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Has Craft Beer Already Imagined a Better Future?

April 01, 2021

Story: Beth Demmon

photo: Eliana Rodgers

Beer

Has Craft Beer Already Imagined a Better Future?

April 01, 2021

Story: Beth Demmon

photo: Eliana Rodgers

Though far from perfect, the grassroots spirit of craft beer has made it a model for the drink industry’s larger push toward diversity and inclusion.

For just about every business, industry and individual, 2020 forced long-simmering issues to a boiling point. The beverage industry, like so many others, had to react quickly to address shutdowns, sheltering in place and supply shortages, all while confronting the burgeoning social justice movement and cries for accountability after years of exclusion, inequity and prejudice.

Some beverage segments have responded quicker and more deftly than others, and while contrasting the approaches of wine, beer, cider and spirits makers is—quite literally—comparing apples to grapes, identifying what initiatives have been successful and where there’s still work to be done can pave a way toward a more equitable future.

In making these comparisons, it’s hard to deny that craft beer has pushed ahead as a pioneer of inclusion, in part through individual efforts like Eugenia Brown’s Road to 100 scholarships for BIPOC women pursuing Cicerone certification and Garrett Oliver's Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling, which aims to fund educational opportunities for BIPOC working in brewing and distilling, as well as company-led and funded programs like Cloudwater Brew Company’s Wayfinder incubator program, which financially supports recipients over three months; the North American Guild of Beer Writers (NAGBW) Diversity in Beer Writing grants; and the collaborative Black is Beautiful brew, spearheaded by Weathered Souls Brewing Company to raise money and awareness for police brutality reform, to name just a few.

Despite this progress, craft beer companies still have a long way to go, but in the alcoholic beverage space, they’ve proved themselves to be comparatively ahead of the curve. In fact, much of this work predates the current emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity (DEI). Take, for example, the Brewers Association’s DEI Committee, which launched in 2017, or Ren Navarro’s Beer.Diversity. program, a DEI-focused consulting service that debuted in 2018. But even with these types of initiatives gaining momentum, most of the alcohol beverage industry—craft beer included—remains largely white and male on both the employment and consumer sides. “The failures to market, or at least consider, a range of diverse consumers, is something that has plagued all the industries,” says Bryan Roth, NAGBW director and longtime beer writer.

Some more-recent programs have sought to address these failures, like the U.K.-based The Queer Brewing Project, a community-based advocacy group that raises visibility and funds for LGBTQ people working in the beer space. Lily Waite launched the project in 2019 to “find a way to do something of substance,” she explains. Her perspective on DEI was originally shaped by her experiences as a queer trans woman writing about beer, an industry she perceived as a lot of talk without corresponding action. Since its inception, she’s brewed over 30 beers in 5 countries, raising nearly £30,000 (about $40,000) for various charities—tangible steps in the right direction, even if they were often taken solo.

Some of these efforts in the craft beer space have inspired adjacent industries—like cider—to evaluate their own DEI practices. In 2020, with guidance from the Brewers Association’s Diversity Ambassador Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, the American Cider Association (ACA), the main trade association for the cider industry in the United States, started an anti-racism newsletter as part of an accountability effort throughout the organization.

Michelle McGrath, executive director of the ACA, posits that cidermakers’ ability to swiftly initiate DEI work across the industry owes, in part, to their small size and relative youth. By her estimate, there are currently around 1,200 cideries in the U.S. Comparatively, there are over 11,000 wineries and more than 8,300 independent breweries in the country, with cider’s share of the alcohol beverage industry hovering around 1 percent. This allows cider’s equity efforts to grow in tandem with the segment’s growth; that is, more proactively and less reactively. Craft beer echoes this relative nascence, with an industry share that’s measured in decades rather than generations, unlike wine and spirits.

Beer.Diversity.’s Navarro, meanwhile, sees beer’s historical classification as a working-class beverage as a boon to equity-minded people working in the industry as well as those who simply enjoy it as consumers. “Beer is more grassroots movements, and I think that like-minded people find each other a lot faster [compared to wine and spirits],” she says. Part of that cultural dexterity is thanks to the product itself. “Wine can’t turn on a dime the way beer can,” Navarro explains, referring to beer’s agility and ability to go from concept to completed product in a much shorter time frame than wine and spirits (weeks as opposed to months or even years). There’s also a price distinction that makes beer more accessible to curious consumers. “Wine is about status and stature, and beer is always an underdog story… Not everyone can buy a $100 bottle of wine, but everyone can buy a $2 can of beer,” says Navarro.

The wine and spirits industries are home to a number of laudable initiatives as well, including groups like Black Wine Professionals, For The Culture magazine celebrating Black women and femmes in food and wine, and Radical Xchange’s social justice consulting services aimed at the hospitality industry at large. But where beer and cider seem to succeed in particular is coalescing individual efforts as part of a broader industrywide direction. The ACA is currently in the preliminary stages of a partnership with Beer Kulture, a Black-led nonprofit in craft beer, and the longtime women’s beer education group the Pink Boots Society recently joined forces with the cider group Pomme Boots to unite under a common cause. Segment-specific initiatives like Craft Beer For All and Diversity in Wine and Spirits have even updated their names to become less siloed and use more inclusive terminology, respectively becoming Crafted For All and Diversity in Food & Beverage.

Attracting a wider range of participants has never been easier, or more important, in every segment. “American drinkers are getting more diverse than ever,” says Roth, explaining that DEI initiatives aren’t just morally beneficial—they can be lucrative, as well. Waite agrees, although she hopes businesses’ motivations aren’t limited to sales. “Don’t do it because you think there’s pressure to do it or because everyone else is,” she implores. “Do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

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Beth Demmon is an award-winning freelance writer who specializes in covering the culture of craft beer. Her work has appeared in Playboy, Saveur Magazine, VICE Munchies, Good Beer Hunting, Prohibitchin' on Substack and many more. Follow her on Twitter at @delightedbite.