Craft Beer’s Moral High Ground Doesn't Apply to Its Workers

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (GMG)
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Scott Timms is taking a break from brewing beer. At 35, he’s been at it for 13 years, most recently having worked at Falling Sky Brewing, a popular brewpub in Eugene, OR, that regularly appears on “best of” lists in the state.

Brewing beer commercially can be hard, thankless work. “It’s a back-breaking job, lifting a hundred 50-pound bags” of ingredients and carrying them up stairs to be added to the mash, Timms says. And it can be dangerous: “You’re dealing with boiling liquids and pretty harsh chemicals that can definitely injury you…It’s not a safe job by any means.” At small breweries, where OSHA visits are unusual and procedures are unstandardized, the “outlook towards safety” can be “laissez-faire” verging on “lackadaisical,” he says.

For his work as a production manager at Falling Sky overseeing a team of brewers and working up to 65 hours a week, Timms made what came out to a little over $40,000 a year. Frustrated, he quit his brewing job in early 2018, convinced that craft brewers were getting shorted across the U.S. beer industry. “There are people making money here,” he says, “but it’s not us.”

In 2017, Lauren Michele Jackson wrote in Eater about the rise of “craft culture,” a food and beverage market that “fetishizes the authentic, the traditionally produced, and the specific [and] loathes the engineered, the mass-produced, and the originless.” Craft beer—made by brewers like Timms at more than 6,000 small, independent breweries across the country—has been a standard-bearer for this progressively infected, anti-commodity eating and drinking movement for more than two decades. Its staggering economic success has spurred an explosion of products in other food and drink categories marketed to like-minded customers. Walk the aisles of your closest Whole Foods and craft culture surrounds you.

But even as sales of craft-culture products steadily rise, the conditions for workers that make and serve those products vary widely. The labor is often physically demanding. Specialized workers are asked to “wear different hats” to make up for understaffing, and gladly answer calls for extra hours because they genuinely care about the products they’re making. Owners, either unwilling or unable to spend on quality executives, take on management responsibilities for which they have no training. The workforces are often small, giving rise to a much-touted familial intimacy that in turn can bring a distinctly familial dysfunction of favoritism and manipulation. Wages and benefits are inconsistent across industries and even within individual companies.

But craft culture is growing, and it’s bringing in a lot of money. No single study or report encapsulates the various industries that make up artisanal food and drink production, but the U.S. specialty food market did $127 billion in sales in 2016, a 15 percent jump since two years earlier, according to the Specialty Food Association. In 2017, U.S. craft brewers saw significant sales growth over the previous year’s figures, despite the fact that the overall U.S. beer industry contracted. In less developed craft categories, the growth has been even more astonishing. According to market-research firm Mintel, U.S. coffee-house sales are up more than 40 percent since 2011, clocking $23.4 billion in 2017 sales. Specialty cheese sales grew more than 10 percent, to about $4.42 billion, over a period of just two years.

In pockets of these industries, a labor movement has begun to emerge. In late 2017, cheesemakers at the New York City location of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (a Seattle company) voted to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 553. A few months later, this past February, the baristas of Gimme Coffee’s Ithaca, NY location ratified their first union contract, the product of an organizing drive begun a year earlier. The Unionistas, part of Workers United 2833, are apparently the nation’s first barista labor union recognized by their employer.

Craft brewers could be a cornerstone of this artisanal food and drink movement, given their specialized skills, the longevity of their industry, the popularity of their product, and their association with progressive customers. So why, unlike many of their mass-market counterparts, do they remain almost entirely without union representation?

It’s not because brewers are particularly well-paid. In 2017, craft brewing production workers at 6,300 U.S. firms contributed to a record-breaking $26 billion in annual sales, according to data from trade groups like the Beer Institute and the Brewers Association. But the average weekly wages for U.S. brewers has declined by a quarter between 2006 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, which represents craft breweries, says that with the rise of craft breweries, typical brewery jobs in the U.S. “shifted from being at a large brewery to being at a small brewery.” Brewers at a facility owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the biggest brewing company in the country, make “more than people who are brewing at your local brewpub,” he tells me.

Most of those corporate jobs are unionized: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents about 5,000 brewery workers at various corporate breweries around the country, including nearly all of those owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Those workers have not seen the pay decrease cited in the BLS report, according to a Teamster spokesperson. Given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t collect data that discerns between large and smaller breweries, comparing average salaries can be tough. But while Timms made about $40,000, the average salary for a production manager at Anheuser-Busch is listed as between $65,000 and $105,000 a year on Glassdoor.

So there are a lot more craft brewing jobs, which are largely non-unionized, and they don’t pay as well. Or, put another way: “The wages suck for [craft] brewers unless you’re the head guy,” says Charlie Johnson, a brewer who worked in the Pacific Northwest for 15 years before starting Spontaneous Fermentation Project in California last year. Since it’s a desirable beer job, “people just assume that you will work for dirt cheap.”

Compounding that sense of disenchantment: benefits. Sure, there are shift beers. But things like paid time off, 401(k)s, and employee equity programs are hit or miss, say the brewers I spoke to. Not to mention healthcare. “Barely anyone in the brewing industry has health insurance” through their jobs, Johnson says. This is a common gripe amongst craft brewers, even though it might not be categorically true. Like most U.S. employers, breweries with more than 50 full-time employees are required by law to offer health benefits. There are also many smaller breweries that don’t legally have to offer health benefits, but do, anyway. According to an internal survey Watson shared with me, among U.S. craft brewers producing 1,000 barrels or less annually —which is about three-quarters of firms— no more than 25 percent offer some sort of healthcare benefits.

The information is based on small sample sizes, Watson cautions. And of course, offering coverage is a quantitative figure; whether the “benefits” are actually any good is a question the data can’t answer. Referring to brewers at macrobreweries, Timms puts it more succinctly: “They have full benefits, and I had shit for benefits.”

(In an email, Falling Sky owner Rob Cohen notes that as an employee, Timms qualified for—but declined—healthcare, dental, and vision benefits through the company. Cohen also says Falling Sky offers an IRA match, two weeks of PTO, and “more sick leave than is required.”)

Still, beyond these individual concerns lies an existential one: To rationalize the higher prices their beer commands at market, craft breweries across the country actively claim the moral high ground. This claim is two-pronged: that craft beer tastes better than its counterparts because it’s made with higher-quality ingredients and more care, and that craft breweries are innately “better”—more wholesome, more ethical, more socially responsible—than corporate ones.

This is the pitch across craft culture, and it tends to work. Customers like to feel as though their purchases of food and drink products they enjoy are doing good, too. Craft, artisanal, local: “There are just these terms that resonate with the consumer in this feel-good way,” says Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University who authored Labor and the Locavore, a 2014 book on worker conditions in the local food economy of New York’s Hudson Valley. “There are all sorts of great reasons why we should feel good about craft beer production,” she says, pointing to the premise of quality and the promise of community building. “But to celebrate it while neglecting labor conditions is highly problematic.”

It’s a lot easier to tell if a craft beer tastes good than it is to tell if the brewery that made it is treating employees well. And some craft breweries benefit from the category’s progressive aura without ensuring progressive conditions for their workforce.

Often, this manifests passively, in low wages, understaffing, or unsafe work conditions and equipment. Occasionally, though, that hypocrisy is active. In 2011, Rogue Ales, a nationally distributed craft brewer in Newport, Oregon, allegedly led an anti-union campaign against brewing and bottling employees who were organizing, according to an account published by the Northwest Labor Press. But the company’s branding has always featured apparent appropriations of Soviet pro-worker propaganda, including red stars and raised fists. (Brett Joyce, Rogue’s current president, says the Northwest Labor account of the union drive was motivated by an “obvious agenda” and disputes its accuracy, while allowing that “what happened in 2011 served as a wake-up call.”)

But that’s just one shop, and it was almost a decade ago. What’s stopping today’s craft brewers from following the organizing examples of their corporate cohorts in macrobreweries, or their kindred spirits in this emerging craft labor movement? Personality might play a role. “The brewing industry draws an odd group of human beings,” Johnson says, and some are more individualistic than others.

Dana Garves, CEO and founding beer chemist of Oregon Brew Lab, a quality-assurance firm based in Eugene, agrees the “lone-wolf mentality” is a factor, but points out a more obvious one. “Brewers honestly believe they have the best job,” she says. “There’s this mentality of ‘I have a good job making beer I love, why rock the boat?’” For craft brewers, like many workers in other creative industries, it’s not just a job on an assembly line—it’s a way of life. And in an exploitative workplace, having your dream job can be a liability. It presents workers with a false choice: do what you love and put up with the bullshit, or be forced to give up the good to escape the bad.

The flip side is that there’s a seemingly endless supply of would-be brewers who want their shot at that dream job. “There’s always an okay or decent homebrewer out there willing to work the exact same job for less money and more beer,” Garves says. It’s not uncommon for fans of a particular craft brewery to volunteer to work for free. This can make the job feel less secure for those who actually do it, and contribute to a chilling effect on organizing. “Why talk unions if they could replace you for significantly less?” Garves points out.

And then there’s the deterrent that’s universal across industries: fear of retaliation. “The fear of backlash is intense,” Garves says. After publishing a 2015 blog post calling on brewers to unionize, she found it was a conversation brewers wanted to have in private, but rarely out in the open. “There’s a very real fear that if a brewer” makes demands for better conditions or tries to organize, “that the administrative side [of their brewery] will just cull them,” she says. Whether that fear is justified, the stakes can feel higher at small breweries. “You’re basically telling your friend, who happens to be your boss and CEO of this tiny company, that you don’t think you make enough money. It can seem greedy, or ungrateful,” she says.

Yet another obstacle to organizing is the relentless job-hopping in the industry. “I love my job, I love serving the community and I love my co-workers,” says Samantha Mason, who organized at Gimme this year. But “a lot of people just hop around from one place to the next thinking that at the next place they’ll find a better boss [and] better conditions.”

This gig-to-gig mentality is hardly unique to the craft food and beverage industry. It’s one of the most commonly trafficked gripes about millennial workers in the U.S., and there’s some truth to it. But Mason believes issues like low pay and sparse benefits are “structural” to the industry at large, rather than specific to Gimme. It can be overwhelming “once you realize that you can’t really avoid” those ills, Mason says. As one Beecher’s cheesemaker explained to the New York Daily News after the votes were counted: “We love the work we do, but we need this to be a good job, too.”

Can these jobs be good jobs? Of course—even deeply unionized industries were once low-paying and exploitative. Will it be unionization that makes them good jobs? It remains to be seen. Given their mostly progressive ethos, their youthful workforce, and the lucrative demand for their products, the jobs that power craft culture seem like a natural fit for organized labor. But if craft brewers are a litmus test, the unionized future is far from guaranteed.

Next, Timms is headed to Montana, where a buddy from brewing school has asked him to be the head brewer of a new venture that’s still being finalized. “I’m definitely going to have to find work,” he says, “probably bartending or doing something else I don’t really want to do.” In other words, putting up with bullshit for another shot at the dream.

Dave Infante is a journalist in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @dinfontay.