Passing the mic to… Charlotte Cook

I’m so bored with #beerinstagram that I really need to shake things up. One way I propose to do this is by donating a square on my feed every day in October to people, companies and initiatives striving to make the beer industry a better place.

First up on my grid is Charlotte Cook, Brewer at Coalition and one of the masterminds of the Punks with Purpose campaign. An inspirational human who’s refreshing writing style and steely defiance have won a place in my heart.

Charlotte has kindly shared her article (and corresponding talk) penned recently – which seriously deserves your time. Here it is in full for your reading pleasure.

Feel free to drop any comments/discussion points below.

Get Up off your arse, this involves you – Charlotte Cook

When I was asked to give a talk at the Brewer’s Lectures my first thought was “there’s no way I’m talking about sexism”. Partly because that’s what everyone expects me to talk about, and partly because I just finished my master’s dissertation on hop use and wanted to talk about that. I am giving two talks at this year’s lectures, so rather than talk on the same subject twice, I decided that I would in fact talk about discrimination in the beer industry and what’s happening now, and you’ll just need to come to the London talks to hear about the hops. 

It’s been a big year for beer, and a big year for those who produce it, package it, sell it and pour it to stand up and make their voices heard. First of all we had the tidal wave of accusations  of sexism shared by Brienne Allen on her Instagram page, the fall-out from that was huge, with leading figures at breweries such as Dry and Bitter, Tired hands, Modern Times and even the Cicerone programme losing their posts in the wake of allegations. 

The Punks with Purpose open letter swiftly followed, making it to the 10 o’clock news and the front page of The Times, bringing the issue to the wider public, and irrevocably changing the landscape of craft beer. We now know that there is a sexism problem in craft beer. We also know that the general treatment of staff is poor. For years the debate has been focussed on whether or not these problems actually exist, and not on what to do about it. This apathy and waiting for a solution to come out of the air led to the explosive nature of the revelations, positive action has long been maligned in favour of waiting for someone to take the lead, but there can be no one lead in this. As an industry we can’t wait for a figurehead to appear to tell us what to do, how to fix the issues and lead us into a brighter future. This hoppy messiah does not exist, instead it is down to all of us to look at ourselves and what we can do from our own individual starting points to begin making a difference, and holding others to higher standards, not letting bad behaviour slide. 

What does this look like? From an individual standpoint it can begin with calling out discriminatory behaviour when we see it. Recent beer festivals have been problematic, with female attendees having to deal with unwanted comments and touching. One woman was even sent suggestive Instagram messages that she saw when she got back to her hotel room after attending a festival. 

 What one person might think of as high-spirited fun is deeply violating and distressing to another, and this prevents people from wanting to come to beer festivals. The Women of The Bevolution, an organisation based in the USA, is working on a code of conduct for festivals so that people can feel safe, and everyone knows that problematic behaviour will not be tolerated, and this comes with robust back up to remove offenders, which often simply doesn’t happen at present. 

These codes of conduct are voluntary, and that means that we can’t be certain that they’ll be in place when we go to beer events. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that we all know that sexist, racist, homophobic or intolerant language and behaviour will never be allowed, and that begins with the community upholding its collective values and being vocal about what those values are. 

The post-Ratmagnet beer scene is a different place, there’s very little space for ignorance of what has been going on for decades, but often brused under the carpet. That said, we all know the natural flow of things is that everyone is shocked for a while, then they forget about it and then it’s business as usual. This is what we cannot let happen, and again, why we can’t rely on the same few people to shoulder the burden of this work, and the activism. 

Yes, hearing about what people have gone through is fatiguing and difficult, but unless we all step up to the conversation it will always be the same voices recounting the same harrowing stories. This is a doubly problematic thing, with the same people popping up again and again it’s easy to dismiss their stories as the exception rather than the rule, and yet they have little choice until more people add their voices to the fray. Very few people, following the initial outpouring, have dared to put their head above the parapet which speaks to the fact that people still feel unsafe to do so. This is the reason why we need to ensure that these issues are kept in the limelight, that the conversation continues, so that there are enough supportive voices that those who feel apprehensive at adding their opinion are buoyed up by the collective. You need to be part of that. 

The other issue is that being one of a small number who are willing to be out in the open is exhausting. You need to constantly recount events that are traumatic, to strangers and, often into the ether and you have no idea what will bounce back at you. Following the episode of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 that focussed on sexism in the alcohol industry, myself and the other contributors found ourselves the subject of quite literally thousands of abusive messages on social media. These focussed on everything from our physical appearances and sexuality and the fact that most of these people felt that we were making mountains out of molehills and it is of course perfectly as easy to set up a brewery or progress within the industry as a woman as it is for a man. 

When you spend a great deal of time doing this emotive work, and then you have the added layer of troglodytes taking it upon themselves to let you know just how stupid, whiny and undeserving of equality you are, it takes a toll. Much like the industry collectively suffered waiting for a leader, we will collectively suffer if we continue to rely upon the same few people to keep the conversation going, because they can’t mentally carry that burden. It’s all well and good to thank people for their work, but it’s much more effective and appreciated to amplify them and see what you can do, no matter how small, to help. 

Many of the accusations were historical, and it’s easy to see why there were criticisms of “well this happened 5 years ago, things are different now”. The fear that so many people felt, that meant that they kept these stories, ranging from sexist comments to sexual assault, still exists. There are so many stories that have yet to be shared, but as Siobhan Buchanan who shared UK based accusations via her Instagram found out, sharing these stories comes with the risk of facing litigation. 

The concept that beer is egalitarian and fair is completely incorrect. Those accused who have money and twitchy fingers when it comes to litigation can still effectively censor the wider population. We work in beer, beer is an industry still behind the times when it comes to pay, and even the whiff of a legal threat is enough to make most think twice. It’s also an industry that’s widely based upon reputation and connections whilst being transient and unstable, so people worry about being tainted with the legacy of being troublesome, thus less employable, so they keep their heads down and those with the power can continue with impunity. We shouldn’t let that stand. 

We shouldn’t forget that some of the gravest accusations have still not been addressed, and those who’ve had claims levelled against them are not stepping up to the plate to advance the conversation or to take responsibility for what’s happened. They will remain under scrutiny, and the longer the allegations go unaddressed I fear that we will begin to hear more horrifying stories, and it’s important we support those coming forward and develop a safe industry for everyone.

We are also working on a global survey of workers in beer, sprits, wine and hospitality to identify specifically where we fall down as an industry and where our paths to resolution lie. This will only succeed if we get a large response, and we will be using AI to analyse the raw data and see where the drinks industry actually stands in comparison to other industries and use qualitative data to develop robust responses to our challenges, and not rely upon explosive and emotionally draining outpourings of collective anger to reawaken us to the reality. Hopefully with work, we will prevent the damage before it occurs. 

I really do hope we can all take a look at what we can do to further this conversation. Lots of individuals have told me that what people have been doing is brave, I’d counter this, and say what’s happening isn’t driven by bravery but by necessity. Employers, let your staff freely join unions and let them talk about what’s happened to them without the fear of recriminations from the upper echelons of the brewing industry. 

Everyone else, speak up when you see someone else suffering at the hands of those bigger and more powerful than them. Believe them, don’t try and excuse or rationalise what happened, just do what you can to support those who’ve been hurt. Vote with your feet and your wallet, even if a brewery makes a beer you love, if it’s run by a bunch of shitbags just don’t buy the beer and make the effort to seek out inclusive producers. 

Don’t rely on the old adage that independence means superiority, either in product quality or moral standing. Independence also comes with a lack of accountability to others, and as we saw with BrewDog the wizard behind the screen may not be all that they seem. 

It is on brewers to take the high ground, create the accountability that we need and to not work with those who we feel don’t live up to our own moral standards. We are in a unique position where the momentum and drive is there to establish a set of internal standards to hold ourselves up to, and we need the input of everyone with a stake in the game to make it work. 

Keep showing up, keep shouting and keep the conversation going. Collectively we can make a difference, but we all need to put in some work, don’t wait for someone else to direct your actions, we can all start making the beer world a better place today. 

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