The calling out of sexism in the beer world has, thankfully, been much more visible over the past few months after recent social media revelations, and following on from this I asked a leading lady in the Irish brewing scene to detail her thoughts and experiences of sexism and inequality.
However you know her – as Ayden, AJ, or Coxy – she knows a damn sight more about beer and brewing than you or I do and these are her views on being her in this industry.
I hesitated writing this piece, not because I did not want to write it or think it needed to be written. I hesitated because the plurality of being a person who looks like me in a space like beer makes my emotions around addressing issues within the brewing community long winded and arduous. I am a 30 year old white woman who has been in brewing for the better part of a decade. I have also been a lot of other things too; a researcher, a student, an auntie, an advocate and an educator. When Roy asked me to contribute, I agreed without an agenda in mind and without a specific set of questions from him. So I write this piece in the spirit of reflection and with the intention of moving our brewing scene forward into a radically new space of inclusion and community.
As I think of my experiences in the Irish beer scene, I realize it is impossible for me to separate the positive and the negative from the greater idea of the “beer industry” as a whole. Our beer world is truly a small world. I’ve brewed on both coasts of the US and the island of Ireland, and someone always knows someone else you’ve brewed with before. The Irish beer scene is special and has its own journey of course, but it is not unique in its struggle with issues of inequality and sexism. In this piece, I am going to focus on my journey as a whole because I know it reflects the experiences many femmes and women have in the brewing world regardless of specific geography.
* *In this piece I will use the term “women” and “femmes” with the explicit understanding that these do not encompass all the diversities of gender, but I hope to highlight the some of the gendered experiences of femmes, not just cis-gendered women in the craft beer industry* *
Part of our discussion around unequal workplaces must include addressing the idea of who belongs in a brewery, so I’ll start there with an example that might seem harmless enough, but actually demonstrates the far reaching nature of patriarchal norms, and how they impact who is allowed to brew. Many men I have worked with or in close proximity to, claim they want diverse workplaces. I often have heard statements such as, “I don’t have a problem with a woman around as long as she can do the job,” or “I am fine with any gender who can do the job, but most women aren’t as strong as you.” What men don’t realize is that they’re asking for the rest of us to adhere to some very toxic standards of “doing the job.” Including but not limited to; physical demands that quite frankly I would say are problematic regardless of a person’s body size or fitness level. Many brewers bemoan our chronic back pain by the time we’re in our mid-20’s and that’s considered standard practice; we lift, mash, haul and package until we are literally in pain. I have been around many conversations over pints, where I have had men applaud me for my strength or willingness to push myself beyond what is normal for a person of my build.
I highlight this specific example because it demonstrates something important about how our language surrounding work is often intentionally and unintentionally exclusionary. Pre-emptively telling people that you’re fine with “whoever can do the job” in a conversation about inclusion, indicates that you really aren’t interested in making space for people, but rather you’re more interested in people fitting the mould of what you deem to be an “acceptable brewer.” And yes, that’s a fucking problem. It says something about the culture we’ve created around brewing (and I certainly have contributed to in the past when I was younger and hadn’t unpacked a lot of internalized misogyny). This attitude is directly connected to the mythology of brewers and the cult of personality surrounding that facade; masculine, bearded, tattooed and tough. That’s what certain brands depend on to sell their product to the consumer; this idea of a self-reliant group of “manly-men” laboring without complaint to produce a product that affirms the buyer’s masculinity. Now many breweries have tried to rebrand as more inclusive to a diverse group of consumers, because as it turns out pubs aren’t just filled with a bunch of cis-dudes anymore…but this image of the production brewery itself as a masculine space has been terribly hard to shake. The reason for this is enmeshed in who we think should have control within industrial-creative spaces, and what kinds of products we are willing to pay a premium for. Primarily, we as a culture are willing to bestow “greatness” on white men who create sometimes mediocre products, as we simultaneously disregard, minimize and infantilize the contributions of everyone else. This lionization of the “bad boy” brewer-consumer has been birthed by an industry clinging to the vestiges of a crumbling, unsustainable, patriarchy. The brewing industry’s problematic bestie, the culinary world has been engaging in this kind of toxic myth-making for decades (as detailed by writers like Beth Demmon and Meghan McCarron). McCarron addresses some of my experiences as a brewer in her piece on chefs from 2018 succinctly, “The stereotypes female chefs navigate a tense place between the male-coded behaviors the culture values and the male-coded point of view that ascribes those valued qualities only to men.” In my experiences, as a brewer I’ve seen this play out in that all of the barometers of success were created by men and are constantly redefined for men. This is particularly true when we examine how hyper-masculine definitions of success allow abuse and sexist behavior to thrive both systemically and interpersonally.
There is a direct link with the “masculine domination” of beer and the perpetuation of harm and toxic beer spaces. In Ireland, some brewers were fine collaborating with a known sexual predator and white supremist, not because they liked him as a person, but because he was thought to be some sort of genius brewer. (He wasn’t a genius, just another white dude with a beard, access to capital riding the waves of inflated greatness buoyed by deeply boring mediocrity). When I called people in or called this person out I was referred to as “unprofessional.” Cue the eye rolls and the annoyed faces, combined with the feminazi/bitch/whore comments thrown in my direction, all classic examples of sexism many women brewers face. He left Ireland earlier this year for the US, but I haven’t forgotten the backlash that made another woman leave the country after months of gaslighting and abuse. Nor have I forgotten that many of the men I spoke directly to about his predatory behavior continued to work with him, because the community men have created for themselves is so deeply entrenched in toxic ideas of fraternity, they knew they would never be victimized or intimidated themselves, and so ultimately it didn’t matter because it wouldn’t impact them personally. But you know what dudes? Most of the women and femmes in your life will be impacted by the threat of sexual violence.
Just shortly before the explosion of Instagram stories detailing hundreds of women’s experiences of sexual harassment and violence, someone I thought was a friend, who I had known for over 5 years through brewing, attempted to assault me in a friend’s house, mid-pandemic, while other people were home. I was scared, and hurt because I knew it wasn’t the alcohol, it was the culture that had told this man that he was entitled to women’s bodies, in this case MY body, and that culture is reinforced within the brewing industry in insidious ways. Every sexist and homophobic beer label, every rape “joke” told over pints and all the ways women are diminished in “mens” spaces reinforced the fact that he thought it was okay to force himself on top of me repeatedly, even as I was pushing him off me and repeating the word “no.” I can only imagine why this dude felt he could do what he did, but I’ll assume it was because; I was less important, less valuable and ultimately my friendship was disposable. A culture of misogyny had empowered this person and others like him to coerce, belittle and abuse women with zero consequences. When women and femmes come forward with stories or traumatic experiences it should create a culture of responsibility, where other men hold one another accountable. This accountability includes; vocalizing your disgust when one of the lads tells a sexist joke, or physically intervening when you see a woman being followed by another creepy dude at the pub (that dude might be one of your friends), and it also looks like recognizing the contributions of your femme co-workers, and their skill sets.
Which brings me to an important point, with a real life example and a tangible solution. Solidarity with survivors of abuse and harassment, also looks like not patronizing brands, brewers and influencers who wilfully put profit before people. This is particularly important in terms of marginalized folks who are underrepresented in beer spaces. It’s never “just” business. If a bar or brewery has indicated that the safety of their staff or patrons who are women, trans, queer, Black or Brown are not a priority, they aren’t allies and neither are their customers, suppliers or distributors. You can’t just post a black square or rainbow flag one day and then hang out with a white nationalist the next day, claiming you care about issues of sexism or racism for internet clout and Twitter followers.
Reflecting on the concept of internet clout, I’d like to borrow a term from anthropology, cultural capital. When I use the phrase, “cultural capital” in this context I am basically referring to the concept of likes, followers and endorsements as a way we validate someone’s presence in a beer influencer space, and also the fact that these forms of endorsement from the community act as a kind of recognizable currency in the digital age. We socially reward people who do well in these enclaves with opportunities, social prestige and often financial investment when purchasing their services or goods from their personal platform. And this has real consequences when predators are rewarded cultural capital that gives them a sense of entitlement and prevents others from calling out sexism, racism and homophobia.
Beer spaces are no longer simply pubs and taprooms, we have a whole assortment of folks utilizing the virtual abyss of Twitter and Instagram as a means of meeting other brewers, beer fans and even organizing international collabs. Festivals during covid were even held virtually from people’s couches. Entering a new beer space as a woman, virtually or physically there is always a moment of tension as I wait for the onslaught of some variation “which brewer are you dating?” “is that your husband?” “you don’t look like a brewer,” “ah you probably don’t drink beer.” All of these questions are coded language for “you don’t look like you belong here.” I have the tattoos, I have the flannel and yet there is no wardrobe in the world that can conceal that I don’t REALLY belong in the craft beer spaces so many of these dudes have curated for so long, and that curation has built an idea of exclusive product and an exclusionary consumer. My experience is not unique, many of the people I have made friends with over the years have had the same experience, and worse, consistently. Black folks, LGBTQ+, those disabled in a very ableist industry have been perpetually side-lined and have had to fight for space in festivals, pubs and breweries. We have had to push for so long because there is a lot of lip service surrounding “diversity and inclusion” in breweries (which looks a lot like hiring one white woman every so often), but not a lot of effort to be proactive in making folks feel included and celebrated. An example of this that comes to mind; I have worked in spaces where men would go out for pints with each other and never extend an invite to me. It made me feel excluded and isolated, and since it does not look like blatant sexism or abusive language, I minimized it. When I shared that experience with one of my male friends who said he had never experienced that in his entire brewing career, I realized that pattern mirrors what happens in corporate settings where men conveniently exclude the one female member of the team from networking events a.k.a. after-work cocktail hours. The result is I get less access to the cultural capital awarded to my male peers and fewer opportunities in the long run. It’s the same shit, different decade: men living out their own Mad Men fantasy, brewery style.
Sometimes the sexism is blatant, physically scary and sometimes it is more subtle, but it is all connected and does the job of making brewing feel like a never ending boys club, where you can get away with an all-male staff, because “hey we never have women apply….not our fault.” Without ever asking the hard question of why you don’t have more women seeking out work in these spaces. Brewing is definitely a more diverse space than when I started, but even now I will still run into women, outside of the industry who tell me I’m the first female brewer they have met. And it’s no wonder, I still feel uncomfortable in beer spaces, because inevitably I will have to deal with some sort of micro-aggression or physical assault, and many women see this behavior from the outset and avoid the production side of industry entirely. When I entered the trade, I was oblivious to the deeply entrenched patriarchy and also a little naïve as to how it would impact my mental and long-term physical health. I was once asked in an interview at a well-known brewery, how I dealt with the extreme sexism in my first job, and my honest to God response was “I baked them cookies.” At the time, I felt embarrassed I said that instead of something more powerful, feminist or earth shaking, but that is honestly how I had dealt with it. But you know what, IT FUCKING WORKED. I was in a very emotionally draining and toxic environment, doing school full time, thousands of miles from all things familiar back home, with men who had mostly never worked side-by-side with a young woman (I was 22) in a manual labor setting. I deal with all things stressful by cooking, a skill I learned from my abuelita (granny), which is also my go-to love language (how I show people I care about them). I baked cookies, and another co-worker started bringing in fresh fruit, and we kind of developed a ritual of snacks and talking. These men were/are clueless about the intention behind my baked goods, but I truly think it’s harder to hate/disrespect someone who just baked you warm cookies. The sexism didn’t disappear, but the process of community-building over homemade food is something women, particularly Black and indigenous, in moments of conflict, have been doing for centuries, in great part because it works. But it is one of those practices men and capitalism have largely dismissed until it is commodified, commercialised and profited from, which is unfortunately how brewing seems to react to women and femmes in beer. (A small aside, never ask a woman how she deals with sexism in a job interview, especially when she’s the only female candidate in a room of 60 dudes. That’s a micro-aggression of epic proportions.)
Our ideas of belonging and success are deeply embedded in our cultural biases of who should be doing work and what kind of work. Our tendency to build brewers up as cultural icons, heroes and empire builders is a reflection of our appreciation of so-called masculine traits (conquest, domination, ruthless innovation) we attribute to success. There’s another layer to that as well, which maybe reflects my experience more personally, and that is some really great members of the brewing community aren’t aspiring empire builders. I have zero interest in being “one of the lads” and my definitions of success might look very different from how we have culturally learned to define accomplishment. I cannot speak for all women, there ARE women, femmes and non-binary folks who do define success in terms of brand-building, girlboss-ification, who collect capitalist measurements of growth on their journey. But that does not mean folks like me have nothing to contribute to the collective beer communities we are all part of. Part of dismantling the inequity that plagues the brewing industry will require us to celebrate all and potential members of the community, and that will require us to dismantle the hierarchy of whose work is valued. Brewers are not more important than bar staff, investors are not more important than workers, and men are not more important than anyone else on the production floor. I have no interest in building a brewing empire or developing a personal brand that launches me to influencer stardom. I really just want to be a person who finds community wherever I am; over cookies or pints, maybe both?
But I also want safety, for all femmes. For the Queer community, for Black women and for anyone who has been made to feel they don’t belong in a place where beer is made or pints are being served. That’s not possible until men stand up to other men. Sometimes that means standing up to your co-workers, your bosses, your fathers, your brothers and your friends. There’s that old adage “She’s someone’s daughter (activists have also taken to crossing out the daughter part to emphasize the woman as a full person outside of her relationships to others).” Well, every man who has been involved in harassment and assault in this most recent wave of stories, was also someone’s son, someone’s friend and someone’s favourite brewer. We can’t ethically sustain an industry where sexism is brushed off and women’s concerns are labelled as irrational whinging.
Change starts with a rejection of the status quo, and commitment from all of us to adhere to a culture of accountability as we move forward.