Why Diversity Should Be on Tap in the Brewing Industry
Dr. J Nikol Jackson-Beckham is brewing a diverse future for craft beerRachel Tepper Paley
January 28, 2021
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Dr. J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, founder of the craft beer-focused diversity consultancy Crafted For All, likes to say that there are two versions of the doctoral dissertation she wrote at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The first—the official one—is dubbed “Cultural Economy of the American Brewing Industry from Prohibition to Today,” a treatise about concepts of value and how they intersect with culture. It’s “maybe painful and overwrought” in the way that only doctoral dissertations can be, Jackson-Beckham explained with a laugh.
She’s come to call the second her “Other Dissertation.” It delves into what she realized was an undeniable undercurrent woven throughout the official version, one that she believes continues to shape the American brewing scene: systematic underrepresentation of people whose race, gender, and class fall outside the white, male, and wealthy norm. “That stuff just needed an outlet,” she said.
Why does beer belong in a conversation about oppression? “Beer, more than many other products, is a really innocuous daily part of our lives,” Jackson-Beckham explained. “Conversations about equity, about inclusion, and diversity [can] get wrapped up in spectacular moments and great big conversations,” she continued. “But bringing it down to beer is a really accessible point of entry. And I think that's really valuable.”
While teaching as a professor of communication and cultural studies at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jackson-Beckham began to offer consulting services aimed at making businesses more inclusive. She was thrilled to find a receptive client in the Brewers Association—a not-for-profit trade association that promotes American craft brewers, their beers, and the community of brewing enthusiasts—which named her as the group’s first Diversity Ambassador in 2018. “Craft beer is made by and for everyone,” Brewers Association president and CEO Bob Pease said. “Diversity and inclusion are opportunities for businesses to lead and succeed. Jackson-Beckham will help to reinforce this idea.”
Jackson-Beckham’s work aims to create a tangible structure for advancing antiracist ideals and promoting diversity, from diagnosing existing problems with how a brewery operates to diversifying a product’s fan base. Eighty-five percent of working Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery, she said; if more adopted pro-diversity practices, the impact could be immense and far-reaching. Jackson-Beckham continues this work through her nonprofit Craft x EDU, which helps people find opportunity in the industry with a special focus on education and professional development.
With several clients under her belt, Jackson-Beckham decided that 2020 was the year to quit her professorship and turn Crafted for All and Craft x EDU into a full-time job. Then, the pandemic hit.
“There was a 10-day stretch when I basically lost all of my work,” she said. With speaking engagement after speaking engagement canceled as the world went on lockdown, Jackson-Beckham lamented that craft breweries seemed to have limited bandwidth to address issues of inequality as they furloughed employees and struggled to stay afloat. “[It was] probably two of the roughest months I've had in a very long time,” she said.
But in June, everything changed with the shocking death of George Floyd. “It's not an exaggeration to say that within 48 hours, I went from wondering if I needed to put in an application of the Target down the street to not being able to sleep for the number of phone calls I was getting,” Jackson-Beckham said. It was clear that the need for her work was greater than ever.
“A lot of people ask me, 'How did it get this way in craft beer?’ Craft beer isn't special—craft beer is a microcosm in the U.S. If there are inequities and disparities in craft beer, it's because it's serving as a mirror for the country at large,” Jackson-Beckham said. But she remains hopeful about the future of the industry.
A silver lining of the pandemic’s upending of the craft beer and other industries, she continued, is that we’re now in a position to rebuild them to be more inclusive and equitable. Craft beer, with its openness to innovation and geographical positioning around the country, is in a unique position to model change.
“I love to say that you can have a great career in craft beer whether you have a G.E.D. or a Ph.D.,” she said. “It provides so many interesting opportunities.”
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.