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One sweltering summer day in 2019, I was packed, sardine-like, onto a bus barreling through downtown Seattle, heading for the Ballard Brewery District. A former industrial sector, the Ballard neighborhood was founded by Scandinavian fishermen, and almost became a city unto itself in Seattle’s early days. Gradually, its boat-repair shops and warehouses gave way to the city’s densest concentration of breweries, though the scent of cured salmon and smørrebrød still just about lingers in the salt air.
On this particular day, a different crowd of pioneers was remaking a space in Ballard in their own image.
I slithered out through the transiting masses and disembarked, arriving at my destination: Stoup Brewing. I was here for the monthly happy hour of a queer social group I had joined, and I was nervous. I knew the owners well, having written a profile on them; I had whiled away countless afternoons at Stoup, attended dozens of events, and even hosted one in the space. But I had never done so as an openly queer person. I had only recently come out, and even then, only to my inner circle.
I ordered my beer, took a deep breath, and announced that I was here for the event. In response, I watched flickers of recognition, processing, and acceptance pass through the eyes of the staff. Without missing a beat, they told me to have a great time.
What I saw when I entered the room made my already-racing heart surge. It was packed as densely as the bus, only with queer women and trans or gender-variant people talking, shouting, laughing, and connecting, beads of condensation rolling down pint glasses like the sweat on their brows. I never knew there were so many of us until I saw us all gathered together in one, welcoming place. It was the first time I ever asked a woman for her number. I didn’t call, but it was a start.
[Read All in the (Chosen) Family, Part One — How Queer Erasure Plagues Craft Beer]
Stoup is co-owned by brewer Robyn Schumacher, a gay woman, along with straight allies Lara Zahaba (also the creative director) and Brad Benson (head brewer). Zahaba’s sister, who is the brewery’s longest-standing employee, is also queer, as are several members of staff. The team has intentionally carved out a warm environment for LGBTQIA+ and female-identified people in an industry otherwise dominated by bearded bros and cold, industrial atmospheres.
Despite the nautical, masculine roots of the neighborhood, the District itself is anomalous, with female owners at the helm of six of its 13 breweries. For many members of the queer community, venues like these function as safe spaces (which is appropriate, given that the concept of safe space is important in both the LGBTQIA+ and women’s movements due to their shared history of cis-het-male violence).
Within patriarchal American culture, the default setting for public space is masculine. For many women or queer people to feel fully comfortable, there must be intentional signaling that a place is meant for us, which is often lacking, especially in beer-centric venues. This not only interferes with our ability to enjoy these spaces, but often keeps us away altogether—reinforcing both the stereotype of such spaces as designed for cis-het males and the homogeneity of the crowds. (This experience is all too familiar to people of color navigating the world of craft beer.)
Drawing from a survey I conducted about diversity and inclusion in the U.S. craft brewing industry, which includes responses from over 400 workers and owners across industry verticals, we can start to understand how space shapes the queer experience in craft brewing—and what owners, workers, and the industry can do to make it safer.
As one respondent, a female brewer, says, “Some people see a homogenous taproom, in both staff and customers, and just chalk it up to, ‘That’s just the way things are,’ when in reality, there are steps they can take and conversations they can have to ensure that diverse groups do feel safe and welcome in their brewery.”
WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR STRUGGLE It is alienating to be the only person who looks like you in a brewery, and it can be intimidating and even frightening to not know how many of your people are there. Queer erasure—the removal of queer people and identities from the public eye—is compounded by the often-invisible nature of sexual orientation and gender identification.
Most LGBTQIA+ people have learned, whether through lived experience or inherited trauma, to operate from a baseline of hypervigilance, constantly readjusting the costumes we don in public spaces, including our family’s living rooms. We have to do this, when statements such as “beer is for everybody” have had an asterisk next to them for centuries—denoting, for many, everybody but you.
But the place where everyone not only knows your name, but knows your struggle, is the antidote to erasure. There is an incredible lightness of being when you cross the sacred threshold of even the dingiest gay bar, knowing that no explanation is needed here; safe amongst your chosen kin, you can finally take off that costume and exhale.
While John Yarno, a brewer and cis gay man at Urban Family Brewing Co. in Seattle, advocates for the acceptance of queer culture into the mainstream, he also recognizes that “these environments are critical, because they’re places we can go where we are 100% safe and we can be 1,000% who we are without ridicule, without judgment.”
That’s why queer spaces have factored so prominently in the history of LGBTQIA+ culture. The Stonewall movement for civil rights started in a tavern, and to this day, bars are often places where more queer people feel at home. U.S. craft brewing, with its countercultural history, was in a way poised to help provide these safe havens, and today’s LGBTQIA+ owners, workers, and allies have the chance to run with the ball that previous generations of craft beer leaders dropped.
After all, these spaces can truly mean the difference between life and death. Disproportionate rates of isolation, loneliness, depression, and suicide have long haunted the LGBTQIA+ community, and have only taken on greater gravity in the social-distancing age. “There’s a loss of connection,” says Tanya Barrios, a cis lesbian Latina woman who is the marketing manager at Samuel Adams’ Boston taproom. “That was the big reason I would go to queer bars—to be around the people I felt most comfortable with. […] Zoom can only do so much.”
But queer spaces have been disappearing since before the pandemic, which has only accelerated the trend. Despite agreeing that creating space is important, many queer brewery owners are hesitant at the prospect of being known as “the gay brewery.” Why? “You’re either the LGBT brewery, or the brewery that makes good beer,” says Julie Verratti, co-founder of Denizens Brewing Co. in Maryland and a cis gay woman. “Once people pigeonhole you like that, nobody looks at anything else, and that is infuriating to me.”
In other words: Being queer can be bad for business. This perception may not actively factor into a brewery owner’s marketing scheme, but it still permeates the cultural consciousness. Thus, while most owners don’t hide their identities, “It’s not the first thing we say,” notes Thad Briggs, who co-founded Mountain Toad Brewing in Golden, Colorado, along with his partner Brian Vialpando. “Sometimes it takes [people] a little time to clue in [to the fact] that Brian and I are more than just a management team.”
"DOING GAY THINGS MAKES US UNSUCCESSFUL" While I understand the reasoning behind owners’ reluctance to commit to the “gay brewery” moniker, as it denotes its own flavor of exclusivity, I can’t help but feel saddened by it. I am not alone in dreaming of a future where being a “gay brewery” would be embraced as a successful business model—a sentiment shared by many of the workers I interviewed.
But maybe queer space doesn’t have to be physical, and you don’t have to call yourself a “gay brewery” to make LGBTQIA+ people feel welcome. Some breweries find safe places can be temporal, hosting events catered to the queer community that challenge the business case for straight-passing.
Brian Van Den Oever, co-owner at Red Bear Brewing Co. in Washington, D.C., proudly declares that “doing gay things makes us successful!” With three gay male owners, Red Bear is the only 100% queer-owned brewery in the city, and it has hosted drag events, such as bingo and trivia, since its inception. “We aren’t a ‘gay brewery,’ but you can be yourself at Red Bear,” Van Den Oever adds.
As proof of success, Red Bear had a line around the block during its opening days. “We had the [queer] community to market to […] and the neighborhood desperately needed something like us,” Van Den Oever says. The business has continued to thrive even through the pandemic, with offerings such as “DRAG-livery,” where beer-to-go orders are delivered by a drag queen with an optional one-minute performance.
At Dorchester Brewing Co. in Dorchester, Massachusetts, co-founder and CEO Matt Malloy is gay, and the brewery has found similar success hosting events expressly catered to the queer community. “I’m not here to create a ‘gay brewery,’ [but] I’m here to make sure everybody feels comfortable being able to celebrate who they are,” Malloy says.
Allies can host these events, too. While founder Sam Gilbert is a cis-het man, Temescal Brewing in Oakland, California became known as a beacon for the queer community through its Queer First Friday events under the leadership of Theresa Bale, a cis lesbian woman who had led operations and events (she recently moved on from the brewery), and Kai Villegas, director of operations and a cis gay man.
CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE From programming and partnerships to marketing, social media messaging, and physical spaces, breweries are constantly sending signals that can bring queer people in—or keep them out. Sadly, regardless of how progressive they think they are, many beer businesses are still doing the latter—and this issue is compounded by intersectional experiences of “othering.”
“There have definitely been occasions when my wife and I have entered a bar or brewing company together, and haven’t been greeted, or had our greeting to staff returned,” says one queer, multi-racial survey respondent. “It’s fair to chalk some of this up to the person, but we’d be foolish to think that absolutely nothing related to those repeated instances has to do with our relationship, or the color of my skin (a super rad shade of brown).”
Schumacher has seen complaints on brewers’ forums from people who “think it’s gratuitous” for breweries to make overt gestures of inclusivity because it should be obvious that all are welcome. The good news? Some cis-het male craft beer workers and survey respondents, particularly in the liberal “bubbles” of Seattle, Denver, and the San Francisco Bay Area, do recognize that their social position colors their perspectives.
One respondent puts it bluntly: “I’m a privileged-ass middle-aged white guy with a beard. The whole world listens to me, regardless of the actual value of what I’m sayin’ at the moment. I am already three laps ahead just by dint of birth and upbringing. I’m playing this game on Easy.”
The problem is that learned helplessness often comes with such privilege. Many owners are stymied when subtle shifts such as marketing and messaging fail to bring new people in: “I try to hire a diverse staff, but I can only hire from people that apply, and [it] seems that I don’t always get a very diverse candidate pool,” one says.
Still others fail to grasp the systemic injustices that create disparities in the first place: “The perception [that] you have to be a white male with a beard to be in this industry [is only] true because that’s the majority of who’s interested in it,” says another owner, adding that most breweries “don’t have the resources to hire anyone, let alone be worried about diversity.”
When diversity and inclusion are seen as a luxury, queer erasure reigns. Again, the familiar refrain: It’s not so much that LGBTQIA+ people are purposefully being excluded, it’s that “no one really cares,” as one respondent says, adding that “80% of brewery owners are all the same—they only preach diversity to get more sales or to ensure they have good press on their side.”
The difference, respondents say, between paying lip service and actually being an ally is taking action. “It’s not enough for breweries or brands to say ‘everyone’s welcome,’” says Marquita Reese, a cis queer brewer and chairwoman of the diversity and inclusion committee at Sloop Brewing Co. in East Fishkill, New York. “You have to proactively make people feel welcome.”
Steven Fuller, owner of Wackadoo Brewing in Fountain, Colorado and a bisexual man, agrees: “You can’t just sit in your brewery and expect everything to come to you. The most important thing is getting out there, because […] a brewery is the heartbeat of the community.”
COME TOGETHER “Community” is an often-overused and even problematic term in the world of craft beer. “You have to think about what’s implied by the word, [...] and how non-inclusive that really is,” says Michele Wonder, a cis lesbian woman who is a retail sales associate at Perfect Pour Services in Portland, Oregon. “That [means] listening to [...] queer people […] about the way they feel when they walk into your space.”
Aesthetics may not be the primary concern for many brewery owners—yet design, decor, music, lighting, furniture, color schemes, bathrooms, and even tap handles create an ambiance that ultimately sends a message about who a space has been envisioned for.
“From the beginning of designing the taproom, it was very thoughtful that we [didn’t] want this to feel like […] the places that have historically excluded people, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” says Bale. She describes Temescal’s pastel palette and bright design as “very soft,” in contrast to the stark, industrial vibe of many breweries. Sloop, too, has an approachable, playful, and primary-colored scheme that Reese describes as “cute and kitschy.”
That isn’t to say that a brewery has to use bright colors or minimalist monochrome to be queer-friendly. But a space that looks like all other typical breweries is more likely to attract all the typical customers. “When most people walk into a space, they can feel whether [they] belong,” says Van Den Oever. “There are subtle things you can do that can help [those who identify as] more feminine feel welcome. […] Gender norms should [be] challenged, and we’re here for it."
Red Bear, for its part, boasts a rustic look that is not explicitly gendered, yet offers a warmth that concrete walls and spent-keg tables lack. And its wraparound bar sends quiet messages of equality, with everyone positioned the same distance from the bartender.
“All our bathrooms are gender-neutral [… and] in one of them, we have a changing table. We are a family-friendly establishment. We don’t use aggressive tones. We don’t use aggressive verbiage. We try to stay gender-neutral in our communication. I think those are good steps towards being inclusive to all genders,” says Van Den Oever.
Ari Sanders, a queer woman and director of taproom operations at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, says the brewery recently installed inclusive bathroom signage and began selling Pride merchandise year-round. Music, too, can speak volumes, and she ensures that “artists of color and different gender representation” are on rotation at Fullsteam.
But in order for LGBTQIA+ people to experience such inclusive settings, they first need to be welcomed in. Collaborations are an effective means of outreach for owners with an authentic desire to create safe space, whether it’s by partnering with queer-owned breweries or LGBTQIA+ groups outside the industry. Many LGBTQIA+ workers and owners saw the reach that the racial equity initiative Black Is Beautiful had, and wonder if it’s possible to sponsor a similar project for the queer community. Others call for a collaboration brew day akin to those hosted by the Pink Boots Society. (The U.K.-based GBH contributor Lily Waite is launching similar initiatives under the banner of The Queer Brewing Project.)
“Find a local charity organization or civil rights organization that you already have some connection with and talk to them,” Reese suggests. “Start going to their events, start donating money, start showing up for them, and you’ll create a program where people show up for you.” For instance, Samuel Adams’ Boston taproom, Barrios says, recently partnered with the Transgender Emergency Fund, and created a beer in its honor for National Coming Out Day. Collaborations, Bale agrees, help breweries both “bridge [their] connections” and step back to let other people have a voice. “It’s not just putting both logos on a beer and trying to get the most sales—it’s about what happens during that process, too,” she says.
What happens is that two different communities come together, and they make something. They don’t just create a new beer: Their partnership signals shared values, letting queer people know they are welcome in each respective living room.
Collaborations can, and should, be intersectional. At Bosk Beer Works in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville, Washington, head brewster Rachael Engel recently made a collaboration beer with Métier Brewing Co., the only Black-owned brewery in Washington State. She is also looking into creating a beer with other trans brewers to show the industry that “we’re here, and we make good beer, too—and it’s okay for more of us to do that.”
The importance of intersectional collaboration dates back to the Stonewall era, says Julia Astrid Davis, a brewer and queer trans woman, when the movement for queer rights divided into two camps: those who were willing to riot in the streets for change—represented by Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson—and those who wanted to melt into the mainstream, which tended to be straight-passing and white. The latter group gained prominence, and to this day, Black trans women are among the Americans who suffer the most.
Verratti knows something about this kind of coalition-building. With a background in political organizing, she serves her current constituency under the motto of “unified by beer.” She sits on the board of the Brewery Association’s diversity committee (and is the former chair), and is supporting initiatives such as a mentorship program. “Diversity is not just about race. It’s not just about sexual orientation. It’s not just about gender. It’s everything,” Verratti says. “Any type of underrepresented population is who we’re trying to target with these programs.”
Davis affirms that “if we want this to be about the whole LGBTQ+ community, we have to include all of us, not just the [...] ones who are most visible.” Appropriately, Briggs describes a collaboration beer created by breweries in Golden, Colorado in which each participant donated a portion of sales to a local charity; Mountain Toad Brewing chose the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
SHOW YOURSELF Of course, among the clearest indicators of inclusivity are the people who appear on both sides of the bar—and most craft beer crowds still look an awful lot alike. “I hesitated to get a job in the industry because I didn’t see many people who looked like me [in] bars, in advertisements, [or] online,” says one bisexual Latina survey respondent. As Zan McColloch-Lussier, a queer trans man and veteran beer marketer, says, “People will assume they aren’t invited if they don’t see themselves.”
Bale notes that the industry needs to “see more [...] queer folks in positions of authority and decision-making,” and many survey respondents say out staff and owners make them feel welcome in a brewery. While many queer workers are reluctant to self-identify for reasons of safety, this can perpetuate erasure, and those in positions of relative security can help lead the way.
“All of us who are already in the industry have to look at ways that we can either give up some privilege or reach out to our friend groups,” says McColloch-Lussier. He describes how, while working at Seattle’s Fremont Brewing, he would share open jobs on his social media, so that “people who know me [...] know it’s a queer-friendly environment.”
Engel often spends time in the taproom after her shift ends to show queer and trans people that “maybe it’s okay to stop and have a beer [here],” she says. And Kathleen Culhane, brewer and cellarer at Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors, Minnesota, has flown the Trans Pride Flag in the fermenter room at her own brewery and others, ensuring it’s “one of the first things people see when they walk in the front door.”
At Dorchester, the brewery’s openness has helped a new generation of queer people see a place for themselves in the craft beer industry. Malloy describes an encounter with a younger crowd of gay men: “I gave them a lot of special attention, because I realized they had never really been to a brewery before. When I was pouring beer, [… I heard one of them say] ‘Do you think he’s gay?’ I leaned over and said, ‘Yes, I am gay. And as gay people, we can drink craft beer, too.”
Schumacher says that as an openly gay owner, “People come to me and apply for jobs because of that safety.” Briggs emphasizes it’s not only about “making the right hiring choices,” but “actually reaching out when [LGBTQIA+] people do come in. If you notice that there’s a same-sex couple, approach them and welcome them. […] Make sure they feel this is a nice place for them to come back to.”
But hiring more LGBTQIA+ staff shouldn’t be about “fulfill[ing] a quota,” says Barrios. “The end goal is that whoever is behind the bar or [...] working on the floor is representative of the [general diversity of the] U.S.” Yarno agrees that nobody wants to be hired or promoted simply “because you need a certain percentage. […] That marginalizes us.” However, he adds, no group should have to work harder than others simply to be seen.
Here, owners must consider their audience. “If you only post [jobs] on your social media, your customers are the ones who are applying,” Bale says. According to Barrios, increasing diversity involves “addressing things like how you hire, where you hire, what neighborhoods you’re hiring in, [and …] online applications,” since internet access is not a universal utility.
Danielle Snowden, a cis queer woman and brewer at Earthbound Beer in St. Louis, Missouri, says she plans to share job postings with QTPOC STL, a local advocacy group for trans people of color, to broaden the brewery’s reach. For her part, Reese and her team at Sloop founded Open Waters, a paid brewing internship for underrepresented people, designing the curriculum based on what Reese wishes she would have had.
PRIDE IS A MINDSET Ultimately, we’re all here for the beer. Owners need to think critically about “what’s being offered and our perception of who it appeals to,” says one respondent, citing a dearth of low-ABV options as one kind of message about the drinkers a brewery wants to attract. Bale agrees that offering a range of styles and strengths is important, since “you connect with your community [by] being intentional about creating products for them.” Beer names and cans make statements, too. Red Bear has a Kellerbier called Dungeons and Drag Queens. Engel named one of Bosk’s core beers TERF Tears IPA.
Some breweries go beyond beer to attract new drinkers to their space. Denizens, Red Bear, and Dorchester are among those offering wine, cider, seltzer, and even cocktails to their clientele. Broadening their drink offerings in this way opens the door for gateway experiences, too. After all, sometimes all it takes is the right setting to encourage a person to try something new.
Because breweries have not traditionally been marketed as welcoming spaces for LGBTQIA+ people, Malloy says, there is an opportunity to help some members of the gay community cultivate an appreciation for good beer and cider. “We’re really trying to create offerings everybody wants to drink […] so they can learn that this stuff is for them, too.”
A growing number of breweries also release a special beer for Pride month. In more conservative areas, this is a defiant show of support. But in geographic “bubbles,” Pride is so widely accepted, this gesture can become commoditized and even exploitative. As Audra Johansen, a brewer and queer woman at Seattle’s Ravenna Brewing Company, describes, “Oh shit, Pride’s coming up; just slap a label on whatever’s in the tank and call that our Pride beer, and donate 10 or 20% to whatever charity.”
“I think a lot of breweries look at [Pride] almost more as a potential revenue stream,” Engel says. “They do performative Pride stuff just to sell some more product, and [… then say,] ‘Now we can go back to doing what we want to do for the rest of the year.’ [But] I’m trans 24/7.”
Vialpando agrees that some breweries “come off as disingenuous.” He isn’t alone in recognizing that if it’s become good business practice to support Pride, that’s good news for the whole community. But many view the participation of big-name companies in Pride as an attempt to capitalize on the literal blood and tears shed at Stonewall and beyond.
Ultimately, work remains to be done: Malloy says Dorchester is the only brewery that has ever participated in Boston’s Pride Parade (where it won “best float”), and adds that “I would challenge my fellow brewery owners to step up and participate.”
The consensus: Breweries should participate in Pride because they care, and donate some or all of the proceeds to a reputable LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization. But what’s more important is what they do for the other 11 months of the year. “Okay, you made a beer,” Sanders says. “Now what? Are you actually living it?”
It’s time for the industry to embrace its queer nature by clearly and proactively inviting LGBTQIA+ people to step into the living room and leave the costumes behind. Not just to make money or save face, but because they truly believe in inclusivity.
After all, Pride was never intended to be a marketing scheme. It’s a mindset—and honoring it requires dismantling the old beer culture and involving everyone in building something new. Since “it can feel like we’re putting the burden on the people who are struggling the most,” as Schumacher says, industry leaders must help those who have been erased write themselves back into the story of craft beer.
If anyone believes in the power of storytelling to drive change, it’s me. I want to love the craft beer community and the breweries that are part of it. But I still need this industry to love me back, exactly as I am.
Words by Holly Regan
Illustrations by Colette Holston