Be forewarned: This is a super long post. Like annoyingly long. Like “Really, Ben? Ever heard of editing?” long. But this is a topic with a lot of angles to be covered and a it’s one which I felt required fulsome exploration. Also, it’s my blog and you’ve been reading my shit for free for five years so I can do whatever I want. K, thanks.
Canada’s craft beer industry is a friendly and welcoming scene.
Spend any amount of time in the company of the people who are making and drinking craft beer in this country and you’ll quickly be drawn in by the engaging events and the comradery that exists even among so-called competitors. Craft beer is fun and this inclusionary atmosphere (along with the interesting beer) is likely a big part of the reason more people are discovering craft beer and why estimates put small breweries’ share of Canada’s beer market at around 10%.
So why then, in an industry that seems implicitly welcoming and inclusive, are almost all those friendly faces white?
Scan a newspaper for news of a brewery opening in your town, check out local website coverage of the latest craft beer festival in your area–heck, just do a stock image search for “people drinking craft beer”–and you’ll see pretty quickly that Canada’s craft beer scene is whiter than a country club fundraiser for sustainable organic mayonnaise.
Toronto in particular, where Canada’s craft beer charge is arguably being led, is ranked among the most multicultural cities in the world, and is the most diverse city in the country with the last available census data stating 47.7% of the city’s population comprises “visible minorities.”
So why don’t any of these people of colour seem to be drinking, making, or selling beer?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the years that I’ve been covering Ontario’s craft beer scene, but it’s proven difficult for me to nail down any one reason that most beer events look like a Wes Anderson film festival. Indeed, it is actually even difficult to find any proof to back up what seems like an obvious lack of diversity in Canada’s beer community. I reached out to virtually every organization involved with beer production and beer consumption in Canada and none keep stats related to race.
Beer Canada, a national trade organization whose members comprise brewers both big and small, does not keep figures related to race or ethnicity. Neither do provincial trade organizations like the Ontario Craft Brewers, the BC Craft Brewers Guild, or the Craft Brewers Association of Nova Scotia.
I also reached out to legislative authorities for statistical analysis of race-based alcohol consumption. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission does not track any stats related to consumption of alcohol and neither does the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, for example.
The closest I came to quantitative data was an annual statistical bulletin released by Beer Canada that breaks down consumption by province (and because you’re curious now, consumption is highest in Newfoundland at 79.39 litres per person per annum. Yes b’y.).
So was it just my perception that craft beer was so white?
Maybe it was just the events I was going to? Perhaps black people and brown people and Asian people really are drinking craft beer but I just don’t see them at the events I’ve been attending.
Maybe Canadian people of colour actually love craft beer. Without scientific means to explore the question, I opted for an informal option: I talked to some.
My friend Allan’s dad is from Trinidad and his mom is from Saskatchewan. Allan is also my neighbour and, when we get together so that our toddlers can fight each other in the backyard, he’s been known to bring over craft beer as well as the occasional industrial lager. So I asked him why he thought craft beer seemed so predominantly white.
“I think it comes down to other cultures–blacks, Asians–just not giving much of a shit about beer,” he told me. “Beer is something white people can give a shit about. Don’t forget, access to brewing equipment, even if it’s just stuff in your garage, is a luxury to many people.”
He also warned me at this early stage in my writing of this article that this issue was far more complicated than I probably wanted to get into and he cautioned against “writing something pithy, offhand and racist” accompanied by “a few flash photos of [him] wearing a five-panel hat and drinking beer alone.”
I pretended I didn’t think that was actually an awesome idea for a lead photo, but I probably should have listened to the other part, too. Because (as thelength of this post might suggest) it turns out this really is a hella complex issue.
I wasn’t even exactly sure where to start, but decided a good place to look would be the root of most evil in the world: Marketing.
The nature of beer marketing has always been closely associated with lifestyle, and is thus probably at least partially involved with perpetuating a craft beer culture that is as white as Taylor Swift’s fanclub.
In North America, where our concept of “beer” has essentially been watery, inoffensive industrial lagers for most of the last hundred years or so, advertising and marketing has been the space where big breweries have sought to set themselves apart from their competitors. That is, with products that are so difficult to differentiate from one another, beer companies have instead historically invested in targeted marketing as a means to associate their beer with status–and when the target market for beer is young men with money to spend on beer, we end up with ads that seem fairly squarely aimed at a specific type of middle-class white dudes. In the 70s and 80s, Anheuser-Busch et al. identified them as “contemporary adults,” the 90s saw beer marketing fix its sights on the “Generation X” white man, and today you can’t throw a storyboard without hitting a beer marketer eager to tap into the–yuck–“millennial man” market.
The exact ad campaigns have evolved by degrees, but by and large beer marketing’s rich heritage of sports-watching bros, big-breasted women, and even the occasional party-loving dog is a landscape populated by (and targeted at) white faces.
Beer ad campaigns that seek to speak to minorities seem to be, at best, a rarity.
This is one of things I talked about when I chatted with Renee Navarro. Navarro is a sales rep for the Toronto-based contract brewery Woodhouse Brewing Co. and she has four years experience in Ontario’s craft beer industry. Given that Navarro is not only black but female and gay, she is also something like the craft beer industry’s version of a unicorn and is thus uniquely aware of beer marketing’s homogeneity.
“When I think about black people and beer,” she told me, “I always think about Colt 45–and I feel really horrible saying that. But I think about malt liquors that were available in the 70s and 80s or I think about a very specific ‘pouring one out for my homies’ kind of image.”
And while Navarro may feel bad making that link, the association of black beer consumers with 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor actually comes from a very real place.
Beginning in the late 1960s, brewing executives began to notice that the less expensive and higher alcohol products in their portfolios (i.e. malt liquors) seemed to be selling well among black people. Accordingly, a concerted effort was made to create ad campaigns targeting this product (which was actually invented in 1930s) to black consumers. Ads for for malt liquor became commonplace in magazines like Jet and Ebony and eventually, the likes of Billie Dee Williams and Wilt Chamberlain were recruited for malt liquor ads, not-so-subtly linking these products to sexual potency and masculinity. In the 80s, beer companies continued on the same theme, enlisted rising hip hop artists like Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube to create ads for malt liquor and incorporate their product names into rap songs. To compliment these advertising efforts, distribution of malt liquor focused on liquor and convenience stores in mostly black, urban neighbourhoods.
It wasn’t overt racism, but these aggressive sales practices happily ignored issues like offensive stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and the negative effect these practices might be having on the black community. That is, it was simply a case of very effective marketing.
In the exhaustive and interesting Malt Liquor: A History (from which I rehashed all of the above, incidentally) writer Khim Winship details the ways black culture embraced or rejected these beer marketing efforts and the weird and lasting legacy of this high alcohol beer made with corn grits and dextrose.
Additionally, in her essential (and lengthy) study on craft beer and race–brilliantly titled The Unbearable Whiteness of Brewing–J. Nikol Beckham, craft beer enthusiast and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Randolph College, points out that the typical vessel for delivering malt liquor isn’t really very conducive to enjoyable, considered drinking experiences:
The 40oz bottle, then, has embodied this conceptual difference [between “beer” and “malt liquor”]. It is a form factor almost exclusively used by malt liquor brands. With its clear glass (who cares about light damage? it already tastes like crap), the product inside obviously presents itself as beer-like, but physically it distinguishes its drinkers. My fellow craft beer aficionados know that as craft beer gravities begin approaching double digits, packaging starts moving from 6-packs to 4-packs and pub pours move from pints to 10oz snifters. However, malt liquors offer a high gravity product in a container that encourages rapid consumption in a single sitting. Drinking a recapped 40 is something akin to eating a cold Bloomin’ Onion, it can be done but the limited shelf life of the product is palpable. Drinking a 40 too slowly results in a significant warming of the end of bottle, and with warmth the assy notes in American malt liquor become really pronounced.
And so it’s worth considering that people of colour who grew up in North America with this concept of “beer” would clearly have a totally different opinion of the stuff than someone who grew up in white suburbia and was peppered with ads that associated six packs and cans of beer with leisure activities, for example. Think about it: from a time that stretched from the early 60s until arguably the late 80s, the considerable marketing muscle of large breweries pummeled black communities with the message that inexpensive products like Haffenreffer Private Stock Malt Liquor and Midnight Dragon Special Reserve Malt Liquor and their warm, “assy note” finish were what “beer” was supposed to be like.
Is it any wonder then that the black community in North America isn’t racing to embrace the making and enjoyment of beer as a pastime or business pursuit?
And, let’s be honest, today’s craft beer marketing isn’t exactly making efforts to woo people of colour.
That is, while we saison-quaffing afficianados love to trumpet our higher level of sophistication than the Budweiser-swilling masses, it’s tough to deny that craft beer’s advertising skews pretty darn caucasian, too. Sure, craft beer may eschew traditional, tried-and-true beer marketing strategies of bros, sports, and big boobs, but it’s still largely reaching the same demographic.
“When you think of craft beer,” Navarro says, “the image you’re presented with is pretty white–right down to the images on cans. Don’t get me wrong, I love [Great Lakes Brewery’s] Canuck, but if you look at the label [which features a lumberjack], that guy is the embodiment of what craft beer in Canada currently looks like. There are dudes walking around right now that drink craft beer that actually look like that, and have been dressing that way for years.”
Again, it’s not exactly racism, but it is a case of craft beer marketing continuing to perpetuate beer’s homogeneous market. “Yes, it’s obviously tongue-in-cheek,” Navarro says, “but people are probably buying these beers because the characters look like them and it speaks to them.”
And of course, it’s a pretty tough problem to rectify given that efforts to woo people of colour can become inherently offensive and problematic (see: liquor, malt). “If a brewery put a black person on a can,” Navarro says, “people would lose their shit. There’s a weird fine line. God forbid you try to bring people into craft beer by representing them in imagery. You just can’t do it.”
And so, while craft beer seems to have grown in Canada thanks in large part to being able to embrace modern marketing tools like social media, these efforts still seem to largely be inviting a similarly-pale-complexioned crowd out to the local beer fest. Craft beer has undoubtedly created new channels to build brands–capitalizing on invaluable word-of-mouth advertising and social media saturation, and essentially enlisting consumers to become brand advocates–but those channels are largely all within similar, traditional beer-drinking social circles. In other words, sure, craft beer gets people talking, but it largely gets beer drinking white dudes talking with other beer drinking white dudes.
Tim Webb, the co-author of The World Atlas of Beer and The Pocket Beer Book; suggests there may be something less nefarious than racism at play when we consider how white the beer world is; namely, geography.
“There is a major background factor,” he told me via email, “which is that for most of Africa and Asia barley and hops are not indigenous.” The breweries that do exist there, Webb says, were mostly set up by ex-pats who brewed with imported ingredients, so he says it is not that surprising that beer culture isn’t firmly routed in black or Asian culture.
Webb notes that Africa does have “copious local brews made from millet, sorghum, rice, wheat and other grains” but not from barley and not with hops usually, which likely accounts for the lack of a familiar “beer culture” borne of those regions. He notes that, in Japan, where hops were planted in the late 19th century, a beer culture actually has gradually developed.
In other words, the beer scene in North America–and the beer industry generally–might simply be so white because beer has always traditionally been brewed in places where the ingredients are indigenous and the people are white. The proliferation of beer into other parts of the world might thus be seen as a side-effect of colonialism. White people do have a tendency to move into already populated places and discard the bits of local culture they don’t like while inflicting their own culture on whomever is still alive after they’re settled (see: history, most of).
That is, in fact, the origin story that has driven the success of what is arguably craft beer’s golden child in North America: the India Pale Ale (IPA). Thirsty from their hard work colonizing the country, officers of the East India Company, the story goes, needed beer in India and thus the Brits crafted a higher alcohol, hoppier brew to survive the voyage to India by sea. This origin may or may not be 100% factual, but given that this is arguably the narrative-loving craft-beer scene’s most pervasive mythology, it is perhaps not surprising that craft beer and its seemingly endless list of IPAs might not be entirely appealing to people of colour.
Web also touched on a second factor why beer, and notably craft beer, may have remained so white even after being brought to these other, more diverse regions: price–especially in the era of expensive craft beer. “Craft has legitimized higher cost beers because classier ingredients appear to justify it,” he says, “slower methods obviously cost more and, crucially but least obviously, people’s time (i.e. labour) costs a lot more. Lower waged groups are [excluded] by this.”
These two points were also something I touched on in a recent chat with Travis Persaud. Persaud is the Sales and Marketing Manager at Big Rig Brewery in Ottawa. His parents immigrated to Canada from Guyana. Persaud notes that craft beer definitely wasn’t something he learned about from his parents and, really, was something he could only get into as a first generation Canadian because he didn’t follow what might have been deemed cultural norms.
“I didn’t get exposed to what is considered craft beer until I was like 21 and 22 and the only reason I did get into was because I had a personality that was attracted to things that were considered different for me,” he says. “I went to school in Scarborough where whites were the minority, not the majority, but all of my interests were ‘white.’ I grew up into punk and hardcore music and my friends at school didn’t understand it.”
Persaud’s personal experience likely mimics most non-white people’s exposure to craft beer (and really, any other culturally specific thing). “It’s not outright racism like slavery or the way Canada has treated first nations people,” he says, “but racism takes many different forms that don’t seem ‘evil.’ Growing up in Scarborough, the white kids hung out with white kids, the Asian kids hung out with Asian kids–it’s not like we hated each other, we’d play sports and whatever together–but when you walk down the hall and people are having lunch, it is separated. Maybe it’s a reach to say that’s racism, but there’s just a level of comfort people have within their own race and you begin to adopt the same interests and tastes that you have in that circle.”
Persaud offers up an apt analogy that also touches on the socio-economic factor that kept coming up as I talked to people: “It’s like hockey,” he says. “It’s an expensive sport to get into and I don’t think it’s a surprise that the majority of kids who become NHL players are white. But I think that’s starting to change. There’s a new generation that might be second or even third generation Canadian whose parents or grandparents were able to come to Canada and get a decent job and get an education and they’re being exposed to hockey. I think the same thing–albeit more slowly–is happening in the craft beer scene.”
And indeed, much like hockey, it’s worth noting that craft beer’s “legends” are thus far almost exclusively white.
We tend to frame the origins of craft breweries in a romantic “us vs. them” way that positions craft brewers as anti-establishment types striking out on their own against big breweries, but this is a narrative that overlooks the fact that this “striking out” is really only possible to people with the means to do so.
In her study, Beckham shortlists American brewers Jack McAuliffe, founder of New Albion; Fritz Maytag, pioneer of Anchor Steam Brewing Company; Ken Grossman, creator of Sierra Nevada; and Jim Koch, creator of Boston Brewing Company as craft beer pioneers whose interesting origin narratives “tend to be held close to the core.” She points out that in addition to being scrappy entrepreneurs, these guys also happened to have “assets that provided financial resources, the basis for credit and purchasing power, access to investors, expertise to navigate legal environments, technical knowhow, and more.” And not to generalize too much here, but if you want to draft a quick list of the people who have historically had those resources at hand, I’m going to wager your list will contain mostly people with white faces and penises.
Beckham astutely notes that “the founding fathers of the craft brewing industry were white men of means and privilege who pushed aspects of white-collar managerialism, neoliberal self-determination, and an ethic of justificatory risk to an illogical extreme and found success–a pattern that was virtually unrepeatable for a person of color in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and continues to present challenges today.”
And while she’s talking about the founding of the US’s craft beer scene, here in Canada we too tend to overlook that it takes a certain kind of privilege to be in a position to start a brewery and instead we often readily accept the narrow, simplified, and romanticized narratives that accompany the launch of a small brewery. If I had a dollar, for example, for every time I read a press release about a new brewery opening that contains some version of the phrase “got the idea over beers one night,” I’d be a very rich man. Indeed, versions of “we were so broke when we started,” “our pilot batch was brewed in Todd’s basement,” “we only had one suit to wear to investor meetings,” or “my wife Becky slapped the labels on our first bottle run” are about as common to Canadian craft brewing as the phrases “hop forward” and “malt backbone,” and while the idea of some friends semi-drunkenly starting a company and launching it with nothing more than their wits is precisely the sort of folksy tidbit we beer nerds slobber over, the real facts are virtually always vastly oversimplified.
Dig a little deeper into the narratives of Canada’s craft brewers both big and small and you’ll be hard pressed to find a true origin story that doesn’t include something like a wealthy dad who bestowed the brewery upon his son, a guy with a background in business and financial planning, a former career as a brewer at a macrobrewery, time spent abroad learning to brew beer, a slew of private investors, or even, in at least one case, a team of bankers who play rugby together who thought it would be fun to pool some “play money” to start their own brewery.
Jason Fisher is the founder of Toronto’s Indie Alehouse and is arguably one of Ontario craft beer’s most fiercely vocal and independent brewers. With beers like Instigator and Cock Puncher and a rap sheet that includes yelling at the Premier of Ontario in the name of the little guy brewer, he fairly embodies craft beer’s underdog spirit–and is thus a more-than-occasional drinking buddy of this writer and a favourite go-to for myriad others whenever they are in search of good quote. But what most people don’t talk about is the fact that Jason has degrees in chemistry and geology and an MBA, and spent most of two decades working at Bell Canada and American Express in Business Marketing and Analytics.
Which is not to say that guys like Jason didn’t work very hard to get where they are and aren’t owed a debt by small brewers hoping to follow in their footsteps–because the country’s craft brewers really do work hard–only that it’s probably worth considering the special circumstances that allowed virtually all these guys to get where they are, and also worth considering that even here in Canada, these circumstances are still not often enjoyed by people of colour.
Ultimately then, it seems that the reason Canada’s craft beer scene is so white is pretty close to what my friend Allan hit on in one of my earliest conversations for this article: Craft beer really is just something of a luxury.
Like many things in North America, beer–and even more so craft beer following in the footsteps of big beer–emerged from a place of privilege, both in the physical, geographical sense and in the symbolic sense: The interesting and locally-made products craft beer fans love are typically borne of beer-makers who still enjoy privileges that are not yet enjoyed by everyone.
And while there aren’t any examples of overt racism in the craft beer industry and nothing seems to be explicitly barring black people or brown people or Asian people from getting into craft beer, the culture and marketing of beer continues to emanate from this place of privilege and, for the most part, it seems to recruit more of the same type of people to the scene.
That is to say, craft beer isn’t really just a “white person thing.” Except, of course, for the fact that it is.
4148 words later, I don’t actually have any solutions for this issue. I apologize if you thought the issues of institutionalized racism and white privlege were going to get solved in a post on a beer blog today, but it turns out I don’t have any suggestions about how this issue might be tackled.
But I do hope that craft beer will continue to find new and diverse markets in Canada as more third, second, and even first generation Canadians embrace craft beer and I hope that an influx of more diverse cultures will bring with it new, inclusive marketing strategies, new perspectives, and even new beer styles. Canada’s craft beer scene is a friendly and welcoming place once people are exposed to it, but perhaps it’s time to start considering that we could do more to ensure it’s a more diverse group of people that is exposed to it.