Culture Wars in Beer
Thursday, 18 August 2022 14:31

Culture Wars in Beer

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett wades into the culture war around Brewdog, its toxic workplace culture and Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity issues in the world of craft beer. Image above by Matt Buckland

In late January BBC Scotland broadcast a programme on Brewdog, which is available on iPlayer. The programme had three elements. It looked at Brewdog’s marketing and PR efforts, some of which have worked very well, others rather less so. It also looked at Brewdog’s business model. There wasn’t much that was specifically new here. The point was that the details will have reached a far wider audience than the ‘beer bubble’ that already knows about them.

The third and most important part of the programme focused on a number of testimonies from former and current Brewdog workers about the toxic workplace culture at the brewer and bar chain. They echoed but much more directly the points made by Punks With Purpose last year. PWP is a group of people who have worked for Brewdog who decided to put in the public domain their experiences in the hope of forcing change.

At the time Watt initially reacted to Punks With Purpose by saying these were malcontents who were sacked for misconduct or theft and had a grievance against the company. That didn’t go down too well so he changed tack and announced a major exercise to review the culture of Brewdog and suggest changes, carried out by a third party. That reported recently and Watt apologised and promised to address issues.

On the BBC Scotland programme the same pattern repeated itself. At first James Watt denied all the issues raised and claimed again they were made by ill-intentioned malcontents. Legal action was threatened. It got a lot of media coverage but little of it was good for Brewdog.

So again Watt has changed tack. He now agreed some of the staffing issues mentioned in the BBC programme might have had substance, apologised and promised to address issues. After the BBC’s disclosure programme, however, the stories and allegations about a toxic workplace culture at the Scottish brewer have continued.

Janine Molineux, who worked for Brewdog briefly as an accountant in 2017 and 2018, was according to Brewdog sacked for performance reasons. However she has said that James Watt bullied her in a sales meeting and the sacking came a day after she told Watt her father had cancer. She also says that she was warned never to catch the eye of Watt. Separately Watt himself has commented further on a point in the BBC programme that he stared at employees. He claims that he was not staring but deep in thought!

Punks with Purpose have now linked with a third party to launch a portal where Brewdog workers from across its global locations can anonymously share issues. While there has been a fair bit of media coverage, on the Equity for Punks forum – the site for the numerous Brewdog shareholders – reaction has ranged from critical to abusive. Many argue that Brewdog make good beer (a matter of opinion, but in my view the imperial stouts are often excellent) and therefore ‘so what’ about the workplace culture?

The reality is however that for many Brewdog represents craft beer in the UK. It’s certainly the biggest craft brewer, employing several hundred people. It continues however to be non-unionised despite the reality that Unite the Union has members amongst its workers.

If craft beer is meant to be modern and progressive, Brewdog are failing the test. Further, as the beer writer Matthew Curtis has argued, Brewdog are very far from alone in the sector in having a poor workplace culture. The silence from other brewers, either about the Brewdog issues or in solidarity with Punks With Purpose, has been notable.

So beyond pressing for union organisation, which is certainly key, what is to be done?

The Campaign for Real Ale has issued a survey on Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality in Beer. It seeks to discover the views and experiences of people involved with CAMRA activities in any capacity about those issues. It won’t change the world and no one is forced to pay any attention let alone answer it, but it’s a step towards much-needed change.

It has found a lot of support but it has also sparked off a wider craft beer culture war beyond Brewdog. The Daily Mail published a piece on it which was rather obsessed with beer and beards. In short it was stereotyping the beer drinker as someone with a beard and a beergut and implicitly questioning why others needed to be involved.

The beer writer Pete Brown deconstructed the beneath the line comments in the Mail piece on his blog. They are usual Mail fare (not that the Guardian is so different). I don’t comment in such forums. What I have to say always appears under my own name and is open to challenge. I suspect however there is a certain layer of commenters who pop up all over the place. Anyway the comments were of course complaining that the survey was ‘woke’ a precursor to revolution etc. It isn’t. It’s a survey. If you didn’t like it, you could ignore it.

Another beer writer Melissa Cole also wrote a piece in the Telegraph looking at the history of women in beer, and their current and future roles. A challenging piece for some Telegraph readers no doubt and the below-the-line mob were off again. Women don’t drink beer and as for the CAMRA survey, well…..

It’s something of a craft beer culture war but it’s best to remember that like those that come from No.10 these things are made up to distract. Inclusivity, Diversity and Equality in beer are important and if more progress is not made in each area beer and pubs won’t have a great future.

It’s also best to remember that stereotypes are just that. I joined CAMRA in 1975, I have a beard and I’m a marxist.  I could recount a few discussions with senior CAMRA people I’ve had about that down the years, but perhaps best for the memoirs. Suffice to say however that CAMRA is not a revolutionary party. It is though trying to do the right thing in beer, when far too many are not.

When one looks at the reactions on Brewdog’s Equity for Punk site or to the CAMRA survey it’s clear that there is a way to go to meet the idea that beer is for everyone. As with Boris Johnson and statues, culture wars are a distraction from other issues in beer, such as the continued rise of global Big Beer with brewery takeovers and mergers. That doesn’t mean though that beer culture wars can be ignored by the left. They have to be engaged with and our side needs to win for inclusivity, diversity and equality.