Image: Tina Tiller

The NZ beer industry confronts its demons

After accounts of sexism, harassment and abuse in the craft beer industry came to light overseas, women from New Zealand’s brewing community put out a call to action. 

On May 11, American brewer Brienne Allan posed a question to other women in the craft beer industry via her Instagram account @ratmagnet

“Do you ever get sexist comments at work?”

A pretty run-of-the-mill query, really, considering the male-dominated nature of the industry the world over is not exactly a secret. 

But Allan’s post had far-reaching repercussions. Thousands of women messaged her with not only accounts of quotidian sexism but also allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, of racism and toxic workplace cultures. Allan shared the stories, anonymising the source but often naming the man or brewery involved. 

Craft beer’s MeToo moment had arrived, and the impact was swift, with shockwaves rippling through America’s brewing industry and reverberating around the world. First came the public apologies, and then the resignations – Jacob McKeans, founder and CEO of top San Diego craft brewery Modern Times; Jean Broillet of Pennsylvania’s Tired Hands; Søren Wagner, founder and co-owner of Denmark’s Dry & Bitter, to name a few. In the UK, beer writer Siobhan Hewison was spurred to follow Allan’s model, calling for and sharing women’s stories via her Instagram @britishbeergirl. Apologies from several British breweries followed, including Scottish craft giant BrewDog

Here in New Zealand, Wellington brewery Garage Project was quickly challenged over its collaborations with both Tired Hands and Modern Times. In response, the brewery pulled the beers in question and divided the proceeds between a sexual abuse prevention charity and the Australia and New Zealand branches of Pink Boots Society, a global movement supporting women working in beer. It also shared on social media the measures, such as sexual harassment prevention training, it had in place. 

Garage Project’s Instagram posts from May 21

At almost exactly the same time, our comparatively tiny beer industry was experiencing a controversy of its own as racist comments from David Gaughan, the owner of Canterbury’s Eagle Brewing, came to light. The condemnation was immediate, with calls for the beer to be boycotted, and Gaughan eventually resigned. 

For many in the industry here, the parallels with what was going on overseas were clear. 

“The allegations in the US that then creeped out to most jurisdictions around the world started about a week after we had the ‘incident’, let’s call it, with Eagle Brewing,” explains Sabrina Kunz, executive director of the Brewers Guild of New Zealand.

“We received a lot of contact from our members about that first incident, both in informal and formal ways, and when this broke in the US, because brewers are on social media, it sort of started to pick up steam.”

While there was no sign of MeToo-type allegations being aired publicly here yet, Kunz realised the industry body she heads needed to take action. “There have always been rumours, I guess is the best way to describe it, circulating in the New Zealand brewing industry, but none of them had amounted to direct allegations by the women themselves,” she says.

“We’d always been doing things in the diversity space but I think we realised pretty quickly that we hadn’t been doing it as pointedly as we should have, and we probably hadn’t been doing enough. It really felt like there was a need for us to do something or provide a vehicle.” 

Kunz reached out to New Zealand’s chapter of the Pink Boots Society, as she considered them a “natural ally in this space”. Unsurprisingly, its members had been watching what was happening overseas closely. “There were definitely a lot of conversations happening within Pink Boots around what we were going to do,” says one member of the group, Claire*. 

They felt Pink Boots wasn’t the right space, however, “given that in the past they’ve been approached, both here and internationally, with issues that perhaps they didn’t respond to with the immediacy that people had wanted”, explains Kate*, another member. 

After representatives from Pink Boots talked with Kunz, they and the guild developed separate but complementary plans. Claire, Kate and a third Pink Boots member, all of whom felt particularly passionate about the need to take action, launched an Instagram account, @nzbeerfam, which went live on June 9. “A platform for people to anonymously share stories of sexism and other discriminatory experiences within the beer industry,” it is supported by the Pink Boots sub-committee but not a Pink Boots initiative per se.

In light of the Eagle Brewing controversy and the fact the lack of diversity in the industry goes far beyond gender, the trio were keen to shine a light on discrimination of all kinds.  

“We’re not just looking for sexism, we want to talk about racism and homophobia and a broader range of experiences,” says Kate. “We want this to have longevity. When the three of us are done with it, we hope someone else steps into the space. So this is not just riding on MeToo, it’s bigger than that.”

The trio is also eager to differentiate the account from its overseas counterparts. As the descriptor page on the Pink Boots website states, “The intent is not to name and shame, and they are not hosting a call-out in quite the same way as @ratmagnet or @britishbeergirl have done overseas.”

Those sharing their stories are explicitly asked not to name the people or place involved. A lot of that decision came down to New Zealand’s comparatively harsh defamation laws, says Claire. “We don’t want for ourselves or someone that we’re talking to to end up with a hefty court case if we were to name someone.”

But it’s also about focusing on “the change that needs to happen”, and avoiding the account becoming consumed by “cancel culture”.

“It’s really important that the people that are doing these things own up and stand up, so it’s not about saying we don’t want that to happen,” says Claire. “But I think when you have the person being called out, it shifts the focus away from what the situation is and then it becomes all about them rather than the victim and the victim’s story.”

Some of the stories shared on @nzbeerfam

A month on from launching the account, they’ve shared dozens of anonymous stories sent to them by direct message, ranging from women in the industry being belittled and patronised by their male counterparts, to more troubling accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault. None of it has been unexpected, though.

“When we started there was a sense of, like, ‘Is nothing going to happen? Are we going to put this out and no one comes forward?’,” says Kate. “But so far it’s been sort of what we know and expected. All of us as women have some horror story that we’ve tucked away. You think, like, ‘Oh, that did happen to me and it was horrible’. It’s been interesting opening this space up.”

Claire has felt a sense of gratitude from those in the industry, she says – “a real collective sentiment of ‘yay, the conversation is starting to happen’. But I think also people are quite nervous and there seems to be a sense that everyone’s holding their breath a bit.”

Even with anonymity guaranteed, the small, insular nature of the industry may be making people reluctant to come forward, she says. “It’s easy to feel that maybe if you say something, that someone might have been there on that night and put two and two together. I think we need to let go of that.”

The first couple of weeks of the account’s existence were “really exhausting”, says Kate, so they decided to set some boundaries: the inbox is now monitored on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday only. “That doesn’t mean people can’t reach out to us at any time, but that’s when we’ve put aside some time. 

“It does bring up things for us too – that’s the nature of it,” she says. “We are in a vulnerable place by doing what we’re doing, but it’s also been quite amazing. I’ve been feeling really empowered by this and I think it’s strengthened my resolve in lots of ways.”

Claire agrees. “In that first week we were quite overwhelmed with the things that were coming through and the enormity of it, but I think also it really pushed us ahead as well.”

The response they’ve had from men in the industry has been heartening, Claire and Kate say, but they’re not interested in empty gestures. “There’s been quite a bit of support from a lot of men in the community,” says Claire, “but we’re trying to really push back with that – like, ‘OK, cool, then be an active ally and talk about it and encourage people.’ It can all be well and good for our male counterparts to be like ‘we’re here to support’, but it comes back to setting this up for change.”

Around the same time that @nzbeerfam launched, the Brewers Guild added this page to its website, detailing its collaboration with Pink Boots on “a range of activities to help us meet the goal of creating an industry that is welcoming and inclusive to everyone”, and its plan going forward. The page explains that a confidential email address has been set up for women to get in touch with their stories, and encourages businesses to review their “company values and standards and practices to create an inclusive and safe place for people to work”.

Plan document from the Brewers Guild website

For executive director Kunz, it was crucial that “what we put forward had some legs,” she says. “I think we all realised fairly quickly that it was not enough to have a response and nothing else. An anti-racism and anti-sexism statement absent a plan is not actually going to solve the problem and not going to move us along, so that’s what we didn’t want to do.”

Kunz is monitoring the email inbox along with membership and event services manager Kelly Ockwell. There’s been “a very, very small number of emails”, says Kunz, and while they’ve received words of support, “it certainly hasn’t felt for me like there was this groundswell of women waiting for a solution that didn’t know where to go.

“I’m hopeful that the positive is that they felt that there was somewhere to go, rather than still don’t feel like they can come forward if they want to. But you just don’t know,” she adds.

“What we’ve tried to do is provide channels so that people can select the way that they want to communicate. And also, I think this is really important, choose not to if they don’t want to. Because something I’ve been really concerned about is putting the labour onto women who have had experiences to step up and talk about it, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Kunz says it’s not yet clear to her whether the industry has a widespread problem, “but one incident is too many”. “I think with all the MeToo reporting in New Zealand, we would be silly to think we are immune – we’re part of society and it’s rampant in society.”

What is clear is that while there’s been a shift in the past few years, diversity is an issue the industry still needs to work on, and while for Kunz it was important that women felt centred initially, she says “this needs to be broader than just women in brewing”. That means putting an emphasis on cultural and ethnic diversity and having zero tolerance for racism, and making sure members of the rainbow community are represented and supported.

Kunz is well aware that the guild’s own board, currently comprising nine white men, doesn’t exactly champion diversity. “We have for some time sought to proactively ask for a diverse range of candidates at the time of the AGM, but the challenge is because there are less women, the same women end up taking on a lot of the industry’s additional work,” she says. 

The guild is currently updating the employment agreement templates it provides to members, ensuring diversity is more explicitly referenced in the draft standards of conduct they include. A wellbeing-focused health and safety survey has recently gone out to the industry’s workforce, which aims to address issues like harassment. The results of the survey will inform the guild’s next steps. In collaboration with Pink Boots, it’s planning a series of regional meetings where the industry can get together to discuss in person all the issues that have been raised.

Regional education programmes that breweries and their employees can attend are also being discussed, says Claire, and Pink Boots is in the process of talking to organisers of Wellington’s Beervana festival about measures that can be put in place there. 

Claire and Kate are hoping they’ll hear from breweries about concrete action being taken in response to the issues raised via @nzbeerfam, but so far there hasn’t been much. Claire says she’s “100%” certain there will be people in the industry who are feeling scared about what might come out. “It’s that small industry mentality – people are probably worrying what could happen to their business, will they be not accepted or this or that. I feel like everybody’s holding their breath a bit. And I think there’s always that unfortunate situation too of people needing victims sometimes to really believe something’s happened. They need a face, something really tangible.”

Adds Kate: “It sometimes feels like we’re waiting for the big story to come out but it’s not really about that, it’s about things that happen often to women or people of colour on a daily basis that reinforce that power structure that we’re trying to make people aware of.

“It’s about amplifying those voices in a way that wasn’t happening. If you’re the only woman working in a brewery you’re unlikely to be shouting from the rooftops about the micro-aggressions that are happening every day. It’s just creating that space where it is OK to do that. 

“The industry isn’t going to change unless they’ve got enough voices telling them they need to.”

*Claire and Kate are not their real names




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