A Diverse Culture is a Healthy Culture

A mixed culture fermentation, with a diversity of organisms acting in some sort of harmony, has more positive effects on health than fermentation with a single organism. I learned that first from Sandor Katz, the anarcho-fermentalist gay communard living (and surviving) with AIDS, and author of Wild Fermentation and the ultimate reference tome The Art of Fermentation. He’s living proof. But this post isn’t about him, no offense. This post turns the issue of cultural diversity back to the humans who instigate fermentation, and the way they interact with each other.

Having now extracted myself from the freestyle grandiosity of my last post, I have some things to say about what actually happened at HomebrewCon. The massive event is not just a big ol’ pat on the back drinkathon for the American Homebrewers Association and its members. It is an educational opportunity for homebrewers, as dozens of professional brewers and other industry members present thematic seminars on a wide range of topics.

Given that both Gary Glass, AHA director, and Charlie Papazian, the founder and totem, were in attendance for the seminar called Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in Homebrewing, and that the AHA has recently formed a diversity subcommittee, it’s small wonder that the seminar was the most important thing to happen at HomebrewCon. A panel of four people–Diane Griffin (Umpqua Brewers Guild), Kiley Gwynn (Cascade Brewers Society), Annie Johnson (Picobrew, pro brewer), and Anthony Salazar (diversity education pro, Latino baseball historian, homebrewer)–was led by Debbie Cerda, head of the Diversity Subcommittee. The origin of the subcommittee was a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis within the AHA. This analysis revealed diversity as a weakness within the nonprofit and its constituency, and so the AHA took action. Kudos!

The seminar, which took place at 11:30am on 6/30, was guided by the goals and tactical points of the strategic plan that was implemented in June 2018 (I think – very recently regardless), and the panel was asked about personal challenges and successes with diversity in their lives within brewing communities. The atmosphere in the large room, occupied by 70-100 people, was alert and receptive. In the wake of some technical difficulty, Annie Johnson chatted about the Czech-style pilsner she’d brought to serve, and cracked jokes with the audience. Once the PowerPoint was active, Cerda led off with a lengthy overview of the formation of the subcommittee and its nuances. It went a bit long, and I felt that the discussion with the panelists should have been more prioritized.

Once they were given the floor, however, the panel broke down the broad strokes of the diversity subcommittee’s goals into distinct patterns, causes, and effects.

Kiley Gwynn told a story I’d heard before and even been present for, though I was not aware of it at the time. In short, she’d been let go from the second round of judging at a local homebrew competition, and found out later that her presence was, indeed, needed. The misogynistic under- and overtones of that event left her feeling excluded from a group–her own homebrew club–in which she was actively trying to participate.

The tables have turned, however, as Gwynn is now “first lady” and an enthusiastic guiding voice of CBS (my homebrew club as well). She’ll be leading a re-write of the club’s bylaws to incorporate language that is inclusive and anti-discriminatory. She also brought along her homebrewed braggot-style Belgian single, brewed with meadowsweet honey, for us to taste during the panel.

A short generation apart, Diane Griffin expressed that she hadn’t dealt with the same feelings of exclusion as Gwynn, but recognized that homebrewing is a male dominated hobby (according to a recent AHA survey, 93% of homebrewers are male). She put it well: “We would have eliminated 50% of the problem if there had been a Ms. Beer kit.” Chuckles from the audience.

Johnson, who is a black woman, also spoke about her experiences. I had my pen working to compute my thoughts in the moment and didn’t catch everything she said, except this quotable quote: “Beer is community and just wants to be drunk.” If ever there was an elbow in the ribs to get over the active-awkward “colorblindness” that white people are acting out today, that’s it. Johnson also noted that in big beer advertising, historically and currently, women are used as props and marketing tools, still selling beer as sex. Women aren’t represented as brewers anywhere in popular culture, which has the doubled effect of causing people to assume that a woman in the beer industry is probably in sales or service.

Anthony Salazar, who had brought along his Mexican chocolate stout to serve, gave the AHA the template used to form the bones of the subcommittee. He’s a Chicano who works as a diversity education professional in Washington State. His comments flew by as well (luckily, these seminars are all accessible online to AHA members; go listen when they’re up!), but I was able to process an important point, which applies to the hobby’s position in a capitalist society: “It’s a privileged hobby. It takes money and time to get started.”

So, even though I was pretty poor when I started homebrewing (yeah, I was poor but attending college), I had initial help from my Dad, who gave me the equipment. And even when I’d ditched my gear when I moved to Oregon, I still prioritized some of my remaining cash to buy new equipment and start homebrewing again; that’s privilege. The unfortunately large percentage of Americans who depend on some sort of welfare or charity to keep a roof over their heads won’t necessarily have the mental space to take on a hobby like homebrewing.

But the goal of the subcommittee is to increase the awareness and incorporate inclusive, accessible, and diverse language and marketing into the AHA. This is a complicated topic; beer is both a working-class beverage and a “luxury” item. It is not necessary for life, but does contribute to quality of life if used appropriately. The impetus to form the diversity subcommittee is the AHA’s desire to access new demographics while fertilizing its cultural and moral fibers. A businessperson might say, “that’s business,” and I’d say, “that’s business in America.”

After the panel was timed out (but long before it was done), there was a brief Q & A session, which included as much commentary. AHA Governing Committee member Roxanne Westendorf came to the microphone and offered this encouragement: “Don’t be afraid to ask the awkward questions!”

Jason Alderman, owner of Eugene homebrew shop Home Fermenter Center, asked if there were any resources for homebrew shops. What a concept; homebrew shops are the avant garde for new homebrewers, and have the greatest visibility for any campaign the AHA wants to engage. The response from Cerda was a bit off-guard, but the point was definitely taken; the question, well put.

The last comment I noted is the closest to me: a cis white middle-class-ish male (click the link if you don’t know what cis is; I didn’t until recently). I don’t remember who said it: “The issue needs to be pushed forward and supported by white men.” Further, we need to “get out of the way and listen.” Stop mansplaining, hold each other accountable, pay attention. Pay attention. And read Jeff Alworth’s series on sexism in beer.

Here’s what I wrote during the seminar. Forgive the long sentences, it’s how I do:  “Concepts of diversity can extend into the cis white male realm because everybody has inadequacy, inferiority, and fears that are at the root of prejudice. By talking about diversity and leaning into these challenges and fears, these issues are shown the light of day, where they can be observed and conversed about. The most effective conversations acknowledge that everybody is fallible and different, so being open, unrestricted by matters of ego, allows progress and the further awareness that we are all humans with the same basic needs and rights and flaws.”

The AHA has recognized that a diverse culture is a healthy culture. The appreciable effort, I hope, will be a successful, recognizable landmark in the nonprofit world and beyond. The personal stories shared by the panelists were effective leagues beyond reading a simple outline; it will take more of that for the plan to work, for that skeleton to grow muscles. Luckily, Kiley Gwynn was recruited to the subcommittee after the panel was over!

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The FemALE Homebrewers Meet & Greet after the Cultivating Diversity seminar at HomebrewCon

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