In May 2021, when brewer Brienne Allan asked her Instagram followers for their personal experiences of sexism while working in the beer industry, an alarming trend became clear: Many incidents of harassment and abuse occurred at beer festivals.
Gather thousands of people in one place and let the booze flow, and it’s hard to trust that everyone will be on their best behavior. What horrifying stories from women working fests or attending as ticket holders demonstrated, though, was that festival organizers seem to have been considering such risks as collateral damage. It’s not that any organizers want discrimination or harassment at their events; it’s as if it hadn’t occurred to them that they could take active steps to prevent it.
“[There’s] been a vibe with some of them; a prevalence of [men] drinking a bit too much, and looking down on or being hostile to people at the festival who do not look like them, particularly females or people from the queer community.” This is how Denise Garland, a New Zealand beer journalist who has attended fests as a ticket holder, worker, and volunteer, describes the potential environment. Garland also wrote about being made to feel small at fests, and her own experience being assaulted for Pursuit of Hoppiness.
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For beer festivals, 2021 was a messy year. The wake-up call regarding the industry’s overall discrimination problem landed as festivals were revving back up after having been canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. Organizers scrambled, grasping at missed profits and prioritizing Covid-19 safety. While those measures were absolutely right to be prioritized, it often meant measures to protect vulnerable groups from harassment and discrimination were assembled haphazardly or neglected entirely.
Heading into 2022’s festival season, organizers have had more time to digest the potential threats facing every woman, queer person, Black person, person of color, and/or disabled person at an event. With any luck, they’ve realized the incredible responsibility they have to prevent these things from happening, and what should be done if they do. Here’s a look at what to expect from beer festivals and if events will be safer to attend in 2022.
What Safety Measures We Need to See at Festivals
Among beer industry professionals VinePair surveyed, attending festivals as ticket holders, volunteers, and/or workers, the measures they would like to see at every event quickly start to coalesce into a handful of tangible actions. Barb Baker, a.k.a. Siren of Stout, has fortunately only had positive experiences at festivals. But she can identify what measures would ensure safety for everyone. “Plain-clothed advocates walking around with their ear to the ground making sure people are safe, being able to get medical help without penalty or discreetly calling security if a problem arises and people are too afraid to do so due to retribution from ‘friends,’” the Michigan-based beer coach and president of Fermenta suggests.
“At larger festivals, [there should be] safe zones specifically for women and the gender diverse,” Garland says. “Spaces where those who don’t necessarily ‘fit in’ with the white and male typecast can take some time to chill out when it all gets a bit much.” Garland adds to the safety-measure wish list: clear guidance so people know where they can report any issues; a harassment and harmful behavior policy readily accessible to all attendees, volunteers, and workers, agreement to which is a condition for entry; and diversity among workers so every attendee can see someone like them at the fest.
Shana Solarte, a Chicago-based beer professional and co-lead of the city’s Pink Boots Society chapter, adds scaling back to the list of recommendations, both in length and capacity. “A lot of fests seem to attract attendees willing to pay the ticket price by offering unlimited beer for a long time, like four to five hours,” she says. “Drunk people present a challenge to safety not only during the actual fest, but also once they leave: Are they driving? Are they falling down drunk getting into rideshares or onto public transit and causing further problems beyond the scope of the fest? I would love to see shorter festivals and fewer attendees, though I recognize the problem of quality versus profitability.”
As a result of 2021’s sea change, many festival organizers have recruited organizations established for this very purpose, to keep every human safe. Many of these consultancies specialize in nightlife in general, working with venues to instill permanent policies, and their expertise lends itself well to beer fests’ boozy settings.
Ariel Weindling is the CEO of #NotMe, an app that has arguably become the most widely adopted safety tool among festival organizers. Weindling started the program in response to the #MeToo movement in 2017, as a workplace solution allowing safe reporting of any harassment, discrimination, or misconduct experienced or witnessed. It also helps organizations learn from those insights to take actionable steps toward accountability and safety. When craft beer experienced its own #MeToo wave in 2021, #NotMe made itself readily available to breweries and festivals. Brienne Allan and Women of the Bevolution founder Ash Eliot, a co-author of this article, became ambassadors of the app, and the Brewers Association its first festival client for the Craft Brewers Conference. Since then, it’s become more common to see QR codes to open the #NotMe app posted around fests, providing quick and easy access for anyone who needs to make a report.
“First and foremost, [there’s a] legal importance,” Weindling says. “Every organizer must make sure an event is safe just like any employer must make sure their workplace is safe. … Promoting a tool like #NotMe in terms of ethically pragmatic practices is one of the best things you can do to make sure it is safe.” These kinds of measures seem particularly important for events that revolve around alcohol. “When #NotMe and the [festival’s] security team receives the report, they can intervene right away. There’s always constant communication,” Weindling says.
A reporting app goes hand in hand with a festival staff that’s actually trained to respond. That’s where organizations like Safe Bars come in. According to program manager AJ Head, Safe Bars trains staff at alcohol-serving spaces, including festival venues and production teams, on active bystander skills, learning to recognize unwanted sexual aggression and options for helping the victim; empowerment and self-defense, strategies for when one is targeted; and de-escalation for hospitality professionals, skills for keeping one’s self, co-workers, and patrons safe. Venues and teams become certified upon training completion.
OutSmartNYC also offers education in these areas, in addition to other services as part of the organization’s framework, which is a partnership between victim service agencies and nightlife professionals. “We work together to combine our expertise … to prevent and end sexual violence in nightlife and party spaces,” says prevention coordinator Eric McGriff. OutSmartNYC trains venues and event organizers on policy and protocol, as well as offering outlets for free legal, medical, and therapeutic services to survivors, and actively advocating for victim rights and measures that prevent harmful behavior.
“Look at your physical environment, your policy, your protocol, and then listen to your staff about what’s going on,” McGriff says, speaking to festival organizers. “Folks who are on the ground, we find out in our trainings, they see things happening but a lot of times they don’t think they’ll be believed. So, if festivals are actively talking about this, if they do things like bring in volunteers who are walking around to make sure folks are safe … creating a chill zone where it says: ‘Hey, consent is the key. Do you need help? Do you need a place to lay down?’… That’s where I’d start.”
What Festival Organizers Are Actually Doing
The New York City Brewers Guild is one event organizer partnering with OutSmartNYC. Ann V. Reilly became the guild’s executive director in 2019 just ahead of one of its annual events, Blocktoberfest. Reilly worked with guild members to form a safety advocate program for festivals. The advocates walk the fests to make sure people are OK, not overserved, and that no attendees or workers are being harassed.
Since the fall of 2019, the NYCBG’s safety measures have evolved with every event. A loose code of conduct solidified into a comprehensive one posted all over the guild’s site, marketing materials, and at venues. With training from OutSmartNYC, the safety advocate program grew. The guild enlists the help of paid security, too, because, as Reilly explains, the different teams look for different things. When the security team hired this year asked why the guild needed both them and the safety advocates, Reilly’s answer highlights why trained safety volunteers are indeed vital:
“You know how there are times you don’t feel comfortable calling the cops? You don’t want someone who’s an ‘authority figure.’ You want someone who can help you, and intervene, but not make you feel like you’re in any kind of trouble.”
Barrel & Flow is another festival employing the kinds of safety measures experts and attendees hope to see everywhere, but founder and organizer Lamar “Day” Bracey isn’t resting on his laurels. “Every year, we’re looking at how we can get better,” Bracey says, noting that the lines of communication with the community are always open so he can respond to developing needs.
Last year, Bracey had to tackle building both pandemic and harassment/discrimination safety measures from the ground up in order to successfully launch Barrel & Flow in its first year since rebranding from Fresh Fest, which had launched in 2018. The Pittsburgh event celebrates Black brewers and artists, and ensuring a safe, welcoming, positive atmosphere for all is of paramount concern for Bracey.
“It’s really important when inviting a lot of people together in this shared space to be very clear, this is a safe place for folks to explore,” Bracey says. “Black folks … often aren’t able to leave their community to experience craft beer because of harassment from police officers, discrimination at bars, different microaggressions. … We’re making a safe space for Black folks to come and explore, and you can’t make a safe space for some without making it for everyone.”
What that translates to is a code of conduct on social media, Barrel & Flow’s site, on tickets, and at the fest; staff trained and ready to receive reports of any incidents; and messaging so attendees and workers are aware of their reporting options. This year, Bracey and his team have partnered with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape for enhanced reporting systems and bystander training.
Ahead of its San Diego festival in October of 2021, Untappd faced criticism on social media for a lineup that included breweries named in allegations made earlier in the year, as well as for a code of conduct that seemed hastily assembled and updated after public pressure. Next Glass, the company that owns Untappd, Hop Culture, and Beer Advocate, all of which produce festivals, has gotten to work making changes, and 2022’s festivals seem like an encouraging step forward.
There’s an enhanced code of conduct this year, says Next Glass vice president of festivals and live events Talia Spera. The company has partnered with #NotMe for reporting, and Safe Bars for active bystander, de-escalation, and empowerment and self-defense training for staff. In addition to standard medical services, festivals will have well-marked safe spaces, with options for people in need to be escorted to more private areas, and be able to discuss any issues or incidents. Notably, Next Glass has intensified its brewery vetting process.
“All our events are invite-only,” Spera says. “Prior to extending an invite, we’re evaluating every brewery holistically. Are they aligned with our code of conduct and our company’s overall mission? Are we in good company?” Spera adds that for certain events, like Hop Culture’s Beer With(out) Beards celebrating women in beer, brewery partners also must be philanthropically involved and a match in terms of values. “Do you not just brew a beer for International Women’s Day, but are consistently supporting women in the industry?” Breweries pouring at Next Glass events also receive the same training as event staff, Spera says.
Also encouraging is seeing the prioritization of these safety measures spread from major organizers like the Brewers Association and Next Glass to smaller events, whether organizers were always implementing these policies or are continuing to evolve protocol every year. Janna Mestan, for example, is on the events committee for the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. She says a reporting system, code of conduct, and trained security are at the foundation of festivals she organizes. Tripping Animals Brewing Co. co-founder Iker Elorriaga says that the brewery’s annual festival, Irie Jungle, has always been treated like an extension of the atmosphere the team seeks to provide in its taproom — safe and welcoming to all. Measures in the taproom, like signage in women’s restrooms letting women know options if they feel unsafe, extend to measures at the festival, like a team of volunteers and a team of security working in tandem to make sure anyone causing a disturbance is promptly removed and the situation handled. Elorriaga adds that management is actively working on adding formal reporting systems and learning new measures they can implement.
Other organizers, still, get creative with their own unique additions to building safe festivals. Founder of the FemAle Brew Fest Frances Antonio-Martineau says that on top of a code of conduct, the festival rolled out a “beercation” package last year so attendees could book a hotel room and walk to the event, making it easy for people to avoid driving home. This year, Antonio-Martineau is looking to partner with a third-party anonymous reporting service, as well as an all-women rideshare company called Trips4Women.
Worth the Work
2022 finds beer festivals well ahead of where they were just a year ago in terms of safety. Ideally, we would reach the point where attendees can innately trust they are safe at an event, but for now, increased awareness of what can go wrong at fests means it’s easier to know what to look for. Does the festival you’re considering have an accessible code of conduct? If not, it might not be an event that has taken worthwhile steps.
“It seems more organizers are implementing reporting systems and codes of conduct, which is great,” Solarte says on how the industry is progressing, with the caveat that there’s still only so much that safety measures can protect people from. “It feels like the bare minimum, but I don’t know how to go beyond that without a full cultural shift in how people behave in general.”
The cold reality is that not all organizers will make these changes based on values. Ultimately, it’s up to fest-goers to speak with their dollars, and for potential brewery partners to only work with responsible organizers. We’ve been seeing more breweries hold organizers accountable, like the mass exodus of vendors from the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen in October 2021.
“I think the change is coming from the breweries,” Baker says. “Just like Eastern Market Brewing Co. pulled out of the Detroit Fall Beer Fest years ago wanting to show integrity and solidarity against discrimination, the culture is driven by the heart of the industry: breweries.”
Some may feel torn over whether all of this is even worth it — if festivals can’t guarantee safety, why bother with them at all? Reasons abound; some named by the individuals VinePair spoke with point out the economic component as well as marketing motivation for breweries and community-driven factors for attendees, like getting to try beers one wouldn’t normally and catching up with fellow beer lovers.
“We’re social animals,” Bracey says. “Events like these bring people together. They’re a great platform for people to explore various aspects of society, whether it’s craft beer, farm-to-table, a concert … and it’s a great platform for small businesses to vend and get their name out there and draw in some revenue.” That all just has to come with a focus on safety, Bracey adds. “We deserve better and if we don’t get that, we will stop supporting this. Festivals are great, but we need to hold everyone accountable.”