88. Our Burnout Has Burnout
Job burnout, unionizing burnout, DEI burnout--and what comes next; plus, perhaps appropriately, tarot for taking a break to celebrate yourself.
Forget Hazies, Forget Lagers—the Next Big Thing in Beer is Burnout
There’s a set of survey results making the rounds in craft beer right now, and it’s not about can sizes or retail channels or branching out beyond beer, but it’s got a lot of folks talking. If you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Infinite Ingredient. Founded by Katie Muggli and with a board of forward-thinking, community-minded folks from the beverage alcohol space, this organization prioritizes mental health for people working in beer and beverage, working to provide real resources and answer real needs. (Head here for a full interview with Katie.) Infinite Ingredient conducted a survey last year with 388 respondents in 42 states across backgrounds and roles—the breakdown of the former feels reflective of the industry, aka skewed toward white and male, and the latter skews most heavily toward brewer/cellarperson. 100 percent of responses indicated “a severe degree of burnout” across all three categories measured: occupational exhaustion, depersonalization/loss of empathy, and personal accomplishment.
The results are broken down a number of ways, but here are some that jump out at me: taproom staff showed the highest level of occupational exhaustion, and women showed higher levels than men. For depersonalization/loss of empathy, *owners showed the highest level.* That feels striking in a time when workers not being treated as humans, with safety, accessibility, opportunity, and equity, is one of the industry’s most urgent issues. We need to see real, meaningful change from leadership in this industry, but if that leadership is burned out presumably from just trying to keep their doors open, how likely is it they’ll keep paying attention to things like DEI and workplace culture? Men, by the way, exhibited a higher level of this.
According to the survey, there are roughly 150,000 individuals working for craft breweries in this country. It feels worth calling out that as much as we may be making slow progress, there still isn’t strong enough a presence of LGBTQIA+ and/or BIPOC individuals to, for example, be able to break down the results of a survey like this accordingly—one can only imagine burnout would be more dire for members of marginalized groups.
The survey brings up something I think about a lot—I’m sure many of us do, whether we work directly in this industry or write about it. It’s something that’s indeed hard to forget when you consider how low the wages are. Last year for Porch Drinking, Julie Rhodes wrote:
“So let’s get into some numbers. 23% of the Beverage Manufacturing industry is in production, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics with an annual mean wage of $23.19 per hour or $48,220 per year (May 2021). The Brewers Association’s most recent salary benchmarking study from 2020 clocks production staff at an average of $50,875 per year before taxes, bonuses, profit sharing, etc. (September 2021). Assuming that most production folks fall into a 25% tax rate, your take-home would probably be around $38,000. The most recent data from the US Department of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey shows that the average expenses for a single person total $38,266 per year (September 2020). So if you’re working on the production side of craft beer and you’re only accountable for your own living expenses, you’ve been working at a financial deficit. And if you have a household of more than just yourself, like a partner, spouse, or children, the deficit is even worse.”
Working at a deficit. (In this economy?) I mean, let that sink in.
What this continuously comes back to is that craft beer is a “passion industry.” As a writer, I’m not directly in this industry and want to make clear I’m working with the same set of circumstances, but I’m familiar with the concept. Media is its own “passion industry,” and before this, I worked in fashion, and also in entertainment—two notorious passion industries. While doing an internship I absolutely loved in college for a small talent agency, I met with another agent for an informational interview and, based on the workload and abysmal pay, she basically told me to run. These industries run on the backs of people willing to work truly around the clock without enough money to survive because of “passion.” Entertainment is the kind of industry people grow up dreaming of, aspects of it seem glamorous, it’s creative, etc.
In fashion and entertainment, quite often the only people who can afford to toil for unacceptable pay are the children of the wealthy, and people who have been able to grow up debt-free, and/or get loans and credit, etc. That’s why it can be hard to find non-nepo babies! And non-white people! The burnout has hit in entertainment yet again, too, by the way, with a Writers Guild of America strike looming. Alanna Bennett is a great writer and screenwriter to follow on this if you’re interested, and this kind of tweet, I think, succinctly puts a lot into perspective.
But while craft beer is a passion industry with all of its creativity and “cool” factor (to whatever extent that still exists) and sort of punk-rock, stick-it-to-the-man-ness (ditto that), it’s got none of the glamour of fashion or entertainment, none of the potential proximity to celebrities, nor the potential for one’s own fame, outside the confines of the industry. The people going to work in breweries aren’t nepo babies. They’re people who want to have some kind of hand in making this artisanal version of a product that’s been a part of the human experience for centuries. It’s a beautiful thing, but it promises incredibly hard work at an incredibly low pay rate, and all too often, it also promises a roller coaster ride of discrimination, prejudice, harassment, and even worse for non-cishet white men. If the people who make our TV shows are saying, “enough is enough,” where is the universal craft beer industry strike? It’s really nice and all that people in beer get to be a part of making this community-building liquid, that they can work with something they love, that they can find like-minded people, that they can do cool things like travel for events—but that is not enough; you can’t pay your rent with brewery swag. It’s okay, y’know, to let people both have a creative job and guaranteed health insurance and freedom from food insecurity, let alone not having to worry about affording the very thing they make, which without them wouldn’t exist.
But there is no equivalent of the WGA for craft beer, and there probably never will be. It’s so far proven next to impossible even for individual breweries to unionize. Go read Dave Infante’s recent “Unionizing a Craft Brewery Shouldn’t Be This Hard for VinePair.” The fuckery going on at Creature Comforts alone…this is one of those “you think you know how bad X is, but turns out, there’s a whole tree of more complex reasons branching out from X” situations. The way business works in this country makes it so easy for ownership to just casually sit on the chest of union-organizing efforts until they eventually pass out and die, and then ownership can then throw their hands up and say, “What? We were just sitting here!” So much of it comes down to stalling, which is an easy enough goal to achieve for the often unique, custom-built business model of craft breweries, who can claim confusion around roles and lack of bandwidth as believable-on-paper reasons they never got around to officially recognizing their employees’ unionizing. If you work at a brewery and somehow don’t yet have burnout, trying to organize a union in order to avoid the very situations that will lead to it will probably…give you burnout! It’s exhausting, and that’s the point for our capitalist overlords.
It’s hard to have real hope for the industry turning a corner and becoming more equitable and better across the board to its people, too, when you consider another specific area of burnout. I linked to this vital piece of writing last week, too, but consider Ruvani de Silva’s “The Sound of Silence: Burnout and Allyship in Beer DEI.” We always knew this day would come—it’s been here to an extent, from certain parties, since the very moment a real, organized, public demand for inclusivity, safety, and equity in craft beer presented itself. Since the industry was finally called on to really reckon with its racism in 2020, and its sexism in 2021. It was never going to be possible to get everyone on board, but over the months and then years, even many of the people who were on board have now basically communicated with their actions—or lack thereof— “Okay, we hired a non-cishet white guy, we donated to DEI cause, we had a speaker come…for fuck’s sake, can we get back to ‘business’ here?” As if the business at hand can and should exist without a meaningful, radical overhaul in hiring and practices and partnerships—that lasts. Lasts for the entire life of your brewery or bar or bottle shop or distribution company or festival.
Checking in from time to time on how the industry is doing in this crucial regard—who’s still actually, actively, meaningfully engaged? Where are the bad actors on their amends or paths of defiant ignorance? Who seems to have just gotten a pass and allowed back into many consumers’ good graces even though no changes have been made? What changes have been made in the industry at large?—is something I try to do often; I know many of us do. But many media outlets are wary of relentlessly reminding readers of this industry’s failings when they could be packaging more positive stories—of which there surely are still many! And even more breweries are all too happy to accept consumers’ short attention spans and prioritization of convenience and familiarity over moral outrage (this feels like an insane sentence to write in the age of the absolute transphobic shit show re: Bud Light, but bear with me, because I think this is still more often the case and has been so in craft) because, you know, doing all that “DEI stuff” is, like, hard. Boohoo!
Many consumers are keen to move on and buy what they know, many breweries are keen to make that beer without the added effort of social responsibility and meaningful change, and the cycle continues, fostering the deafening silence around, for example, the flagrant racism on display at White Hart as well as the flagrant racism among its supporters and defenders.
No, it’s not the most fun topic to talk about or read about or write about—soz!—but we urgently need more regular follow-ups and check-ins, which would hopefully inspire at least some members of this industry and greater community to get back to work or keep working, holding themselves and others accountable. I really appreciate that while I was writing this, I saw Jeff Alworth on Twitter point to the latest from Stan Hieronymus on Appellation Beer, “TWTBWTW: The ugly, the bad & the good.” Stan does indeed here follow up and check in, confronting the tendency in craft beer to overlook failings as well as the directive many writers are given from editors to balance out bad stories with good. And Jeff, too, in his Twitter thread, also confronts and explains why positive stories just win out in craft beer coverage. There’s plenty of space to highlight good folks doing cool stuff in this space, but we’ve also got to keep talking about what’s not working and changing the situation rather than letting the status quo sneak back in.
When I think about burnout in beer, both in terms of labor and of DEI, aside from just keeping these issues more center stage, I can’t help but come back to wondering if a smaller industry would help. I unpacked this fully in this issue back in October, the gist being that, barring concerns about job loss, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we had slightly less breweries in this country. I know it’s not this simple, but in very idealized terms, maybe less competition would mean less pressure, as consumers had fewer options and breweries had more shelf space in retail, and maybe that would allow leadership to feel less burned out, able to devote time to instilling equity and inclusivity in their businesses, alongside the kind of working conditions less likely to make their workers feel so burned out. Maybe with less than nearly 10,000 breweries to keep up with and less constant, desperation-reeking trends attempting to keep consumers interested, we could all focus more on good beer being made by good people.
Again, that’s overly simplified and idealized, and anyway, so far at least, the industry isn’t shrinking the way recent hand-wringing coverage has made it out to be. Just this week, Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson spoke about the BA’s just-released craft brewing industry production report for 2022. The number of brewery openings still outpaced closings, and while openings declined for the second consecutive year, Watson called this more the sign of a market maturing rather than a bubble bursting. If this continues to be the case over coming years, that’s good for jobs when it comes to avoiding losses, but will it force any real, close looks at how those jobs are impacting the lives of the people working them? When will the market feel un-frenzied enough for a wider collective gaze to fall upon working conditions, pay rates, how hard owners make it for employees to unionize, and how well the industry is doing in terms of DEI? All I can say to leave this here for now is, let’s keep talking about how this industry is doing. Support causes like Infinite Ingredient looking to help lighten the load for workers. If you’re in a position where you’re not directly affected by the most burnout-inducing factors, take on some of the weight and start more conversations. And let’s all continue to recognize the breweries and people who are in fact tirelessly working toward a better future where burnout isn’t quite so guaranteed.
This week, I pulled the Four of Wands.
Wands is the suit of communication, intuition, and travel, and the Four of Wands speaks specifically to coming home, relaxing, celebrating, and joyful occasions. So much of the tarot reads, to me, as this sort of constant motion. We’re always on a journey, whether it’s starting a journey, finishing a journey and thinking about what’s next, coming to a fork in the road and making decisions. There’s momentum to some extent. But the Four of Wands tells us to stop, take a break, and give thanks for how far we’ve already come. It’s a time to celebrate what we have. This could translate to a tangible milestone for you—one of my friends (who has also created logos and designs for me!) is having a party this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of her business. I can’t believe it’s been a decade already, but also, she’s accomplished so much in that time—the Four of Wands couldn’t feel better timed for this moment for her.
This card has major “give yourself a pat on the back energy.” Even if it’s not a big anniversary or you’re not getting married or graduating from grad school or anything concrete like that, still take the time to really savor how far you’ve come, all you’ve accomplished, all you have. Doing this is what helps fuel your continued momentum forward, which next week’s tarot will no doubt embody. Stop and smell the roses, take it all in, be present, life’s about the journey so enjoy the ride…etc., etc., etc. This means allowing yourself to go all out and treat yourself. Have friends over for a fancy impromptu dinner. Buy yourself something you’ve been saving for. Take a little trip, even if it’s just for the day. You earned it. And in case you didn’t see this coming already, the Four of Wands is one of those cards that just screams, “take that beer out of the cellar and enjoy it! Today is that ‘special occasion!’” Whatever you’ve been saving, now’s the time. Pop that bottle or crack that can and help make an evening instantly momentous. I was recently sent one of HenHouse Brewing Co.’s anniversary beers, The Greatest Generator, a doppelbock aged in rye whiskey barrels for 13 months, and this feels like a beer up to this task.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
I’m leaning into the burnout vibe and recommending something that’s actually completely not boozy this week, because of course the only way to keep working in an industry built on booze, and keep actually liking it, is to lean into other interests, hobbies, pursuits, stories, and so on. Give yourself a palate cleanser from the all the alcohol coverage with “Unraveling the Greatest Writers’ Room Story Ever” by Joe Berkowitz for Vulture. Whether the words “Who Jackie?” mean anything to you or not, this is a wild ride. It’s bizarre and at times hilarious—at other times, it confronts things like racism going unchecked in comedy and TV—and just a fascinating, beyond thoroughly reported, investigative gem.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
Grodziskie! At Wild East! With dear friends visiting from out of town!
Idk, I think that kind of does it, don’t you?
Until next week, here’s your favorite ice cream face.