What needs to change and what can consumers do?

It’s been an interesting, emotionally intense few weeks for the beer industry – first in the US, now in the UK – as stories of sexual harassment and bullying have come flooding out.

These conversations are important, even if nobody much enjoys having them. Much of the behaviour described by whistle-blowers is appalling and, in some cases, clearly criminal.

There’s a certain catharsis in the very act of sharing these experiences, especially for people who have doubted themselves. Comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

It’s also helpful, every now and then, to have a discussion that establishes a collective sense of where the boundaries lie today, right now. It feels as if the days when you could disguise insults and harassment as ‘banter’, or gloss over predation as ‘workplace romance’, might finally be passing.

Sifting the stories

There seem to be a few broad types of personal experience emerging in the Instagram stories and surrounding discussion and it’s perhaps worth shaking those into categories.

First, there are relatively minor irritations – a staple of the conversation around sexism in beer. Like the way when people meet us together, they often address questions to Ray rather than Jess. It’s good to air frustration about this and, again, remind people that it’s fucking annoying, but it doesn’t feel as urgent or serious as…

Category two, where individual employees have clearly behaved atrociously. We’ve all worked with people who were difficult or routinely inappropriate. But when it comes to talking about specific incidents like this, things get tricky. Is there a ‘two sides to every story’ situation in play? Were incidents reported and dealt with as they should have been?

Unfortunately, given that it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual HR cases, a brewery that has dealt with a specific issue will look, to outsiders, much like one that’s covering it up.

It’s category three, with regard to breweries or hospitality businesses with cultures that are fundamentally broken, where there’s most room to make substantial, far-reaching changes. These are organisations where:

  • There is a failure to deal with category two incidents and people like that keep getting hired.
  • Problematic behaviour is modelled by founders and senior managers, bolstered by a cult of personality which means they’re never challenged.
  • Getting things done is prized over doing things properly.
  • HR is not taken seriously and there is apparently limited investment in professional HR support.
  • Staff, perhaps young and in their first management roles, aren’t given the training and support they need to feel confident in tackling inappropriate behaviour.
  • The philosophy that ‘the customer is always right’ leaves staff feeling powerless.

What needs to change?

We hope that UK breweries which have been named in the stories Siobhan has collected take this seriously, even if their gut instinct is to say, “Hey, that’s just not true!” Or, “It’s more complicated than that.”

If you don’t recognise your company culture in the stories you’re hearing, talk to your team, or give them a way to give feedback anonymously.

If, on reflection, you can see where the accusations are coming from, do something about it – and that has to mean more than a mealy-mouthed non-apology on social media.

How are your working practices and policies actually going to change to prevent this happening again? Are there people in management who need to step back or step down? And could your management team benefit from being more diverse? If so, how will you make that happen?

Given that, again, it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual incidents, clear, unambiguous public statements of changes in policy are the best alternative.

What can consumers do?

Or, to put that another way, it’s hard to buy products only from successful businesses which have never hired a dickhead or two; which aren’t run by somewhat self-obsessed bigheads; whose staff don’t resent management and/or dislike their work some or all of the time; and which don’t work staff as hard as possible for the lowest wages the market will permit.

With that in mind, we just don’t think it’s really fair to expect consumers to carefully dissect the HR record and ethics of every brewery or bar they buy from.

If you conclude, from information you gather from trusted sources, that you don’t want to support a particular brewery – that you just can’t enjoy the beer knowing what you know – then that’s consumer power in action.

In a sense, this is a version of a conversation film and music fans have been having for years. Can you enjoy the Beatles if you believe John Lennon was abusive to women as a young man? Does the way Uma Thurman was treated on the set of Kill Bill mean your Tarantino box set needs to go in the bin?

Smart people have reached some interesting conclusions on this:

  1. It’s up to you, as an individual, to decide if knowing how the creator behaves makes it impossible for you to enjoy the work. That’s the only question you need to answer, for yourself.
  1. Like it or not, we do, consciously or subconsciously, make some allowances for the passage of time. If we only read, watched or listened to art created by people who never transgressed against modern standards, we’d have very little left.
  1. Films aren’t the work of a Single Great Man. Ditch Hitchcock (there’s an argument) and you throw out the work of an awful lot of brilliant, blameless people with him, including plenty of women.

It isn’t always possible to separate art from the artist, or beer from the brewer, but what we can all do is get out of the habit of repeating that Great Man narrative.

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14, we let ourselves get drawn into to an extent as we tried to pin down exactly who was responsible for specific important innovations or decisions. Even then, though, we did try to resist gushing, or suggesting that our subjects were heroes or saints.

Tell stories, sure, and paint portraits of people – the human angle is always interesting – but don’t think you know a person based on two hours of stage-managed PR flesh-pressing.

This conversation is already driving some interesting responses, from conferences to talk of unions to, we think, plenty of meaningful reflection. In the long run, that’s what we need.

News pubs

News, Nuggets and Longreads 12 January 2019: Bitterness, Brüpond, Burlesque

Here’s everything we thought bookmark-worthy in the past week, from beer with bite to Double Diamond.

First, a quick stop at the BBC, where the recent ONS report on pub closures continues to generate stories: we know some areas have suffered particularly badly, but where are pubs opening? Where have the numbers risen? The Highlands of Scotland, it turns out, is one such region:

Since 2008, almost a quarter of pubs in the UK have shut according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis… But the study shows that in the Highlands there are 14% more pubs than there were 10 years ago… Paul Waterson, of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said a major factor behind the growth was that the pubs had done well catering for tourists.

Generalisations about beer culture

Pints and Halves: Statements and Pragmatism

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Everything we do sends signals — even something as apparently unimportant as the size of the glass out of which we choose to drink our beer.

I (Jessica) hit my teenage years during the era of the ladette when drinking beer, and especially drinking beer in pints, was a way for women to stake a claim on blokes’ territory. Big boots, no make-up, pints, swearing — don’t tell me what’s ladylike or how to behave! Up yours!

For as long as I’ve been interested in beer one of the annoying minor manifestations of sexism has been the tendency to assume I’ll want a half, or a fruit beer, or whichever of the two drinks we’ve ordered is (as decided by a whole set of complex subconscious calculations) the ‘girly’ one.

I realised a few years ago, though, that most of the time I do want to drink halves. I’m not very big; don’t have a great gut capacity; and even at the peak of my pissed fitness could only handle so much beer by volume before I made myself sick, which only seems to be getting worse as I slide into middle age.

Sometimes, though, I find myself ordering a pint because I can’t face another crappy, scratched tumbler, full to the brim with no head. Sometimes it’s because I’ve had a tough day and I know that I’d only be back at the bar after five minutes otherwise. And sometimes it’s the teenager in DMs rearing her head, making a point.

* * *

I (Ray) used to drink halves more often because there were so many exciting beers to taste and it was the only way to get through them all; and, honestly, because I was being an awkward sod in response to male friends refusing — literally refusing — to buy me halves because they thought it compromised my masculinity and, more importantly to them, theirs.

As I’ve drifted out of five status and into a comfortable seven, I’ve come back to pints. I drink a pint in about the time it takes Jess to drink a half. I like the feel of a pint glass in my hand, and the rhythm it gives to drinking.

My hangover limits are higher, my gut more elastic: my four pints to Jess’s two over the course of a session leaves us in about the same place.

But perhaps I’ve also just reverted to my deep programming: in my family, a bloke ordering a half is sending a signal that he’s not planning to stick about, or isn’t fully committed to the session.

I sometimes order a half just to remind myself I can and I always think, “I should do this more often.”

* * *

Ultimately, what we’d both like is this:

  1. To be able to order whichever beer we fancy in whatever volume we feel like at that particular moment without assumptions or comment, and without having to explain the reasons.
  2. For halves to be treated with as much reverence by pubs and bars as the sacred pint — nice glassware makes such a difference.

We were prompted to think about this by various things but most important the recent report from Dea Latis on women’s attitudes to beer. Do give it a read.


News, Nuggets & Longreads for 5 May 2018: Bernard, Budweiser, Broken Bones

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention over the past week in the world of beer and pubs, from #MeToo to George Washington.

First, via @niccipeet, a startling story from the Czech Republic by Kasia Pilat for the New York Times:

A social media posting by a major Czech brewery that appeared to mock the #MeToo movement has prompted strong reactions, drawing praise, criticism and some soul-searching on sexism in this former communist republic…. The Facebook post by the Bernard Brewery in Humpolec, about an hour’s journey from Prague, features the likeness of a nearly toothless old woman with the hashtag #MeToo superimposed in white. “The world’s gone crazy,” reads the Czech-language text on the post, which is also emblazoned with the brewery’s logo. “Brace yourselves.”

In the UK Bernard beers have fairly generic branding — almost bland — and it’s hard to connect this kind of advertising, and the follow-up comments from the brewery, with the stuff you see on sale at the Sheffield Tap and elsewhere. Another reminder (along with the reaction to this) that other places and cultures can often be in different places to yours on these issues.

Broken wrist X-Ray.

We’ve been missing Kirst Walker’s posts but it turns out there was a good reason: she broke her wrist performing on stage, as she explains in this typically entertaining piece on how booze and painkillers mix, or, rather, how they don’t:

I was worried about some plans I might have to cancel so I asked the surgeon how soon I could go about my normal life after the operation…. He assured me I could still go to London to see Hamilton and looked affronted that I doubted his skills in repairing me. My next trip ‘out’ after the operation was three days later when I went to see Niall Horan in concert. There I stood at the back taking full advantage of my invalid status to get my cousin to run to the bar for me. I had one pint of John Smiths in a plastic cup and later felt like my dreams were running out of my ears. That’s when I reduced the dose of codeine.

Oh, that turn of phrase! Wonderful.

News pubs

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 April 2018: Tap Rooms, Masculinity, The Luppit

Here’s all the writing and news about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Chicago to Rochdale. But we’ll start with some bits of news.

Detail from an advert for Skol, 1960.

For Punch Gray Chapman takes a deep look into attitudes around gender in relation to beer, inspired by Helana Darwin’s research that we mentioned in one of these round-ups a few weeks ago. The article is called ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About “Bitch Beer”’:

Beer is inextricably tangled up in gender, and no one understands this better than the women who choose to drink it. Much of its history is rooted in a blue-collar, canvas coveralls-tinged vision of masculinity that’s still evident in almost every aspect of its supply chain; label art commonly recalls Axe Body Spray at best, cartoon porn at worst. Less aggressive but more ubiquitous is the practically algorithmic aesthetic of craft beer bars, with their warehouse-industrial interiors and a Ron Swanson-esque penchant for rough-hewn wood and leather, evoking a nostalgia for a time and place where Real Men and their work-calloused hands made things.