The biggest stories in beer this year weren’t mergers and acquisitions (though Bell’s selling to Kirin was a pretty big … if not entirely unexpected … one) or even necessarily the pandemic. Although the fate of beer ultimately relies on the health of its dollars and cents, the true shift to craft beer in 2021 emerged through the storyline of its people.
As BIPOC and LGBTQ+ populations continued to demand and achieve greater respect and representation, a critical mass of women showed their pain publicly for the first time since craft beer’s birth in the 1960s and ‘70s. Their collective cries augmented an important narrative to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic: morale matters, hence business will not continue as usual.
Reckoning and Retribution
On May 11, a management-level brewer who goes by RatMagnet on Instagram asked a question on the social media platform that would alter craft beer forever: “What sexist comments have you experienced?” Though the woman, named Brienne Allan, wasn’t the first to go public with her stories of sexism, she is the most influential to date, as her query drew in thousands of answers and accusations that brought the #MeToo movement to craft beer more than three years after it first rocked Hollywood and the nation.
After decades of suppressing their suffering for fear of retaliation, female workers from across the international beer world finally ended their silence by submitting harrowing tales of everything from inadvertent microaggressions to all-out rape at the hands of bosses, business partners, co-workers, colleagues and patrons.
Along with the allegations of sex-based discrimination erupted accounts of all kinds of workplace abuse. Founders who refused to promote Black, brown and LGBTQ+ employees. Owners who invited their friends to spend hours in their taprooms getting drunk, harassing servers and failing to tip. Managers who allowed regulars to regularly mistreat staff.
Names were named. Jobs were lost; positions of power relinquished.
The positive impact was immediate, enduring and deeper than just some overdue cleaning of house. Arguably the most important aspect: a relatively widespread recognition that breweries and their ancillaries are grown-up businesses that require firm policies to function properly. Not only did commercial entities around the world swiftly adopt codes of conduct, they began to see the critical need to protect their employees and themselves with codified standards for behavior (AKA handbooks containing written rules) and reach out to human resources professionals to evolve their corporate endeavors in an undeniably mature craft beer market that’s old enough to fall squarely into middle age.
With the US beer business still overwhelmingly dominated by caucasians, many constituents of color grumble that despite the global racial upheaval of 2020, the industry didn’t truly start paying attention to the concerns of marginalized members of its workforce until white women began speaking out this past spring. A rising tide lifts all ships. The high beam that brought women’s concerns out of the shadows is shining a light on the path forward for equity for all in the industry.
This appears most visibly in the acceleration of the increasingly vast number of programs designed to raise the level of opportunity for BIPOCs in beer created after the George Floyd protests of last year. The diversity in their breadth is refreshing and should set examples.
Pittsburgh’s beer influencers formed a Beer Diversity Council. The PInk Boots Society changed its membership requirements. With support from the Beer Kulture foundation, the Siebel Institute of Technology, the University of South Florida and Bronx Brewery launched scholarships and internships for aspiring brewers of color. And companies and organizations such as City Brew Tours and Women of the Vine and Spirits began offering brewing scholarships for non-white women.
“The craft beer industry across the country is still growing, and with growth comes opportunity. That opportunity could be a person of color opening their own brewery or it could be someone taking a job with an existing brewery. Either way, (these scholarships are) helping to provide an opportunity to a person that may not have otherwise received one,” says Latiesha Cook, President and CEO of Beer Kulture.
Recovery and Resilience
Overall, craft beer sales and production numbers available for 2021 add up to a whole lot of “meh.” A little growth, a little decline and a whole lot of pandemic WTF.
Poor Bart Watson, whose job as chief economist for the Brewers Association requires him to make sense of COVID-era data that contains zero precedent and just about the same amount of logic. He explained a graph showing the mid-year off-premise chain numbers in July by writing, “The narrative I’d assign to this graph is that the first ten weeks were partial pandemic market logic cycling non-pandemic logic. That means a continued strong shift from on-premise to off-premise and elevated sales. From there, you see a weakening of that shift and the cycling versus 2020 suddenly compares to the much larger shift we saw in the first months of the pandemic. And all of this is in the context of a time of the year where, nationally, seasonality is driving growing sales.”
Adding even more erraticism, the numbers themselves mislead as much as their interpretation. The National Beer Wholesalers Association’s (NBWA) Beer Purchasers’ Index for December 2021 breaks December records at a high 71 out of 100, which indicates strong purchasing by wholesalers going into a traditionally meager January. Last December’s BPI was a limp 36.
This doesn’t necessarily indicate a good thing.
The NBWA explains, “Continued supply chain challenges combined with planned/expected price increases in 2022 are driving higher index readings as distributors and retailers seek to build their inventories heading into the new year.”
All this confusion considered, it may be best to leave the numbers behind to over-simplistically summarize the year in beer and competitive product sales and distribution this way: no and low-alcohol alternatives were up, seltzer – perhaps unbelievably – was down (since September); logistical problems were up, aluminum can supply was down; labor shortages were up, malting barley production was down; the number of operating breweries in the US was up (to a record 9,000+), the number of closures was down (significantly from 2020 and even 2019).
Brewers earned some enormous economic wins from Congress this year that miraculously allowed almost all of them to survive, and in some cases thrive, with the support of their loyal local communities and a heap of ingenuity and flexibility. As the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to upend the beer business’ recovery once again, brewers will do well to remember how they managed to get to today: resilience, more resilience, and a never-ending reserve of resilience.