Founded in 2005, the Brewers Association is a not-for-profit trade organization representing more than 5,200 breweries across the U.S. Its proclaimed purpose is “to promote and protect American craft brewers, their beers, and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” including the nation’s 46,000 homebrewers, plus associated industry professionals such as wholesalers and retailers. Its stated values range from “industry education” to “working to build a collegial community of craft brewers, homebrewers and beer enthusiasts.”
Fostering unity, safety, and stewardship while also lobbying the government, running multiple major trade and consumer events (including the Great American Beer Festival, the largest annual beer festival and competition in the U.S.), and acting as the de facto leader of the entire craft beer industry are all admirable, albeit ambitious, initiatives — and they are accomplished to varying levels of success. But in recent months, after mass layoffs, canceled events, and accusations of apathy toward racial injustices, the Brewers Association (BA), like much of the industry it represents, is floundering.
Most recently, complaints about the BA’s lack of transparency and communication regarding unfulfilled Diversity & Inclusion Event Grants have raised cries for accountability toward the country’s biggest craft beer advocacy organization. And while members and would-be grant recipients have remained relatively patient during the coronavirus pandemic — understanding these unique circumstances have created an unprecedentedly difficult landscape in which to operate — that patience is wearing thin.
Who Does The BA Actually Represent?
The Brewers Association has stated in the past that it works for voting brewery members. Membership types include breweries, distributors, individuals, breweries in planning, allied trade, retailers, and educational institutions. Some take fault with this model, believing it prioritizes some breweries’ voices over other members. Danii Oliver, owner and brewer at Island to Island Brewery in Fort Worth, Texas, says it is not equitable or logical. “[The Brewers Association] doesn’t represent everyone in the industry. It represents membership, and membership comes in the form of dollars,” Oliver says. Because brewery members pay dues based on barrels produced per year (there’s a calculator), Oliver believes this creates inequity between higher-paying “members who are paying tens of thousands of dollars based on the amount of barrels that they’re producing annually,” and a smaller breweries’ comparatively minuscule membership fees. She’s been reluctant to call out this inequity because, she says, “you can’t move an inch if you lose your access to the entire mile.”
Bop Pease, Brewers Association president and CEO, somewhat addresses the disconnect between responsibility toward members and responsibility toward consumers and the industry at large: “We picture the future of the craft beer industry as one with a broader base of craft beer drinkers and diverse employees at all levels, and we know that getting there will be a collaborative effort between industry leaders, breweries and beer drinkers,” Pease writes in a statement to VinePair. He cites recent organizational changes that “demonstrate our move in this direction,” including the 2017 update to the Marketing and Advertising Code created largely in response to the historic sexist objectification of women in brewery marketing materials, but conceivably could also cover additional problematic advertising methods considered to be racist or homophobic.
That same year, the BA established its Diversity Committee and appointed its first — and to date, only — diversity ambassador, Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, who has held the position since.
The BA released a new Complaint and Remediation Process for Code of Conduct Violations on Sept. 15 that lays out a disciplinary process for any member found to be in violation of the Code of Conduct — that is, as long as it took place after Aug. 6, 2020 when the code was initially released; and if the complaint is filed by a member of the professional brewing division, the only subset of members authorized to make a formal complaint.
Diversity & Inclusion: Grants Not Included
The BA says on its website it has awarded $75,000 toward 21 events since 2018 and pledged $50,000 to 14 Diversity & Inclusion Event Grant recipients in 2020 alone. Oliver was one of this year’s grant recipients for her Beersgiving initiative, a monthly event “that brings civilian and military families together by combining craft beer S.T.E.M. experiments with local food and beer offerings.”
But to date, Oliver says she has received no funds, no explanation of when to expect them, and no suggested alternatives from the BA. Oliver reached out to the BA via email in March to inquire about the status in light of Covid-19, noting she understood there may be delays. The BA’s office manager, Alana Koenig-Busey*, replied to Oliver, saying she was unable to provide an ETA for grant checks.
Oliver says she has not received any further communication from the BA about the grant, despite following up and providing virtual alternatives the BA could support.
“The BA has not put out any official information, has not sent out an official email to the recipients,” Oliver says. “And they haven’t put out anything to say, ‘Hey, we announced that we’re giving these people this [grant], but we have to pull back on it, and here are the reasons why.’ They haven’t publicly done that.”
Los Angeles-based Crowns & Hops was also named a grant recipient for 2020 to support Dopetoberfest, a festival featuring “panel discussions led by groups who focus on advocating for diversity and inclusion in craft beer, a homebrewers of color showcase, and a craft beer tasting,” which was set to take place in October. “As soon as Covid hit, we notified the BA that we would probably not take our stipend,” says Teo Hunter, Crowns & Hops co-founder and head of beer operations.
According to Hunter, he and co-founder Beny Ashburn suggested the BA instead either distribute the funds to Black-owned breweries disproportionately struggling due to Covid-19, or allow for a delay in payment for Crowns & Hops to use in the future. “Quite honestly, we had to chase them down,” Hunter says, explaining he and Ashburn had reached out multiple times before finally receiving a reply on April 30. Hunter says Koenig-Busey communicated “it was possible the grant would be put on hold until 2021.” No information has been provided since.
During a phone interview with VinePair on Sept. 14, Hunter and Ashburn both expressed resignation rather than surprise at the BA’s non-reply: “Unfortunately, we expected it,” Hunter says. For Crowns & Hops and other Black-owned businesses, being “let down, not supported, or not heard” has been par for the course, Ashburn says, adding, “We’ve been pushing this narrative for so long [and] we have found we can’t necessarily always depend on some of the industry leaders.”
Other grant recipients confirmed similar experiences. Liz Garibay, executive director of the Chicago Brewseum, says she was awarded the Diversity & Inclusion Event Grant to support a four-day Beer Culture Summit in November, which has since transitioned to a virtual model. She notes that because the BA staff member who sent the original award notification email was no longer at the BA, “I reached out to a colleague in early summer to find out what was going on. At that time, I was informed that grants were still a go,” Garibay writes VinePair in an email. In early August, Garibay says, she reached out to “another colleague to ask whom I should contact at the BA … I reached out to ask questions but to also inform them that we were still planning to host our conference, albeit virtually. I never heard back. I’ve sent a follow-up message and am still awaiting a response.”
Correcting the Course
To some, the Brewers Association’s habitual silence means it has fundamentally failed in several of its stated core values: Providing craft brewers with a unified voice, promoting ethical and legal trade practices, building relationships and collaborating with industry partners, fostering a diverse community within the craft brewing universe, and promoting unity among craft brewers.
When it comes to addressing cultural issues like social justice, “we still believe there’s an opportunity to correct,” says Hunter. Similar organizations like the American Cider Association (the BA equivalent for the hard cider industry) have already put anti-racism programs into effect for their members, demonstrating that an association-driven approach to equity is feasible.
Correcting its current course by sharing the collective burden of responsibility is precisely why Rachael Engel, head brewer at Bosk Brew Works in Woodinville, Wash., says she’s running for the BA’s board of directors. Engel is currently a candidate for a seat on the board as a packaging brewery member. She’s been in the beer industry for over 20 years and believes the BA is “working more for the businesses and not the individual.” She continues, “We need to recognize that there are people out there.”
Engel explains her motivation for running: “I’m trans, which is part of why I wanted to throw my hat in. I’ve been talking a big game about inclusion, but I figured that it was time that I actually did something about it.” Although “tempted” to revoke her brewery’s membership, Engel says, “I can’t speak for other people, but to me, that seems like a cop-out. And I thought, ‘it’s time to start trying to change it from the inside.’”
However, speaking about Jackson-Beckham, Engel says, “Dr. J’s done amazing work [as the BA’s diversity ambassador], but she’s only one person.” In other words, inclusion and representation is not the responsibility of the individual, but the entire industry.
“There’s an opportunity to rectify this,” Oliver says, citing “transparency and accountability” as her expectations from the BA moving forward.
On Sept. 15, Pease replied to VinePair’s inquiry about the Diversity & Inclusion Event Grant program, saying many of the events “were either postponed or canceled,” and that the BA is currently “in the process of contacting each recipient with an update on next steps.” He added that the BA “will be working with the board to assess priorities and budget allocations for 2021 and look forward to sharing the next steps in our DEI initiatives in the coming months.”
No further details were offered.
*Ed. note Oct. 6, 2020: Alana Koenig-Busey is no longer employed by the Brewers Association.