San Diego beer prides itself on its history of breaking boundaries, setting high bars for quality, and cultivating a community unlike any other. But despite these accolades, well-earned as they may be, we as an industry have forgotten, ignored, downplayed, or even defended the problematic history of our region.
Like the entirety of the United States, San Diego occupies land stolen from Indigenous people, including bands from the Mission Indians and Kumeyaay Nation. Southern California’s well-documented history as a hotbed for white supremacist groups like White Aryan Resistance and the Proud Boys has also stealthily (as well as openly) nurtured prejudiced attitudes against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Claire Trageser reported for KPBS that after reviewing police records from 2001 to 2020, San Diego police officers are much more likely to shoot people of color (65%) vs. white people (42%).
These are not things that happened a long time ago or far away. These things are happening now, right here. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported a 15% increase in hate crimes in 2017 after reviewing data from the FBI and California Department of Justice. COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities in access to healthcare, financial assistance, and small business ownership. Tangentially, The New York Times recently revealed the Black Lives Matter movement is likely the largest social movement in history, in spite of (and partially in thanks to) the pandemic. San Diego remains impacted both in the past and in real-time by both of these events. And we’ll never look the same.
HOW THIS RELATES TO BEER
Historically, beer has been touted as an everyman’s beverage: accessible and enjoyable by everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or income. Brands have capitalized on that utopian vision for marketing purposes throughout generations, but arguably have only recently—as in within the last few months—begun to question the flimsy foundation on which the industry is built.
While nearly 1,000 breweries worldwide are participating in the Black is Beautiful collaboration to protest against police brutality towards the Black community, another victim-blames a Black man for his own murder because he acted like “a thug,” or tells a person of color not to discuss compensation when they ask why they make less than their white counterparts of comparable experience (which, incidentally, is completely illegal for employers to ask of employees). Beers are crafted in the name of LGBTQ+ Pride while others satirize Black Lives Matter as a beer name. Women are hired for production roles, but male coworkers still scream at their female supervisor “I don’t need you to mommy me!” when given direction.
These are all true stories from the San Diego beer community. I’ve left them vague for a number of reasons: privacy for those who have shared their experiences with me, their fear of retribution (physically, legally, or emotionally), as well as to cause readers to think “Do I know who this is?” You may, you may not. Either way, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of problematic behavior within our own industry and highlights the need for every single one of us to actively work towards correcting it.
WHAT #SDBEER HAS ACCOMPLISHED SO FAR
Progress is being made within the broken system. In late 2019, the San Diego Brewers Guild (SDBG) launched one of the first Inclusion Committees in the country (of which I am a member), dedicated to providing guidance to brewery and affiliate members on how to promote equity in all aspects of operation. Every economic impact report from California State University San Marcos has reported millions of dollars in annual charitable contributions from the craft beer industry. Just last month, with the help of Border X Brewing and Bread & Salt, the Mujeres Brew Club (MBC), a woman-centric, Latina-run beer education group, announced an ambitious training program and operational brewery in Barrio Logan that will give women and people of color the opportunity to learn professional skills in the beer space.
“Border X believes that our nation is at its best when we embrace all cultures, backgrounds, and traditions as equally valuable and awesome,” says David Favela, co-founder of Border X in an email to West Coaster. “Our breweries (and now MBC) are located in underserved communities because we believe that regardless of your income level, identity, or religion, we all deserve a safe, clean, culturally rich space to enjoy together.”
These are phenomenal initiatives that have the potential to change the face of San Diego beer. But they’re just the first step. Timothy Parker, owner and co-founder of Chula Vista Brewery, describes the climate he navigates daily as a Black man, which has taken a different tone since nationwide protests condemning police brutality against Black people began. Prejudice as a culture and silence towards it in beer are inextricably linked.
“When does the community step up and say, ‘This is wrong?’” asks Parker. “That’s been the biggest problem—people tend to look away at all these issues because they don’t affect them. When you look away, that’s just as good as saying, ‘This is okay.’ People want you to just stick to beer because they want you to be silent.”
THE RACIAL REALITY WE FACE
According to the latest census, the racial demographics of San Diego County are 64% white, 32% Hispanic/Latinx, 10.9% Asian, 5.1% Black, 0.9% Native American, 0.5% Pacific Islander, and 13.6% identifying as other. (The census allows people to choose more than one racial identity, which is why these numbers don’t add up to 100%.)
But if you look at the hotspots of San Diego beer—places like Miramar and North County—the numbers of white residents tend to swing even higher.
“There are natural and organic processes in place that perpetuate a culture centered on white males, and many are oblivious to their own bias and benefits,” says Favela. “They are the taste makers and their definition of what is ‘great’ is the standard they set. Anyone trying to introduce a different style or flavor is considered ‘not true-to-style’ and ‘gimmicky.’ Let’s actively begin to dismantle the barriers for all of us to succeed and overcome these pre-existing processes and structures that shut so many of us out, and stop us from bringing our best to share with everyone.”
Currently, San Diego has one Black-owned brewery (Chula Vista Brewery) and a few with women as co-owners (Second Chance, AleSmith, and Pizza Port), but none solely owned by a woman. There’s a smattering of non-white-owned breweries as well (Latinx: Border X and Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Company; Asian: Savagewood Brewing Company; Hawaiian: Pacific Islander Beer Company; Native American: Rincon Reservation Road Brewery), but when held against San Diego’s 150+ craft breweries, this doesn’t even come close to reflecting the area’s demographics as a whole.
Do we really believe this disparity is because non-white people just don’t drink beer—or because we’ve been content in our apathy towards a traditionally hostile space for anyone perceived as other? “The industry has kind of a stigma, the idea that minorities don’t drink craft beer as much, which is hilarious because we do drink craft beer,” says Parker. “We only have five or six different places in South Bay right now total. I can tell you we’re taking at least half a million dollars a month away from North Park and everywhere else that used to get that income.” He laughs. “You just cut out half your market just assuming they don’t drink craft beer!”
STEPS TO TAKE
It doesn’t make sense to strive for racial equality when the base numbers aren’t equal; rather, racial equity should be the goal. That means providing the same opportunities for entry for both consumers and employees. The Inclusion Committee is currently working on a toolkit to share with SDBG members, but the Brewers Association’s Diversity Ambassador Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham currently has a list of resources available on her site CraftBeerForAll.com.
In the meantime, if your brewery posted any solidarity to Black Lives Matter, the next step is to carefully examine your operations to uncover any potential areas of bias. Chances are astronomically high you’ll find some. When is the last time you posted a non-white face on any marketing materials? Do your job postings contain gender-specific or ableist language that would deter prospective applicants from even applying? Have you ever collaborated with a non-white business? It will take time and effort to begin anti-racism initiatives, but a fear of failure is guaranteed to come true if you fail to even try.
“You can’t tell me that out of 10 Black people who came in and asked for a job, you couldn’t find space for one of them,” says Parker. “That’s when you can look and say, ‘Hey, what are my hiring practices?’ Some people just don’t know they have a slight bias… but it happens. People aren’t even aware that they’re doing it. It’s that awareness that needs to happen.”
Even progressive groups like the women’s professional beer organization Pink Boots Society and the Inclusion Committee have been charged with continuously evaluating their own operations. PBS recently laid out a long-term diversity plan on their website, and the Inclusion Committee currently lacks Native and Asian members representing community interests. (If a San Diego beer professional from either community would like to add their experience to the committee, please reach out to email@example.com for more information.)
Finally, for the love of all things holy, stop objectifying women or appropriating Black/Hispanic culture on beer names or labels. It is so supremely uncool to see these “jokes” continue to be made at the expense of marginalized groups across craft beer. “All we need is just to start having respect for one another,” says Parker.
San Diego beer is unquestionably a leader, both in our numbers and in our tight-knit community. Let’s not exclude any potential participants in that community for the sake of a cheap laugh or sheer laziness. It’s time to acknowledge that craft beer has been built on a foundation of inequality. San Diego is not exempt from that, but our past missteps should only drive us to embrace the reality that yes, beer is political. Beer is economic. Beer is unifying. Beer can be better. We can be better. We will be better.