Recent #MeToo allegations have rocked the artisan beer world — including allegations levied at industry darling Humble Sea Brewing Co. here in Santa Cruz County. Now the allegations are spurring female leaders in the brewing industry to speak up about the culture and push for inclusivity and clearer lines in the workplace.
As the craft beer industry exploded both here and nationally the past decade, it became a symbol of community gathering and a modern cultural touchstone — a safe place to share a pint, some laughs and the occasional muse for the entrepreneurial spirits among us.
That’s why the recent #MeToo accusations that have rocked the artisan beer world — including allegations levied at an industry darling here in Santa Cruz County — sting all the more.
“The stories that have been coming out are horrible,” Discretion Brewing co-owner Kathleen Genco said via email. She’s grateful for Massachusetts brewer Brienne Allan, whose Instagram account is responsible “for opening that door and allowing so many women to be heard so the wrongs can be reckoned with.”
The local operation named in Allan’s Instagram account is Humble Sea, the same brewery drawing buzz around the Bay Area and beyond for its kitschy surf-themed beer names and accompanying can art that recently announced ambitious expansion plans up Highway 1 to Pacifica, up Highway 9 to the three co-owners’ hometown of Felton and eventually to Santa Clara County.
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The allegations against Humble Sea came from a former employee who said she was shunned and ostracized by management after a brewer she was in a relationship with was let go because she had gotten a restraining order against him.
Humble Sea posted a lengthy statement to its Instagram account on May 19, stating: “First things first — we, both individually and as a company, are sorry for any hurt or pain we have caused in the past, especially to our employees. We know some of our employees have felt unsafe or unequal at Humble Sea and those experiences tell us we have not yet done enough to address these issues. Period. Full Stop.”
This is not the first bad press Humble Sea has received. The craft beer blog Good Beer Hunting published a 2019 article citing misconduct from several craft breweries nationwide and sharing personal accounts from current and former employees and owners including accounts from former Humble Sea employee Helen Yin. In the story, Yin reported claims of stereotyping against her Cambodian heritage while working at the brewery in 2017.
The brewery posted to its Instagram again last week, pointing to the “Responsibility” page on its website: “This past week, we’ve taken time to reflect and focus on our employees and continue to evolve our company culture while building on our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. Thank you to our entire Humble Sea family and to everyone who has reached out to share their sincere thoughts and feedback.”
Hundreds of comments have accumulated on both posts, ranging from avid support based on an anti-cancel culture stance to deep concern about whether the situation is being taken seriously to the proudly sardonic.
“But you’re still gonna keep producing beer ..... RIGHT?!?!?!”
Female brewers, leadership in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz County has strong female representation in its local craft beer scene. Six of the 14 breweries that have on-site service are at least partly owned and run by women. The expanding pour house empire that began as Beer Thirty has multiple female owners. The craft beer bar Lupulo is also a wife-and-husband-led affair.
Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, co-launched by Emily Thomas as the first of the area’s modern craft breweries in 2005, has the county’s only female head brewer. Fifteen of Thomas’s 25 employees at SCMB are female. “I’ll always make sure I have a female brewer,” Thomas said.
Though Thomas said she was surprised that the alarming news struck close to home, she says mixing alcohol into a work environment can get tricky and she stays hyperaware of those unique industry nuances and how her employees could be affected. “Every day it is on my mind on all levels — not just sexual harassment,” she said. “I feel like they’re my herd and I’ve got to protect them.”
Adair Paterno, co-owner of Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, ranked one of the world’s top breweries since it began nearly a decade ago, is among the most influential women in the beer industry. Paterno, who recently served as president of the California Craft Brewers Association, remains on its executive committee.
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As she scrambled to reopen an expanded outside beer garden at SARA’s Capitola location last week, she could say only that the CCBA board is having internal dialogue about the Instagram allegations and processing any steps it can take regarding these issues. Paterno said she would address “my personal experiences in the industry” sometime soon.
Genco says it’s imperative to get out ahead of any troubles by setting clear policy. “We’ve made efforts from day one to make sure our employees understand our anti-harassment policy and know what to do if they ever have a problem,” she said.
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How can the industry do better?
Not far from the harbor on East Cliff Drive in Live Oak sits the area’s most vocal brewery on the topic of good beer behavior. Greater Purpose Brewing Co., which sprung forth from the openly LGBTQ-friendly Greater Purpose Community Church, placed a sign out front outlining acceptable behavior.
It makes it clear “this is what we won’t tolerate in this space,” emphasized head brewer Shamus Mooney, who said Greater Purpose has had to “86" three people for bad behavior in its short lifespan since taking over East Cliff Brewing Co. and waiting out a pandemic. “People have really reacted to that.”
While clear signage and apologetic social media posts outlining new behaviors and management practices are beneficial, this issue is not new nor unique to Santa Cruz.
The restaurant industry has long been reported to have some of the highest rates of sexual harassment claims compared to other professions. Craft beer is largely an extension of hospitality, but these recent allegations are proving to be the first real #MeToo powder keg situation for the industry.
A 2019 diversity study from the Brewers Association highlighted that only 7.5% of brewers were female. In addition, 88% of craft brewery owners were white, with Asian, Hispanic and Black brewery owners accounting for a combined 5% of ownership.
“There is an overarching issue: The industry lacks diversity and equity.”
— Emily Thomas
Craft beer has an “overarching issue,” Thomas said. “The industry lacks diversity and equity.”
Following the allegations posted on social media, the Brewers Association posted its own statement, adding that the association will be allocating resources toward the topic at the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in September and providing training for current members.
On Thursday, the association began the first of a three-part webinar series “Preventing Sexual Harassment.” In 2017, the group created a diversity, equity and inclusion committee and hired a full-time staff member focused on equity and inclusion the following year.
Community hops vs. hype hops
After leaving the tech world, where she said she witnessed a lot of predatory behavior, Thomas was determined to make her brewery operate “female first.”
For her, craft beer has always been about community. But Thomas believes that recent industry growth has split breweries into largely two types: community-focused ones and what she calls “hype breweries.”
The latter group encompasses breweries that are more focused on growth and marketing rather than being intertwined with the communities they serve. Often, the focus on profits and expansion can lead to potential blindspots, she says.
Thomas thinks the Santa Cruz brewery scene has been largely positive and influential in helping rebuild community hubs and gathering spaces, especially along the Westside’s Swift Street corridor, where both Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and Humble Sea are located.
“We have all tried to look out for one another. We all trade and share ingredients ... it’s better to work together and create a beer destination,” she said. “(But) none of us really know each other’s internal HR policy.”
And the pandemic led to more brewery siloing, with communication channels between breweries eroding with no events or festivals.
“We’ve been so isolated in our own breweries,” Genco said. “I hope that we’re all having conversations within our breweries for the good of our employees.”
Thomas thinks the next steps, at individual breweries and within the industry, are vital. And mostly they center around a continued dialogue and creating the kind of safe place people expect on both sides of the bar.
“I hope it doesn’t get swept under the rug,” she said. “I hope it creates a deeper movement.”