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The solution to the craft beer industry’s sexism and diversity problems

Boycotts and pressure helped improve big beer companies and could do the same for craft brewers

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In mid-May, on the cusp of American Craft Beer Week, hundreds of women in the industry collectively shared experiences of sexism, assault, discrimination and toxicity on the job and at beer festivals. Spurred by Notch Brewing employee Brienne Allan’s Instagram post about her experiences with sexism, the revelations have roiled the craft beer world and led to resignations, apologies and sweeping calls for change.

This is not the first time the American brewing industry has faced a reckoning over equity and employment. Dating to the 19th century, beer work has been, as journalist Dave Infante writes, “white as hell by design.” (One could easily add “male” to that description.) During the 20th century, employees, activists and labor unions challenged these inequities. Using civil rights laws, collective bargaining and consumer activism, they pressed for — and sometimes won — meaningful changes. This history provides a blueprint for those seeking change in craft brewing today.

In the mid-20th century, with the memory of Prohibition fresh on their minds, American brewers worked hard to sell beer as modern, family-friendly and patriotic. New technology meant that it could be safely canned and enjoyed at home. Ads in the 1940s and 1950s insisted that “Beer Belongs” in American life and featured happy housewives delivering beer to contented husbands. These advertisements conveyed the gendered culture surrounding beer. Women could buy beer and bring it home, but there was no place for them in the industry. Many cities banned women from bartending, deeming the work unladylike. The business of booze was left to men.

The public’s embrace of packaged beer led to a mid-century beer boom. Breweries that had gotten their start in the late 19th century as small, family-run operations grew bigger and more factory-like. Yet their workforces (and labor unions) remained overwhelmingly White, with Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American employees making up a negligible proportion of the industry. For example, in 1962, Stroh Brewery in Detroit had only 15 Black employees, out of a workforce of 1,435. Coors Brewery reported similarly low numbers in 1967: Out of 1,895 employees, only 90 were non-White. Women, too, rarely worked on the brewery floor, another unladylike domain. The majority of the 56 female employees at Coors in 1967 (44 of whom were White), for example, worked in office and clerical positions.

Interventions from — and lawsuits by — civil rights organizations, the federal government and aggrieved potential employees forced breweries to diversify their workforces in the 1970s and 1980s. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, established by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, proved crucial in this regard.

For example, in 1969, EEOC commissioner Vicente T. Ximenes alleged that Coors was in violation of the Civil Rights Act, and individuals such as Black employee Booker T. Mays and Chicana Elizabeth Olivarez also used the EEOC to challenge discrimination at Coors. After eight years of legal proceedings, Coors finally committed to affirmative action, as well as targeted recruitment and training programs for women and minorities. EEOC cases against and settlements with Stroh and Anheuser-Busch in 1979 and 1983, respectively, also made similar headway.

Yet the hiring of women and people of color did not mean they were treated well. Instead, they experienced harassment, racism and sexism of varying degrees. Evelyn Desmarais, one of the first women to work in packaging at Coors, recalled an environment of consistent harassment. After she filed a complaint with her union, Brewery Workers Local 366, supervisors “gave me every rotten job they could in that brewery,” she recalled. In 1977, an anti-Coors comic book, drafted by union members and community activists, highlighted such experiences: “After they’re forced to hire us they make it clear they don’t want us here — they haven’t even put in women’s bathrooms in most departments and the supervisors have hassled some women so much that they’ve quit.”

Years later at Anheuser-Busch, four women from the packaging department filed suit against the brewery and their union, alleging that they had faced systematic discrimination on account of their sex, including obscene sexist remarks and limited opportunities. In 1990, a court dismissed their claims, writing that “gripes, complaints and petulant behavior … have nothing to do with sex discrimination.”

Activists, employees and sympathetic unions thus looked beyond the EEOC and courts and turned to boycotts and consumer activism to compel brewers to change their workplace culture. Boycotts — and the threat thereof — invited consumers to join the fight and placed significant pressure on breweries’ bottom lines.

One of the longest-running consumer boycotts in American history targeted Coors over allegations of discrimination (especially against Latinos), as well as for the company’s anti-unionism and the Coors family’s conservative politics. From the late 1950s to the 1990s, feminists, union members, Latinos, African Americans and LGBT folks boycotted — challenging the company to go beyond basic affirmative-action pledges and change its work culture and relationship with surrounding communities.

In the early 1980s, these efforts and a similar, controversial boycott against Anheuser-Busch paid dividends. While both brewers denied allegations of discrimination, they also pledged millions to Black, Latino, LGBT and women’s organizations, through hiring, scholarships and community programs. They did so in recognition of the growing consumer power of these communities — and in fear of losing that market share. As Peter Coors acknowledged, “the ‘70s and early ‘80s were not a stellar time for the company.” Multimillion-dollar agreements offered a way to reverse course, underscoring what Coors argued was his company’s clear “commitment to fairness, equity and goodwill.”

Critics charged that these settlements didn’t go far enough and saw brewers’ efforts to be socially responsible as disingenuous. But these agreements also highlighted the power of consumer and union activism to begin the process of reform. Rather than waiting on breweries to evolve, activists pressured from below. The results of these actions were mixed. Breweries often failed to meet the settlements’ hiring goals, though opportunities for women, people of color and LGBT employees improved. And yet, Coors did gain national recognition for its efforts, landing on a 1996 list of “most ethical companies,” for example.

By the mid-1990s, however, the beer industry was also changing. Big brewers such as Coors faced competition from a craft beer industry that had been growing since the legalization of home brewing in 1978. Thousands of local, independently owned brewing operations sprouted up, and in the subsequent decades they have broken Big Beer’s dominance and introduced Americans to new styles, ingredients and ideas about beer. In this changing industry, women and people of color have found more opportunities and flexibility.

Yet the business of beer has remained overwhelmingly White and male. According to the Brewers Association, as of 2019, only 7.5 percent of the nation’s head brewers were women. As recent allegations indicate, they encounter regular harassment and sexism in the industry.

The ethos of modern craft brewing casts the industry as a progressive underdog that stands in contrast to industrial, multinational breweries, which have merged into mega-corporations in recent decades. But it too must reckon with problems of equity and harassment. Diversity committees, complaint forms, pledges to support racial-equity organizations through “Black Is Beautiful” brews and the celebration of the annual International Women’s Collaboration Brew Day are all important endeavors. But, as activists of the mid-to-late 20th century learned, collective action among employees, consumers and activists may also be required to hold breweries — from nano to craft to industrial — accountable. Organizing and economic pressure helped shape the industry into one that increasingly reflects the diversity of its consumers and communities. That work is not yet done.