The Kitchener-Waterloo Region is home to a plethora of great breweries — and almost none of them have founders who were charged with two counts of assault and one count of assault with a weapon.
Off the top of my head, the region boasts Barn Cat, Bitte Schön, Block Three, Jackass, Rural Roots, Stockyards, Together We’re Bitter Co-op, Wavemaker, and Willibald and — to my knowledge — none of these breweries were founded by a man who was captured on video striking his girlfriend with an object and who subsequently faced charges for the act.
It is unfortunate then that, when the City of Kitchener recently opened up their Requests for Proposals (RFP) process to find a “non-premier brewery partner” to serve beer at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium Complex and Kitchener Golf Courses, they awarded the contract to Four Fathers Brewing Company in Cambridge. Unfortunate, of course, because in 2018 Four Fathers founder and University of Guelph Professor John Kissick actually was charged with two counts of assault and one count of assault with a weapon. Those charges were ultimately dropped in 2020 when Kissick entered into a peace bond with the party who brought forward the charges, but to craft beer drinkers and any feeling humans who watched video of the (alleged) assault (myself among them) the incident likely left a bad taste in their mouth.
Indeed, for many in the craft beer community, especially women and folks who have been marginalized, this relatively high-profile “partnership” will likely lend credence to a prevailing sentiment that I’ve developed lately about the industry’s desire and ability to police itself, namely the realization that no one actually gives a fuck.
Craft beer recently experienced what should have been a come-to-Jesus moment. In the United States, Massachusetts brewer Brienne Allan — who goes by the Instagram handle @ratmagnet — made an offhand request in May 2021 for women in beer to share their stories of discrimination with her on Instagram. The request opened the floodgates to tales of discrimination ranging from the sadly routine (e.g. yet another customer couldn’t believe a woman was a brewer and not a server) to the profoundly disturbing — detailed accounts of rape and assault. The stories included accusations against what are literally some of the beer world’s most acclaimed breweries, including Modern Times, Tired Hands, Hill Farmstead et al.
Inspired by Allan, Erin Brandson (formerly Broadfoot), the owner of Little Beasts Brewery in Whitby, embarked on a similar endeavour, inviting Canadian women in the brewing industry to share their tales of discrimination with her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she too was inundated with messages that she shared via her Instagram stories for a 12 day period. These stories likewise ran the gamut from toxic work environments to rape and assault — and relatively few Ontario breweries remained unscathed. The complete list of the companies named is available here and — spoiler alert — the ones you like are here, too.
Following these somehow shocking-but-also-not-surprising revelations, there were some notable changes within the industry. Allan’s efforts in the US led to the resignation of a handful of brewery owners and founders. She also spearheaded the Brave Noise project, a massive collaboration to “provide inclusive and safe environments for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ throughout the beer industry.” Breweries can sign up to brew a batch of Brave Noise beer, but in order to use the Brave Noise Pale Ale recipe and promotional materials, they have to submit an application that states their commitment to publicly posting their code of conduct and resources for reporting misconduct, along with agreeing to donate the majority of proceeds to a verified non-profit organization that works on issues like sexual harassment and diversity training, mental health, and legal aide in the hospitality industry. In other words, it was/is a concerted effort for breweries to show they are actually committed to change instead of the sort of Rainbow Washing or Blackout Tuesday performative allyship most companies engage in when they are called out on their bullshit. 278 breweries have participated and, if even a fraction of them actually stick to their commitments, that ain’t nothing.
But I can’t help but think that much of the change, however far-reaching and however positive it might seem to be, is really just people preaching to the converted. What I mean is that brewery owners now have a very public and very good way to show each other they are being accountable and responsible, but if you want to continue not giving a fuck, as many clearly do, it’s still really easy to do so. There aren’t any real consequences for most breweries if they don’t have a code of conduct, don’t brew Brave Noise, or generally don’t stop acting like toxic assholes. Indeed to my mind, the worst consequences most breweries actually faced after being named was essentially a shitty week for their communications and social media teams who had to figure out what to do about their mentions and a handful of commenters swearing off their beer forever. Some breweries like Manantler in Bowmanville — against whom some of the most egregious allegations were made — simply turned off comments on all their social media posts for a while. Abe Erb did the same, and many others followed suit. It wasn’t a very nuanced approach, but it worked (though it should be noted that Manantler is no more, has been rebranded Tilted Glass, and has severed ties with all those named in the allegations. Good fucking riddance).
But ultimately, few non-industry folks are even aware any of this happened. The average beer consumer did not follow along and read Erin Brandson’s stories. Almost no one googles “did the owners of this brewery assault anyone” before they head inside for a tasting flight. I doubt many people actively seek out a code of conduct and are unlikely to actually read it unless it’s posted over the urinal (which incidentally is a really good place to post those things, IMO). And few people outside the beer industry (few people inside it!) will ever read this blog. And so it’s easy for breweries to post a statement of apology along the lines of “We know BAD THING happened. We are working on BAD THING and taking this time to listen and reflect on BAD THING,” but then they will institute no real change and act as if nothing ever happened–and as far as most consumers are concerned, nothing ever did.
Even Four Fathers, who were cast into the public eye in 2018 for their founders’ (alleged) violence, was once again put in the spotlight during Brandson’s stories as allegations were shared about that incident and the (alleged) harassment the victim endured as result of coming forward, but the brewery essentially followed their 2018 playbook, when they released a nothing-burger facebook statement and avoided any further engagement until it all blew over once more — and of course it has. Four Fathers, like most breweries accused of being a toxic workplace or somewhere that harbors or at least ignores discrimination, has continued to be embraced by the community. They are still members of the Ontario Craft Brewers, the closest thing the province has to a guild or governing body for brewers. They were welcomed at the Ontario Brewing Awards this year and even won a gold for their triple IPA. They were also welcome to continue to submit beers to the Canadian Brewing Awards this year and won a silver for their session IPA.
And now the City of Kitchener has awarded Four Fathers a 15-month contract to sell three SKUs in their facilities (only three because, of course, “The Corporation of the City of Kitchener and Molson Coors Brewing Company, Toronto, Ontario entered an agreement dated December 31, 2018 to December 31, 2023 which gave the awarded vendor “Preferred Premier Beer Status”). But much like no consumers will ask questions about the conduct of brewery’s management, there is no section on the RFP that asks a bidder if any of their founders have ever been charged with two counts of assault and one count of assault with a weapon. The City of Kitchener likely has no idea these charges were laid (and then later dropped). What there is though is a “Financial Merit” weight for the bidding brewery, scored “based on a relative bid formula using the rates set out in the form. Each proponent will receive a percentage of the total possible points allocated to each bid, which will be calculated in accordance with the following formula: highest bid ÷ proponent’s bid × weighting (60 points) = proponent’s bid points.”
If this is confusing to you, I’ll simplify: As part of the bid, Four Fathers filled in two amounts, one for October and one for December, that amounted to their “bid,” i.e. how much they were willing to pay the City of Kitchener for the right to sell their beer in city facilities. Four Fathers filled in the highest amounts, the formula calculated the highest points and, Tada! They’re partners!
Sure, this is a pretty standard, albeit sleazy practice for a brewery to sell their beer to a large entity. But the fact that I now have the ability to enjoy beer (my choice of three SKUs) from a company that supports someone whom I watched (allegedly) hit a woman on video while I take in a Kitchener Rangers game, tee off at Rockway Golf Course, or even enjoy a live performance of fucking Paw Patrol with my kids strikes me as pretty gross –and a rather apt statement on just how little accountability there still is in beer, despite some people in the industry’s best efforts.