Brewing industry faces #MeToo moment

Rebecca Royster (from left), Jennifer Blair, Kendell Worden and Tracy Bardugon stand for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. Blair, Worden and Bardugon formerly worked at New Realm Brewing. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Rebecca Royster (from left), Jennifer Blair, Kendell Worden and Tracy Bardugon stand for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. Blair, Worden and Bardugon formerly worked at New Realm Brewing. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Employees at Georgia breweries allege systemic sexism, harassment, racism

Kendell Worden was excited to be among New Realm Brewing’s first employees when she was hired in March 2017 as the company’s beer program manager. But a little over a year later — and six months after the brewery made its debut on Atlanta’s Eastside Beltline, the excitement had dissipated for Worden and other female employees.

”We were seeing a lot of men in positions equal to ours treated as though they were somehow superior to us,” Worden told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Negative experiences ranged from microaggressions like being called “girls” instead of “women” to being tasked with “background grunt work while men were outwardly visible receiving credit.”

Worden, along with restaurant manager Tracy Bardugon and another female co-worker, approached upper management with their concerns about sexist and racist behavior they said they and other New Realm employees encountered on a regular basis. Instead of trying to find ways to address inequities in the workplace, Worden said, management “almost acted as if the meeting never happened.”

Ultimately, Worden and Bardugon both quit.

When asked about the experiences shared by their former employees, New Realm replied in an email: “Ensuring that New Realm continues to foster a culture of transparency, integrity and equality is a vital part of our mission and an ongoing process. We are committed to working with our team and our partners across the industry to ensure we maintain a diverse, safe and inclusive environment.”

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Former New Realm Brewing beer program manager Kendell Worden stands for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Former New Realm Brewing beer program manager Kendell Worden stands for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Former New Realm Brewing beer program manager Kendell Worden stands for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Exposed on Instagram

It was a post last month on the @ratmagnet Instagram account run by Salem, Massachusetts, brewer Brienne Allan that shined a light on Worden’s and Bardugon’s experiences at New Realm.

“What sexist comments have you experienced?” Allan asked on Instagram, after sharing her own frustrations with sexism in the industry.

Hundreds of anonymous stories of sexism, assault, harassment and racism from current and former brewery workers from across the country poured in, which Allan shared and archived on her Instagram account (volunteer-run Instagram account @emboldenactadvance also helped Allan).

Many Georgia breweries were among those that were called out for participating in or encouraging inappropriate behavior or looking the other way when such behavior was brought to their attention. In addition to New Realm, other metro Atlanta breweries, including SweetWater Brewing Co., Tucker Brewing Co., Scofflaw Brewing Co., Pontoon Brewing, Line Creek Brewing Co. and Reformation Brewery, were named.

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Former New Realm Brewing employee Tracy Bardugon sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Former New Realm Brewing employee Tracy Bardugon sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Former New Realm Brewing employee Tracy Bardugon sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The shared stories have already had an impact both nationally and internationally, with some brewers and CEOs resigning amid the allegations, and conversations about the sexism and racism in the industry becoming widespread.

‘Behind in many ways’

Many who have worked in the industry for years say this is far from a new problem.

Rebecca Royster, who has worked in brewing and at brewpubs and co-founded the Dregs and Dames Festival, designed to celebrate female beer professionals, experienced her share of both racism and sexism while working in the industry.

“I tend to feel that the craft beer industry is behind in many ways,” Royster told the AJC. “I’m not surprised it’s taken a few years for this to come to light.”

She said that while issues of harassment, racism and sexism aren’t necessarily specific to the brewing industry, they tend to become more apparent in what has largely been a male-dominated industry.

In a 2019 report, the Brewers Association, which represents thousands of craft breweries nationwide, said about 7.5% of breweries that participated in a diversity survey employed a female brewer. Women make up 37% of non-production, non-service roles, while Black employees make up about 4% of brewery service staffs.

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Former New Realm Brewing beer program manager Jennifer Blair sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Former New Realm Brewing beer program manager Jennifer Blair sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Former New Realm Brewing beer program manager Jennifer Blair sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Jen Blair resigned from New Realm Brewing as the beer program manager last month after working at the brewery since September 2019. Blair left New Realm after feeling like she only received a “performative” response to issues she had raised with upper management about what she saw as repeated sexist and racist behavior among certain employees, and shared her letter of resignation on her Instagram account, @underthejenfluence.

Blair is on the American Homebrewers Association Governing Committee, where she is the chair of the Industry subcommittee. According to Blair, many breweries, especially small operations, don’t have human resources departments or third-party reporting systems. That means that sometimes employees who experience harassment or other issues have little recourse outside of documenting their grievances with managers who might, for instance, be friends with the offender.

Push for lasting change

While third-party HR reporting is an important step, Blair says continuing to listen to women and people of color as they share their stories is the most important step in making sure that change within the industry is real and long-lasting.

To that end, she’s compiled an FAQ on how women can protect themselves legally. She’s also working with organizations including Women of the Bevolution that are helping to connect women who are sharing their stories with legal resources and information.

Education is also an important component, said Joseph Cortes, the executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, which serves, in part, as an advocacy organization for more than 60 breweries.

The group released a statement in mid-May addressing the allegations against many Georgia breweries, “unequivocally (denouncing) any acts of harassment, assault, discrimination or intimidation.”

Cortes said while the group doesn’t have “the authority or ability” to directly respond to specific allegations, there is the expectation that member breweries are safe spaces.

He said the Guild is working on connecting breweries with resources that provide third-party reporting, including sexual harassment reporting and prevention program WeVow and Red Flag, an external reporting platform.

In addition, the group is developing a code of ethics for its members and is collaborating with experts, particularly on sexual harassment in the workplace. Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, the Brewers Association’s equity and inclusion partner, is slated to be the keynote speaker at the Guild’s annual meeting in July.

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Rebecca Royster, co-founder of Dames and Dregs Beer Festival, sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Rebecca Royster, co-founder of Dames and Dregs Beer Festival, sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Rebecca Royster, co-founder of Dames and Dregs Beer Festival, sits for a portrait at The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

While a spotlight is being shone on women overall, both Blair and Royster point out the importance of recognizing the intersectionality of many of these issues, particularly for Black women and other people of color in the industry.

“Being a member of a super minority group in this industry requires an almost unbearable amount of tolerance,” Royster wrote in an essay shared on the Dames and Dregs website last month. “On too many occasions, I have been degraded. Sometimes, I have been required to sit and be silent. Other times, I have spoken up, only to have my words disregarded and spoken over. Compared to my industry peers, I have been undervalued. Compared to my industry peers, I am still undervalued. This. Must. Change.”

Blair said that while “incrementally, the needle moved” after the protests following George Floyd’s murder, a lot of breweries “failed their employees of color and continue to do so.”

Local breweries react

Tucker Brewing faced allegations of a hostile work environment that spanned beyond racism and sexism to include bullying, misclassification of employees as independent contractors, and other unfair or discriminatory practices. The company responded to the allegations on social media, acknowledging “room to improve.” Ownership declined to comment further for this article.

Scofflaw Brewing Co. and Line Creek Brewing Co. did not respond to a request for comment from the AJC.

Hiring a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion HR Manager is among the next steps that New Realm is taking.

Pontoon Brewing Co. CEO and co-owner Sean O’Keefe told the AJC that the company investigated many of the accusations made against the brewery, and acknowledges there are opportunities for change. He pointed to several of the action items Pontoon is taking, including enrolling in WeVow and instituting an internal zero-tolerance policy covering sexism, racism and harassment.

“We are committed to fostering a safe and respectful environment throughout our operations, and we have clear policies, procedures, and training in place to help prevent any behavior that may jeopardize that,” responded SweetWater in a written statement to the AJC. “We also understand that ongoing and proactive work is needed to truly live up to these values and we are wholly committed to taking these steps.”

Reformation Brewery co-founder and CEO Spencer Nix said, “Reformation does not tolerate sexism, racism, harassment, or abuse. All allegations have been investigated and corrections implemented as necessary.” Actions that the company is taking include using a third-party reporting platform, staff training and the creation of a female leadership committee.

Royster wonders whether serious long-term change at breweries will result from the stories being shared. “It’s one thing to acknowledge and to allow women to share their stories, but it takes a different level of courage to then come to the table to begin critically thinking about how we really bring about change,” she said.

The way that breweries are responding to recent accusations against them is key in determining if changes are going to be meaningful, said Caroline King, who produces and hosts the Atlanta-based “Bitch Beer” podcast, newsletter and blog and is working with Cortes of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild on compiling resources for Georgia women in brewing.

King noted that a number of women have already left the industry, and that breweries need to step up in order to keep the talent they have and to make sure other women and people of color aren’t dissuaded from careers in brewing.

She said consumers are ultimately the ones who could enable change.

“The way your customers vote is with their dollars, and their buying patterns are based on where they feel good spending their money. They don’t want to go where women are sexually harassed at work or are passed up for promotions.”

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