An alleged taproom rape has focused attention on sexual misconduct in craft brewing. Was it an isolated incident or symptomatic of a larger problem?
On an icy Monday in February, Dru Batte of Brothers Drake Meadery unlocks the doors of the Short North bar around noon to admit a small gaggle of women gathered outside, stamping their feet against the cold. Others filter in slowly, including a few men, until the group numbers about 30. Julia Sivertson, who organized the gathering through Facebook, passes out poster board and markers, and people begin writing out signs: “BELIEVE WOMEN,” “Speak Up,” and this, by 13-year-old Rhea Anderson, “Girls Support Girls.”
Anderson is there with her mother, Natalie Phillips, who sits on a barstool, nervously tapping an extinguished cigarette. It’s just over a week since Phillips went public with allegations of sexual assault and rape against the owner of Actual Brewing Co., Fred Lee, shortly after he hired her. After she spoke with Columbus Alive—a sister publication of Columbus Monthly—numerous additional women came forward with tales of alleged sexual misconduct by Lee, detailed in Alive’s story. Others shared information supporting their accounts. Phillips had filed a complaint with Columbus police, but they did not charge Lee. However, after the article came out, Lee stepped down as CEO of Actual, and the company filed for bankruptcy protection.
Given those events, Sivertson wondered if anyone would show up to the rally. But some who came say they did not want Lee’s ouster to be the end of a story that was, for them, about the larger issue of how women are treated in the alcohol and food service industries. For Sivertson, any reckoning needs to begin with the local beer industry, where there’s evidence that Lee’s transgressions were allegedly known to colleagues and clients.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
“Your courage is inspiring, and you are helping to start a conversation about pervasive and insidious issues in the industry,” says Sivertson, addressing a tearful Phillips in front of the assembled group. Then they pick up their signs, pull on coats and winter caps—mostly gray and black but still reminiscent of the pink hats worn by hundreds of thousands at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C.—and head into the cold to march past the bars and restaurants of High Street.
Natalie Phillips was excited about her new job developing the market for Actual beer in her native Dayton. Phillips, 40, had worked as a bartender and in beer distribution, but as someone who loved the art and science of beer—she had been home-brewing for a decade—working directly for a brewery was a dream come true.
She says a first incident took place late last summer, the night she was hired. Lee took her out to celebrate with a dinner that included a bottle of wine, followed by drinks at Actual’s taproom. Afterward, Phillips decided to stay over at Actual rather than drive home to Dayton after so many drinks, sleeping in what some staff called the “sleep it off” room. She says she awoke in the middle of the night to find Lee on top of her with one hand in her pants and the other up her shirt.
Phillips says she fought him off, and he left. “I was actually afraid that I was going to lose my job because I was so mean to him and forceful,” she says. Afterward, she tried to forget the incident. Working in Dayton, she told herself, she could stay away from Lee. She’d been clear with him, she felt; he wouldn’t try again. She was a single mother and had quit another job for this one. She didn’t want to leave it.
But in mid-September, after another meeting in Columbus, Lee again suggested dinner. They were joined by two others, sharing a couple of bottles of wine, Phillips says. Afterward, they went to a bar, where Phillips says she had one rum and Coke. The next thing she remembers is waking to find Lee on top of her, penetrating her.
Sara Stathes, co-owner of the Barrel House, a Dayton bar, says Phillips came to see her shortly afterward and told her what happened in an emotional exchange. “She is one of the strongest people I know,” says Stathes, “and to see her break down like that was awful.”
Phillips continued selling for Actual for a few more weeks, mulling her options. But on Oct. 15, following a third incident—she says Lee exposed himself and forced his hand between her legs while she was driving—she reported Lee, first to her supervisor and then to head brewer Chris Moore.
While the leadership of the brewery wrestled with what to do about Phillips’ complaint—when it was clear Lee was not going to be forced out, Moore resigned—Phillips was placed on paid administrative leave. For more than three months, she sat at home, unable to earn commissions, and worried that quitting would allow Lee to go unpunished. On Oct. 30, she filed a report with Columbus police, but they did not charge Lee. Officer Josh Martin says the case was not referred to prosecutors because of a lack of evidence and witnesses. Says Sgt. Chantay Boxill, the agency’s public information officer: “There was no probable cause to support filing charges.” The case is classified “inactive,” which means that it could be revisited if supporting evidence emerges. In December, Phillips filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Reached for comment by Columbus Monthly in June, Lee sent a written statement, denying the charge of sexual assault. “The assault story is fiction, designed to take me and my company out of the market,” he writes. “It was successful, based on an organized whisper campaign and no evidence. I can accept that the world has changed, that my time is up, but I think the truth still matters. You learn a lot about yourself if you go through something like this, and I’m still working on it.”
In March, the Office of the U.S. Trustee recommended that Actual Brewing Co. be liquidated; the company’s assets were auctioned in May.
The Feb. 6 story in Columbus Alive made waves, but in the local beer and related businesses, some greeted the revelations with little surprise. Former employees and clients said Lee was known for rude behavior: grabbing his crotch while looking at women, commenting on their bodies and making lewd propositions. Owners of some bars and markets said they had long refused to buy Actual’s product because of Lee’s reputation—or because they knew someone who said he had groped or propositioned or offended them with lewd comments. Cheryl Harrison, the founder of a popular beer and cocktails website, Drink Up Columbus—whose husband was an investor in Lee’s company—wrote a public Facebook post acknowledging that she had been aware of an incident where Lee grabbed her friend’s breasts, and regretted that she had minimized it. Multiple women described—to Columbus Alive and, later, Columbus Monthly—past actions by Lee that included showing them photos of genitals, putting his hand between their legs, forcibly kissing them, propositioning them or putting his hands up their dresses.
“I’m still processing everything that I’ve learned so far,” Lee wrote in his statement to Columbus Monthly. “I was a crude person and sometimes I made people feel uncomfortable in conversation. And I meant to be crude. But I never meant to make anybody uncomfortable. I’ve come to understand that you can’t really separate those things. I’ve learned that I have hurt and offended good people, and for that I need to apologize.”
In Columbus Monthly’s interviews with more than a dozen women who work or have worked in the local beer industry (some are named in this story, others preferred to speak on background), many say a reason victims and bystanders alike dismissed Lee’s actions was that his behavior was part of a broader, numbingly familiar pattern. To be sure, his alleged conduct was extreme, but it also was symptomatic, they say, of a service industry in which women are underrepresented and usually work at the bottom end of the pay scale in jobs where they are sometimes encouraged—often by male managers—to tolerate inappropriate touching and comments by customers and even colleagues.
More specifically, they say, craft beer presents particular challenges for women. Explosive growth has sometimes put people with little or no management experience in charge of rapidly expanding businesses. Last year alone, about 50 new craft breweries opened in Ohio, nearly a 17 percent increase from the year before, according to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. A predominantly male brewing culture leaves some women feeling their expertise dismissed or devalued. Competition for shelf and tap space puts pressure on women in beer sales to tolerate bad behavior from potential clients in pursuit of sales. A youthful, bar- and taproom-based work environment, say some, blurs lines and creates a sense of permissiveness that makes it hard for women to set boundaries or speak up when lines have been crossed. The same blurred lines that can lead to an assault or harassment can result in the victim wondering if she is right to feel injured or violated. And intense competition for coveted jobs discourages women from rocking the boat by confronting or reporting harassment.
“It was a constant knockdown,” says Phillips of her 15 years working in craft beer. “Having somebody slap me on the ass ... grabbing your waist, that type of thing. ... If you want to survive in it and if you want to have a career in it, you just have to brush some things off.”
Batte says she experienced unwanted touching while working both as a bartender and in food service. While her colleagues at Brothers Drake are supportive, managers at other establishments were sometimes reluctant to confront bad behavior from customers. “You come forward about something and they’re like, ‘Well, you know, it’s not that bad. … It’ll be gone soon. You’ll get a really good tip.’”
Amanda Anderson, wine and cheese director at The Hills Market Downtown, took a stance on Fred Lee’s alleged behavior even before the Alive story ran, refusing to carry Actual beer. “Sometimes I think that people think that [tolerating inappropriate behavior] is the price I have to pay to get where I want to go,” she says. “Which is not fair.”
The restaurant industry, which employs more than 14 million people, produces more sexual harassment complaints than any other employment sector, according to data released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—14.2 percent of all complaints in 2017. The broader service sector, which includes hotels and alcoholic beverage establishments, accounted for a quarter of the 170,000 harassment complaints filed with EEOC between 1995 and 2016.
Yet these claims likely represent the tip of the iceberg. According to the Harvard Business Review, as many as 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men in the restaurant industry report experiencing some form of workplace sexual harassment. But they rarely speak up, often for fear of job loss or other retaliation. A recent survey found that 71 percent of women who experience workplace harassment don’t even report it to their employer, much less the government or police.
The growth of the #MeToo movement, accelerated by stories of high-profile abusers such as Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and chef Mario Batali, empowered forces that are beginning to fight on behalf of workers in less glamorous settings. Last year, the EEOC won several large settlements on behalf of employees at IHOP and Applebee’s franchises that had a wide variety of sexual harassment complaints. In May, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund joined the ACLU and the Fight for $15 organization in filing 23 complaints against McDonald’s.
To be sure, sexual harassment isn’t a problem isolated to craft beer. Yet recent years have seen allegations of sexual misconduct crop up at breweries across the country, and women in craft brewing—an industry that employed 8,341 Ohioans in 2018, according to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, with a statewide economic impact of nearly $1 billion—are now sharing their stories locally in the wake of the Actual Brewing disclosures.
Sivertson’s empathy for Phillips springs, in part, from her earlier experience in beer sales. Now 32, she was a 24-year-old recent Ohio State University grad with a new job working a sales route in Columbus for a beer distributor when an executive of the company began coming on to her. “I thought it meant I was being successful,” she says. One night, he was in town for an event, and she found herself isolated at the bar with him. “He bullied me into drinking a lot,” she says, “and I kept thinking, ‘I know he’s scummy but it’s OK because I can handle it.’”
When she realized she was too drunk to drive home, she tried to call a cab, but the man persuaded her to let him drive her home in her car. She passed out in the car, and when she woke, she says, the man was on top of her, trying to remove her clothes. She screamed and pushed him away, demanding he take her home. He complied.
Sivertson reported the incident (her former supervisor confirms this; another woman, speaking on background, also confirms that Sivertson told her about the incident at the time). The executive was forced to resign. But six months later, she learned that he was still working with her employer, as an outside consultant.
“By then it definitely felt like, if I leave now, he wins.” She loved her job and so she stayed, often maneuvering to avoid encountering the man who had assaulted her. Today, years later, she’s still angry about the apparent lack of consequences for her assailant.
Craft beer has a whimsical, irreverent bent that can sometimes take a turn toward misogyny. It was the big brewers that popularized commercials objectifying women—remember the Swedish Bikini Team, the 1990s Old Milwaukee ad campaign featuring babes in blond wigs that spoofed the genre, even while offering more of the same? But a subset of craft brewers outside of Columbus take that theme in a creepier direction, with beers named Panty Dropper and Thong Remover. A California brewery called Belching Beaver, faced with criticism, recently changed its logo to look less like female anatomy. Just outside Dayton, Pinups and Pints is “The World’s Only Strip Club-Brew Pub,” offering “beer, breasts and bombshells;” Bainbridge, Ohio, boasts a brand-new brewery called Bummin’ Beaver.
Women interviewed for this article describe initial excitement at holding coveted jobs in a fun, lively field. But for some, that feeling became marred by frustration at behavior by men—both colleagues and customers—that made them feel devalued and objectified. Complaints range from inappropriateness—such as frequently being urged to smile more or receiving too-long, “friendly” hugs from people who are not friends—to unsolicited appraisals of their clothing or physique, to unwanted touching and finally to bias, as when a client refuses to believe a woman can repair a draft line.
“It’s something that happens in some way almost every day,” says Stathes. “Like when people come in and ask to speak to the owner and automatically assume that it’s one of my male bartenders because it’s obvious that the male is going to be the one that’s in charge.”
Some say that reporting inappropriate comments and behavior to supervisors does not feel like an option. “This industry is tough in this town,” says Batte. “Everyone’s always looking for a gig. If you were to do something that might compromise losing the position you have, not only would you be left to compete with a bunch of people, but you would have a reputation—a reputation as a woman who causes problems.”
Some acknowledge tolerating the sexualized work environment. Morgan Hoxworth is the beer buyer at The Hills Market Downtown and has worked in several restaurants and bars. Working behind the bar or as a server often involved “just kind of flirting all day.” Tips were better when she took pains with her hair and makeup. “I feel like the beer industry is not very professional, which I’m fine with,” she says. “I would much rather be in an environment where you can joke around and swear and have a couple drinks.
“But that’s just such a slippery slope,” she goes on. “How do you walk that line of joking around and having a good time and being chill and relaxed—like most people in the beer industry are—without also being inappropriate or offensive or vulgar?”
Acceptance of rude or biased behavior often starts with the service-industry ethos that the paying customer is always right. But failing to confront bad behavior results in a kind of contagion, says Kayla McGuire, a bartender at BrewDog’s taproom on Gender Road. “You let a customer put their hands on your wait staff and you don’t do anything about it,” she says, “then that kind of thing just snowballs and continues.”
And then there’s the drinking. Phillips and Sivertson were both drunk when they were sexually assaulted. Both regret the drinking but, like others interviewed for this article, say it is a norm for the field. Especially for young women new to the industry, peer pressure to drink with male colleagues is strong.
“It’s a thing you can’t escape,” says Batte, a former bartender. “If you want to work at a brewery or a craft cocktail bar in this town, you’re drinking. You’re drinking after your shift, you’re drinking sometimes before the shift, you’re drinking.”
“Becoming incapacitated is not necessarily required,” she continues, “but it’s not unexpected.”
Many restaurants and bars give employees one free drink after work, known as a “shifty.” “You want your staff to have that kind of camaraderie: ‘We’ve had a rough shift, but we got through it, so let’s have a couple drinks,’” says Hoxworth. But when the party continues, “How do you police that?” she asks. “It’s a messy, messy environment.”
Lenny Kolada, founder of Smokehouse Brewing Co. and Commonhouse Ales, wrote a public blog post the week after the Feb. 6 Columbus Alive story. “Please, don’t paint our entire beer community with one brush,” he wrote. “Don’t forsake the whole tree for one alleged bad lemon.”
Collin Castore, founder and CEO of Seventh Son Brewing Co. and the president of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, says that he does not perceive a problem with sexual harassment in craft beer. “The sad truth is that in any industry that you go to and start to dig into, there are still ugly pockets of sexism,” Castore says. “I don’t think Ohio craft beer or craft beer in general should be judged by Fred Lee’s actions.”
In a recent interview, however, Bob Szuter, co-owner of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing (which also runs an on-site restaurant), revealed that in January he fired an employee accused of sexually assaulting a female coworker at a third employee’s apartment.
“As an industry we need to take [sexual assault and harassment] seriously,” he says. “We kind of set a zero-tolerance policy, and no one’s immune to that.” He sent an email to all staff following the Alive story and the employee incident. “We believe WRB is full of supportive, respectful, and professional individuals and that this type of behavior is not common here. However, please make sure you consider the actions of your behavior at all times and ensure that it is consistent with the values of WRB.”
Mary MacDonald, the OCBA’s staff director, answered questions by email. “The OCBA does not condone sexual harassment or discrimination or other such forms of misconduct,” she writes. “Sexist behavior and harassment are, unfortunately, problems in almost every industry and throughout the world. It would be naïve to say that such conduct does not exist in this industry. It does. I applaud those individuals who share their experiences and stand against it.”
Phillips and Sivertson still work in booze, but they’ve found jobs that don’t expose them to the demeaning behaviors that plagued them before. Sivertson says that today she’s “louder and more assertive,” as well as older, making her “less of a target.” Phillips is working in production at a Dayton company that makes malt products for the food and home-brew industries. Her boss is a woman, and her pay and benefits are the best she’s earned.
Other women named in this story have maneuvered away from the jobs where harassment was a problem. Batte now has a day job organizing events and operations at Brothers Drake. McGuire, Actual’s former taproom manager, says the culture at BrewDog, where she now works, encourages employees to demand respect.
Despite the stress it caused her, Phillips is glad she told her story publicly. “It’s hard to feel like you’re standing naked in front of the world and everybody’s looking at you,” she says. “That was tough.” But when she was sitting at home on administrative leave, she felt depressed. When the Alive article came out, “I was really happy. It was kind of like that violent shove to get off your ass and stop feeling sorry for yourself and start doing something about it.”
Phillips doesn’t tell her two daughters not to work in beer. “I tell them to do whatever they want to do and do it well. But don’t let anybody walk all over you. You are the boss of you, and you are the boss of your body.
“We’re seeing a lot more people stand up and fight,” she continues. “I have high hopes that … by the time they get into whatever profession they want it to be, that things are gonna be different.”
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.