Diversity in beer: is the Canadian craft industry doing enough to change?

We ask if the Canadian craft beer industry doing enough to address the lack of diversity in its ranks, and find out what you can do to help.

Diversity in beer: Merit Brewing's bottleshop

In June of last year, beer consultant and educator Ren Navarro was figuring out how to shut down her business. Having founded Beer Diversity in 2018, Navarro is hired by breweries to speak with staff about diversity and inclusion. She also consults with restaurants and bars as a beer buyer and to conduct training with their staff.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all of Navarro's physical events were cancelled. Instead, "I was booked through until July to do panels and sessions [online]," she recalls. "And then the George Floyd video came out."

Navarro says that her phone "blew up." Breweries were reaching out to her, saying "we need you" and asking for her suggestions on the best charities to donate to. "I told people to give me two weeks to process what was happening," Navarro says. "I am a Black person, first and foremost. And what happened was completely traumatic."

After Navarro took some time for herself, she began replying to messages and resumed her consulting work. She's now busier than ever, hosting three to four remote sessions a week with clients. "It brought the company back to life, in the most twisted of ways," Navarro says.

Her staff talks were previously focused on making breweries safe and accessible places. And while Navarro still does this in her work, she now helps breweries reconsider their values and encourages her clients to sit with the discomfort of how they approach race and diversity in their workplaces.

Diversity in Beer: Ren Navarro

Ren Navarro

While countless donations were made and millions of black squares were posted on media feeds, craft breweries (and many other businesses) in Ontario still face a glaringly obvious diversity problem within their own organizations.

Staff, especially upper management and decision-makers, are overwhelmingly white. Racism in the hospitality industry remains an ongoing problem. 

Navarro started working in the craft beer industry in 2013, first in the retail taproom of Great Lakes Brewery, then progressing to sales roles at Redline Brewhouse, Woodhouse Brewing, Descendants Beer and Kensington Brewing. "I was, presumably, the only Black woman selling craft beer at the time in Ontario," Navarro recalls.

While Navarro says she didn't experience outright racism during her work in sales, she felt her identity as a woman at industry events like beer festivals and tastings. "I needed to prove myself," Navarro recalls.

"It was like they were playing 'Stump the Chump' with me. They'd ask me questions like 'Who's the person that malted the grains in this beer?' Then they'd go over to the next table where there was a male sales rep and they'd ask him 'What's your favourite kind of beer?'" Navarro recalls.

By 2018, Navarro was feeling burnt out and ready to leave the industry. She had just accepted a position as a letter carrier for Canada Post.

But a talk she presented at Black Creek Community Farm about the lack of diversity in craft brewing became a springboard for Navarro to start her own consulting company, Beer Diversity. She never ended up working for Canada Post as requests through Beer Diversity quickly translated into a full-time job.

Many of Navarro's clients are eager to diversify their workforces, but the common complaint she hears is that there aren't enough qualified, diverse candidates applying for roles.

Instead, breweries should take a step back to find out how they can attract more folks of colour to their industry. And that's exactly what Tej Sandhu, founder of Hamilton's Merit Brewing, did.

"It takes being proactive," Sandhu says. "It's not just a boilerplate statement on the bottom of the job description saying 'We support diverse applicants'." Prior to Covid, Sandhu had committed to supporting an initiative facilitated by the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

“They have a Black Youth Mentorship Program that they facilitate at high schools,” he explains. Sandhu committed to paying Navarro’s fees to speak at one of these sessions and laid plans to bring the group to Merit at some point as well. And while Covid unfortunately put the mentorship events on hold, the practise demonstrates how brewery owners can play an active part in attracting workers of colour.

"We wanted to bring the beer industry to people who may not even realize that it's a thing in Hamilton," Sandhu says. "There are different positions in the industry, depending on your skill set. If you like talking to people, you could be a great sales rep. If you like working with your hands, or love science and engineering, you could work in the brewing side of the beer industry."

"BIPOC have to start their own businesses or start and stay at the bottom"

And it's not just about bringing diverse new folks into craft brewing, but mentoring those already in the industry. "I think we've seen a small improvement when it comes to hiring entry-level jobs, but we've got a bit of a 'missing middle' in the industry," Sandhu explains.

"We see BIPOC either having to start their own businesses or start and stay at the bottom. There are very few BIPOC that have positions in middle or upper management, roles which would be decision-making and culture-guiding roles."

"Promoting BIPOC within your organization shows that not only are they valued, but they belong at the table when it comes to the bigger-picture strategic development of your business."

As one of a few brewery owners of colour in Ontario, Sandhu isn't shy about his identity. In pre-pandemic days, when Merit welcomed dine-in guests, each table had a menu with a short description of the brewery's origins.

Sandhu's grandparents immigrated from Punjab, India to Nanaimo, B.C. and opened a furniture store called Merit. Through the store, Sandhu's grandparents went on to support the immigration of hundreds of people from their home province in India.

Merit Brewing's Tej Sandhu
Diversity in Beer: A selection of beers from Merit Brewing

Sandhu has a beer on his menu dedicated to his grandfather, Chanan, which includes Indian coriander as one of its ingredients. "I actually do see a high percentage of Indian customers ordering the beer that's named after my grandfather," Sandhu says.

"I think these populations feel safe and they feel comfortable at our brewery. We don't just see them coming in just once, but they become regulars."

If qualified candidates are the issue, then another way to tackle the problem is to enable folks of colour to obtain the skills and education they need to be hireable.

In April 2019, the Ottawa-based brewery Dominion City consulted with Navarro to launch a scholarship program. The $1,000 annual bursary and paid internship is open to students in Niagara College's Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program with a background that's underrepresented in craft brewing.

And in November 2020, Left Field Brewery launched an entrance scholarship for BIPOC students of the same Niagara College program.

"I didn't feel like part of the audience they were targeting"

For people of colour, feeling safe and welcomed also means seeing people that look like themselves in the company's brand. When Shehan De Silva first started getting into craft beer as a fan in the early 2010s, he didn't fit the consumer profile of a craft beer drinker. "I didn't feel like I was part of the audience they were targeting," De Silva says.

Lost Craft Brewing: Shehan De Silva | Diversity in Beer

Lost Craft's Shehan De Silva

By 2015, De Silva had launched his own brewery, Lost Craft. He wasn't intending to make diversity a part of his brand, but, like many burgeoning business owners, he used his friends in social media campaigns and advertisements. Being born and raised in Toronto, De Silva naturally has a diverse network of friends and acquaintances.

Industry friends pointed out to De Silva that he was one of the only BIPOC brewery owners in the city. Soon afterwards, De Silva put diversity at the forefront of his business.

And today, he continues to feature people of colour in Lost Craft's social media feeds. In August 2019, Lost Craft launched a beer called Divercity, its label featuring a CN Tower silhouette of 14 of the most-spoken languages in Toronto. The style, a helles lager, was chosen because of its approachability, appealing to those unfamiliar with craft beer.

While Lost Craft's branding and marketing organically caters to racialized people, De Silva encourages craft brewers to take an active role in diversifying the people featured in their social media and advertising campaigns.

De Silva also encourages breweries to consider the "subtle nuances" of incorporating cultural references into their branding. You might see sports like hockey, which appeal to white customers, more commonly in beer branding, instead of basketball, which has a more diverse fanbase.

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From a business standpoint, attracting more BIPOC customers can only be a good thing. "When you expand the audience of your industry, you're expanding your potential customer base," explains De Silva.

Navarro puts it more simply: "Do you like making money? Because if you can attract and work with a more diverse community, they're going to come back and spend their money with you," she says. "It's rare that I have to put it that way. But there are still times I have to put it that way."

Canadian BIPOC-owned breweries to buy from

Here are a few BIPOC-owned breweries to support on your next beer run:

Mascot Brewery

Founded by Aaron Prothro in 2015, Mascot is one of Canada's only Black-owned breweries.

Bandit Brewery

Shehzad Hamza left a career in analytics to co-found Bandit Brewery in Roncesvalles.

Merit Brewing

The founder of Hamilton's Merit Brewing Tej Sandhu named a beer after his grandfather, Chanan. It includes Indian coriander in its ingredients.

Lost Craft

Lost Craft founder Shehan De Silva says his most talked-about beer is the Divercity lager, which was made to appeal to a wide range of palates.

Red Tape Brewery

Red Tape Brewery is a bespoke brewery co-owned by Sarabeth Holden that creates custom brews for special occasions like weddings.

Iron Rings Brewing

Iron Rings Brewing, which was started by three electrical engineers, operates out of People's Pint.

Common Good Brewing

Common Good partner Jamie Mistry is a brewing veteran with over 25 years of experience working for Amsterdam Brewing and Cool Beer Brewing.

De Silva says that conversations about race are happening more often today than they were when he started Lost Craft five years ago. It's a good sign. And having more diverse customers and beer fans can slowly translate into fans becoming employees of craft breweries. But there's so much more that breweries can be doing right now.

They could be hiring people like Navarro for one-on-one diversity consultations. They could be partnering with local community organizations to increase awareness of brewery employment opportunities within underrepresented groups. They could be mentoring and promoting BIPOC within their organizations. They could be creating more inclusive marketing strategies.

Having more people of colour in craft brewing can also have a trickle-down effect throughout the industry. Think director boards of groups like the Canadian Craft Brewers Association and Ontario Craft Brewers. Or judging panels for beer awards.

Photo editor David Lee has been immersed in the craft beer world since the mid-2000s and has become known for his beer-related tweets and Instagram posts. In 2018 and 2019, he was a judge at the Royal Winter Fair's craft beer and cider awards, and a judge in the Canadian component of the World Beer Awards in 2019 and 2020.

At these competitions, he is one of few, and sometimes the only, judge of colour. "When you bring in people with different backgrounds you bring in differing palates and opinions," Lee says. Those in power at trade associations and competitions can apply the same principles of mentorship, consultation and increasing awareness among existing BIPOC within the industry.

Send your favourite brewery a dm asking about their initiatives

If you're a craft beer consumer and you want to see change in the industry, you can play a role in this change. Spend your money at BIPOC breweries in your community. Reach out to breweries you love and ask them what they're doing to support people of colour.

"Diversity statements make companies accountable for their words," Navarro says. "I think it is up to other companies and the public to keep them honest. Send your favourite brewery a DM and say 'Hey, I saw you posted about diversity six months ago, and I haven't seen a diverse post since. Have you done any community outreach? What are your initiatives?'"

For too long, Navarro believes there has been a culture of gatekeeping within the craft beer community. The majority of these folks are white and male. But she encourages those in power to look at inclusion in a different way. "I like to think of it as a 'craft beer family table'," Navarro says.

"There's always room for you. Someone's gonna go and grab a chair and nudge someone else over a bit. But no one has to leave. It's not about getting rid of the bearded white guy. It's about making room. There's a spot for everyone in beer."