Policies change, but sexism continues to burn through the brewing industry
When Courtney Servaes opened Servaes Brewing Company in 2019, hers became the first woman-owned brewery in Kansas. Oftentimes, customers will overlook the women brewers or staff to ask men questions about the beer—or will leave the brewery unreasonably shocked that women are just as capable of brewing good beer as men.
In one instance, one of Servaes’ friends (a brewer at another establishment) recommended that a customer stop by Servaes Brewing Company as part of his beer tour around Kansas City. Instead of sharing the brewer’s excitement about the recommendation, the customer responded by saying he would not go to Servaes because it had a female brewer.
Instances like what often happens to Servaes are not unique. Despite the rise of diverse and inclusive breweries, craft beer is still stereotypically thought of and treated as a man’s world. This Boy’s Club leads to workplace abuse at many breweries and the continual ousting of women brewers. Some are directly forced out by their employer, but many feel no other choice but to leave—to protect themselves and to find work that treats and pays them like an equal.
Brienne Allan, a brewer at Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts, experienced multiple sexist comments from patrons at her job. She posted about the incident on her Instagram story, and then asked a simple question to women brewers: What sexist comments have you experienced? The answers came flooding in—hundreds of women telling about the sexism they endured from both their coworkers and patrons in the brewing industry.
The responses ranged from customers’ not taking them seriously as brewers (“You don’t look like a beer person, you don’t have a beard”), to retellings of dangerous and abusive situations they were forced into. Stories of sexist comments, threats, sexual harassment, and abuse show that the brewing industry is still not equitable and welcoming for all who work in beer.
Though Allan is based in Massachusetts, the stories came from women in breweries all over the United States, including Kansas City. For five women brewers in the city, the stories evoked emotions and memories about the maltreatment they experienced at various breweries they worked at.
For Elizabeth Belden, a former Boulevard employee, reading those Instagram stories meant unpacking years of harassment that she learned to ignore.
“[I just thought:] how did I not see this? Did anyone see what was going on there?” Belden says. “Then struggling with experiences of harassment that I’d faced that I didn’t really identify as that at the time, but do now.”
Throughout her career in brewing, Belden says she notices more toxic, abusive work environments than healthy ones. That’s part of what makes leaving those breweries so hard. If there’s nowhere else to go that is safe, women either need to move or leave the industry altogether.
“There are probably more outliers than there are as a whole being a safe haven,” says Belden. “I think that’s what those Instagram stories that have been amplified are displaying. There are a lot of places out there that you might not fire someone for assaulting another employee, like sexual assault, or that might turn their back on [the employee].”
Belden now works for KC Bier Co. and says it’s one of the good breweries. It wasn’t until she started there that she fully understood how toxic the environment at Boulevard was. But Boulevard is not the only brewery that fostered a toxic workplace. They’re part of the trend, not an outlier. That’s why Belden thinks the visibility and rejection of sexism in brewing is so important. Unless breweries are constantly pushed by employees and customers, they will not truly change their practices.
Boulevard, Belden says, is an example of a brewery that talked a lot about fixing the work environment for their employees and rooting out sexism. But in practice, little has been done except to protect the image of the brewery. Most of the responsibility falls on breweries to fix their work environments, but Belden says customers have a lot of say as well. It is customers that are often responsible for the offhand sexist comments in the front of house, and customers who put pressure on breweries to eliminate harassment in the workplace.
“This is not a Kansas City issue. This is not a Boulevard issue. This is a national issue,” Belden says. “We are in Kansas City, [but] this is certainly not exclusive to us at all. I would say that, as a customer, you have just as much of an impact on how this goes. I guarantee you for every single thing that was reported on that Instagram story there are tenfold instances like that, which don’t get reported. Don’t assume that [women] don’t know as much, there’s nothing inherently male about beer, nothing.”
Abby Zender is the most recent woman to leave Boulevard after enduring harassment at the brewery since she began. Zender was hired to replace Belden after her exit from the brewery. The pair bonded after the Reddit post gained traction and led to them discussing their shared, often negative, experiences at the brewery.
She says that the aftermath of the Boulevard scandal was perhaps more detrimental to her mental health and self-worth than the actual harassment that took place. Zender often gets asked why she didn’t say anything about the abuse sooner. The choice to speak up wasn’t available, though. Keeping silent was a way for Zender to keep her job and to ensure the maltreatment didn’t get worse.
“I have always felt like I needed to try to fit into this boys club that exists, especially in the beer industry,” Zender says. “I have unfortunately sat through and awkwardly laughed at inappropriate jokes and comments sometimes at my expense, just because the alternative is to stand up for yourself and then you get labeled as a bitch or being too sensitive.”
After the abuses at Boulevard came to light, Zender was initially hopeful that things would change. Instead, she got blamed for some of the changes at the company. Changes that happened after she finally got taken seriously
“I felt initially hopeful when the first round of people got fired. Because one of them, the CFO, was one of the people who was harassing me, which is crazy. I reported that [and the response was] ‘Oh, he’s just lonely.’ That was the actual response from HR,” says Zender. “I don’t know what I thought change would look like, but I just sort of got tired of being told to be patient. Part of the retaliation was comments from coworkers to my face about how I was the person who got everyone fired. That stung because I didn’t want that. I just wanted to be able to come to work and not feel uncomfortable. The executives at Boulevard are the people who fired them.”
That retaliation from coworkers and executives didn’t stop and Zender’s work environment only became more toxic. Some of the changes that Boulevard promised were never executed, and ones that were had no measurable impact on culture at the brewery.
“Even though they made all these promises, nothing really changed,” says Zender. “It’s just this overall, miserable, toxic, unhealthy place for me personally to be.”
Zender recently left the brewing industry for good and she’s unsure if she’ll ever return to brewing. If she does, Zender says there would need to be large-scale changes to the whole field.
Riley Wetzel worked at Boulevard before leaving to work at a brewery in California. She’s back now and working at Alma Mader Brewing. Wetzel says she had an overall good experience at Boulevard, but did experience and witness some instances of sexual harassment. During her time in California, Wetzel was faced with more harassment and came to understand that it is not an issue that a single brewery can solve.
“I realized pretty immediately that there was a necessity to stay on the good side of some people and fit in with the management,” says Wetzel. “I’m going to fit in, or I’m going to make waves. Because being the person that makes waves or reports any type of harassment, you kind of have a target put on your back.”
At Alma Mader, Wetzel immediately noticed a difference in the way they treated women compared to the previous breweries she worked with. One of those differences is that Alma Mader had a clear policy to protect employees from harassment—instead of policies that silenced employees to not tarnish the brewery.
“They have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind,” says Wetzel. “Day one, the zero-tolerance policy was made very clear. I feel really comfortable there. It’s still a fast-paced job, but it’s not a boy’s club. I have so much less anxiety. It’s very inclusive, and it’s a hard-working group of people.”
Wetzel thinks a major step all breweries need to take is ensuring that employees have a place to report maltreatment that is separate from the company. When a third-party HR firm is not funded by the company, they have no reason to keep quiet about abuses that take place.
Hannah McEldowney was one whose story of harassment at Boulevard came out without her control. After the Reddit post gained traction, McEldowney was forced to publicly address the sexual assault she experienced at Boulevard.
Since then, McEldowney left the brewing industry altogether in an effort to heal from the trauma she experienced at Boulevard. One of McEldowney’s favorite parts of her current job is that it has a strong HR department—a clear contrast to what she experienced at Boulevard.
“I don’t feel comfortable going back into Boulevard because [they failed] me,” McEldowney says. “There’s no part of me that wants to be in the brewing industry anymore. I’m seeing all of this [sexism] continue to happen. Why would I put myself in that situation? That sucks, because I love beer and I love the industry and I devoted a lot of my life to it—to learn about and study it, and I had big dreams.”
McEldowney says there was no effort at Boulevard to address sexism in the industry at its roots. Though many changes need to take place for brewing to be a better place for women, the reasoning to do so is clear to her.
“I’m just wanting change in there for other women to feel safe,” says McEldowney.
Servaes sees some progress in the industry as the amount of new women brewers hired increases. However, she says that is not enough to address sexism in brewing.
“[Breweries] will post a picture on Facebook or Instagram of a female that they’ve hired as an assistant brewer and they are proud to show that they believe in equity in that sense, and it always is something positive,” Servaes says. “I definitely don’t dislike seeing that. But I also feel to some extent that that is just the beginning. Until we are no longer posting a picture of our new assistant brewer who’s female on Facebook—which is completely not worthy of a Facebook post, because there are so many women—it’s still a huge problem. Until that does not exist, it’s a huge problem.”
To make brewing more inclusive, welcoming, and safe, McEldowney says there needs to be open and clear systems of reporting. And to ensure that those reports are thoroughly dealt with and not ignored. Zender believes to make women feel safe in brewing, you need to support and believe them first.
“I don’t know what could make Boulevard in particular better, or the industry as a whole better other than listen to women, believe women,” Zender says. “The common mistake that I see men making is the assumption that because they did not personally see this prejudice, that it doesn’t exist. But, the evidence is there. It doesn’t matter if you see it or if you even believe it or care, the evidence is there that women are mistreated in these industries. Rather than questioning it, just believing it would help a lot.”
Servaes’ best piece of advice for women who want to get into brewing is to push forward no matter what obstacles arise. Though, that advice is hard to follow when the main obstacles for women in brewing is sexism and sexual harassment.
“My only piece of advice is to do it and to not let anybody stop you from doing it. But that is a very difficult thing to keep in mind when you’re dealing with discrimination on a daily basis at your job,” says Servaes.
Sadly, many women brewers bond over the harassment they’ve each experienced at various breweries. Their love of beer has not died out, but the need for change in the industry is clear. If women aren’t able to find work at a safe and inclusive workplace, they often have to fully exit the industry like Zender and McEldowney did. The changes that are needed in brewing won’t only benefit women. Creating safe workplaces creates a better craft, a better relationship between brewers, and ultimately better beer.