From harrowing disputes like Founders Brewing Company’s 2018 racial discrimination lawsuit to sexist marketing snafus (of which there are too many), the craft beer industry continues to struggle with myriad forms of discrimination. The latest controversy comes from Kansas City, Mo.’s Boulevard Brewing Company. It contains all the hallmarks of an unchecked culture of misogyny: accusations of bias against a pregnant person, gaslighting women by responding to claims of sexual harassment with “it’s just a joke,” and so on. Additionally, a former female employee calls out Boulevard for perpetuating targeted harassment while also participating in women-positive events, such as Women’s Brew Day, organized by national women’s nonprofit organization the Pink Boots Society.
Founded in 1989, Boulevard has long been revered in the craft brewing world, with iconic brews like Tank 7 American Saison putting it on the global map. Duvel Moortgat acquired the brewery in 2013 and was ranked No. 5 on the latest Brewers Association’s Top 50 Brewing Companies by Sales Volume report.
On Jan. 23, 2021, a Reddit post made by user notfrankthecat (a former Boulevard employee) publicly outlined her accusations against the brewery, claiming she was harassed because of her pregnancy. She specifically referred to her former boss, as well as another man employed by Boulevard, as the primary perpetrators of ongoing toxic treatment toward women, herself included. She goes on to recount her struggles to be heard and taken seriously by Boulevard’s human resources department, but says nothing was done to correct bad behavior or discipline those contributing to the hostile environment. In her statement, the former employee ultimately concludes that “If you fuck up, you are forgiven. If you report misbehavior, you are punished.”
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In the same post, the former employee says she left Boulevard in March 2020, and no longer works in the brewing industry due to the discrimination she faced in her position there. During a brief correspondence with VinePair, the former employee described feeling “overwhelmed” with the response to her anonymous accusations, but ultimately declined to provide a comment for the time being.
On Jan. 25, Boulevard released a statement in response to the allegations, saying it took the accusation “very seriously” with a promise to “use this situation as an opportunity to learn and to grow.” However, nowhere in the statement were the words “apology,” “sorry,” “amends,” or any other reference to repairing the harm it is accused of. Feedback on social media has largely remained vitriolic to the statement from Boulevard, demanding more details about the investigation the brewery claims took place a year ago, as well as condemnation for the lack of accountability.
On Jan. 26, after facing widespread reproach to its first statement, Boulevard released a second statement titled “Reflecting,” which begins with an apology and acknowledgment of failure, before revealing an executive has been let go from the company. Boulevard also says it plans to hire an outside HR firm to investigate the internal issues.
We’ve heard this before. Danii Oliver, recently elected to the Pink Boots Society board of directors and owner/brewer at Island to Island Brewery in Fort Worth, Texas, laments this avoidable loss of another woman in beer. “Once again, we learn the story too late, of a woman who has been discriminated against, forced out and who has lost her livelihood,” she says on her website in a post titled “A Call To Action.” “These women are out here telling their [stories], because they’re at the point where they have nothing left to lose,” she says. “It’s all been taken from them. So now they speak. But now, they can’t do anything. It seems like every time I stop grieving from one incident, another one comes up.”
In August 2020, the Brewers Association outlined a code of conduct for its membership, which includes Boulevard. It created a “member complaint process” with a stated intent “to hold our peers accountable for unacceptable behavior while pursuing an educational path forward that leads to a more inclusive and respectful craft beer community.” It goes on to promote a partnership with the Racial Equity Institute, but does not specifically mention any gender-based discrimination partners or training other than a goal “to eliminate discrimination, harassment, and bias of all types,” which, presumably, would include gender discrimination.
According to the Brewers Association’s only brewery diversity report from 2019, women continue to be a minority in the beer industry in every single position except non-managerial service staff roles. That means in the majority of cases, women remain reliant on tips — a practice that puts workers in compromising, and sometimes dangerous, positions — and often lack access to support systems available to those in managerial or higher-level roles. Without widespread representation, women often find themselves without an advocate in their corner, even from the most seemingly inclusive brewery.
Jen Jordan, board of directors president for the Pink Boots Society, says in an email to VinePair: “Discrimination and harassment issues have been prevalent and pervasive in our industry for too long, and have done severe damage. … Please educate your management and staff on how to create a safe and inclusive workplace.” She goes on to explain that the group’s mission has always been to assist, inspire, and encourage female-identifying industry professionals working in the fermented alcohol beverage industry, and she hopes more organizations join the cause. “The Industry is now asking for self-advocacy and workplace safety education,” she says. “Pink Boots Society is working to meet those needs too, but we shouldn’t have to do it alone.”
Putting together a task force of women to review allegations of sexism, as Boulevard claims it will do, does allow women to have a voice in shaping HR framework. However, this type of thinking is wholly reactive, and relies on the labor of women to correct wrongs largely perpetuated by men who participate in toxic masculinity. It also runs the risk of non-objectivity: What employee is going to feel empowered to point out flaws to the person who signs their checks?
The Pitch, a Kansas City-based publication, reports a possible mass walkout of Boulevard employees to protest the recent scandal. Allies putting their livelihoods at risk is admirable, but individuals should not have to carry the weight of organizational failures on their backs. It’s a shame that’s the final card people feel they can play.
A better solution? Believe women. Putting women in leadership roles where they can identify areas of improvement — before they become areas of reproach — is a crucial step that many breweries have yet to take. And, breweries: If you’re going to hop on a progressive initiative like Women’s Brew Day, or Black is Beautiful, or any of the opportunities to support marginalized members of the beer community, back up those splashy PR moves with action. Earn the clout through work, in the brewhouse and out. Don’t assume you have it, regardless of how good your beers are.
[Ed. note: This is a developing story. Updates are published on thepitchkc.com.]