Why is Vancouver’s Craft Beer Scene so White?

We tried to find diversity among the bottles.

August 31, 2018

By Becca Clarkson / Photo: Mattias Diesel/Unsplash

In East Vancouver’s 12 Kings Pub, an all female audience stood—welcome beer in hand—as the women spearheading the 2nd annual Siris Cask Festival shared their experiences working in the male dominated industry of craft beer.

Brewmasters Claire Wilson of Dogwood Brewing, Julia Hanlon of Steamworks Brewing and Ashley Brooks of Four Winds Brewing are all caucasian. And as the all-female Q&A hour of the festival celebrating the women of B.C.’s craft beer winds down, a steady stream of caucasian attendees flow in. Gender diversity and sexual diversity was apparent among the brewers and brew lovers I spoke to, as was a look of disbelief following the question “Why do you suppose B.C.’s craft brewing scene is overwhelmingly white?”

There were more unicorns at this celebration of diversity (Unicorn Horn IPA’s, Unicorn Dust Pale Ale) than there were ethnic minorities—which is shocking considering 43 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s population is of Asian heritage.

“The roots of beer come from Germany, England and Ireland,” said Claire Wilson, who ran numerous breweries throughout the UK and Europe before moving to Vancouver eight years ago.

“I see a huge proportion of redheads at beer festivals and cask festivals,” adds the fiery-maned new mother—holding her six-month-old in one arm and a sample of stout in the other. “It makes me wonder if we’re all genetically predisposed to love beer and alcohol because we’re descendants of vikings.”

Wilson noted that in recent years, these festivals have just as much—if not more—female presence as male. This observation coupled with how youthful Canada’s brewing industry is comparatively to Europe’s implies racial minorities should be more heavily represented.

“The whole culture is really welcoming. I don’t see there being any obstacles to getting into drinking and enjoying beer. In our tasting rooms we see diversity in ethnicities and ages.”

There are over 150 breweries in B.C. and in most of their responses to my request to interview a brewer of colour, they recommended I try Andina Brewing Company. The two-year-old business operating on Powell Street is owned and operated by a Colombian family, but they, and the caucasian head brewer they hired, all declined my interview requests.

Fifty per cent of the four co-founders of Fuggles & Warlock Craftworks are brewers of colour and 10 per cent of their sales come from exporting to Asia. They too weren’t interested in being interviewed.

“It takes time to build the tough skin you need to deal with media, the public, and competition in this business,” Manjit Minhas told me over the phone from Alberta. She and her brother Ravinder have co-owned Minhas Breweries and Distillery since 2006, though they started a spirits market first while working in family-owned liquor stores as early as 1999.

“Every year there’s a rumour that we’re going out of business,” said Minhas, co-owner of one of the countries’ largest breweries that also sells products in 43 states and 16 other countries.

In 2012 they opened a micro brewery in Calgary, where they were born and raised by their Indian parents. Both siblings speak and write Punjabi and are practicing Sikhs.

“We have faced so many things that, unfortunately, many caucasians haven’t.”

Minhas says a simple Google search could come up with examples of this, but one incident back in 2005 stands out in the crowd. It was three years after the siblings’ flagship beer, Mountain Crest Lager, brought them enough success to create markets in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“We were trying to launch our beers in Ontario but rumours led to a full investigation against us,” Minhas explained. “The police had been tipped off that we were a part of the Indian mafia and that’s where our funds were coming from.”

The Minhas family risked their own capital to start a business that looked nothing like Canada’s craft beer market today.

“My background and ethnicity was involved in my entrepreneurial career. My parents definitely passed down to me how to be a good person, [to be] honest and work hard,” said Minhas, adding that starting young and being naive also helped.

“In a regulatory environment such as the liquor business, you get fewer entrepreneurs who want to step into a world where the rewards can take so long to come around.”

And with an affordability crisis like Vancouver’s, It’s no wonder people aren’t lining up to throw their savings into an increasingly saturated business.

But Minhas says it’s up to individuals, not governing bodies to foster any diversity they deem is lacking.

“That’s what our country is based on: free enterprise and choice—let consumers decide what they want and who wins.”

Minhas says guerrilla marketing tactics, catchy marketing and fair pricing is why she and her brother are successful.

“I don’t look at myself as a brown woman. I think of myself as just a Canadian. All the values and morals that I have as a born-and-raised Canadian don’t have anything to do with my culture or religion.”

The goal of the Siris Cask Festival, the website explains, is to create a future where “nobody will feel compelled to ask the question about what it means to be a ‘female’ brewer.” And by the end of my conversation with Minhas, I can tell she doesn’t want to talk anymore about how her gender and sex interplay in Canada’s craft brewing industry.

Nancy Moore, a professor at B.C.’s only brewery program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says that while the program is actively trying to recruit more diverse students, there are cultural and socio-economic barriers posed by the industry that will take some time to break through.

“It’s not that the community is unwelcoming—in Vancouver we have events like these and ‘Queers and Beers’ for LGBTQIA craft beer enthusiasts.”

Moves are slowly being made in the U.S., where the Brewers Association established a Diversity Committee in 2017 and appointed a Diversity Ambassador this year. Considering the rate at which B.C.’s craft beer market it growing, Vancouver seems due for more diverse brewers.

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