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Cans for Inclusion Beer Project brews all share a label and logo, but the participants’ DEI efforts appear less consistent. Credit: Brandy Collins

Even before the social justice protests of 2020 prompted companies to announce efforts to improve their culture, a number of breweries throughout the Bay Area started an effort called the Inclusion Beer Project, an agreement to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the beer industry.

But with tales of failed DEI efforts beginning to surface in other industries, it’s apparent that to achieve true equity, it takes more than public statements to create environments that support historically and systemically marginalized communities. Given all the other challenges local breweries have faced in the past two years, Nosh was eager to see if these local companies were able to stay true to that commitment and do the work. The answer to that query, as with nearly everything these days, is unclear.

Inclusion was launched in early 2020 by a committee of leaders and brewers from Oakland’s Federation Brewing, Almanac Beer (Alameda), Humble Sea (Santa Cruz), Hella Coastal (Oakland) and Drake’s (San Leandro). Other brewers have made DEI agreements but are not a part of the steering committee for Inclusion.

According to committee members, the program’s intent is for participants to set a goal, make a commitment and publicly proclaim that intention, so the community can become aware the members are taking accountability for their inclusion efforts. Each can of Inclusion beer includes a statement that reads “By brewing this beer, all participating breweries are required to create a DE&I committee within their brewery regardless of size.” The cans are an ombre pink and green, with purple letters stating “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” making them easily identifiable.  

The Inclusion Beer Project is a volunteer-run initiative, supported by the Bay Area Brewers Guild (BABG), a coalition of local breweries. BABG head Joanne Marino explained that her organization wants to move “carefully and thoughtfully” to ensure a realistic framework and expectations as it continues to build the Inclusion program. There are aims for periodic check-ins with participants of the Inclusion project and an internal review process, which means that progress might appear slow from the outside.

“We’ve seen other groups rush out programs with the best of intentions, but then not be able to support the program beyond an initial push,” Marino said. 

To support breweries that want to start their own DEI groups, BABG’s website contains guides, toolboxes, agreements, resources, and checklists to provide a framework for breweries to self-measure. “The overall hope is that the Inclusion Beer Project motivates breweries to have tough internal conversations while providing them with a compelling vehicle with which to make a commitment and build support in their communities for their DEI efforts,” Marino said. 

Proceeds from Berkeley-founded Fieldwork Brewing Company’s Into Action brew went to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp. Credit: Fieldwork/Facebook

The white, male business of beer

There are 8,764 craft breweries operating in the U.S., according to the National Brewers Association (NBA). Based on a survey released in October, of those, 88% percent are white-owned, 2.2% are owned by people who identify as Latinx/Hispanic or of Spanish heritage and 2% are Asian-owned. Only 0.4% are Black-owned. Twenty-three percent of those breweries have at least one woman in an ownership position, and 2.9% are owned entirely by women.

And these are the statistics after the NBA created a DEI committee in 2017. Those who responded to the survey indicated that they were invested in seeing greater diversity within the industry, Bart Watson, the NBA’s chief economist, said. Also, respondents who self-reported as BIPOC or female said that they had made efforts of inclusion throughout their organizations. 

Closer to home, an inaugural survey conducted by the BABG in 2020 received responses from 76 of its 150 member breweries. In the Bay Area, 76% of craft breweries are owned by white men, 9% are Latinx-owned, 8% are Asian-owned and 3% are Black-owned. Of those, only 1% are owned entirely by women, a figure lower than the national average. Staffing percentages for production managers, brewers, service managers and other positions followed similar patterns.

Given that low level of diversity, it likely comes as little surprise that some taprooms or breweries have long raised red flags over allegations of misconduct and cultural appropriation. In 2016, a list circulated of (mostly white-owned) breweries nationwide that named their beers after Black hip-hop artists and songs. Many of these breweries appeared to seek the cachet of hip-hop culture, but lacked real representation from members of the community. And in 2021, allegations of misogyny, harassment and gender-based violence rocked the craft beer world when Massachusetts brewer Brienne Allan started posting victim stories online.

Change comes slowly, if at all

There have also been efforts to bring visibility to the beer world’s lack of diversity, some more successful than others. In 2017, nonprofit advocacy group Beer Kulture launched to introduce “an un-reached demographic to the pleasures of craft beer” and open the doors for Black brewers, as well as artists who design art for beer cans. The collective amplified racial justice cases within the industry, like 2019’s discrimination lawsuit against Founder’s Brewing in Michigan.

“Unfortunately, the main day job for everybody is actually keeping their business going, and running their brewery, not doing DEI.”

Bay Area Brewers Guild head Joanne Marino

Then, in 2020, more than 1,200 breweries participated in the Black is Beautiful initiative, creating a rich dessert stout beer using a single recipe and asking that 100% of the proceeds from the sale go to support police reform initiatives or legal defense programs.

The Inclusion Beer Project launched around the same time, as were DEI initiatives across many U.S. business sectors, following a summer of protests against police misconduct and brutality.

While the brewers that participate in Inclusion have data to support the need for change and have begun brewing Inclusion Beer, actual change prompted by the project appears inconsistent. For many brewers, their future DEI plans remain unclear, and there are few identifiers for what could be considered measurable results. When asked about this lack of apparent progress, Marino cited the struggles many brewers face with the ongoing pandemic, especially the omicron variant. 

“Unfortunately, the main day job for everybody is actually keeping their business going, and running their brewery, not doing DEI,” Marino said. “I wish we had the resources to do DEI. I wish we could hire somebody to run this program.”

Nick Sanchez, Humble Sea Head of Sales and Inclusion steering committee member, agreed that for now, data on what Inclusion has accomplished is hard to find. “We are still working on the idea of tracking progress,” he said.

“DEI work is really dependent on the culture within the brewery,” Sanchez said. “Each brewery will have different experiences.” The checkpoints for DEI are not about solving problems, Sanchez explained. Instead, the efforts focus on increasing support of nonprofits, social justice, safer working environments and equitable hiring practices.

Hella Coastal’s Mario Benjamin (center left) and Chaz Hubbard (center right) display cans of their Digital Underground tribute brew, Shock G Forever. Credit: Hella Coastal

For its part, Drake’s Brewing released a statement in May 2020 alluding to past incidents of harassment at the brewery and guaranteeing change. “We know that harassment has occurred in our own house,” the statement read. “We’ve taken corrective measures and terminated offenders, but at times our response was slow, which has contributed to a sense of mistrust. We can only assume that other incidents have gone unreported.”

As of publication time, the brewery hasn’t offered any additional details on the harassment case alluded to in that statement, or explained concrete steps it’s taking to avoid future misconduct.

Temescal Brewing, a DEI Inclusion member, and Almanac Beer (which isn’t a member of Inclusion’s steering committee, but has released an Inclusion beer) both display photos of their team members on their websites to illustrate the demographics of their workers. Temescal also hosts Queer First Fridays, a monthly event for the LGTBQIA+ community. 

Another Inclusion Project member, Ale Industries, has released its statistical staffing makeup, as well as two self-graded report cards regarding DEI efforts. In the first report card, in May 2021, they gave themselves an “F.” By their second reporting in August, they reported an improvement to a “D.” A third, from December 2021, was a “C,” with the company writing “while we did increase the diversity training attendance, we fell short of our goal of 50%.”

Federation’s efforts included a proprietary agreement with Hella Coastal to create a special beer to honor Digital Underground band member Shock G. They have also worked in collaboration with Palo Alto-based Black-owned brewers, Brewing with Brothers. 

The most recent Inclusion Beer is from Brentwood-based Imperiale Beer Project, which opened its doors in 2020 and has yet to outline its DEI plans. The Inclusion Beer Project doesn’t have a strict timeframe for requiring breweries to announce their DEI plans after they sign on. When the plans are announced can vary based on the size of the company, number of staff and an evaluation of time commitment, Sanchez said.

“The DEI group isn’t really cookie-cutter,” Sanchez said. “Each brewery will need to embrace the fact their DEI group can be different. Each brewery will define what topics are important to them and move on [them].”  

Inclusion Beers are sold at participating breweries and taprooms when made available. More information about the Inclusion Beer Project is available online. 

Brandy Collins

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.