Shared From: VinePair: “The Culture War Has Come to Craft Brewing. Time to Pick a Side.”
WORDS: DAVE INFANTE
The threats started pouring into Switchyard Brewing Company last Friday in earnest. People whipped into a frenzy by local and national right-wing agitators on social media bombarded the Bloomington, Ind., craft brewery via email and phone. Accusations flew foul and furious.
“You name it, we heard it,” Kurtis Cummings, the brewery’s founder, tells Hop Take in a phone interview. “People stating that there would be huge crowds protesting this event, that we’re indoctrinating children, that we’re pedo[file]s, that we’d better make [admission] 18 and over or bad things are gonna happen.”
“Shut it down,” they told Cummings about the family-friendly drag brunch the brewery had scheduled for this past Sunday, its fourth such event. “Or else.”
One of the leading lies enraging the nation’s red-assed bullies these days is the manufactured moral panic — spoon-fed to them by Tucker Carlson, the Facebook algorithm, and the guy who owns Twitter — that drag queens are sexual predators engaged in a nefarious, wide-ranging plot to “groom” children for illegal pedophilic relationships. There’s no evidence for this, of course; it’s just a convenient, homo- and transphobic myth with which conservative kingmakers focus the base’s Eye of Sauron upon challengers to the status quo. False though it is, it’s a powerful call to arms in the deliberately relentless right-wing war on the LGBTQ+ community in general and trans people in particular. As such, reactionaries radicalized online march on venues both public and private that have the temerity to host drag brunches, advertise their allyship on social media, or even simply offer gender-neutral bathrooms.
Craft breweries, which have often marketed themselves as progressive, inclusive, community-oriented oases, tend to do all these things. Unfortunately, there may come a day when the culture war arrives at their taproom doors, like it did at Switchyard’s this past weekend. Now, not then, it’s time to decide what their values are and how to live them — and to prepare accordingly.
“I’m a person who prepares for the worst and hopes for the best in pretty much everything in my life,” says Marley Rall, the founder of the Brewmaster’s Taproom in Renton, Wash. “But never once [did I ask myself] what’s your plan for when people decide that they want to shoot at your business because you have a human being reading books to children?” Last week, right around the time Cummings & co. started getting inbound pressure in Bloomington, someone appears to have done just that, firing a round through the front window of the kid- and dog-friendly craft beer bar Rall and her team have operated in the Seattle suburb since 2016. The attack followed rising online furor among local right-wing groups about the drag queen story hour she’d scheduled for this past Saturday.
Brewmaster’s Taproom has hosted similar events for the past year and a half, eliciting just a handful of angry phone calls or emails, says the founder, speaking to Hop Take by phone. But in a sign of the times, this past weekend’s event drew “hundreds of phone calls, tons of emails,” and a bullet.
The stakes could not be higher, nor the urgency. Just last month, a shooter killed five people at Colorado Springs’ Club Q in an attack that appears to be motivated by the sexual orientation of the LGBTQ+ venue’s patrons and staff. (Incidentally, it was the co-founder of a local craft brewery, Atrevida Beer Company, who heroically helped take down the attacker.) It was a vile act of violence, with echoes of the hateful 2016 slaughter at Orlando gay club Pulse that claimed 49 lives. But given the right-wing punditry’s ongoing project to paint LGBTQ+ people as perverted political enemies of heteronormative American life, it’s unsurprising. The beer industry must take note. If right-wing activists are willing to call in bomb threats on a children’s hospital, harass parents at public libraries, and murder members of the queer community and their allies in private venues, they’ll be willing to do the same to a craft brewery — or worse.
Thankfully, at both Switchyard and Brewmaster’s Taproom, the crowds of community supporters who took up positions outside the businesses seemed to deter counter-protesters on the day of the events. “I think a lot of people drove by, saw how much support we had, and chose not to stop,” says Rall. In Bloomington, home to Indiana University and holder of a perfect LGBTQ+ rating from the Human Rights Commission, Cummings saw a few “‘Proud Boys’ or protesters, complainants, whatever you want to call them,” sitting in their vehicles outside the brewery, but that was about it. He’s relieved that the day wound up being “anti-climatic.” In Renton, Rall has a plate-glass window with a bullet hole to replace, which will cost her a paycheck this month. “It’s part of choosing to be a business owner, those are decisions you shouldn’t go into lightly,” she says.
Having stood firm with their communities in the face of their respective reactionary backlashes, I asked Cummings and Rall for their advice to peers across the craft brewing industry who may find themselves on the receiving end of attacks from the United States’ increasingly unhinged right wing in the future. Both emphasized that credible, specific, localized threats to staff and performer safety had to be handled with much more caution than the generalized vitriol flowing in from around the country. (As I’ve argued before, craft brewing workers who feel like their bosses aren’t prioritizing their well-being in decision making regarding drag events or anything else should unionize with the quickness.)
They also warned that right-wingers would try to to frame breweries’ decisions to host queer-friendly events as politically and financially self-serving. Conservative operatives tried to paint Switchyard’s event as a launchpad for Cummings’ “Democrat” political ambitions (he ran and lost a challenger campaign for state representative this year against an otherwise unopposed 12-year Republican incumbent, and characterizes himself as a political centrist), and alleged the shot fired into Brewmaster’s Taproom was a false-flag event orchestrated by Rall to drum up business (she denies this, noting the sales revenue from the event fell short of the cost of the window.) The concept of monetizing victimhood is a popular conservative fiction — “Soros hires protesters” et al. — and Republican foes in the craft beer business can expect similar attacks.
As far as tactical advice, Cummings says, “the No. 1 thing to do is develop a plan” for emergencies that might arise from that decision, from nasty phone calls to threats of immediate physical harm. Distribute it carefully, the former first responder tells Hop Take. “Share it with local [law enforcement] agencies, share it with the staff, share it with performers. Do not share it on the internet, because you don’t want the bad guys to know what you’re preparing.” Rall tells Hop Take that building community relationships — something many craft breweries already do in the course of normal business as both a moral and economic imperative — is vital. Being raised Jewish in Hawaii, a state where less than 1 percent of the population identifies as Jewish, taught her the importance of “supporting others, because everybody at some point in life is going to be in need of help and support.” “Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and your community will see that and be there for you,” she adds. Rall considers drag events a non-negotiable part of operating a local business, but cautions against craft breweries doing them as one-offs. “This is not just a flash-in-the-pan situation.”
Cummings agrees. “You need to take a deep dive into what your business’s guiding principles are, and what you stand for.” If being a “change agent” is part of a brewery’s mission, go forth — but know that change is hard, and its opponents violent.
This is an unfortunate but clarifying crucible for the industry. The progressive values so many craft breweries profess (and that most, I think, genuinely believe!) have never been this crosswise with such a volatile, violent sociopolitical force as the contemporary American right. Frankly, the industry has not always lived up to those values: Even after 2021’s “reckoning,” the industry is still mostly white and male, with transgressors being quietly welcomed back into the fold after making minimal amends. But what’s past is prologue, as they say. Now that the culture war rages right outside the taproom door, brewery owners, workers, and customers face a serious choice. Should they tone down their programming and support in the face of hatred and ignorance? Or make the emergency plans, invest the extra money on security, spend a few hours on a weekend to show up in force and safeguard their local queer communities and themselves?
Craft breweries of all sizes, in all markets, have long held themselves out as beacons of progress and bastions of tolerance. Now they must decide whether those things are truly worth fighting for — and if so, they must make clear-eyed preparations for the battle before it arrives.