by Annie Tobey
During a casual chat last fall, a local brewery owner told me about a disagreement that he had with another owner who had been very vocal about his politics. Business owners should keep quiet, he said.
Though this disagreement extends beyond breweries, since that conversation, I've become more aware of brewers who share their stances publicly and those who act to support specific causes — some controversial, others not so much.
Social Responsibility: "Research has proven again and again that being socially conscious can positively impact your business's bottom line. Both customers and employees want to support organizations who respond generously to the needs of a community and to those who are socially responsible." —Entrepreneur magazine, January 2017
Naturally a part of the support-local movement, many breweries help the community more than typical companies. "We have a rare opportunity as a business to engage with the public in a positive way," says Mike Brandt of Garden Grove Brewing & Urban Winery. "We focus on charity work to share our viewpoints."
And brewery taprooms seem crafted for fundraisers — they offer public gathering spaces in a casual open-house setting where guests can wander in and out, mingle and spend a little or contribute a lot. Recent events around town have benefited the Alzheimer's Association, the Red Cross, Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria, the Disability Law Center of Virginia, the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force, causes benefiting ALS research, Richmond Animal Care and Control and other nonprofits.
Since water and crops are essential to quality beer, environmental issues offer another a natural community connection. Hardywood's Great Return IPA celebrates James River conservation efforts and contributes $10 per barrel to the James River Association.
A Garden Grove beer dinner on Oct. 30 supports the National Resources Defense Council. "We believe that policy should be guided by sound science," Brandt says, "and NRDC is helping guide the policy to combat climate change, clean water issues and much more."
Inclusivity: "We are open to having a diverse environment, where everyone feels welcome. It doesn't matter if you're black, white, yellow, gay, straight, Democratic or Republican." — Rhonda Groves of Castleburg Brewery
Some breweries, including Center of the Universe Brewing Co. and Ardent Craft Ales, have been more deliberate in their inclusivity, holding LGBT-focused events and brewing gay pride beers.
"We don't see our support for LGBTQ organizations as taking a stand or as anything radical, but rather just another way for Ardent to support the various communities around Richmond," says co-owner Tom Sullivan. "We want to support anything that helps build a more diverse and inclusive community."
Similarly, Ardent is collaborating with Champion Brewing Co. on a beer to benefit victims of the Charlottesville attack. "We simply want to do our part in order to help other Virginians in need," he says.
Taking a Stand on Politics: "The intersection of business and politics can be a thorny place that companies tend to avoid, but lately — it seems — more of them are willing to go there and take a stand on controversial issues, even though they may risk offending some employees, and losing customers," —Detroit Free Press, January 2017
Hunter Smith of Champion, which has taprooms in Charlottesville and Richmond, often shares his opinions on Facebook. "One thing that punk rock and an independent attitude have resulted in is a willingness to speak my mind on what I believe is right or wrong," he says. "I'm sure some would coach me otherwise, but I don't ever think it's right to be quiet about something wrong, regardless of the business implications."
Given the recent events in Charlottesville, Smith has had ample opportunity to lambast white supremacist groups. His outspokenness hasn't been without repercussions, but he says, "We've only been targeted by folks I wouldn't want to interact with anyway, that aren't truly our customer base." On the other hand, he says, "I think my activism helps folks to know that they're at a safe place when they come to Champion, and I think they do choose to vote with their dollars as a result."
The Spirit of Craft Brewers: "Companies are taking a more public and aggressive posture on certain social and political issues than they have in the past. I think businesses will become more active, more vocal and much more sensitive to the policies of governments that affect the rights of individuals." — Marick Masters, professor of business at Wayne State University
Smith is not alone.
"So what if the racists and anti-LGBTQ crowd decides not to spend their money on Ardent's products," Sullivan says. "Our beer is too good for them." And Brandt declares, "We are proud to take a stand."
"I'm compelled to speak truth to power because my position and privilege give me the opportunity to be heard when others would be ignored," Smith says.
Such declarations take conviction and courage. S
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