On International Women’s Day, we talk to three women reshaping the BC Beer industry.
Julia Hanlon is tired of being asked what it’s like to be a woman in the beer industry.
She started her career with Molson in 2005, before moving into the role of Head Brewer at Steamworks in 2015, a role which has since evolved to include the title of Operations Manager as the brewery has grown. Over 18 years of working in back-of-house roles in the industry, it’s a subject she’s had to discuss many, many times before.
“These are the questions that, unfortunately, women in beer do have to answer,” she explains. “We’re like, ‘Well we’re just trying to do our jobs… just like that guy over there that is your more prototypical brewer.’”
“It’s kind of annoying to be constantly asked, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in beer?’”
“Well, um, I guess I’ll just leave then,” I joke. I’m sitting across from her in her office at Steamworks’ Burnaby location, and that, unfortunately, is exactly what I’ve come to ask her.
In the spring of 2021, Brienne Allan, then the Head Brewer and Production Manager at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, posted a story on her personal Instagram account, @RatMagnet, about a sexist experience she had at work. She then posed the question to other women working in the industry: “What sexist comments have you experienced?”
Her post struck a chord in an industry whose leadership (and often, customer base) is overwhelmingly made up of white, cis-gendered men. Within weeks, it received thousands of responses, which she then re-posted to the public, chronicling allegations of harassment, racism, and sexism at every level of the industry. The viral nature of the story prompted a reckoning within the beer world and led to the resignations of several prominent industry figures.
Two years after Allan lifted the veil on issues within the industry — and in the wake of #MeToo, the George Floyd protests, and the accelerated push for safer, more equitable workplaces brought on by the pandemic — I wanted to talk to a few people working in BC beer to see what’s changed, and what hasn’t.
So I sat down with Julia Hanlon, as well as Diana McKenzie, the co-founder of Callister Brewing in East Vancouver, and Chloe Smith, co-owner and General Manager of Townsite Brewing in Powell River.
While their experiences and roles differ, there was one sentiment they all shared: there is still work to be done.
“If you pay attention to social media, in terms of the conversation, I’d say that has shifted,” McKenzie says. “The imagery has changed: to be a bit more inclusive, to be a bit more diverse in a way that’s not the same old white dude. But it’s hard to say what’s really going on behind the scenes… Unfortunately, I think some of the attitudes in some of the breweries have not changed fast enough.”
But as more women enter leadership roles, the conversation has evolved beyond social media into tangible initiatives at various levels of the industry.
Every year around International Women’s Day, many breweries host women’s collaboration brew days, and during last year’s events, McKenzie realized that many of the people working on the same goals in the city weren’t well connected. “It didn’t feel cohesive,” she says. “But it should be, we should all know what each other are doing and stay in touch.”
So McKenzie started a group called The Modern Beer Club in Vancouver. The club meets once a month, usually at a brewery where one of the members is working. There’s no agenda, simply space and time to connect. While the club was inspired by women’s brew day, McKenzie was intentional about not making its branding overtly feminine.
“The Modern Beer Club is an attempt to expand our community to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ folks as well,” McKenzie explains. “I’m starting to feel more and more that ‘women’s’ brew days are in their own way exclusionary in their attempt to be more inclusive. That said, the club is also, by definition, exclusionary of cis-het-white men, but it’s a first step toward creating more safe spaces, as I think the brew days were as well.”
While women’s brew days and the increasing presence of women in back-of-house roles are certainly deserving of celebration, it’s clear that diversity and inclusion in the beer industry must not begin and end with simply hiring more women.
“Female — we’re the easy ones, we’re still half the population,” Hanlon says. “I think more about BIPOC groups, LGBTQ+ groups: are the breweries ready for that? And I think the answer for a lot of breweries is that they’re not.”
Hanlon and Smith both sit on the board of the BC Craft Brewers Guild, and over the past two years, the Guild has been developing a code of conduct to help BC breweries build out more robust HR policies. Due to the small scale of many breweries, in-house HR was previously infeasible.
“Technically if you’re starting a brewery or running a business you have to have these things in place under WorkSafe,” Hanlon says. “But it’s more of a box-ticking exercise, and I think the engagement beyond just ticking that box has really come up in the past few years… In the course of doing this, I’ve seen a lot of engagement from breweries that want this, and I don’t know if that appetite was there eight years ago, five years ago, three years ago.”
Smith also sits on the board of the Canadian Craft Brewers Association (CCBA). On their end, the Inclusion and anti-Discrimination Committee has created a four-month HR training program for craft breweries. They’re also building out an online community where they are encouraging people within the industry to come forward to reflect on their personal growth in the realm of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), and how that impacts their work.
“We’ve developed some workshops around developing your own personal value statement,” Smith explains. “Because the stance that we’re taking right now is that what happens at the personal level and your own sphere of influence level, and at the industry level, all has to happen simultaneously… Your company needs a mission-vision-value statement, but so do you.”
These issues that the beer world is grappling with are not unique to this industry. Companies in nearly every sector are struggling to hastily overhaul their businesses in the face of rapidly evolving social demands. Many previously acceptable workplace behaviours and norms are being scrutinized in a new light, and found to be inappropriate at best, or outright harmful at worst.
Seeking to modernize their operations, many businesses immediately look to hiring more diverse staff as their DEI initiative. But to Smith, diverse hiring in the absence of a true, earnest effort towards restructuring not only your business, but the way you show up authentically and honestly with your colleagues, will simply end up as a box-ticking exercise again.
“I don’t think it’s like ‘hire a bunch of BIPOC’ or ‘make sure you have a queer staff member.’ That’s not how it’s done,” she says. “Because you’re going to hire those people but you’re not going to know how to include them. You’re going to have diversity but not inclusion.”
While the beer industry is not alone in facing these issues, the intimate nature of craft beer, specifically, provides an interesting opportunity and challenge. Unlike multinational beer companies, or any larger business whose customer base is geographically spread out, craft breweries rely heavily on the support of their immediate local community.
This puts consumers in the position — should they choose it — of becoming advocates for the kinds of business practices they’d like to see.
If I decided to boycott a massive company that I learned had some unsavoury business practices, even if I told everyone I know, it wouldn’t make a dent in their success. But if I found out that a local microbrewery owner had a string of credible assault or harassment allegations from staff members, and I decided to boycott that company and tell everyone I know, and they did the same, even within a small sphere of influence, that could have real and catastrophic consequences for that business.
However, the potential for that kind of advocacy to be impactful depends on a few things. Namely: the bravery of the individuals making the allegations who might (justifiably) prefer to just find a different job rather than invite conflict into their lives by coming forward. And a consumer base who views it as their responsibility to stand up for equity, rather than shrugging it off or looking the other way because the beer is good.
One thing is certain: In an industry where men hold nearly twice as many managerial roles as women (according to these survey results published by the CCBA) and make up the majority of the consumer base, the push for tangible, substantial DEI efforts cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of women.
As far as the future of the industry is concerned, there is a lot to be optimistic about, and a lot of good people driving the conversation forward.
“There’s this rebellious spirit to our industry that I just love,” says Smith. “When I walk into a room full of my colleagues, there’s just this electricity in the room, that is not related to the alcohol, that has nothing to do with the physical beer itself.”
“I like to think really big; I don’t like to box myself in,” she continues. “I envision us as the leaders of psychologically safe workplaces, diversity AND inclusion.”
Julia Hanlon is more succinct: “I think the goal would be that we don’t have to talk about this anymore.”
The Pink Boots Society is a national non-profit organization helping women and non-binary folks in the Fermented/Alcoholic Beverage Industry advance their careers through education.
Diversity in Brewing is a grassroots initiative dedicated to celebrating and supporting diversity in the craft beer industry: “Our objective is to promote and foster a diverse, respectful, safe, and welcoming brewing industry across Western Canada and beyond.” Read our blog here.
Hilary Angus is a writer and food justice worker. When she’s not tromping around in the woods with her dog, you can find her sitting at the bar in a Yeast Van brewery, or reviewing books and booze on her Instagram.