This month, Charlotte Cook reflects on the need for cool heads and dialogue when working through craft beer's cultural problems.
Saturday 12 March 2022
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What a month it’s been. For the first time the wider public outside of the craft beer bubble was made aware of some of the issues that exist in the industry, via the BBC Scotland Disclosure documentary: The Truth About BrewDog.
I was in the documentary, for all of 40 seconds, talking about the casual sexism I experienced at work. Don’t get me wrong, I worked with some incredible people, but there was a lot of “LADSLADSLADS”. My input paled in comparison to what was revealed later in the documentary, which I do implore you to watch in order to get a condensed rundown of the issues in beer, through the lens of one of the most known breweries in the country.
The run up to the documentary being released was fraught. I spent a few days physically shaking, and I don’t think anyone in my contacts list escaped a 20-minute conversation in the days leading to it. “Just a chat, I need to take my mind of it”. The nerves weren’t about the documentary itself, and even contributors didn’t know the content beyond their own input, but rather, the dread came from the unknown fallout, which has been proven to be insidious.
The thing is, I don’t derive any pleasure from talking about issues in beer or trying to bring them to wider attention. It’s a weird hobby I have that I don’t enjoy, and yet takes up huge swathes of my spare time. I am a brewer and a beer scientist, not an organised and agile activist. I am also a hypocrite. I’m not always nice, I have a sharp tongue and a hot temper, and occasionally loose morals; but I have never pretended to be anything other than a flawed person who wants the industry I work in to stop being shit.
I do this because someone needs to, and I don’t want to ask anyone else to do it if I won’t. I despise seeing myself on camera and cringe at the sound of my Geordie-Scottish hybrid accent when it’s played back to me. I feel deeply uneasy being the subject of accolades and attention and think there are more deserving people out there. I know this seems at odds with a person who’s writing in magazines and going on radio shows, and I can see why that might be hard to swallow.
The run up to the documentary being released was fraught
I wouldn’t have become a brewer if I was in it for fame and fortune. The money often isn’t even decent until you ascend some arbitrary ladder. As for fame, no one listens to someone with malt and hops in their hair, I know from experience. I speak out because I’ve been damaged by an industry that gives a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and much like McDonald’s consumers were shocked to know how cattle farming destroyed the Amazon, beer drinkers should know the realities of where the beer comes from. Not only have I been damaged, but I regularly see wonderful people being chewed up and spat out by the beer industry, ready to turn their back on it forever and working hard in their spare time to find an out.
That’s not to say all breweries are bad, plenty of people are out there working hard to look after their staff and improve the world, but lots fall short. The big players need to step up and do the actual leading now, show the rest of the industry how it’s done and how companies can grow and expand without leaving a trail of bodies to show for it.
Playing this out on a public forum is far from ideal, no one envisages that their issues in the past will be on television years later, but this is the inevitable conclusion when an industry tries to brush its ills under the carpet, they spill out eventually and not in the way you expect. Private resolution hasn’t worked, or indeed been offered in many cases, and now the scale of the problem is so vast it is in the public interest to repair the wounds.
I’ve been listening to the Jon Ronson podcast, Things Fell Apart, which details despatches from the culture wars, with opposing factions entrenched in battles over societal values and where they fall on the spectrum. It rings very true to the skirmishes taking place in the beer world, where the frontlines are online forums and Instagram stories, with any transgression being instantly screenshotted and shared to thousands within seconds. This suppleness and resourcefulness of communication is not from the PR rulebook that breweries follow, and their responses show how far from their wheelhouse this all is. Those sharing stories of industry abuses can disseminate a story without going through any organisational approval system or style guidelines and have three corroborating stories before the old-fashioned machineries of response have even warmed up. This isn’t just a culture war of standpoints and values, but one of methodology and technique. The advantage is gained through swift turnover of information and engaged audiences, who crucially, believe what survivors report and critically evaluate the responses from breweries. An audience who feels they cannot be intimidated or cowed is a powerful thing.
This isn’t just a culture war of standpoints and values
I have never shared the stories of people in the industry on social media, I am not the right person to do so, and nor am I emotionally equipped to take on other people’s trauma. It should not be that the only people listening to and amplifying voices are those who have suffered in the industry; but perhaps it is the suffering that acts as a catalyst for change that wouldn’t exist if an uninterested party tried to undertake the task.
So here we are, at a stalemate in the culture wars, with stories and refutations coming daily from both sides, a cacophony of voices in a small arena with no discernible conclusion in sight. One method used effectively thus far has been to engage a third party to investigate allegations and then work with the accused brewery to come to a resolution, as we have seen with Mikkeller. This gives those who feel strongly enough about an issue the chance to have their voice heard by those that hurt them, and for an equitable and closure enabling solution to be found, fundamentally bypassing the internal HR and politics that silenced people and, honestly, led to this whole mess. The UK side of things has not yet reached that level of maturity, with mudslinging (or recently more nefarious methods) still being the preferred method of passing messages to each other, and it’s pretty pitiful to see.
De-escalation doesn’t occur without discourse, and until the breweries stop trying to dictate the form of that discourse, I can’t see this ending. Wars don’t get resolved through attrition, chest beating, or holding out like lost soldiers in the jungle. Wars are resolved through dialogue facilitated through neutral actors, eventual connection, understanding and listening. The attempts to engage in ad hominem attacks and discrediting of those speaking up is flawed as a long-term solution, and the judgements on both sides will prolong the misery.
The solution is there, and people are willing to engage, but both sides need to come together and solve this for the sake of the industry we all love, and the use of underhand tactics will not be tolerated.
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