The premature demise of the Ontario Beer Summit

Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity
is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.
                                                        ~Anonymous Ontario brewery owner

I’m not a hugger.

Whether it be my germaphobia or a personal space issue, my impulse has never been to wrap my arms around another human when greeting them or when saying goodbye. No need to pass the flesh here, bud. I’ll probably see you again soon. A handshake is great. Even a fist bump.

Some people, though, really are huggers. There is no doubt, when they open that front door to greet you or they bump into you at an event, that they are going to hug you. It’s a weird and foreign instinct to me: They are genuinely happy to see other people and they simply must embrace. Not only that, but they do it in such a way that it’s infectious. I only know five or six of these kinds of huggers, but when they wrap their arms around even hug-skeptical folk like me, they make the huggee feel good and welcome. They are Good Huggers.

Ren Navarro is a Good Hugger.

Ren, for those who don’t know, has been working in Ontario’s craft beer scene in a variety of sales and customer-facing roles for years and, as a queer, black woman, will tell you she has always felt something like “craft beer’s unicorn” among the sea of mostly white, mostly straight, and mostly male faces that comprise the brewing industry. In recent years, Ren has taken to advancing the conversation about diversity in beer to a semi-full-time gig, launching Beer.Diversity, taking part in panel discussions on diversity at craft beer conferences and offering consultation services to breweries who want to embrace diversity in their businesses. Ren and I have been in pretty regular contact over the years mainly via the internet but have met in real life a few times and, upon each occasion, predictably, she has greeted me with a great hug.

Right now though, I get the sense Ren doesn’t feel much like hugging. The reason for that is Ren’s latest project, the Ontario Beer Summit, which she launched with partner Jake Clark, was officially cancelled last week. The summit was a two day conference that focused on beer education, with a mandate to celebrate “the strength that equality and diversity brings to craft beer and our communities.”

It was cancelled due to a lack of registrations.

The sad truth is that as soon as I heard of Ren’s ambitious project, I feared that it might be doomed. This is not of course, for a lack of vision or a comment on the quality of the proposed event or speakers that were lined up. No no. The festival was slated to bring in an impressive array of diverse speakers from across Canada and the US and appeared to have a good mix of sessions relevant to sales, the technical aspects of making beer, and the less tangible “hospitality and cultural” impacts of the industry.

The issue of, course, is that last bit. A third of the summit’s content was targeted at tackling some important issues in craft beer, with sessions like Women in Beer, Aboriginal Issues and Influences in Beer, Making an Impact or Leaving no Trace, Building a Strong Beer Community, and Sustainability of Staff and Business.

These are important conversations to have, but unfortunately, they are still difficult and uncomfortable conversations even now, and the lack of registration for this summit wasn’t surprising to me and shows how ready we actually are to have these conversations.

I have written about the lack of diversity in craft beer before and I’ve also written on sexism in beer marketing and how it excludes women from the industry. I’m not alone here, of course. Many others have opined on the subject, with increasing frequency over the last five or so years. Typically, the response to this kind of writing has been great. These articles are shared across social media and the comments on them are 99% positive. If you write about marginalization, you can count on a plethora of “beer influencers” and “allies” to share that article, probably with such supportive, typically millennial eloquence as an enthusiastic, “So much this.”

The reality is, of course, that this kind of full-throated support and article sharing (and even much of this article writing) is akin to “virtue signalling;” publicly aligning to a good cause with an empty act. It’s lip service. We’re happy to “like” content, share articles, create public statements aligning ourselves with the right side of social issues, and even brew collaborative beers that let us market the outward appearance of championing values of diversity and inclusion.

But trouble comes when you start asking people to put their money where their mouths are. Which, incidentally, is what Ren literally did with the Ontario Beer Summit; to the not-insignificant tune of $500 per person, to be precise (edit/update: each additional registration from the same team would have cost just $250 per person). Not only was the Ontario Beer Summit asking people to start doing the work of addressing diversity in craft beer — having those uncomfortable conversations, changing policies, considering our own biases — but Ren and Jake were actually asking people to pay money to learn more about how to do that. For an industry that seems barely ready to start looking at its own shortcomings on this issue, this, to me, seemed like a pretty tough sell.

The summit was a fantastic undertaking to bring a community together and a genuine effort to educate, but in the end, as I thought they might, the breweries and industry folks who purport to want diversity and inclusion didn’t actually turn up. As is so often the case when it comes to taking a look at our own privileged place, most people decided it was far, far easier (and cheaper) to simply do nothing.

It’s a disappointing outcome, and, if the Ontario Beer Summit had been my idea, I’d be inclined to climb into a bottle and write off all people as generally hopeless. But then, I’m not a hugger. Ren is. And so I have a sneaking suspicion that she hasn’t given up on us all just yet.

5 thoughts on “The premature demise of the Ontario Beer Summit

  1. There are other potential reasons for the lack of attendance Ben. Folks in the brewing industry are busy trying to make a living brewing beer, and trust me, that ain’t easy these days; but more importantly and perhaps germane to the dearth of attendees to the Ontario Beer Summit may be redundancy. As Ontario brewers we have to decide between which industry events to attend as they are all costly and there are no shortage of options. We go through this at our brewery as I’m sure others in the industry do. Do we attend the CBC in the US, the CBAC in Canada or the OCB Conference in Ontario? All of them offer different benefits and perspectives.
    Do we as an industry have room for improvement? Absolutely. But there are lots of sessions available at existing, established and industry run Conferences.
    Although we differ on the hugging (my wife turned me into a reluctant hugger years ago and it grows on you), I do share your love and respect for Ren and everything she is doing to help our industry improve. I’m actually thrilled to tell you that Ren is curating a panel on diversity at the upcoming CBAC in Victoria this May. The point is, there is no shortage of excellent and well curated industry run shows that address all the issues that the Summit was proposing and more. To draw the conclusion that folks in the industry do not care about these issues is unfair and I believe untrue for the most part. The Summit was perhaps seeking to fill a void that simply did not exist.

  2. The problem wasn’t the conference. It was the runway on the marketing. A conference like this requires a least 4 months of solid marketing and an investment $ in that marketing. I would recommend closer to a year is ideal. This had a few social media posts a few weeks out. In a tough industry right now with shrinking margins and lean teams it’s not easy to sell a $500 ticket. Try again, but reschedule it for this time next year and start the campaign now.

  3. I think the article conflates non-support of the conference with non-support of the issue. Ren’s efforts on the latter deserve a lot of pluadits and encouragement however I find it hard to have much sympathy for the former as fundamentally the conference was a business venture and as supported by comments above, the business venture appears to have failed for business reasons.

  4. Beer is an intoxicated beverage that sometimes tastes good. It’s not a cause except for oversocialized human poodles. Canadian craft beer is overpriced and undistinguished. Even if craft beer is a dude-bro space, this “problem” is a first-world nothingburger. She tried to quickly sell expensive tickets to a moral summit; she’s not a very gifted grifter. Maybe now that no one can congregate in public you will internalize your own definition of virtue signalling.

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