For some, the phrase “beer festival” conjures up images of pretzel necklaces, long lines, and large groups of men. For others, it evokes a quiet affair in a village hall, with the odd pair of socks and sandals. For many in the beer industry and community, beer festivals are fun, vibrant events, and chances to catch up with everything (and everyone) happening in the beer world.
For a great many others, however, these events are exclusionary and leave a lot to be desired.
“Of the 7,500-plus craft breweries in America, less than 60 are black-owned,” says Day Bracey, co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Fresh Fest. “That’s less than 1 percent of a $79 billion industry supporting our community. [Co-founder] Mike Potter and I wanted to build a safe space for black people to gain access to a new opportunity, with representations of success present to inspire and educate people on how they could get involved, while celebrating the nuances, complexities of our rich culture.”
While representation has been improving in recent years, beer festivals remain relatively homogenous: They’re primarily populated by cisgender, white, straight people who are predominantly male. If the common adage is true, and beer really is for everyone, why aren’t we seeing more diversity at festivals?
Bracey believes when a safe space is created for one community, it becomes more welcoming for all. “Intersectionality matters and beer is for everyone,” he says. “People are sick of the status quo and are excited to get involved and support one another in their attempts to inject new life into the industry.”
Proof of this is Craft Beer Cares, a community-driven and socially-minded beer festival held in London each summer. It’s perhaps one of the most diverse gatherings in the U.K. As well as raising thousands of pounds for local charities, one of the key aims of Craft Beer Cares is to be an open and welcoming beer festival.
“I can’t overstate the importance of this to me personally and for all the staff involved that we have an open beer festival that’s welcoming to all,” says founder and organizer Gautam Bhatnagar. “The work will never be fully done, as huge systemic imbalances are in place outside of what we do. But as part of the industry, from what I see, almost all of us are pulling in the right direction.”
It’s not just small and independent festivals that are advocating greater diversity, either. Both the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) — the biggest beer festivals in their respective countries — have been putting measures in place to create more inclusive environments in recent years.
GABF’s organizers, the Brewers Association, now publishes “diversity best practices resources” and for the first time instituted a visible code of conduct outlining a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination at events this year. “This is part of the BA’s ongoing efforts to lead industry diversity and inclusion efforts,” says Ann Obenchain, Brewers Association marketing director, “and is one of many steps taken over the past two years.”
Meanwhile, GBBF’s organizers, CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), invited LGBT+ charity Stonewall to be the festival’s official charity partner and announced the ban of sales of discriminatory beers.
“I believe that large beer festivals have a part to play,” says GBBF organizer and CAMRA festivals director Catherine Tonry. “This is the reason this year we made the announcement about not having discriminatory beers on sale, although this is something we’ve actually been doing for several years, just more quietly.”
Inclusivity is in many ways ideological, but it has fiscal benefits for a festival, too. “Having a diversity and inclusion program is more than just the right thing to do,” says Obenchain. “It is an opportunity for businesses to lead and succeed.
“Research studies increasingly show that inclusive and welcoming best practices can help increase a business’s bottom line, drive innovation, attract more talent, attract more customers, and create more opportunities for growth,” Obenchain adds.
Indeed, alienating potential consumer markets can be costly. The University of Georgia’s Multicultural Economy Report estimates the buying power of minority markets at $3.9 trillion. LGBT Capital puts that of LGBT communities at $3.7 trillion, and Nielsen lists black buying power at $1.2 trillion. And according to an article by Craft Brewing Business last year, women spend 6.9 percent more per brewery visit. Though the numbers vary, the message is the same: The financial benefit of inclusivity cannot be underestimated.
“Put simply it’s a business and so we want a broad base of appeal,” says Greg Wells, co-founder of U.K. beer festival organizers We Are Beer. “Being from a marketing background, there’s lots of work which shows that if you don’t see yourself reflected in brands or experiences you don’t feel involved in them. There’s arguments for or against this, but I’d say we strain hard to illustrate an experience that is full of folks from a diverse background to show more people out there they’re really welcome at our events and in the culture as a whole.”
Beyond the work these festival organizers — and everyone else in the beer world — do to welcome all beer lovers to the proverbial table, our industry can only get so far while existing within an intolerant society. While so many problems prevail outside the beer bubble, they will always be reflected in our soapy sheen.
“We have to change culture at large — the conversations about representation in beer are the same in sport or politics or business,” says Wells. “I’d love for there to be great solutions and changes that meant these conversations could be less pertinent and we could all focus our energy on the climate emergency. So I’d like to see real representation and diversity at all festivals, not just ours and a few others.”
Of course, we can collectively use beer as a vehicle for social change — as an increasing number within the industry are doing. “I really think the key takeaway is to have an open approach with real accountability,” Bhatnagar says. “We are all still learning of ways in which different people are impacted in the way we run our businesses, and we hope to continue to learn and do better to accommodate more people.“
Or, as Bracey succinctly puts it: “Adapt or die.”
“Talk to women, POC, the LGBTQIA community and other underrepresented groups,” he says. “Include them in the planning. Hire them at your brewery. Support their community functions. Post their artwork or events on your walls. Make as much effort to make your space welcoming to these groups as you do dogs and babies.
“We’re done being sold to. Either we’re entering your space on equal terms or we’re not entering it all.”