Craft Beer, Represent: The importance of increasing diversity in the brewing industry

Brewing Change Collaborative members pose for a photo at after a panel discussion on increasing diversity and inclusion // Photo courtesy Brewing Change Collaborative

Members of Brewing Change Collaborative, a local nonprofit group aimed at engaging and advocating for BIPOC folks in the craft beer industry, pose for a photo after a panel discussion on increasing diversity and inclusion // Photo courtesy Brewing Change Collaborative

The craft brewing community likes to lean on one word as one of its pillars: community. But high profile incidents of racism and industry data released in the past year have demonstrated that the community isn’t always diverse or inclusive.

Two recent news stories from Minneapolis have exposed just how far our local beer industry has to go to become more inclusive.

A two-year-old racist incident from 2018 came to light in June, in which one of the co-founders of 56 Brewing, Kale Johnson, is alleged to have tied a knot that looked like a noose, waved it at Black employee Mahad Muhammad, and said, “Come here, boy.” Johnson has since resigned as CEO of the brewery and he and his wife Kerry Johnson have divested from the company. 56 Brewing’s remaining owners have hired Root’D Relations, a PR and consulting firm specializing in issues of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and announced that they are committing to “eradicate discrimination within 56 Brewing.”

After Muhammad resigned from 56 Brewing in 2018, he ended up working under Ramsey Louder, the head brewer and co-founder of ONE Fermentary and Taproom, which would come under scrutiny in June. Louder revealed that in the days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, a statement he had written to share on ONE’s social media accounts was edited by majority owner Sally Schmidt, who removed mentions of Black Lives Matter, white supremacy, and the Minneapolis Police Department. Louder also pushed back on company plans to reopen the taproom on June 1, just days after protests and riots rocked the city. ONE Fermentary reopened on June 10 as a compromise.

Louder, the first and only Black co-owner of a brewery in Minneapolis, and only the second in Minnesota, resigned from the company on June 26. It prompted an exodus of resignations in support of Louder and the brewery subsequently closed its doors indefinitely. Since his departure, Louder has publicly stated that he is pursuing opening a brewery that meets his vision for a truly diverse and inclusive place.

As for the incident at 56 Brewing, Muhammad knew it was time to come out and say something.

“I had to come out and force myself to say there is a face to this,” he says. “I am the person this happened to. Having to deal with that night that week when it happened—all the feelings of being belittled, betrayed, degraded. And to a certain extent, guilt on my part where I remember back then just feeling, yeah… there were things I could have done more than just speaking up and putting in my resignation. More than telling some of the other people there as well.”

But it can be difficult to speak up in a predominantly white industry that sells itself on a facade of community and inclusion.

Take, for instance, the story of Tracy Evans, a Black man who sued and settled with Founders Brewing Co. Evans’ suit alleged he was fired for, among other reasons, reporting fellow Founders employees for racial discrimination. The Grand Rapids–based Founders had long been emblematic of brewing in the Midwest, a status that was thrown into stark relief against a suit alleging a “racist internal corporate culture” at the both the Grand Rapids and Detroit taprooms, including repeated use of racial slurs by coworkers, racist labels on office equipment, and denial of promotions due to his race.

Beyond these instances of overt racism, data on craft beer’s workforce and ownership further suggest that the industry has a long way to go to achieve better representation and engagements for communities of color.

The Numbers

The Brewers Association released data from a self-reported survey in August 2019 starkly illustrating that craft breweries are still disproportionately white and male.

Some of the highlights of the lowlights: only 7.5% of brewers employed by the breweries that responded to the survey were women. Additionally, women made up only 37% of employees in staff roles that are “non-production” or “non-service,” such as taproom manager or marketing roles. For brewery service staff, 54% were women.

As for ethnicity, 88% of brewery owners from participating breweries were white. From there, American Indian or Alaska Native owners were 4%, followed by Asian and Hispanic owners both at 2%, and Black brewery owners stood at just 1%. Hispanic employees make up about 7.5% of brewery service staff and Black employees sit at just over 4% of brewery service staff.

When measured against national demographics, Hispanic Americans (18% of the total U.S. population) and Black Americans (13.4% of the total U.S. population) are significantly underrepresented in the craft beer industry. The data released by the Brewers Association shows that craft beer lags behind the restaurant industry in the U.S. According to the National Restaurant Association, “four in 10 restaurant managers and supervisors are minorities, as are six in 10 chefs.” And Black people make up 8% of restaurant owners.

A casual scan of any Minnesota taproom or brewhouse will confirm the Brewers Association numbers. But what Minnesotan breweries do to foster more diversity is going to be different than breweries in other states; each challenge is unique to each location, according to Brewers Association Diversity Ambassador Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham.

“One thing certainly is to just be aware of the issue and have your head around exactly what your goals are when it comes to […] inclusion and equity, whether you’re talking about your employees, people who interact with your brand.

“We don’t have a list because the challenges and opportunities related to equity and inclusion are going to be different depending on where you’re located in the country.”

The Brewers Association recently launched a grant program to foster diversity and a five-part video series on best practices.

But, as Jackson-Beckham says, Minnesota will have its own unique set of challenges to fix the wide-ranging issue of diversity and inclusion. Some places have already begun that journey.

Places for All

Charles Dorsey of Montgomery Brewing, located about an hour south of Minneapolis, is the sole Black brewery owner in Minnesota now that Louder has resigned from ONE. But there is a local advocacy group trying to increase the number of BIPOC folks in the craft beer industry—Brewing Change Collaborative (BCC), which Louder co-founded with Elle Rhodes and Nasreen Sajady.

L to R: Brewing Change Collaborative co-founders Elle Rhodes, Ramsey Louder, Nasreen Sajady // Photo courtesy Brewing Change Collaborative

L to R: Brewing Change Collaborative co-founders Elle Rhodes, Ramsey Louder, and Nasreen Sajady // Photo courtesy Brewing Change Collaborative

One of the main goals of the organization is to create greater representation for people of color in the brewing industry, both from an employment and a consumer standpoint. The group hosts meetings where a diverse range of industry workers, or those interested in the industry, get to meet and talk to people they can identify with.

“It’s this community we’ve created, this family,” Sajady says. “The amount of love after the first meeting […] every time we see each other we’re so happy. And we support each other outside of that too. One member had just moved here and was talking about how hard it is to make friends. Especially as a woman of color. The biggest thing for me is we’re making a space of love and openness. It’s a safe space.”

The group has been meeting since March 2019 and, though this year’s plans have largely been derailed, has a lot of plans in 2021 to make them more visible. With membership at around 140 and growing, the group will continue to be a force for good in the Twin Cities. So far, members are pleased with the group.

“I decided to join because I knew there were other brothers and sisters like me who enjoy beer culture,” BCC member Anthony Jennings says. “And to find out there are people of color here in the Twin Cities who share my similar passion was a blessing.”

“Being a person of color that is a sales rep pushed me to want to talk about how the industry isn’t diverse,” member Jeremy Moran says. “When Elle Rhodes invited me to the first meeting for BCC, it was a no-brainer. The main reason I joined is because of representation. If I could make another person of color feel comfortable in a taproom or choosing a new beer at a liquor store and let them know they aren’t alone in this community, that means the world to me.”

Charles "Chuck" Dorsey, co-founder and co-owner of Montgomery Brewing // Photo by Tj Turner

Charles “Chuck” Dorsey, founder and 100% owner of Montgomery Brewing // Photo by Tj Turner

Montgomery Brewing Company’s founder, 100% owner, and brewer Charles Dorsey thinks a fest celebrating diversity could work in Minnesota.

“Minnesota could host an event like Fresh Fest, which takes place in Pittsburgh,” Dorsey says. “It would be a great way for Minnesota to celebrate and showcase the diversity locally within the brewing industry. People around the country attend the Fresh Fest because events like this are rare.”

In lieu of that, he says creating a space where everyone feels welcome is a must.

LatinX Marks the Spot

La Doña Cervecería // Photo by Daniel Murphy

La Doña Cervecería // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The son of Uruguayan parents, Sergio Manancero grew up in the Latin communities of the Twin Cities before joining the Marines and serving two tours in Afghanistan. When Manancero returned home after his military service, he didn’t see a lot of Latin people he grew up with in the now plentiful brewery taprooms around town. So he set out to make a place for people like him. In October 2018, he and the other co-owners of La Doña Cervecería opened the doors to Minnesota’s first Latin-inspired brewery.

The taproom is painted in vibrant colors, features branding and murals from local artist Luis Fitch, and hosts events like salsa dancing and a Spanish/English conversation club. But perhaps most visible is the brewery’s outdoor fútbol field.

“Make the space feel inclusive and different and more diverse as you walk in,” Manancero says, of his goals for La Doña. “Try to cater better to a wider audience. Try to promote diversity through accessibility through beer and space. More accessible beers for people who don’t necessarily drink craft beer.”

Beyond the beer, the people behind the bar are just as important.

La Doña's Sergio Manancero and head brewer Dickey Lopez // Photo by Daniel Murphy

La Doña’s Sergio Manancero and head brewer Dickey Lopez // Photo by Daniel Murphy

“I have several Latin immigrants behind the bar,” Manancero says. “And I think that’s something that exists and drives people to come here, knowing the bartender also speaks their language, won’t make fun of how they pronounce something, and the beers are in Spanish. People say the crowd they see here is more diverse than any other taproom they’ve seen.

“The intent and dream was there to make the brewery be very diverse and inclusive and from all walks of life,” Manancero continues. “The thing that’s surprising is the speed at which that occurred, and that people started pointing that out and we started noticing it. What does that mean about us and the neighborhood we’re in? The other thing, too, is once people learn about us and they come here and have the beers, they find that this place is so necessary for themselves. They didn’t realize what they didn’t know about craft breweries.”

Eye of the Tyga

The new owners of Vine Park Brewing Company, from left to right, Nhiasing Moua, Jai Fang, Touyer Moua, and Tou Thao, (with community member right) holding the ceremonial ribbon outside of Vine Park on 7th Street West in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

The new owners of Vine Park Brewing Company, from left to right, Nhiasing Moua, Jai Fang, Touyer Moua, and Tou Thao, (with community member right) holding the ceremonial ribbon outside of Vine Park on 7th Street West in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

When it was purchased in 2018, Vine Park Brewing in St. Paul became the first majority Hmong-owned brewery in America.

Soon after the sale was finalized, the new owners Nhiasing Moua, Jai Fang, Touyer Moua, and Tou Thao released 651 Tyga Bite, a light lager developed to appeal to the tastes of the Hmong community. So far the reaction has been great, says president Tou Thao.

“The Hmong community was really excited and supports beer,” he says. “We sold over 10,000 cases of 12-ounce, 24-pack bottles of 651 Tyga Bite beer since we first distributed. More than 50 retailers (liquor stores and restaurants) in the Twin Cities carry 651 Tyga Bite and about the same number of retailers in Wisconsin carry our beer as well.”

Because of the distribution focus over the past year, Thao says they weren’t too active in the local beer community, but they plan to be going forward. They are working on adding a taproom this year and are currently working on the new floor plans and a taproom license with the city and state. They also plan on being in more beer fests and on adding more flavors in tune with craft beer trends to expand the palates of their Hmong fans.

A Local’s Opinion

Cesar Hernandez likes to drink IPAs, gravitating to them when he first began drinking craft beer. As he’s sitting in Rochester’s Thesis Beer Project on a Wednesday night with his two friends, another young man, and a young woman, Hernandez notices something that’s been on his radar, something he sees most—if not all—times he is grabbing a pint of something hoppy on his brewery excursions in Minnesota.

“Oftentimes I’m one of, if not the only, person of color in breweries; I have noticed the lack of diversity in breweries,” Hernandez says.

Moving to Rochester from Illinois, and having parents from Mexico, Hernandez says that having people able to speak Spanish behind the bar, or being more diverse, would make him feel a little bit more at home.

“I think that’s cool that people of color are trying to branch out and sort of bring other people with diverse backgrounds into the craft beer industry,” he says. “It would make me go there just to see what it’s like, and I feel these people would market toward people of color, so maybe they’d put up flyers at a place where more diverse backgrounds would kind of congregate.”

Just throwing different ingredients from different places would be a nice draw too. “Like at Little Thistle [Brewing Co.], they had a sour with guava in it and it sort of made me gravitate to it,” Hernandez says. “I’m not a sour guy, but the fact that it had that fruit made me want to try it, made me want to taste it, and I actually really liked it.”

Education and Commitments for Change

Breweries and organizations are trying to create more inclusion and diversity through education.

Pittsburgh’s Fresh Fest, which moved to a virtual fest this year, brings together Black brewers in a showcase of their beer during a block party. Their flavors. Their brewing philosophies. Minnesota’s Brewing Change Collaborative has already proven to be a huge force for good for BIPOC in the brewing industry. They broadcast the 56 news to social media, have backed Louder, and continue to push forward to create equity in the beer industry.

Brandon Montgomery, who runs the Black Beer Travelers account on Instagram, created and maintains a map of diversely-owned establishments around the world with the goal of promoting inclusion.

Little Thistle Brewing Co. in Rochester has a program already in the works in which the brewery will take on a BIPOC person or someone from the LGBTQ+ community as a paid intern in the brewhouse to learn the trade.

Witch Hunt, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, advocates “for marginalized genders and queer folx in every department of the craft brewing industry,” according to their website, and holds semi-regular brew days to provide their members with educational opportunities in brewing.

The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild announced this year that it’s seeking funding for a new scholarship for those interested in attending Dakota County Technical College’s Brewing and Beer Steward Technology Certificate Program. The “Diversity In Brewing” scholarships are “open to women, people of color, LGBTQ and non-binary people, and the disabled community. A scholarship application will be available to qualifying students for the Fall 2020 term,” according to information on the Guild’s website.

On a national level, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, announced the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling. Its goal is to fund scholarships that will go mostly to BIPOC applicants.

But it’s going to be a long road ahead to achieving greater minority representation in the industry.

“It’s important for people to understand how complex this opportunity and related challenges can be,” Jackson-Beckham says. “If it were simple, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. Disparities, particularly those that fall on racial, gender, or socioeconomic lines, were not invented by the craft beer industry. These are the outcome of much larger and older cultural trends and factors. It’s important for anyone to do this work to stay dedicated and remember it’s going to be a marathon. Lasting change often isn’t a lot of fireworks. But we’ll certainly create positive change if we stay in it for the long haul.”

Locally, that change is happening.

“Because of the support that’s here and the people I’ve gotten to know, specifically through BCC, it’s a long fight of making things right,” Muhammad echoes. “And I want to be a part of that long term.”

Correction: The original story stated that Charles Dorsey was a co-founder and co-owner of Montgomery Brewing Company. He is in fact the founder and the 100% owner of the brewery.