Beer News opinion

Talking Diversity in Beer with Ren Navarro

Beer has a problem, but we can fix it.

Craft beer has a diversity problem. This is not a new statement, nor something that hasn’t been an issue for decades; a quick Google search around terms such as “women in craft beer”, “beer + racism”, “sexism in craft beer” or countless other terms shows that the industry that produces some of our favourite beverages has struggled to keep up with the discussion around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

But that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made. For every misstep like Founders, or more recently Boulevard Brewing, there’s been positive steps forward like Black is Beautiful. More importantly, the discussion of DE&I in craft brewing is no longer being swept under the rug, which for Ren Navarro, Founder of Beer.Diversity is a critical first step in creating a more inclusive community.

Ren has been working in the craft beer industry for nearly a decade, and since 2018 has been using Beer.Diversity as a means for fostering discussion and educating breweries on a way forward on their DE&I programs. We had the pleasure to chat with Ren on how she’s feeling about the state of diversity in the industry, and where breweries most often trip up, even with the best intentions in mind.

First of all, thanks for chatting with us, you’re a busy person at the moment. For those that don’t know you, can you give a little background on yourself and Beer.Diversity?

I’m an English major who worked in finance for a long time, and I always say that finance will make you drink, so that’s how I got interested in beer. I eventually moved into beer sales and would often get asked how it feels to be a black woman in beer. I never thought about it that way, but I looked into it and sure enough I was the only one. I started sharing the experience a little more as a side hustle, which soon became a real looking company in the form of Beer.Diversity and people latched onto it. The first time I spoke in public there were about 100 people and I had expected them to all be friends, but most were there to learn more about the subject matter and really appreciated the way I was talking about it. It’s taken off from there and this has been my job ever since.

Where do you think the state of DE&I is in the craft beer world at the moment, and why are we talking about it more now?

D&I has always existed, but there’s a reactionary moment right now to have diversity councils and training. I think there’s a two fold reason: First, the pandemic changed how we all interact with each other, we’re spending an incredible amount of time on our phones and on the internet. That leads to people asking more questions, and actually having the time without distraction to ask harder questions and expect answers. Second, BLM and the killing of George Floyd stopped everyone in their tracks; it was that moment where you either had to make a statement and stick to it, or get out of the way.

There’s so many groups of fantastic people that have been working tirelessly for years to make improvements, and suddenly you now have the industry saying “can you help me with this thing?” and it’s this same game of catch up that we see across a number of different industries.

One of the changes we’ve noticed in the industry is that the conversation around DE&I used to focus on the larger scale producer like Founders as an example, and now we’ve seen more craft and local brewers pulled into the discussion, either due to their own missteps or just adding their voice to the conversation. Why do you think that is?

Smaller brewers were historically given a bit of leeway; they’re small and we’d say it’s ok to make mistakes. But again, we’ve had this moment to slow down and reevaluate why we were giving these brewers a free pass. Yes they are small, but one day they could be big, and we want more from the breweries we support now.

You have a platform and a privilege to help highlight those who aren’t like you, don’t be scared to use it.

What about the argument that they are simply in it for the love of brewing?

The second you start planning a brewery, you need to write these kind of things into your business plan. Be proactive, not reactive. The moment you decide to start selling a product, you’re interacting with a community, and real people, and you can’t ignore these issues. From a business perspective it takes a really long time to earn trust, and a short amount of time to lose it; regaining that trust is much harder the second time around.

What do you think are some of the more common mistakes that craft breweries make around these issues?

There is an overarching feel that breweries can fix it for themselves, and that used to work, but it doesn’t fly anymore. Breweries need to acknowledge the problem, talk about it and continue to tell the community how they are addressing the issue. What scares a lot of brewers is they don’t want to tell people what they are doing about DE&I all the time, but you’re telling me what hops you buy, or what malt you use all the time, stop making excuses about it. You can make positive changes, and tell people what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Honesty and transparency are the best policies, people will forgive the little things if they know that work is being done.

We’re a culture that expects immediate action and so when bad behaviour is called out, we expect a quick fix but that’s not how these things work.

Do you think that this hits the craft beer industry harder because the consumer base is so passionate?

All industries have these issues, the craft beer community has this notion that we’re somehow special, and we’re not. But if you’re really into craft beer, you’re really into what’s happening in the community and you see it in ways other people don’t see it. We as craft beer lovers have the ability to see what’s happening and ask these questions, new people coming in could just see the negatives and the problems and walk away, and that’s why we need to make these changes for the better, not just for the current community but for the ones coming in.

How do we as consumers avoid the cancel culture mindset with breweries that have made mistakes?

I think that’s the natural way these days, we see a mistake and we go “nope I’m out”. We’re a culture that expects immediate action and so when bad behaviour is called out, we expect a quick fix but that’s not how these things work. So this goes back to transparency, be open and be honest, we have to start showing that there is a process and not keep everything behind closed doors.

The way I see it, cancel culture has two dynamics. There’s those that see a problem, speak out about it and act in line with how they feel; then there are those that heard about it through a fourth party and just join the crowd. It’s up to us to educate ourselves first before we start making decisions to “cancel” someone.

How do we support those coming into the industry that want to do the right thing but don’t know where to start?

It’s tricky because a lot of breweries won’t have the type of people or resources to address these issues, so they need to start thinking outside their organization to find voices that will help keep them accountable. If it happens to be that you’re a pre-dominantly white organization, yes you can’t speak for other people, but what you can do is think about how you’re representing yourself and what language you are using.

Remember that being white in this conversation doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, you can use your privilege to make things better. There’s this overwhelming amount of white guilt where people want to speak out but are afraid they can’t because they aren’t a black woman or don’t understand the experience. You have a platform and a privilege to help highlight those who aren’t like you, don’t be scared to use it. Because that black woman is working hella hard while you’re too scared to do anything.

Are you personally feeling hopeful about where the industry is going?

I often get stuck inside of it and don’t look up, which can make me feel like nothing is changing. Fortunately I have friends that help me pause and step outside of it for a moment to see there really has been change. So yes I’m hopeful. Lot’s of new breweries are starting to think about these things before they even release their first beer. There’s a lot of hope.

Ren, thank you so much for the time! Where can people find you?

I released a podcast called Ren Likes to Talk and we tackle a bunch of different topics with people in and out of the beer industry. In the spring I’ll be launching the Brewery Inclusion Toolkit app with expert advice on things like accessibility, cancel culture, LGBTQ, etc.

I also just launched another company, because apparently I don’t like sleeping, called Do Better. Be Better. It’s all about leadership and mentoring marginalized youths, and that should be in schools and organizations this year.

And of course you can follow me on Instagram at Beer.Diversity.

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