Edifying Edition: Continuing the conversation about diversity and social issues in beer

I started a feature back in the spring called Avenue Adjunct, which I intended as a companion to my regular column in Avenue Edmonton — a place for interesting stuff that didn’t make it into the magazine.

A funny thing happened since then: Avenue Edmonton has rebranded as Edify magazine, which debuted online in September and released its first print issue in October. It makes sense to retire Avenue Adjunct along with it. Say hello, then, to Edifying Edition: the new home for bonus content related to my regular magazine column.

My first column for Edify examined how Alberta’s craft beer industry is responding to the social upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to make a meaningful contribution to discussions about race, diversity and inclusion that have followed the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in the U.S., as well as revelations of racism and systemic bias in Canadian policing.

As you can imagine, there was a lot to cover. One of the most enjoyable and enlightening conversations I had was with Sharon Ruyter, a craft beer enthusiast and communications professional who lives in Calgary. Ruyter, who is Black, contacted several Calgary breweries that had published social media posts expressing support for Black Lives Matter to ask them what they actually planned to do to address systemic racism and increase diversity and inclusion.

Ruyter told me she came away from the experience encouraged that so many breweries responded so openly to her questions, either by taking tangible steps or by admitting they were unsure how to back up their words with action.

A few Alberta breweries, like Edmonton’s Alley Kat Brewing, took part in the Black is Beautiful collaboration started by Weathered Souls Brewing in San Antonio, Texas. Participating breweries released a Black is Beautiful-branded beer and put the proceeds toward local causes that support diversity and inclusion. In Alley Kat’s case, 100 per cent of proceeds went to the University of Alberta Black Students’ Association and Action Dignity.

Something I wasn’t able to explore in the column — and is definitely worth mentioning here — are ways that breweries can take long-term, lasting action to be more inclusive.

A key step breweries can take, Ruyter said, is taking a hard look at their hiring practices. Craft beer has been a notoriously bro-heavy industry, but there are some encouraging signs that things are changing. Ren Navarro, a Toronto-based industry veteran, started Beer. Diversity. in 2018 as a vehicle for helping breweries make craft beer more welcoming to a more diverse audience. Navarro holds diversity and inclusion talks, consults one-on-one with breweries and is designing a toolkit designed to help breweries act on their intentions.

Another way a brewery can make a meaningful contribution to diversity and inclusion, Ruyter said, is by making their taproom a more inviting space to a broader range of people. Offering the taproom to diverse groups and community organizations for holding events (insofar as that’s possible during the pandemic) sends a positive sign to folks they’re welcome to come in for a beer and hang out anytime, said Ruyter.

One thing Ruyter’s exercise of writing to those Calgary breweries illustrates is that today’s consumers increasingly expect companies to have a position on the issues of the day, and they want to ensure that their values align with the businesses they support.

There was a time when being apolitical was considered a wise business decision: Why take a position that might offend some customers? Today, it’s just as likely that not taking a position will attract negative attention: Not speaking up is considered a sign of privilege for people who have the luxury of never having to fight for equality or defend their rights.

When I spoke to Michael Fulton, marketing manager at Alley Kat, he said people at the brewery intuitively knew they had to get involved in the BLM cause. Alley Kat is a longtime supporter of LBGTQ2S+ causes and has an established track record of community involvement, but Fulton admitted the discussion about race was new to them.

Alley Kat’s decision to brew a Black is Beautiful beer was a way of taking its contribution beyond platitudes, to paraphrase Fulton. Longer term, he says Alley Kat is looking at working with Navarro and getting the Beer. Diversity. toolkit when it comes out.

Although Alley Kat paused to consider what it would do, Fulton said there was never much question it would wade into the issue. Echoing the idea that customers today expect companies to do so, the brewery didn’t consider silence a valid option. However, Fulton acknowledged there are also risks to picking a side in these polarized times.

“To be quite frank, we’re OK with that. Be on the other side of that, and you’re not a customer of ours,” he said.

To me, Fulton hit on a key distinction when people complain about companies or public figures “getting political.” I would agree that wading into partisan politics by supporting a particular candidate or party carries a risk of alienating some people. But that’s not the same as a company supporting LGBTQ2S+ causes or declaring “Black Lives Matter.” Those are issues that touch on questions of fundamental justice — and if a customer is against a company’s support for equality and basic human rights, are they really a customer worth having?

For another person I spoke to, inclusion and involvement in social causes is baked right into her business model. Christina Owczarek is the founder of XhAle Brew Co., whose motto is “Making the world a better place, one pint at a time.”

XhAle wants to embody its stated values of diversity and inclusion by being Alberta’s first cooperatively-owned brewery, a non-hierarchical model that would give everyone a say in decision-making.

Christina Owczarek of XhAle Brew Co. (Photo courtesy XhAle Brew Co.)

Cooperative ownership remains a longer-term goal, but Owczarek is taking steps right now to realize her vision of making XhAle a brewery that is unambiguously — and unapologetically — involved in the issues of the day: XhAle’s first release is wheat ale with peaches called Impeachable, a shot squarely aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump in the days leading up to the Nov. 3 election in the U.S.

XhAle is also producing a calendar called Balls, Boobs and Beers featuring industry folks in various states of undress, with all proceeds going toward breast cancer research and Movember-affiliated charities for men’s mental health. With the pandemic making it difficult (if not impossible) to stage fundraising events, Owczarek came up with the calendar as another way of supporting those causes.

Another thing that piqued my interest during my chat with Owczarek was her long-term vision for XhAle.

Communications and public relations pros will often discourage clients from speaking in aspirational terms, lest people hold them to those lofty goals later on. Owczarek, in addition to being a friend, is one of those refreshing souls who has no such filter. I appreciate it as a friend, but the former journalist in me also loves it when people have bold things to say: it makes for interesting copy.

XhAle is contract brewing its first releases, but Owczarek said her ambition is to have a bricks-and-mortar brewery someday — maybe somewhere in rural Alberta that could become a destination where people visit and can camp overnight.

Bring it on, I say. It’s a model that has worked in the States, where some breweries host concerts and have camping on their property. As Owczarek points out, it’s also a way of discouraging drinking and driving, by giving people a fun and affordable place to stay instead of getting back on the road.

It’s just a concept at this point, but Owczarek mentioned the area around Caroline as a potential spot for her rural brewery and campground. Given that part of Alberta’s dark history as a onetime home base for white supremacists and western separatists, I can’t think of a better place to make a such a statement.