Whistleblowers, Internal Investigations and an Ongoing Reckoning in Craft Beer

Illustration by Ellen Surrey

“What sexist comments have you experienced?” Brienne Allan, the production manager at Notch Brewing, asked fellow craft beer professionals in an Instagram story on May 12, 2021. The responses were immediate and unrelenting.

“Hundreds of women came forward with experiences of sexism, wage discrimination, racism,” says Kate Mastro, who, in an interview with Wine Enthusiast, discussed how she had faced harassment while working at two different breweries. “It shouldn’t be happening. Not in the beer industry, not in life. It’s awful no matter how you look at it.”

Several times, after one commenter shared a story about a specific instance of harassment, abuse or assault, others would soon follow.

“It made me feel like I’m not alone and it’s important to speak up,” says Mastro. “It took a long time to get to that point. It’s scary.”

In the days following her post, Allan says her inbox and DMs were flooded with stories of abuse, notes of encouragement and threats. A separate account, run by volunteers, was created to give Allan a rest from the growing number of messages, although she continues to post first-hand accounts from women in the beer industry, articles about the movement and resources for victims.

While many of the accusations were made anonymously, others named specific people or breweries. Women who shared their stories became targets and were subject to online smears and threats of lawsuits, violence and continual harassment.

Allan would later block out names of the accused, but action and fallout was swift in many cases.

If this is a reckoning, as some have suggested, the end results are unclear. Will breweries and beer professionals root out abusive behaviors? And what happens to whistleblowers after the dust settles?

After one commenter shared a story about a specific instance of harassment, abuse or assault, others would soon follow.

It’s certainly not the first time the craft beer business has grappled with allegations of abuse. In 2018, Tracy Evans filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Founders Brewing Co. in Michigan. Evans, who worked as a promotion and events manager at the Brewery’s Detroit location, accused the company of a “racist internal corporate culture” following a series of events laid out in the lawsuit. The case was settled in 2019 before a trial. Evans declined to comment for this article through his attorney Jack Schulz, who also declined an interview.

While Founders has continued to grow since the settlement and inked a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this year, the lawsuit sparked conversations in the beer space about racism, and diversity and inclusion initiatives in an industry that is predominately white, male and heterosexual.

Allan has been startled by the amount and tenor of the feedback she’s received from her post last May.

“I definitely thought it was going to be one of those week-long hype things, and then it would just drop off,” she says. “But I keep getting messages and emails and calls, and people just stopping by the brewery, every day, just being like either this person apologized to me, or this person was fired, or the company just did this for everybody, and just letting me know all these really positive changes that people are actually sticking to and doing what they say.

“It is heartwarming to know that it actually is helping people and creating lasting change.”

To bring these issues to light in the customer sphere, in July, Allan announced a collaboration beer called Brave Noise. Its aim is to promote a safe and discrimination-free beer industry.

At press time, fewer than 100 breweries had committed to the project.

This is in stark contrast to the more than 850 breweries that made “All Together,” an IPA to benefit hospitality workers impacted by COVID-19, the 1,200 breweries that made Black is Beautiful last year following the murder of George Floyd, or the more than 1,400 that brewed a beer to benefit 2018 victims of California wildfires.

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“We’re both sincerely disappointed that there hasn’t been more action,” says Mikaelaa Crist, a former brewery employee and beer advocate who is in regular contact with Allan about Brave Noise. “This is such an important thing and we’re trying to keep the momentum going and it feels like some breweries are just waiting for it to blow over.”

In an Instagram post, and later with Wine Enthusiast, Crist shared her own story of being drugged at a brewery and later sexually attacked. She believes that the more survivors who come forward, the less space predators will have to hide. Over the last several weeks, she says, she has had conversations with previous employers and colleagues who have apologized for other transgressions or are seeking to learn to be better.

Illustration sexism in craft beer
Illustration by Ellen Surrey

There have been apologies, resignations, investigations and terminations at nearly every level of the brewing industry following accusations online.

In May, after employees of Tired Hands Brewing in Pennsylvania signed a letter outlining their dissatisfaction with a toxic culture created by the owners, Cofounder Jean Broillet IV said he would step down from his day-to-day role at the company but would not leave the brewery.

That same month, Jacob McKean, founder and CEO of California’s Modern Times, one of the 50 largest craft breweries in the country, announced he would be step down from his role at the employee-owned brewery. He’d been accused of complacency in a culture that ignored abuses by leadership.

The founder of Lord Hobo Brewing in Massachusetts, Daniel Lanigan, was removed from his daily operations post by the company’s board, although he retains a board position.

Indeed Brewing Company in Minneapolis was frequently called out in the early days of Allan’s posting for creating a poor work environment and acknowledged failings. It hired tHRive Law & Consulting to conduct an investigation which ultimately found “that bias does exist at Indeed.”

“Specific examples revealed language loaded with stereotypical gender bias directed toward female employees, including that they are ‘not confident enough’ or ‘too emotional,’ ‘too anxious,’ ‘too stressed,’ or ‘not committed,’ ” reads the report, which was posted on the brewery’s website in late August. “Additionally, racial bias has impacted Indeed, in the specific case of a Japanese rice lager that was branded with a racially insensitive name; the name was pulled before it reached the public, but the company’s inability to see the issue in the first place gives employees pause.”

The company outlined a series of steps for the brewery to fix its culture and move forward, with commitments for plans to be implemented by the end of the year.

Bar owners, distributors, sales accounts and customers have also been named for exhibiting behavior that ranges from unprofessional to criminal. In many cases, these posts thank Allan for giving them a platform to share their stories and bring them to light, even while many said these conversations had been happening quietly in the background for years.

“It is heartwarming to know that it actually is helping people and creating lasting change.” —Brienne Allan

An early name that arrived in Allan’s messages was Jeff Nelson, then the director of sales for Connecticut Valley Brewing. Women said that he would send unsolicited, sexually charged pictures to them, or try to coerce them for sex at beer festivals, tastings and other events.

These accusations caught Allan by surprise. She credited Nelson with helping her break into the beer industry and knew him personally as her father’s best friend. The “Dick Pic Nelson” persona, as it was called by women who received the images, was one she had never experienced, she said in an interview with Wine Enthusiast, but did not hesitate to share these stories because of their seriousness and importance.

Nelson was fired from his job, Connecticut Valley Brewing apologized and promised better staff training and awareness, and Nelson also apologized on social media and said he would be seeking help for alcohol addiction. He has since deleted his social account.

The beer industry is not an island. Allan says she has received messages from women in the wine and spirits industries asking her to start a similar page or safe space for them.

“I guess there was kind of a MeToo movement in the wine industry about three years ago,” says Allan, “and nobody’s talking about it anymore.

“That’s what scares me, is that people are still asking for help to get the word out, and no one cared. Really, they cared for like, a year, and then it just went away.”

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Several beer professionals now pledge to hold offenders accountable for their actions.

Rebecca Royster worked as a brewery sales rep in Atlanta for several years and says that while her experience at the brewery was good, once she stepped into accounts or attended festivals she was often put in uncomfortable positions.

“I think there was this simultaneous acceptance of things, because it has historically been a male dominated boys club, if you will,” she says. “And this just blissful ignorance. I would describe it from a standpoint of there are people who know that this is happening, but have just been blissfully unaware and like, unwilling to really think about these things. Mostly, I think passing it off, like ‘Oh, you know, these things just happen. It’s all in good fun. We’re drinking beer.’ It’s not.”

Royster is the cofounder of the Dames and Dregs Beer Festival, which is slated for December 2021. Over the last few weeks, as she has begun outreach for the event, she has been buoyed by the number of brewers that not only want to pour their beer at the festival, but also participate in panels to discuss these recent events and talk about how to improve the beer business.

She posted a personal essay on the festival website that details her experiences in the industry and says that, by attaching her name to her story, she hopes it will encourage others to do the same.

“I think it can create a different path, and I’m hopeful that that path will be better,” she says. “One of the things that always makes me nervous is the volume of stories that are coming out. I fully support women speaking their truth and sharing their stories. But there’s been a sheer volume of these stories that I fear that people ultimately reach their saturation points, and ultimately kind of mute and stop paying attention.”

That is the exact scenario the whistleblowers and others who shared their stories for this article want to avoid. They want to continue keep the pressure for real, meaningful change on the front burner.

“In the very beginning, there were a lot of people, women and men alike, who just weren’t really aware that these things were happening with the frequency that they were happening,” says Royster. “I do think that shifted the conversation in hopefully very positive ways.”

Published on September 17, 2021
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