harassment and worse in breweries in and just outside of the Greater Madison area. Almost every single one of them started by discussing how they rationalized what was going on. How it was their first brewing job, and they just assumed it was normal. How, given the setting of a brewery is much like a jobsite, certain behaviors just come with the territory. Just because there are dirty jokes and limericks floating around doesn’t mean, as per one of the replies to Brienne’s post, it’s okay for a superior to tell you that you look sexy when driving a forklift.

And on making everyone in the workplace comfortable, it’s also not a bad idea to pull people aside and sincerely ask them if the jokes make them uncomfortable. I’ve worked a little in the trades around southern Wisconsin and, more often than not, people are pretty open to changing their behavior if asked. The problem is how infrequently anyone is asking, preferring to just brush it off and get the job done. Side note: saying, “Hey, you’re not offended, right?” after the fact is not going to get a real answer.

If any of the above sounds familiar and you work in the brewing industry or have seen it from the other side of the bar, it’s not normal, and it’s never okay. And if you were like me, to say it bluntly, sexual harassment is happening in breweries in and around the Greater Madison area.

Idealistically speaking, we live in a country, and certainly a community, where no one should have to put themselves in a position where they feel unsafe or where they’d question their inherent worth or ability due to their sex or gender. As patrons, we can do more to be aware of the situation. One issue that came up multiple times is people coming into the brewery and quizzing a female brewer as though she doesn’t know her stuff. This might not be sexual harassment, but it certainly endorses a sexist mindset. I would suggest that the individual just have a flight. If they’re as good with beer as they think they are, they’ll know the salt of the brewer.

It’s the minor things, like in the above example, that lay the groundwork for people to accept a normal entirely manufactured from the insecurities of others. Not every patron is going to be comfortable telling someone else to get a grip, and hats off to those that are, but we should all work to make the brewery a place of camaraderie fueled by a shared interest in good beer. To do that, we have to look out for each other and our brewers.

The good news—it’s not happening everywhere. In fact, many breweries are taking the issue very seriously. I applaud those breweries and am confident they’ll continue doing what they can to create a healthy work and drinking environment. I also encourage them to set a standard they challenge their peers to meet. They know better than I do what’s at stake in terms of craft brewing’s inclusive reputation if this issue isn’t addressed.

Even after months of thinking about what’s going on, the best thing I feel I can do is spread awareness. I can’t make a brewer change their behavior. I can’t make a server stand up for themselves. I can’t make a patron call out sexism every time they witness it. And, honestly, that wouldn’t be enough anyway. I want a place where the brewer who engages in sexual harassment changes their behavior because they realize who they are is not going to be tolerated. A place where a server knows they can go to someone who will listen and address the issue immediately. The world of craft beer and what we have as beer drinkers right now is incredible. It wouldn’t just be unfortunate if we watched toxic persons take it from us, when it comes to the well-being of some of our favorite servers and brewers, it’s downright dangerous.

I don’t wish to speak for anybody who has a story to tell, so please visit madisonessentials.com to read the handful of stories shared with me by anonymous servers, brewers, and builders in the industry.

Kyle Jacobson is a lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson