The only thing that surprises me about the Philly beer scene’s major #MeToo-style reckoning is how long it took us to get here.
It started two weeks ago, when Brienne Allan, a Massachusetts brewer, began Instagramming more than 1,000 stories of employment discrimination, bullying, and violence submitted to her by named and anonymous victims and witnesses. Of the many cities caught up in this reckoning, the Philadelphia area is among the most cited, prompting Allan to dedicate a full day to sharing the stories of our city’s misconduct. Soon after, three members of Philly Beer Week’s managing board resigned in the aftermath of dozens of accusations against the owners of Fishtown’s Evil Genius Beer Co. and Ardmore’s Tired Hands Brewing Company, as well as many unnamed others.
For years, the nation’s craft brewing industry has guarded the open secret that every woman in every aspect of the industry has a story of abuse like those exposed this month, including sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault. Some women have hundreds of stories.
The whisper network
For decades, no one spoke about this type of behavior above a whisper. Too few women worked in the heavily male-dominated industry to want to make waves, and crass humor that baby boomers and Gen Xers like myself laughed off now rightly offends millennials and Gen Zers who call it what it is: a microaggression that wears one down, day after day.
Personally, I’ve somehow either avoided or forgotten all but two minor instances of sexism in my own beer experiences. The first came in the form of a young server mansplaining a beer style and the second from a manager at a central Jersey wholesaler who told my then-boyfriend to “mind his woman” after I beat the old guy in an argument. I’m literally the only woman I know to have it so easy.
The stories get so much darker. Like countless other women, my friend Natalie Phillips, from Ohio, left beer sales because she decided she’d no longer abide the constant comments about her breasts from liquor store buyers, the incessant challenges to her beer knowledge from distributors, and the months of inaction by the board of the brewery where she says the owner — her now-former boss — raped her after a few drinks.
Even now that women fill out more brewing and related roles than at any time in modern history, they repeatedly get shut down for speaking up. Generally, the independent entrepreneurs who make up a majority of employers still think of craft beer as a low-key cottage industry, and as such have no vocational policies, no official human resources personnel, and no mechanism for reporting labor issues. If and when victims do report, it’s common for them to get ignored, blamed, publicly exposed, or fired.
“Even now that women fill out more brewing and related roles than at any time in modern history, they repeatedly get shut down for speaking up.”
At Tired Hands, the owners are said to be the worst perpetrators. At Evil Genius, it’s the owners and two former managers. Evil Genius has publicly apologized and says it’s taken action to do better, while Tired Hands’ co-owners have stepped away from daily operations. No one, to my knowledge, has sold shares or formally left.
Apathy, willful ignorance, and defensiveness
As craft-beer pioneers and hosts of the world’s original and oft-copied beer week, Philadelphia brewers, publicans, and their trade partners must leverage their position to set a positive global example going forward. This week, Philly Loves Beer executive director Christina Dowd persuaded the board to adopt two codes of conduct: one that outlines rights and responsibilities for event attendees and another that requires members, participants, and sponsors to provide a safe, nontoxic space for employees, patrons, and visitors.
Along with Dowd, Devil’s Den bar owner Erin Wallace — president of the local chapter of the Pink Boots Society professional beer group for women — strongly encourages bars and breweries to offer sexual-harassment training through the internationally recognized Safe Bars program.
But across our entire city, only Devil’s Den, Raven Lounge, and Love City Brewing have Safe Bars certification. Resistant tavern owners don’t want to spend the money, don’t think they have an issue unless they get sued, and fear their association with the group will make would-be patrons assume they have a problematic clientele.
Herein lie the biggest obstacles to making the beer space safer: apathy, willful ignorance, and defensiveness. I’m dismayed that Wallace says she and Dowd had to supply their fellow board members with personal examples of their own harassment to “prove” it actually happens.
And I’m sickened by how many commenters on social media posts from Evil Genius and Tired Hands scoff at the accusations, admonish breweries for acknowledging the whistle-blowers, cajole them to go back to making beer, and blame women’s advocates for causing trouble.
But as thousands of women employed by the beer industry know, talking about the problem doesn’t bring it into existence. It’s not talking about the problem that allows it to fester.
No one expects the culture to change by Philly Beer Week’s virtual Opening Tap on June 4. It will take decades of committed efforts to eradicate the all-too-prevalent mentality that sets up safe harbor for misogyny in the beer space and beyond. But what we can do immediately — all of us, not just the women in the room — is pledge to directly call out bad behavior whenever and wherever we spot it. As the #MeToo movement in other industries has taught us, lending our voices to these issues is the first step to supporting those who need it and stopping the misguided protection of those who corrupt our close-knit community.
Tara Nurin is the beer and spirits contributor to Forbes and the author of the forthcoming book “A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs.” She lives on the Camden waterfront.