That’s the question Dr. J. Jackson-Beckham, the Brewers Association’s (BA) first-ever diversity ambassador, posed to the audience at the 2021 Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in Denver.
“Of all the things in the great wide universe that you can dedicate your time to, your energy to, your creativity to, your heart to—why beer?” she asked.
Jackson-Beckham’s answers were multiplicitous. Why not beer? Beer is everywhere, and it’s for everyone.
“But I want you to take a look to your left,” she asked the audience. “Take a look to your right. Everyone is not here.”
And she didn’t just mean bodies in the room, though the lack was palpable. Hosted by the BA, CBC is an annual event where brewers, exhibitors, and the media gather for seminars and talks about craft brewing’s past, present, and future. According to Westword, attendance at this year’s CBC was expected to be around 7,000 (roughly half of a typical conference). Still, it was considerably less in the Bellco Theatre when Jackson-Beckham took the stage.
“Beer is one of the most successful engines of social interaction that provides widely accessible avenues to innovation and opportunity for everyone everywhere,” Jackson-Beckham said. “But the thing is, for the most part, we haven’t been innovating when it comes to the people part of our business.”
The numbers and anecdotes bear that out. Earlier that weekend, the BA’s chief economist, Bart Watson, held his annual State of the Industry presentation. The stats were sobering but expected: Production value was down 9 percent in 2020, dollar share down almost two points, and the nationwide brewery count is on the decline—though the number of closings hasn’t increased, it’s just that openings have slowed.
It would be easy to dismiss those numbers as a result of the pandemic, but previous CBCs have also raised alarms: Craft beer drinkers are shifting slightly older while drinking habits are changing, and competition from seltzer, wine, and spirits are turning more drinkers omnibibulous—a word H.L. Mencken coined to describe his promiscuous drinking habits, and one Watson introduced to the CBC crowd. Not to be outdone, Jackson-Beckham brought another word to the conversation: commensality.
“Say it with me: commensality,” Jackson-Beckham prompted the audience. “It refers to the positive social effects when we sit down and eat and drink together. Commensality is one of the most important things that human beings do. The tables at which we gather to share the products of your labors are some of the most special places. But they have also been some of the most exclusive.”
Watson’s stats bear this out: 93 percent of craft brewery owners are white, and 76 percent are male. Everyone is not here.
“It is time we move in a different direction,” Jackson-Beckham said. “But we cannot simply pretend that our shortcomings and struggles never happened. They must inform and provide context and insight into what we do next.”
She charged all in the room to embrace three things: inclusion, equity, and justice.
“Inclusion is not just about making sure everyone is invited; it’s about making sure everyone knows they are invited,” she said. “Equity is simply ensuring that everyone has the opportunity of the same quality of experience, once they have joined us . . . Justice simply refers to removing the conditions that caused inequality in the first place. Removing barriers to access and advancement.”
“We are enough,” Jackson-Beckham told the audience. “All we have to do is take a first step. And then another. And then another.”
Precious medals in Boulder County
Though there was no public tasting, the Great American Beer Festival went on again for the second year in a row in ceremony only. The entries were staggering: 9,680 beers from 2,192 breweries across the U.S., Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, competing for 291 medals in 97 categories. Colorado won 21 in total, five of them Boulder County bound.
From Louisville, Crystal Springs Brewing’s Blood Orange Kölsch beat out 132 other beers to capture gold in the American Fruit Beer category while neighboring 12Degree Brewing took home bronze in Belgian-style Strong Specialty Ale for Treachery. Entries in that category: 101.
Boulder snagged two: Gold for BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse’s Barrel-Aged Got Beer in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer Category (151 entries), and silver for Avery Brewing’s Stampede in American-style Lager (103 entries).
Longmont rounds out the awards with gold in the American-style Pale Ale category (151 entries) for Bootstrap Brewing’s Stick’s Pale Ale.
Michael Casey is the author of Boulder County Beer, available wherever books are sold.