“What sexist comments have you experienced?”
On May 11, Notch Brewing production manager Brienne Allan posted these words to her Instagram story, ushering in a stream of stories that hasn’t diminished, even as of this writing. Allan has collected over 1,000 accusations of sexual harassment, gender discriminiation, and assault from across the brewing world, with breweries from Firestone Walker to Birricio Italiano implicated in the mostly anonymous replies.
The stories shared by Allan, though shocking, barely provoke surprise, especially after similar reckonings in the Minneapolis-St. Paul restaurant and music scenes over the past 12 months. Roughly 37% of the craft beer workforce identify as women, and they know innately that this is not a new phenomenon. 92.5% of American brewers are male, and 96% of single-owned breweries are owned by men. The environment is primed for abuse.
All it took was six little words to make that truth bubble out into the mainstream. Now, craft beer is dealing with a multinational fallout of its own making.
THE RECKONING COMES HOME
The tremor might’ve started in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t long before shockwaves were felt industry-wide. Modern Times, Tired Hands, Dry & Bitter, and Wormtown have all parted ways with various staff, executives, and owners in the wake of allegations that surfaced in Allan’s stories. Though Heavy Table cannot confirm the veracity of the accounts, the reactions of these national brewers lend credence to the stories that have emerged.
Three Minnesota breweries—Surly Brewing, Town Hall Brewery, and Indeed Brewing—were among those named. Surly’s inclusion was unsurprising, given the brewery’s track record with labor violations, but the brewery has not made a public statement about the claim that women endured “nightmares” while working there. Communications manager Tiffany Jackson replied to an email from Heavy Table only saying that the brewery is “currently focused on taking those actions internally and having the difficult, necessary conversations.”
The accusation levied against Town Hall related to a single employee who “brutally sexually harassed” “several women.” When asked to comment, Town Hall co-founder Pete Rifakes (full statement below) asserted that the brewery takes the allegations seriously, pointing to their employee handbook and saying, “We would not be a long-time leader in the craft beer scene if we acted recklessly or irresponsibly, and we want our company and its locations to be comfortable spaces for both our employees and customers.” Rifakes confirmed that the employee in question still works for Town Hall.
Indeed faced the most severe backlash, with two women claiming the brewery paid women less and fostered an environment of harassment. In response, COO Kelly Moritz released a personal statement encouraging more women to come forward, giving out her number and email closing with the line, “Let’s not let [the women who spoke out] down by brushing it under the rug.” Mortiz’s letter encouraged Rachel Anderson, a co-founder and part owner of the brewery, to come forward with her heart-rending story of being forced out of the company by its toxic culture.
“When the people that are perpetrating the harm are held up on pedestals in the industry, you feel like, ‘Who’s gonna believe you?’” Anderson tells Heavy Table. “People have been mistreated, discarded and discriminated against in the same way that I had felt like I was. I had to pay attention.”
Anderson started working on the business plan and branding of Indeed in 2011 and was eventually offered a co-founder and co-owner position for the work she had put into the burgeoning business. She designed the logo —the same logo Indeed still uses today —and created the brand’s signature public image.
“The brand became beloved locally, regionally and even gained a national reputation,” Anderson writes. “But privately, I was waging an uphill battle against a toxic culture where my voice was not valued.”
Four years later, Anderson wrote, her fellow co-founders handed her a termination letter and she was eventually voted off the Board of Directors. All of this happened while she was in the process of a divorce. She describes the events of that year as “incredibly painful.” After her employment was terminated, Anderson had to start all over again.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a mom, but when I was working at Indeed, I felt so unsupported as a mother that I seriously considered whether or not to even have kids,” Anderson says. “When I was deciding whether to have my second child, I was so on the fence. Not because I didn’t want another kid, but because I was scared of what that would mean for me at work. Ultimately, I decided to have a second child, but this is real for so many women. Huge life decisions are being affected by this type of discriminatory culture, and it’s not okay.”
Indeed CEO Tom Whisenand posted an apology soon after, but the situation had already become national news. In his apology, Whisenand said that Indeed reached out to Anderson to invite her to take part in the selection of the external audit partner to create a safer environment for the brewery’s employees. “Sharing my story has been a pretty painful experience, and then going back and working with the same people that forced me out to try to improve their company culture is a little bit insulting,” Anderson says.
“Indeed Brewing has been on a three-year journey to advance our business strategy and culture, and that work continues in earnest,” Whisenand wrote in an email to Heavy Table. “We’ve consciously diversified our leadership and management team. Indeed’s leadership team is nearly 50% women. We’re proud to be well above industry norms and will continue to foster and further diversify our leadership and team.”
“It’s so imperative to have women in leadership roles to bring these issues to the table,” Anderson says. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of tokenizing that happens in the industry. Women and marginalized folks are held up as examples of how these companies are inclusive and equal. But under the surface, they’re not supported and treated equally.”
On May 24, an anonymous volunteer Instagram account called Embolden Act Advance was opened to take the pressure off Allan, who is facing potential legal action for her role in sharing the stories. Since the account opened, two more Minnesota breweries—Sociable Cider Werks and Fergus Falls’ Outstate Brewing—have been called out, and more stories will undoubtedly come forward as the movement surges on.
THE CRAFT BEER INDUSTRY, FROM THEIR OWN EYES
Before Emily Van Oort began to work in the craft brewing industry, her interest in beer was met with apprehension from the men around her. If she had ordered a double IPA at a brewery, servers would ask her if she was sure about her choice. Did she know it had a high ABV? Did she know it was hoppy? Yes, she did. “There’s just always people questioning women who are getting even just interested in beer,” Van Oort says. “And that was just the beginning.”
In 2016, Van Oort got a job as a packaging operator at Insight Brewing, briefly worked at Surly, and then moved to Barrel Theory Beer Company. Throughout her time, she’s seen the best and the worst of the industry.
“I thought it was going to be a dream come true,” Van Oort says. “I had this rosy outlook on beer, and it was just shattered, almost immediately.” Those around her reminded her that, for a woman to make it in this industry, she had to have thick skin. Soon enough, she understood what they meant.
Throughout her four-plus years in the industry, she experienced crude comments, underestimation, and unequal treatment from her male — and female — coworkers. She was also sexually assaulted by a coworker, which would leave her hyper-aware of her surroundings at work, always looking over her shoulder, and never able to relax. After a while, Van Oort was sick of the unequal treatment she experienced at work, and even more sick of fighting for equal treatment.
“I went home and just spent hours revamping my resume and scrolling through LinkedIn and job search websites and just applying to anything, everything, like whatever was out there that was not the beer industry or service industry in general,” Van Oort asays. “I was so done. I was so checked out.” Van Oort left the industry in 2020, got a job as a retirement plan consultant, and distanced herself from the toxicity of the craft brew scene. But when Allan’s stories gained traction, she was once again reminded of why she left.
“I just want the industry to do better, but I feel that nothing’s going to change until you convince the people who are perpetrating that they should change their ways, and they’re so goddamn stubborn,” Van Oort says. “That’s what’s cool about all these posts coming out and gaining momentum, it might push some people into giving a shit, especially if they feel pressured enough.”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
On May 27, the walls of Arbeiter Brewing were bouncing with chatter, as dozens of Twin Cities beer folks crowded the South Minneapolis brewery in an overwhelming show of support for women in their industry. The event, which included a raffle and donations to benefit Allan’s legal defense fund as well as the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota, brought together staff from breweries like Bauhaus, Modist, Falling Knife, Fair State, Barrel Theory, BlackStack, and Eastlake in a teeming, animated show of solidarity. Moritz came too, her two-year-old daughter posted on her hip.
Okay, so we have a zeitgeist. Now what do we do with it?
Many local breweries have come forward with statements condemning the discriminatory practices and sexism within the beer industry. Some have laid out specific plans of what will change, while others have stayed silent.
Modist, for example, posted on their social media the steps they would take to address the problems in the industry, like creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion(DEI) position, conducting an internal audit, and publishing an action plan on their website for full transparency.
For the breweries that have put out statements, past and present beer industry workers are wondering if it’s enough. Katie Muggli, a former on-premise sales manager at Modist who left after feeling unsupported as a woman in the industry, wants to see third party HR implemented, less nepotistic hiring practices, equal pay between men and women, and more pressure on the owners of breweries to create safe environments for employees.
“Every tasting, beer festival, everything is, ‘Who are you dating that works there?’ ‘Who are you married to that works there?’ ‘That’s so neat and so cute that they let you do that,’” Muggli says. She says she’s spent her life “collecting pieces of paper” — her bachelor’s degree and her master’s degree, and then her Cicerone Certified Beer Server certification — because she knew her experience would be underestimated.
Muggli wants to see more change in the local brewery industry, and she’s looking for it through her efforts with the Minnesota Craft Brew Guild. She served as a board member on the Guild in 2020 and is now chartering the guild’s DEI committee. Muggli is also in the process of creating a nonprofit that would help fulfill the need of mental health support within the craft brew industry.
Reporting has become a central issue. Lately, Allan has been pointing people to Brewproblems.com to report issues around sexism, racism, or assault. Last year, the Guild created a reporting tool that any member could anonymously use, and when something is reported, the Guild’s board of directors reviews the information and performs an investigation.
Currently, the reporting tool can be used by businesses, employees, or customers to report behavior that they believe breaches the Guild’s code of conduct. Last year, that tool had only been used once, Muggli says. Within the past three weeks the tool has been used twice more, Lauren Bennett McGinty, the Executive Director of the Guild, says. When asked why more stories came out through social media than, say, an anonymous reporting tool, Bennett McGinty had some presumptions.
“There’s something to be said about the impact that Instagram has,” Bennett McGinty says. “It’s a lot broader impact. It allows people to see that other people are reporting it, and maybe that gives them a little bit more courage to report something themselves.”
One concern Anderson brought up about the reporting tool was how close her former coworkers were to the board of directors. “The goal is to ensure that the person who does submit the report feels safe, and that if there’s a way that we can help make that environment safer for them, we are happy to do that,” Bennett McGinty says.
McGinty wants DEI to be part of the Guild’s core mission, and the organization is already taking steps to see that through. To increase representation and inclusivity within the craft brewing industry, the guild is now accepting applications for the Diversity in Brewing Scholarship, which will award candidates with a scholarship to the Dakota County Technical College’s Beer Steward Technology certificate program.
The work to be done is still immense, and culture isn’t built from third-part consultants or one-off initiatives. Still, with women coming forward about their experiences in ways that were previously impossible, the future of the industry looks brighter than it may have a few weeks ago.
“I have hope this can shine a spotlight on some cockroaches, so to speak,” Van Oort says. “It’s just a matter of keeping the spotlight on and widening it.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9:50pm, June 3, 2021, to include an emailed statement from Indeed Brewing’s CEO, Tom Whisenand.
FULL STATEMENT FROM TOWN HALL BREWERY CO-FOUNDER PETE RIFAKES
Town Hall Brewery takes any claim or concerns very seriously, and while it’s difficult to specifically respond to an anonymous online claim, we can state that we have our positions and policies clearly laid out in our employee handbook, and we value the importance of maintaining a safe and welcoming work environment. When an issue arises, or someone alleges that policies are violated, we address them.
We are also proud to have very loyal employees, and in particular women in leadership roles with combined tenures at the company covering more than 65 years. We also have an open door policy, clearly laid out in the employee handbook, which offers a direct line to management and leadership should any employee have any concern, anytime and anywhere.
We aren’t at liberty to discuss details of any personnel case, so therefore can’t push back on inaccuracies or different perceptions, but we can tell you we’re proud of our team and value each team member greatly. We would not be a long-time leader in the craft beer scene if we acted recklessly or irresponsibly, and we want our company and its locations to be comfortable spaces for both our employees and customers, and we strive to maintain that each and every day.