Food

Meet Four Women Reshaping The Canadian Craft Beer Industry

Canadian craft beer's clichéd male image still defines much of the industry—but a new wave of brewers and business owners are working to make it a more equitable space for staff and patrons alike.

What’s the first picture that comes to mind when you think of the world of craft beer? Is it a young, bearded white man, possibly wearing denim or flannel? Considering that North American craft breweries continue to produce beers with names like Raging Bitch, Juicy Ass and Panty Peeler, the industry still holds some backward beliefs about women in beer—even though women were the original brewers. From Ninkasi, the ancient goddess of brewing in what is now modern-day Iraq, to the nuns of medieval Europe, women have historically driven much of the world’s beer production. With time, that narrative has shifted—and now, it’s as if women were never there.

Over the past decade, the Canadian craft beer industry has exploded, going from just 564 breweries in 2015 to 1,200 or so today and generating $13.6 billion of Canada’s gross domestic product annually. It feels like a new craft brewery is popping up daily, and this clichéd male image still defines much of the industry.

What that bro-y public perception masks is a work culture plagued by exploitation and abuse. According to multiple sources consulted for this story, marginalized people are quietly tapping out at alarming rates, citing hostile work environments that permit sexual and racial harassment. This provides little leeway for women, especially racialized women, to thrive in the business.

“The biggest issue the beer industry has: [people think] everyone’s a good guy,” says Ren Navarro of consulting service Beer. Diversity. “A brewery will tell you they messed up a beer, but they won’t tell you that they messed up something else.”

Meet the women working to make the craft beer industry a more equitable space for staff and patrons alike.

Sarabeth wears a denim jacket and stands next to a tower of packaged beer cans

Photo by Christie Vuong.

Sarabeth Holden, co-owner of Red Tape Brewery, Toronto

At Red Tape Brewery, an Inuk-owned microbrewery in Toronto, every beer tells a story. Almost two years ago, Sarabeth and Sean Holden became owners of North America’s first bespoke brewery—in addition to their own brews, they custom-create batches for specific clients or occasions, such as weddings, product launches and personal milestones. They are also one of very few Inuk-owned breweries in Canada.

Holden’s project-management background had her consulting for the federal government in Ottawa, but her relationship with now husband Sean began after meeting at a craft beer festival in 2012. After their first child was born, the couple turned Sean’s home-brewing obsession into a business of their own. Once their building permit was approved—and shortly after their second child was born—COVID-19 hit. After “pivoting 18 million times” and shifting their product line to cans, says Holden, they finally opened their pint-sized, 1,000-square-foot brewery in December 2020.

“As [an Indigenous woman] who has experienced discrimination and racism, I know how much it sucks . . . when you’re put into a situation and there is no one to stand up for you,” says Holden. Now that the taproom is open, she adds, “My thing is always: anyone who comes in, we need to treat with respect.” That could mean ensuring patrons can use their wheelchair-accessible washroom or launching a Pride collection, with 10 percent of proceeds going to the AIDS Committee of Toronto.

Holden preserves her connection to Nunavut, where she grew up, by stirring nostalgia into the flavours of Red Tape’s brews. “With increased diversity, you get increased perspectives. That variety of taste buds is what we need in craft beer,” she says. The Paunnat Saison, for example, is infused with dwarf fireweed harvested by her family from the tundra in Nunavut, giving it a delicately floral note. The Kanajuq IPA, meanwhile, is named for the Inuktitut term for the sculpin fish, which is found in her home community of Pangnirtung. “Having Inuit names is increasing awareness,” she says. “People are asking questions and [starting] inspiring conversations. [They] are understanding our connection to Nunavut and to the land—and I think that’s great.” redtapebrewery.com.

Rozine wears a denim jacket and leans against a subway tiled counter

Photo by Darren Calabrese.

Rozina Darvesh, co-owner of North Brewing Company, Dartmouth, N.S.

For Nova Scotia–based brewery co-owner Rozina Darvesh, every decision at North Brewing starts with a question: What are we doing to open the door to more inclusion? A big part of that is establishing roots in the areas where their brewery locations are housed and investing in those local communities. North Brewing had humble beginnings: They started by brewing 300-litre batches in lobster-cooking pots in 2013. Today, they have three locations in Dartmouth, Cole Harbour and Timberlea, and employ about 40 staff members.
They also recognize how job openings—where they’re posted and how they’re written—can be a barrier for under-represented groups looking to break into the industry. That’s why North Brewing sends its postings to organizations such as Ready Willing & Able, the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre and the local YMCA; the postings also note that different types of previous work experience not directly in brewing can still be applicable.

North Brewing’s collaborative brews also raise funds for community partners. This year, they donated $4,000 from sales of their BLMG beer to Black Lives Matter Golf, a local initiative that works to boost racialized youth participation in the sport, and on National Indigenous Peoples Day, 25 percent of taproom profits were directed to the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax.

Much of the drive to create inclusive and welcoming spaces stems from Darvesh’s personal experiences; namely, the challenges of navigating the industry as a Muslim woman of Tanzanian-Indian and Czech-Irish ancestry. In her career, she has faced plenty of outdated views questioning her cultural place in the alcohol industry, despite holding a bachelor’s degree in food science—which is what initially made her sparkly-eyed about the possibilities of beer. Today, North Brewing showcases parts of Darvesh’s identity with flavour riffs such as Chai Wala Chai-Spiced Milk Stout and tasting-room snacks like masala fries with tamarind ketchup.

Through North Brewing’s annual Diversity & Inclusion Scholarship (which Navarro consulted on), Darvesh hopes to address barriers to entry with $1,500 in financial support and guaranteed summer employment in their taproom, retail space, kitchen or production line. “I don’t think it’s enough to say, ‘Here’s the money; we did our part,’” she says.

What she wants is better representation in craft beer. She asks: “If you can’t see yourself working in this industry, how [will we] bridge that gap?” northbrewing.ca.

Ren wears a black t-shirt and stands behind a marble bar heigh counter

Photo by Alicia Winter.

Ren Navarro, founder of Beer.Diversity and Ren Likes To Talk podcast

Ren Navarro fell into the beverage industry by accident in 2012; today, it’s hard to imagine where Canada’s craft beer scene would be without her. After nearly 20 years of working in corporate insurance, attending a beer-pairing event with her now wife prompted her to switch gears at 37. “I always joke that the corporate life led me to drink,” she says. A part-time retail-store gig at Great Lakes Brewery in Etobicoke, Ont., quickly turned into a six-year career in beer sales, including at the Kensington Brewing Company. “I learned a lot,” she says, about the fundamentals of beer. “But I also learned I was the only Black woman selling craft beer in Ontario.”

After experiencing the lack of diversity on staff first-hand, Navarro founded Beer. Diversity. in 2018. For its first two years, Navarro ran a series of brewery-hosted talks aimed at the public, intended to start a much-needed conversation about equity, representation and inclusion in the industry. Then 2020 made its memorable appearance—and along with it, a global pandemic and the widespread reckoning with anti-Black racism after the killing of George Floyd. “[It] was a terrifying moment,” says Navarro, “but as a Black woman, every moment is terrifying.” Navarro’s focus suddenly diverted to the abuse and discrimination happening inside the industry.

Struggling to navigate the upheaval of that summer on their own, breweries turned to Navarro as a first step. She has since helped them understand diverse hiring and retention, which also speaks to the importance of inclusive language; drafted codes of conduct and value statements; and facilitated staff training on the basics of diversity, equity and inclusion.

From there, she says, it’s down to the brewery to walk the talk. “I think that the breweries trying to be proactive—instead of reactive—are becoming the change makers and the leaders [in the industry].” For Navarro, the hiring process starts by engaging with diverse populations first. “You can’t just magically hire someone if you don’t know who they are or what they’re about.”

But that’s not to say Navarro’s ongoing social justice work is exempt from its own consequences and traumas; much of what she does is often thankless. Following an interview in which she addressed the lack of diversity in the brewing industry, “CBC Kitchener had to lock down their comments section from [all] the hate I was getting. For one of my last public sessions, I had to request security after [an internet] troll threatened to meet me in person,” Navarro explains. “It’s part of the job, I guess. Some people are scared of the notion of inclusion.”

“I don’t want to make it sound like nothing has changed. Things have improved,” she continues, “but a lot of really great marginalized, racialized or underrepresented folks have left this industry because it’s broken them. Obviously, we haven’t made enough change.” beer-diversity.com.

Erin wears a tank top and stands on a set of metal stairs

Photo by Christie Vuong.

Erin Brandson, head brewer and owner of Little Beasts Brewing Company, Whitby, Ont.

Learning about microbiology and chemistry in school gave Erin Brandson (formerly Broadfoot) a leg-up as she entered a new career as a professional brewer after working in women’s health for eight years. Thinking she’d initially become a baker, it was the art of baking combined with science that guided her to the world of craft beer.

She completed a year-long diploma scholarship program, majoring in brewing, at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology in 2016, and quickly transitioned into the industry. “There’s so much about [making beer]
I love, but my first couple of jobs weren’t a lot of fun,” she says, referring to the multiple toxic work cultures she experienced, which were riddled with misogyny—and even included a violent sexual assault in the lobby of a bar. “I knew if I was going to be broke and overworked, I wanted to do it for myself.” In October 2017, Brandson opened Little Beasts Brewing Company in Whitby, Ont., and joined a growing number of brewery owners in the anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-equality beer club.

Beyond her reputation for producing nuanced, award-winning Belgian beers, Brandson is outing the subpar working conditions and exploitative practices of an industry that’s still (largely) in denial. Throughout January, Brandson received—and shared on social media, with identifiers removed—hundreds of harrowing stories from others in the industry, including one woman’s detailed account of a rape on a brewery’s property. “You have to keep a job,” she says. “These women are holding on to all this guilt and shame that really isn’t theirs.”

Similar to Navarro’s experience, “There were a lot of people who weren’t thrilled,” says Brandson. As the weeks progressed, so did the intensity of graphic sexual threats on her work phone and death threats via social media. Eventually, the police became involved. “Part of what got me help was my skin colour. So many people I know—who are being hurt—don’t have that on their side. It’s terrifying. And it’s why we all need to do better.”

Brandson also raises another issue: “There [are] more [white] women in beer than Black, Asian or queer people in beer,” she says. Visible minorities cannot openly speak out for fear of their safety, mental welfare and employability. “In trying to bring to light the problems in the industry, [under-representation] looks like it’s just a female problem.”

Acknowledging the inherent privilege granted to her as a white woman, Brandson is doing something about it. She, along with Navarro, is establishing The Craft Beer Safety Network, a non-profit that provides resources to protect and support all marginalized groups. The web-hosted resources span from links to crisis centres and mental health services to a private moderated group that helps marginalized populations identify where they are—and aren’t—safe to work. “I think you have to be [hopeful], because if you aren’t, what does that mean for everybody who is not white or male or straight?” littlebeastsbrewing.com; craftbeersafetynetwork.com.

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