Mashing in

This month, Charlotte Cook argues that, too often, 'passion' is a euphemism for exploitation in craft brewing


I think that it is high time we talked about the “P word”. A word that most would think is somewhat innocuous, and that others could argue is fairly aspirational, but for me hides an insidiousness that we ought to address. The word that sets my teeth on edge whenever I see it in a brewing context is “passion”. 

Passion is given as justification for an almost infinite list of transgressions in the brewing industry. Don’t want to work for 58 hours per week in a frigid shed? You’re not passionate enough. You want a pay rise? Now, if you were truly passionate, you’d work for free. Dare to question how things are run or point out issues in a company? NOW STOP IT! YOUR LACK OF PASSION IS HURTING ME! 

Am I passionate about beer? Yes, I am. I love beer, I love beer culture, I love talking about beer, drinking beer and, half of my wardrobe is pilfered brewery t-shirts. That doesn’t mean I think that we can exploit the love that people have for something to our advantage. Every vacancy posting I see for jobs in beer, from marketing to brewing to taproom staff, prominently features a passion for craft beer as an essential quality for the successful candidate. Sometimes it’s even considered to be the most important attribute. 

It is imperative that people can get into the industry without prior experience; into the right positions, and at the right pay grade. The issue I have is that often people are so desperate to get a foot in the door that they will let that passion cloud their judgement of what is acceptable. Citing an overwhelming passion for the industry makes negotiating salary and contract terms harder, because they already have you over barrel due to the love you have for beer, and how much you’ll sacrifice for it. I see jobs advertised that offer a paltry salary but ask a lot from the candidate. The thing is, making beer is just working in a factory at the bones of it, and no one is going to say that working at a chicken processing plant for peanuts is worth it, because no one has a passion for eviscerating poultry carcasses.  

Sometimes it’s even considered to be the most important attribute

One brewery manager I worked for told the amassed staff that if we didn’t like the night shift rota change then there was a long list of people who would happily take our places, and not complain about it. This abuse of people’s willingness to put up with shit because they love what they do is prevalent across the industry. That said, your love for what you do is considerably strained at 3am, in a freezing brewhouse, with a leaking boot and your sodden sock slowly riding down your foot. 

This exploitation of passion in the beginning is damaging for everyone else in the industry. The constant threat of being replaced by a bright-eyed newcomer, who can’t believe their luck, means that even with considerable experience and education people can feel a lack of empowerment to ask for better pay or conditions. This leads to job-hopping and being perpetually trapped in a position where skills are not commensurably renumerated relative to skill and knowledge. I guess you can say “That’s Capitalism, Baby”, but when these people are producing and selling a product that is popular enough to have a magazine dedicated to it, something seems off. 

I think it’s also important that we don’t try and pretend that passion is enough to ensure success in anything. Not to be overly cynical, if you are really passionate about your hobby and you love it and pursue it as much as you can, that’s really great. That’s not the same as relying upon passion to see you do a good job at work, and this is especially compounded if, as is the case in many breweries, there actually isn’t anyone there who can teach you to do a decent job. Someone who sets up a brewery to make a buck, hires a local homebrewer to produce the beer and then lacks any pedagogy, structure or safeguarding is not going to be sending a well-rounded brewer out into the world. That brewer, knowing nothing different, will then take these bad habits into their next workplace, and the cycle continues. 

There has been a backlash to this, with people pointing out poor offerings in online job adverts, but this doesn’t go to the heart of the issue. The true problem is that people still think that they can get away with exploiting their workforce, and that the ones who do break step can be easily replaced with a more compliant substitution. We’ve seen in the hospitality industry workers organising, unionising and standing up to abusive bosses. Those on the production flank need to look to our colleagues on the other side of the bar and start standing up for ourselves too. 

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