Johanna Lortsher, whose title at AZ Wilderness Brewing Company is Head of People, had only been on the job for a few weeks when the social media posts started to appear. In 2021, a series of allegations about the brewery, its owners and employees who had harassed or intimidated female employees were shared on Instagram.
Lortsher had worked as a human resources manager and consultant before she joined AZ Wilderness, and she was aware of some of the previous allegations made about the brewery. In May 2021, Brienne Allan, then the production manager at Notch Brewing, had posted to ask her Instagram followers, “What sexist comments have you experienced?” Allan posted the answers she received, some of which included AZ Wilderness, and all of which brought to light a dark side of the brewing industry.
“The incidents happened, the majority of them, not all of them, but the majority of them did take place in the early years—right after Arizona Wilderness was called the best brewery in the country by Rate Beer,” says Lortsher of the brewery’s 2014 accolade. After the award, the brewery’s profile and footprint expanded quickly, and some wonder if that rapid growth outpaced efforts to develop a responsible company culture.
Lortsher took the job determined to fix the brewery’s issues from within. AZ Wilderness is mission-driven, she says. “They didn’t get into it just to make great beer, but to change the way beer is made, and to put the focus on conservation and put the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.”
“The things that have come up recently are really very painful to us because we really do want to make a difference in the world and in the industry,” she says. “It’s deeply painful, it’s not who we want to be. So, it has caused a lot of introspection, and I was brought with that goal of saying ‘Where are the gaps in our culture? Where can we get better? And how can we be a leader in this in this industry?’ ”
Following Allan’s initial post and more than 1,000 stories shared via her account as well as another activist account, action was swift for some offenders, including owners and brewers, who had assaulted women or created a toxic work environment. People were fired or resigned. Other breweries that were named in a post and acknowledged issues and shortcomings pledged to be better, to hold offenders accountable and to work towards regaining trust.
AZ Wilderness Brewing Company is one of several breweries that, in the aftermath of Allan’s post and amid Black Lives Matter protests, are grappling with systemic and structural issues like sexism, racism, labor rights and more. Many small craft breweries realize that they lack simple business infrastructure, like an employee handbook or human resources professional, needed to tackle issues when they arise and, more importantly, prevent them from happening at all.
“A lot of breweries hit the ground running so fast that they don’t think about HR because it’s usually such a small crew to start with,” says Cindy DeRama, an owner of Twin Elephant Brewing in Chatham, New Jersey. “Basically, it’s friends or it’s family and you don’t start thinking about these things until it’s too late or you get that sense of not knowing a new hire in the way you did everyone else. We were guilty of that, too.”
As stories were being shared last summer, the brewery revisited its goal to create an employee handbook and review internal policies.
“We’re lucky that I think we’ve had a good company culture since we started five years ago,” says DeRama. “But everyone grew up a little more after light was shown on all of this devastating stuff. Brewing is not all fun and games.”
Audra Gaiziunas, owner of Brewed For Her Ledger, a brewery consulting firm, agrees. She believes that the last seven months show what can happen when an industry known for freedom and creativity grows quickly and without a system of checks and balances.
“These employee handbooks and HR policies have been created by companies both large and small for the protection of its employees, as well the company, should any wrongdoing such occur,” says Gaiziunas. “The policies offer a path to follow. When expectations aren’t discussed but rather just assumed, or if there are no explicitly written consequences for negative behavior, the employee has no grievance process to follow. The affected party has their voice essentially taken away due to the confusion of not knowing what to do or who to turn to, while at the same time worrying whether they will lose their job for speaking up.”
“When expectations aren’t discussed but rather just assumed, or if there are no explicitly written consequences for negative behavior, the employee has no grievance process to follow.” —Audra Gaiziunas
Breweries do their employees a disservice by not having written policies in place, she says. “Owners and managers should be providing their people a clear path, without them having to bushwhack it for themselves.”
Others call for systemic changes as well.
“When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, workplace harassment is one of the biggest things that has to be discussed, if you want truly a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace culture,” says Deborah Brenner, the founder and CEO of Women of the Vine & Spirits. “Because it’s not just sexual harassment, it’s bullying, it’s name shaming, it’s name calling. It’s cultural harassment.”
Brenner notes that the drinks industry comes with its own set of challenges when addressing these issues, ones that might not exist in other professional settings.
“The number one complexity of this industry is that there is alcohol involved,” she says. “The other thing that was important [to examine] was our three-tier system. You may have the best sexual harassment policies, procedures and reporting mechanisms within your company. But then what happens when those people leave your office and go into the field, and they’re being harassed, let’s say, by on-premise or off-premise, or in the wholesale tier? What do you do then?”
People in sales positions who face harassment from large accounts can worry if speaking up for themselves or reporting these incidents to their employers would jeopardize business or even their job. Those attending or working events and festivals face similar issues.
There can also be disconnects within companies. The culture in a warehouse is likely different than that in a production area or in a corporate office. That makes it critical to create and enforce uniform policies across all aspects of a company, Brenner says, and communicate these policies to business partners.
“It’s really important, if you’re a craft brewer, to let your distributors and your vendors, and your on- and off-premises know what your policies are,” says Brenner. “Make it transparent and let them know you are going to protect your employees and make sure they are safe. That is how real change is going to happen, when people are on notice.”
A holistic approach to how these problems are dealt with and addressed outside of a company’s four walls has been a part of the ongoing conversation, but many in the brewing industry say it has been slow going.
At AZ Wilderness, Lortsher says she has been working, listening and trying to build a brewery that employees and customers can be proud of. She’s not looking to erase or hide the past, she says, and knows that not everyone will accept an apology or offer forgiveness.
“My reason for being here is to make this brewery a safe and inclusive culture,” she says. “[There is a question] about how to get out of the penalty box, and I think that’s best left to the women involved. What we’re trying to do is address them individually, recognize their stories, acknowledge their pain and apologize. And ask them, ‘what is, for you, what would be the best way for us to move forward?’”
It appears to be a question that many breweries are asking, having come to see the light shone on dark areas of the industry. And they see that a lot of work still remains, even when it comes to overall awareness.
Last October, Esther Tetreault, co-owner of Trillium Brewing, hosted a panel on how to create a safe and discrimination-free work environment with HR professionals, attorneys and diversity, equity and inclusion professionals. While she believes the event was impactful and important, it was not as well-attended as she had hoped.
“I will say we were a little saddened, a little frustrated, a little disappointed, to not get more support, more responses and more engagement,” says Tetreault about the event.
Brave Noise, the collaboration beer launched by Allan and others, has had a similar reception. Breweries that brew the Brave Noise pale ale must implement a code of conduct. Its July 2021 announcement got a lot of coverage and likes on social media, but, as of mid-February 2022, only 219 breweries had signed up to brew it.
As the country nears 9,000 breweries, Tetreault and others encourage every beer professional to reset the culture with safe workspaces and accountability for offending parties.
“I genuinely think that most people start in the industry well intentioned and wanting to have fun—it’s a fun industry,” she says. But, “if you want to start a brewery and own a business, then you need to be prepared for something different.”