How A Mass. Brewer's Call For Harassment Stories Led To A Reckoning In The Beer Industry
The stories run through her mind as Brienne Allan drives to work at Notch Brewing in Salem. They occupy her thoughts before bed. For the last two weeks, they’ve accumulated in her Instagram inbox and her social media account has become a vessel, holding space for anonymous reports of abuse in the brewing industry.
Examples like this one:
“The first time I decided to wear lipstick to work, someone told me, ‘Oh, so you decided to wear lipstick today for us, huh?'”
And this one:
“I was just a brewer at the time, when one of our distro companies’ owners came up to me and said, ‘In light of the #MeToo movement, I probably shouldn’t say this, but you look really sexy driving that forklift.’ I wanted to crawl out of my body.”
She doesn’t know who all of these women are. But she knows what they’ve been through.
“He pushed me up against his vehicle and pressed his body up against mine and told me I had no where to go. I told him to get off me or I was going to tell his girlfriend where he was at 2 a.m., which finally made him back off.”
Allan, who has worked for the Salem brewery since it opened in 2017, posed a simple question on Instagram: Is anyone else experiencing sexist comments? The answer was this cascade of experiences, flooding her private messages with a deluge of trauma.
“It escalated really quickly into people talking about sexual violence and sexual harassment, racism from owners and superiors and just how, the HR system in general is just failing people right now,” Allan said. “It just escalated out of control. I have over a thousand stories up now.”
They told her they were assaulted on the job, felt up by strangers and coworkers. Talked down to by superiors. Treated as less in their own place of business. Made to feel like they didn’t belong. That happened to Allan recently as she worked to open Notch Brewing’s newest location in Brighton. She says outside contractors talked to her like a puppy, calling it “cute” she was “helping.” She’s the company’s production manager.
“They were saying, comments like, ‘What are you doing here? How did you learn to do this? What are you building?'” she said. “I’m in the middle of building a brewhouse, upside down, on my back, under machines and they’re just being super rude and asking me questions about, why I was there. I’m like, ‘I’m working right now.’”
That moment became a catalyst. Now, Allan’s become an amplifier, sharing anonymous stories publicly, forwarding messages to breweries, asking business owners: Did you know this was happening? What are you doing about this? She’s gone from 2,000 followers to 58,000 and counting.
A new Instagram account has started — Embolden Act Advance — managed by volunteers to handle to the amount of stories being shared.
“I actually lost 10 pounds in the last two weeks just because I haven’t been sleeping or eating,” Allan said. “I don’t know how I have been handling it…just, like, crying every day. I mean, this is terrible and it’s not just women either. It’s everybody.”
Her biggest concern is that nothing will change. But there has been some progress. From rank-and-file employees to top managers, some individuals who have been accused and named were fired or resigned in the wake of this watershed moment around the country. Tired Hands Brewing Co. in Pennsylvania was mentioned in a number of the stories. Founder and co-owner Jean Broillet IV has since announced he would step aside from operations.
On the East and West coasts, businesses are showing solidarity by fundraising and hosting craft brew nights to discuss sexism and racism such as one being held at Love City Brewing in Philadelphia on Thursday, May 27. Windows were smashed at a bar in Oakland, California the day after a gathering to talk about these type of experiences.
After all of the attention she has received, Allan considered taking this week off, but she decided to keep working. Her advocacy isn’t new. She’s been doing this work for years as part of the Pink Boots Society, an organization that supports and empowers female-identifying brewers.
“I think it’s extraordinarily brave of these women to be so candid and to be so courageous to speak out and say what’s occurred to them in the recent years,” said Maureen Fabry, brewer and co-founder of CraftRoots Brewing. The Milford-based company was the first women-owned brewery in the commonwealth when it opened in 2014. “It reinforces how necessary it is for us to listen to women and trust and hear them and support them. I mean, we need so much more than just being believed, right? We need to be cultivated and valued in our job. So this is a big step in that direction.”
Massachusetts Brewers Guild executive director Katie Stinchon has read every story. She calls them devastating and paralyzing.
“I wanted to know and feel everything that these women were coming forward with, telling their stories of fear and humiliation,” Stinchon said. “I’ve been having conversations with my colleagues across the country, with the Brewers Association and then with my members here in Massachusetts as well, and just kind of asking the question, what do we need to do here to get to work?”
The guild has been working on a code of ethics for a few years now, but still don’t have a formal complaint process in place, something Allan said is needed right now. Stinchon says the board and members will vote on the changes this fall.
Among those accused are Lord Hobo Brewing Company in Woburn, which issued a lengthy statement that says they will update sexual harassment and discrimination training and launch a “Women of Lord Hobo” employee resource group “to give voice to our female hobos.” They say each allegation is being investigated. In at least one incident, Lord Hobo is evaluating legal action against someone accused of abuse.
Night Shift Brewing co-founder Michael Oxton calls this movement “a necessary wake-up call.” He notes that any allegations that mention Night Shift happened years ago and that those employees no longer work at the brewery, but the stories posted online mention their company more than once as a place where racism is a problem.
“We’re making proactive changes now to be even sort of hyper aware of what’s happening with our staff internally,” Oxton said. “How can our staff bring issues to light really quickly? How do we educate anyone on our staff about what is and isn’t appropriate? Because sometimes people don’t even know, like people don’t realize they’re being offensive or something sometimes. And so the education piece is maybe the one where… you can help a bad seed get better.”
But it isn’t about bad seeds, Allan said. It’s a systemic issue. There’s a reason she’s earned every certificate she can, including how to make a Czech lager — one of the hardest beers to brew. Maybe then no one will question her expertise.
Yet without fail, she encounters men who walk in looking for work without brewing experience, while overqualified women or people of color can’t get ahead.
It makes her angry.
“I feel like everyone’s sitting around waiting for one person to make a change and they don’t realize that it’s not sustainable,” Allan said. “We all need to be working towards the same goal together.”
So she keeps providing resources, pressing for more accountability, for people to not be afraid to report their abusers, even if they’re the heads of major companies. Notch Brewing supports Allan 100%, said owner Chris Lohring, and acknowledged that even with best practices and HR protocols in place, there can be holes in a system.
Employees need to feel safe and supported to report an incident. Lohring sat down with Allen after she told him about the harassment she endured from the outside contractors at Notch’s site in Brighton.
Allen said that Lohring handled the situation to her satisfaction.
“Trust is a big thing,” Lohring said. “If you lose the trust of your employees, they’ll never report anything and they’ll just leave…the culture doesn’t improve.
When asked if she ever sees herself stepping back from this fight, Allan laughed and replied, “The sexism fight? Probably not, because every time I get a comment, I get mad and then I have to talk about it.”
Allan and fellow Notch brewer Juleidy Peña Mejia have worked on a new beer in honor of this movement. It’s called Brave Noise Pale Ale and will be released in June.
The stories continue to trickle in, prompting another question: Will they ever stop?
This story has been updated to clarify that Notch Brewing immediately addressed the harassment Allen faced from outside contractors.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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