With its reputation for cis white male “beer bro” culture, the craft beer industry may not seem an obvious or even suitable jumping-off point for building an activist community with a strong, practical focus on dismantling institutionalized bias. Yet that is exactly what the team behind Lager and Listen is achieving. Henry Schwartz of MobCraft Brewing, Ayrton Bryan of MKE Black and Danii Oliver of Beersgiving and Island to Island Brewing have come together to create this action-led initiative that wants us to take our ideas and put them into practice—to live an inclusive lifestyle.
Launched in response to the sense of frustrated disenfranchisement following the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Lager and Listen began when Schwartz decided that he wanted to do more to promote change than just post on social media. “As a white man, I wanted to learn how I could do this in a way that would be authentic and impactful so that I could use MobCraft as a microphone for authentic storytelling and awareness-raising,” he says.
As co-founder and president of the world’s first crowd-sourced brewery, Schwartz is no stranger to being pro-active. His first step was to reach out to Bryan, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives at MKE Black, a non-profit dedicated to amplifying the more than 600 Black-owned businesses in his local area of Milwaukee. Bryan brought Oliver, a passionate and experienced advocate for equality and racial justice, on board. “When I met Danii there was an immediate synergy—she was a natural partner for this collaboration,” Bryan recounts.
Oliver has already made waves in the craft beer world as a female brewer, entrepreneur and activist of mixed Indigenous Awarak/Taino ancestry. Drawing on her Trinidadian roots, Oliver brought a holistic brewing ethos to both Island to Island and her House of Juice kombucha businesses, which flourished in NYC before moving south to Texas.
This, coupled with her Beersgiving initiative to diversify STEM, demonstrate Oliver’s trailblazing history of challenging the status quo. With her keen awareness of how the challenges and inequalities in beer mirror society at large, Oliver was keen to expand the scope of the project beyond the beer world. “Our problems are not unique to a single industry, and the solutions need to be found in a collective manner, outside of our silos,” she says, something that has been born out clearly throughout the Lager and Listen sessions to date.
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Another key goal of Lager and Listen is to foster genuine inclusivity from within. “One of our primary goals is not to keep talking to the same people. We want to broaden the scope of the audience and bring in a variety of people to find creative solutions to the issues that we are all facing,” says Oliver. “We’re always on the lookout for potential speakers—this is our homework.”
It’s this idea of homework—a practical element to each session— that makes Lager and Listen a unique project. At the end of every discussion, participants are given tasks to accomplish to actively utilize the content of the discussion, taking concrete action steps to further diversity and inclusion as part of their regular lives. “We want to further understanding and create open-ended conversations,” says Bryan, “It’s important to highlight to participants that furthering social equity can be repetitive and actions need to be taken continuously. We want to encourage people to take actions all the time, not just when they are taking part in our events.”
To date, these actions have included asking participants to email two businesses they are patrons of to ask them how they are forwarding diversity and reaching out to a local politician to ask what pro-diversity business initiatives they were forwarding—strong, coherent actions to challenge the status quo with measurable responses.
There have also been more personal actions, including sharing diverse social media contacts, listening to a broader range of recommended music and taking the Harvard implicit bias test where the participant must take a look at their own level of commitment to diversity. Both types of action are equally important in working towards the goal of the project, “the evolution from diversity to inclusion and living an inclusive lifestyle,” an inclusive lifestyle being incorporating pro-diversity actions into day-to-day life until society reaches a point of actual, fully-lived inclusivity.
While this might sound like a huge, almost impossible goal, the Lager and Listen founders believe in the power of micro-action. “Right now, it's the homework that is really important,” says Oliver, “The small bites it takes to eat a whole elephant.” Bryan concurs, explaining, “We want people to take this knowledge, what they learned, what they are unsure about, and start turning that into action. And I don't mean a large initiative or huge movement. I mean finding an element of action or true steps that meet your personal beliefs and can challenge you to do more.” From this perspective, Lager and Listen’s goals seem realistic and attainable as well as positive and inspiring.
Dialogues and Accountability
Inequalities in the beer industry formed an obvious starting point for the series. The first Lager and Listen session focused on the experiences of people of color in leadership roles in bars and brewing and the specific challenges they experience. Session two broadened the discussion to examine barriers to entrepreneurship for minorities, and the third session focused on the difficulties facing female business owners in the beverage sector.
Betsy Lay, owner and head brewer at Denver’s Lady Justice Brewing, took part in this panel and stresses the importance of this conversation. “Beer has a culture that is largely representative of straight white men, but the craft scene is so much more than that,” she says, “Providing a space where a diverse group of people in the industry can talk about their experiences and the changes that need to be made, and to give audience members concrete tools for advocacy and accountability, is helping the culture shift.”
On reaching their fourth session, the Lager and Listen team decided it was time to branch out and begin to look at how other industries are beset with similar difficulties to those they had encountered themselves. Their deep dive into barriers to equality in the music industry threw up striking similarities with the beer industry, including pigeon-holing, lack of representation and the need for mentorship. “If a Black person is in a mosh pit, they will attract attention, but white people can listen to anything they want without comment,” notes DJ and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee digital director Tarik Moody, echoing earlier discussions about how spaces are de facto segregated in beer and hospitality, and highlighting the continuing relevance of the Lager and Listen project.
Tackling the complex and layered subject of structural inequality in higher education has taken the Lager and Listen discussion to an even broader audience. The expert panel examined how unequal access to resources, biased ways of teaching and testing and lack of support for minority students all contribute to a prejudicial education system. Dr. Kenny E. Yarbrough, Associate Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UW-Whitewater, emphasizes the significance of this session and the value of the Lager and Listen format. “People tend to bond over events like this. It’s in the mindset of relaxation (either brought on by a meal or a drink) that people’s guards are usually relaxed,” he says. “I think this project allows people to discuss topics that can be controversial in a very gentle and non-threatening way. The audience can listen to an unscripted, unbiased account of lived experiences that can potentially shift their way of thinking around certain topics.”
Leading with Impact
The Lager and Listen team is positive and energized by how the project is evolving, spreading their message of vibrant discussion and positive action outwards from the beer industry and into other arenas. “The talks have progressed from a presentation to a much more in-depth analytical conversation, where there is a dynamic flow of ideas, parallel scenarios, and concepts,” says Bryan. The unscripted, free-flowing conversation has been crucial in taking the Lager and Listen concept forward.
Bryan notes, “We can be respectful, understand our own biases, and learn how to broaden our horizons of acceptance.” In this way, the sessions offer a tremendous opportunity for both panelists and audience to consider other perspectives and challenge their own preconceptions. Oliver believes the work of Lager and Listen is just beginning. “We plan to stay the course and keep the momentum going,” she says, “We have opened the Pandora's Box on bias, gatekeeping, forced typing and pigeonholing that happens not just in beer or spirits but in all industries.”
Working on Lager and Listen has been hugely impactful on all three moderators. “Ayrton, Henry and I are becoming experts on this subject matter,” says Oliver. “We give homework and we are doing the work to plan and share a course of action to craft, apply, heal and realize the potential diversity, equity and inclusion have on all industries.”
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For Bryan, working on Lager and Listen has had a significant personal and professional impact. “I have learned that the time is now, not later, to have these talks and translate strategy to action,” he says. “The amount I have learned with Henry and Danii by stepping into the unknown has been unreal. If you are motivated to learn about something, take the personal risk to learn by doing. The rewards are immeasurable.”
Oliver agrees, concluding, “The best work Lager and Listen can do to positively channel our earned knowledge to improve the industry is keep going with our course of action to ask questions candidly, seek answers from experts and give the public homework to discover the patterns for themselves. Like lagering, we can't force the biotransformation to happen. All we do is support the right conditions for the yeast and listen to the feedback.”