Monoculture farming is a widely used but problematic practice. The cultivation of one crop in a farming system at a time increases yields and reduces costs, but it comes at a price. These crops are particularly susceptible to pests and disease. Not to mention unsustainable—the repetition rapidly depletes the environment, discouraging healthy growth as time goes on. Variation is required for long term success in an organic system.
It’s no secret that craft brewing has a bit of a monoculture, too. The industry’s diversity problems have been well-documented in the national press and the Brewers Association is recommending action. Suddenly, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies are everywhere. Yet for all the jargon and well-crafted handbook additions, breweries look essentially the same as they always have. Why? Because most policies are well-meaning at best and toothless at worst. The inefficacy of “checking the box” for DEI is plain.
This isn’t uncommon for social initiatives in the workplace. Like DEI, phrases like triple bottom line (3BL) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are fashionable but suffer from a lack of definition. They disconnect us from the very intentional actions they’re supposed to measure. There are no ethical standards they must adhere to (see greenwashing), and businesses rarely attack them with the same fervor as financial goals. They’re “good-to-have,” not “have-to-have.” Not deemed truly essential to a company’s success.
The same can be said of the craft brewing industry’s DEI efforts. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not anti-craft. Craft is my life. I’m a brewery owner and I adore our industry, which is made up of mostly great people who have been out in front on a number of progressive issues. So where did we go wrong with diversity?
In a word, bias. Specifically, unconscious, “similar-to-me” bias. We tend to hire people that think and look like us, and it’s perhaps the single biggest reason craft’s monoculture persists. And since our employees are largely industry enthusiasts (88% of whom are white), we’re essentially guaranteeing the culture will stay the same. This is bad for business in the long term; study after study reveals that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, but business owners cling to their established culture because they believe its responsible for their success. This is a huge obstacle when it comes to making major cultural changes. When we are able to attract and hire diverse candidates, our casual culture and fast pace can prevent us from recognizing things like microaggressions (aka micro-inequities), and quick turnover of diverse employees is the tragic opportunity cost.
In order to be effective, DEI efforts must be approached with vulnerability. This is why it eludes many of us in the industry. The wind has been at our back for a decade, and beer is built on bluster—which gives us the false assurance we’re doing everything right. Entrepreneurs—brewery owners particularly—are used to being ahead of the curve, and and being rewarded for it in the marketplace. This often leads to the mistaken assumption that we are inclusive because we say we are and feel that we are. But the tragic reality of the “hot hand fallacy” is many don’t realize they’ve fallen victim to it until it’s too late.
In an article for Forbes, author Glenn Llopis recommends moving DEI out of the purview of HR altogether, and instead into the center of an organization’s strategy for growth. Craft beer has always lionized its product, emphasizing quality above all. But it’s time to move the focus from the product to the people. In this respect, DEI policies alone aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on unless they’re part of an earnest strategy to put opportunity for individuals at the center of the company. This isn’t to say we should settle for less in other areas. It’s about recognizing that our offering alone is no longer exceptional just by virtue of its existence. Craft culture is now mainstream. Quality is largely assumed because in order to compete in a marketplace nearing saturation, you have to be good merely to exist. But being good isn’t enough, and changes in the industry point to an unfamiliar future.
By any metric, growth is slowing. In 2018, craft beer “grew by just 4 percent in marketplace volume, down from the double-digit growth to which the industry had grown accustomed over the last decade,” says Julia Herz of the Brewers Association. Brewery closings continue to mount. The decline of mature brands is seen industrywide, and their purveyors have little choice but to consolidate to survive. We all feel the ground shifting beneath our feet. The very survival of our industry hinges upon how we combat the challenges we face, and we can’t take meaningful action without understanding what they actually are.
“What companies struggle with, it turns out, is not solving problems but figuring out what problems are,” said leadership expert Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in The Harvard Business Review. In diagnosing them, we have to be honest about our failures, half measures, and most of all, our history. DEI policies alone won’t uproot a century of the industry’s lack of representation of people of color. The non-diversity among brewery owners certainly has overtones of institutional racism: barriers to entry like lack of access to capital are on full display. Though not craft-specific, race was used to sow division among the working class during the fight for Prohibition. Teetotalers like the Anti-Saloon League used racism to stoke resentment of alcohol, painting it as the drink of immigrants and the lower class. Beer emerged from Prohibition wholly changed. “[The post-Prohibition] consolidation of most beer brewing in the US into very large corporations probably hurt all sorts of minorities who would have potentially owned breweries,” said Allison McKim, an assistant professor of sociology at Bard College. The effects persist today. The neighborhood brewery is once again the prevailing archetype, like it was leading up to prohibition, and the ghosts of the Eighteenth Amendment still haunt it.
And of course, our neighborhoods are still segregated. Author Bill Bishop’s influential book, The Big Sort, details the ever changing demographic makeup of America’s cities and neighborhoods. Its thesis is that as time progresses and wealth grows, Americans increasingly choose to live in neighborhoods made up of people like themselves. This is the world in which craft beer has risen to prominence: a landscape of compartmentalized affluence. Though craft’s unprecedented rise may be due to this clustering of the like-minded (and like-skinned), its survival will have to be in spite of it. Demographic uniformity is not good for business; it’s considered a contributing factor in craft’s slowing, and for that we have the Millennials to thank.
Millennials are now the biggest buying generation ever, and they are drinking less and less. The “sober curious” movement and the mainstreaming of cannabis loom large in craft’s future, and not in a good way. We can’t survive by catering to GenX and the Baby Boomers alone. We have to connect with younger generations in a big way, which will require new approaches that have little if anything to do with brewing beer. But fortunately, they’ve been vocal about what they want. For all of the generational disconnects, one thing about Millennials is clear: they expect companies to stand for social justice, and they value and appreciate diverse workplaces. How dare they.
So how do we get there? We have to start with understanding what inclusion actually looks like. This past October, Boston’s Harpoon Brewery announced it was hosting its first ever career fair, the aim of which was to cultivate diversity in its workforce. “It’s about making connections and inviting people into the fold who may not have thought about a career in craft beer, but who can flourish here,” said Dan Kenary, CEO. The company also brewed a special beer—“Hopportunity Pale Ale”—whose sales benefited career development for the unemployed and underemployed in the Boston area.
Harpoon shows us a way to provide opportunities for people we don’t often encounter. But the goal can’t be just to hire a more diverse staff. That would be callous and likely fruitless because it isn’t just about changing the skin color of our team members. It’s about acknowledging the value of diversity, notsandwiching diverse people in to your existing culture. This requires being vulnerable enough to give them room to shape and change the culture. As someone once said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” Without the latter, the hiring aspect alone is premature and destined to fail.
Ultimately, it’s about creating opportunity for everyone, ourselves included. We need new customers, and we can’t reach them without the type of innovation we can only gain from diversity. But we can’t get either without moving people to the forefront. Diversity and acceptance alone are low standards in this respect. As my friend and fellow OutPro Council member Jennie Mills says, “I’m sick of just being accepted. I want to be affirmed.” Affirmation requires far more than progressive policy. Diversity without inclusion prevents people from bringing their true and authentic selves to work which, unfortunately for employers, drastically limits their contributions; it turns invested employees into transactional ones. Craft must do the hard work to cultivate a truly diversified culture if it is to endure. Otherwise, it may find the environment that once nurtured it has become too depleted to support it.