Social media brings fresh attention to issues of harassment within the brewery industry

Hundreds of anonymous tales posted to Instagram have started a nationwide conversation, including here in Ohio, where Jackie O’s issued a statement detailing new actions being taken in response

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Half-growler cans of beer inside a refrigerator on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020 at Jackie O's Beer Store in Columbus, Ohio. The Athens, Ohio-based brewery is opening up a retail space with plans to expand into a beer garden and event space. The Beer Store, located in the former Elevator Brewing Company taproom at 165 N. 4th St., opens for curbside pickup on Tuesday.

On May 11, Brienne Allan, a production manager at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, posed a question on Instagram, asking other women in the brewery industry what sexist comments had been directed at them while working in the male-dominated field. In the weeks since, Allan has shared hundreds of largely anonymous stories sent to her from across the country by women in the brewing industry, who have recounted incidents of sexual harassment, misogyny and worse.

The myriad stories have kicked off a renewed, #MeToo-style reckoning within the industry, with a handful of brewers submitting resignations in the wake of the allegations, including Jacob McKean, the CEO and founder of San Diego-based Modern Times Beer, who stepped down from his role as CEO on May 18. “My heart aches for anyone who came to work for us — full of hope for the career they expected to have with us — only to have that experience marred by harassment,” McKean said in a statement.

The allegations, which have included dozens of breweries nationwide, surfaced locally with Athens-based Jackie O’s, which opened its first Columbus branch Downtown last year and was mentioned in an incident attributed to a former employee of the brewery. After the story posted, Jackie O’s owner Art Oestrike said he started to receive messages from employees and colleagues, which sent him to Instagram, where he located and read the accusation, and then spent the rest of the evening reading through the hundreds of submitted posts.

“I started reading and I couldn’t stop. I was going through a mix of emotions. I was appalled, and at certain points I was disgusted. … I was really retrospective about what has gone on both throughout society and within our walls,” Oestrike said. “When I read some of [the accounts], I questioned, ‘Could that be us?’ … And it made me think, and it made me go back and question. I couldn’t stop reading because I was questioning everything.”

Oestrike said that in hindsight he now recognizes the past incident, which he described as “touchy” — “I’m trying to be careful here,” he said — for what it was. And when he woke up the morning after reading through the posts, he said he did so with an awareness that the moment demanded not just words, but tangible, meaningful and ongoing action.

On May 20, Oestrike posted a lengthy letter to the Jackie O’s site, as well as to the brewery's social media channels, in which he apologized for past shortcomings (“I allowed a toxic work culture to continue through periods of rapid growth because I was not ready to tackle issues head-on”) and detailed steps the company planned to take in the coming weeks, including: providing mandatory sexual harassment training for all employees; creating and implementing an anonymous employee survey to gain a better understanding of the workplace culture; and donating to a GoFundMe created by Allan to assist with any legal fees incurred by sharing the anonymous stories via Instagram.

The letter also detailed actions previously undertaken by the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, created in the wake of the reinvigorated Black lives matter movement of 2020. “As a brewery and as an industry, we can and must do better,” Oestrike wrote.

“This is an industry that has been historically male-dominated, and as we’ve seen with other male-dominated industries, that can breed toxicity,” said Oestrike, who has contacted outside HR firms for guidance, scheduled guest speakers and is engaging staff members with an openness geared toward learning. “I’m almost surprised this didn’t happen earlier. … I think it was all of those individual voices, that collective action, that really got it out there. Publishing all of those stories in short succession, I think really allowed [the women] to have a voice, and I’m happy it happened, because it needed to happen.”

The discussion has even impacted breweries not mentioned in the Instagram posts, including Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, which had previously issued a letter to employees addressing the potentially toxic culture within the industry following the numerous sexual assault accusations that surfaced against Actual Brewing founder Fred Lee in 2019. (Lee resigned following the publication of the Alive investigation, and less than a week later the brewery closed and was subsequently dissolved.)

More:Multiple women accuse Actual Brewing founder Fred Lee of sexual assault

“It wasn’t a shock to us that [harassment] is still happening, and it’s certainly not exclusive to the brewing industry, or even restaurant hospitality, though I think it might be more prevalent,” said Wolf’s Ridge co-owner Bob Szuter, joined for a Zoom call by head brewer Chris Davison and the company’s HR manager, Jamie Braden. “But when we sent that email [in 2019], we wanted to be very clear where we stood. I think [we] have always tried to be transparent about how we run the business, and we wanted to be very clear that [behavior] was never going to be OK, and as much as we value all of our employees, there’s no one who isn’t expendable, and we can and should get anyone out of here who doesn’t fit the core values of our business. And we’ve done that. There have been instances where things were so serious that it was automatic, and we let those people go.”

More recently, Davison said he was struck by the volume of stories shared by Allan on Instagram, including myriad incidents involving breweries and brewers with which he was familiar. “I started seeing breweries I knew, breweries I had visited, brewers I knew personally or had met … and that’s when it hit me how ingrained this was into the culture of the industry,” Davison said. “It’s hard to digest all of that, but we can’t look away, we can’t put our heads down, and we can’t just say we’re sorry. We have to take action.”

As a first step, Davison called an ad-hoc employee meeting on Monday, redistributing the company’s sexual harassment policy, along with related materials, and then leading a deeper hourlong conversation. “I think it all begins with … having an uncomfortable moment where we recognize that we all could have done better in a situation or two,” he said, “and that we can’t look away or remain quiet in the future.”

“This is something I told Chris when we talked last week, starting the conversation is the most important thing, because with sexual harassment, women often find themselves in a spiral of silence, where you’ve been raised to think that’s OK, or just to shake it off,” said Braden, who noted that Wolf’s Ridge is currently in the process of reviewing its policies, including the potential for adopting mandatory sexual harassment training for all employees. “Even having the conversation … can empower more women to come out with their stories.”

Bigger picture, both Oestrike and Davison spoke about the ways some of these harassment-related issues could be lessened by diversifying workspaces in which brewers are overwhelmingly “cis, white males, and often with a beard,” said Davison, who followed by noting how well he fit the type. “Someone who looks like me, for better or worse.”

“Over the summer we did quite a few interviews and I tried to make sure that, number one, I interviewed as many people as I could, regardless of their experience or background, because one of the things I’ve learned is that if you want to diversify your staff, you can’t always go through the same channels … or you’re always going to get people who are exactly like you,” Davison said. “If you’re only hiring people you know, then it tends to be people who look and act like you. And if you’re not diversifying your staff, you’re not letting in outside viewpoints. And then it’s going to be really hard to change.”