Jenn Merrick has just stepped off a DLR train at King George V station when she spots Emma-Jane Crace, a local activist and organiser, outside the station. It’s a chance to catch up on what’s been happening in North Woolwich, the east London Thameside neighbourhood where Merrick is building her new brewery, Earth Station.
The discussion moves from the lack of a community noticeboard to transport concerns; Merrick, the former head brewer at London brewery Beavertown, listens attentively. She is here to win hearts and minds. Earth Station, she says, will be a place where local people are always welcome – a contrast to many of the capital’s small breweries, which can often feel detached from their neighbourhoods.
Merrick’s inclusive approach reflects a fundamental shift in craft-beer culture. A scene dominated by white, able-bodied, middle-class men – brewers and drinkers – is growing into something more diverse. From the battle against sexist advertising to the fight to make tap-rooms accessible for all, craft beer has found a social mission that matches its revolutionary rhetoric.
Merrick, 41, speaks softly but with unmistakable purpose. She comes from Utah, but few know British beer better; having worked everywhere from real-ale stalwarts York Brewery to craft-beer pioneers Meantime, she was Beavertown head brewer for three years until the end of 2016, a period during which it became the capital’s most fashionable brewery. This current mission, though, will take her into unchartered territory.
“I want to create routes for people who might not otherwise be able to get into the industry,” she says. “I’m basing the brewery in Newham, where I’ve lived for 12 years, and I feel responsible for ensuring we create opportunities. We don’t want to parachute in a gentrifying business that feels very alienating to the people that live here.”
Her timing is perfect; a new brewing apprenticeship standard – and the associated government funding – could be approved as soon as next month and Merrick plans to make Earth Station a local hub, with Pipework, a social-enterprise scheme devoted to training apprentices, based on site. There will be a classroom, and she hopes to work with other small breweries to share the administrative burden. “We can pool our resources,” she says. “It will be much easier if we do it together.”
Earth Station plans to recruit locally at all levels of the business. “There’s a lot of women with children who are unemployed or underemployed here,” she says. “It will be really easy for us to schedule packaging for during school hours, for example, so they can do those jobs.”
Women are increasingly taking the responsibility for shaping the beer world. Writer Melissa Cole and brewer Jaega Wise have driven the campaign against using sexualised images of women in beer marketing. Wise, who is head brewer at Wild Card in Walthamstow, east London, told the Brewer’s Congress in November that beers with sexist imagery should be banned from entering Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) and Siba (Society of Independent Brewers) competitions. She says she had intended to talk about her brewery’s recent successes, until she realised that she would be the only female speaker out of 16 at the event. “That’s bad,” she says. “If I hadn’t mentioned it, it would have been a massive omission.”
Things are moving fast, but more needs to be done. Wise wants beer to be more proactive in reaching out to people who are currently under-represented. “I believe that a more diverse beer industry will mean better beer,” she says. “It will bring better ways of working, more expertise – and we need the talent. Anyone who is trying to recruit brewers at the moment knows that.”
There’s a growing sense that the beer world needs to make it easier for customers to drink its products. Leading the way is Ride Brewing Company in Glasgow, where the taproom is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Head brewer Dave Lannigan says his experiences have influenced this stance. “I am officially disabled through loss of hearing, so have personal experience of being excluded,” he says. “We are just keen to make a difference, no matter how small.”
It’s not the only brewery striving to better serve customers with disabilities. At Gipsy Hill Brewing Company in south London, a new £100,000 tap-room will boast a host of features intended to make life easier for people with disabilities, such as a section of the bar that is lowered and frontless, to allow wheelchair users to order drinks more easily.
These features are the brainchild of Michael Huddart, the brewery’s marketing and events manager, who used to run Croydon Me Time, a service that offered support to adults with learning disabilities. “We want to create a space where anyone can turn up at any time and get great service,” he says.
Gipsy Hill has also invited disabled adults to be part of the brewing process; at Ignition in Sydenham, meanwhile, that’s the business model. It was founded in 2015 by Nick O’Shea, a macroeconomist who volunteers at a weekly Mencap event called the Tuesday Club in Grove Park, Lewisham. “The two things that people who come to Tuesday Club don’t have are a girlfriend/boyfriend and a job,” he says. “I thought the quickest way to sort the latter was to provide them ourselves, and brewing seemed a good option. It’s labour-intensive, increasingly popular and at a certain scale you can make a product, sell it and make enough to pay rent and salaries.”
Ignition, which employs four adults with learning disabilities on the London living wage, now brews on a kit bought for just £1 from brewpub chain Brewhouse & Kitchen. “It’s worth £40,000,” says O’Shea. “People in the brewing industry have been so welcoming and willing to get behind us.”
That’s the sort of goodwill that Merrick is striving to spread in North Woolwich. “There’s people who have lived here a long time and maybe they don’t yet feel invited to the craft-beer party, and I want to invite them,” she says over a glass of Guinness at a pub – the Henley Arms – just metres away from where her brewery will be situated.
She has just left the landlord beaming after complimenting him on his portrait on the pub’s sign. Might Earth Station beer be on sale here one day? It would certainly fit in with her vision. “I want local people to be proud that some of the best beer is coming out of their backyard,” she says. “I always want it to feel rooted in this community.”
Progressive beer around the world
Breweries around the world are helping to drive social change. One of the most impressive is People Like Us in Copenhagen, which is run by autistic adults. Founded in 2016, People Like Us makes beer designed by Rune Lindgreen, who has Asperger syndrome, and collaborates with breweries across the globe, including Goose Island in Chicago and Brewdog in the UK.
There are a growing number of breweries run by people with disabilities, such as Browar Spółdzielczy (“co-operative brewery”) in Puck, Poland, and Brewability Lab in Denver, Colorado. The latter, founded by special educational needs teacher Tiffany Fixter, makes a variety of beers, from raspberry sour to coffee porter.
“Hops not Hate” is a Danish campaign born out of disappointment with the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Breweries donate 50% of their profits on a beer to charity. West Yorkshire brewery Magic Rock and the Danish brewery Dry & Bitter recently gave the proceeds from a collaboration brew, Smallvoice Session IPA, to mental health charity Mind.
In Australia, the Sparkke Change Beverage Company is aiming to drive social change with its canned beers, ciders and wine, all of which raise money for charity. The pilsner, for example, is called Change the Date; it supports the campaign to move Australia Day away from 26 January, which is “a date that marks the beginning of two centuries of dispossession, theft, colonisation and violence”.
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