At 1 p.m. on a Friday, “Joe” sat at the bar of his empty brewery, nursing his fourth lager of the day. It was April 2020, normally peak season for the little brewpub ideally located on the corner of a major university campus in North Carolina. Rising COVID-19 rates had prompted the governor to order all bars closed as of March 13. They were able to reopen a week later, but by then, the university had sent everybody home. The brewery’s entire customer base was gone. The silence—and the financial peril it suggested—was deafening. “This isn’t good,” Joe mumbled, switching to an IPA.
Even worse than the threat of shuttered doors or unemployment lines was the boredom. Joe had become a brewer because he was restless—someone who had grown to resent cubicles, expense reports, and meetings. When a colleague’s husband, a brewmaster at a local brewpub, had offered him an assistant brewer position, Joe had jumped at the opportunity, trading in his desk job for a pair of Wellingtons, free beer, and a significant pay cut.
That was twelve years ago. While some of the gloss of being a craft brewer had worn off, he had become a pillar in the relatively new artisan community. He was known by his peers as knowledgeable and dependable, a skilled problem-solver who consistently brewed crowd-pleasing, award-winning beer. He was a brewer, for better or for worse.
Presently, Joe’s career seemed to be trending toward the latter. For him, the pandemic illuminated much of the dissatisfaction that was already there: long hours, low pay, physical exhaustion, the stigma of service industry labor, and customer unpredictability. But doing brewery work during the pandemic had also added a host of new insecurities. If the brewery declined, would he be able to pay his bills, support his family, or keep a house?
He had never worried if brewing was a viable career before. But could he afford to do something else? He had recently chided a younger colleague for exiting the industry, asking him what had happened to his passion. It would be hypocritical to jump ship now. And all his friends were brewers. What would they say? Besides, what kind of transferable skills could twelve years of brewing offer? It was hard to imagine this future.
“Whatever, man,” Joe said. “It is what it is.” It was easier to have another drink, scroll on his phone, and take his chances as a brewer. “I’m probably stuck here,” he sighed. For better and for worse.
Sociologist Richard Ocejo interprets the revival of craft industries over the past two decades as a movement of disaffected middle-class workers seeking out jobs that are less conventional, but more personally rewarding. Craft beer is among these revivals, offering people an opportunity to work in environments that value authenticity, creativity, and hands-on connection to production. Brewery workers are in-turn supported by an enthusiast consumer base that actively enjoys making, talking about, and consuming their product. “No one ever told me they loved my spreadsheets,” laughed one former-accountant-turned-brewer.
The Great Resignation has seen an exodus of workers leaving unfulfilling careers for employment that provides more economic, social, and existential opportunity. Interestingly, this exodus has not generally led to the craft breeding industry. Indeed, breweries are struggling with unprecedented labor shortages.
Surveying brewery owners and managers this past fall, we found that over 90% of the respondents listed hiring and employee retention among their most significant challenges. Anecdotal evidence echoes this: One brewery struggled for over six months to find a head brewer. Desperate, the owners considered learning how to brew themselves, despite having no prior experience.
It didn’t use to be this way. Numerous brewery owners and operators we spoke with recalled having to wade through piles of resumes or having to turn away eager volunteers only five years ago. “What the hell happened?”
Craft brewing’s hiring crisis raises an important question: if people are leaving their former professions for better opportunities, does craft brewing no longer seem to provide that opportunity? Our experience with current and former craft brewery workers suggests so.
Both Panacea and Poison
We spent years ethnographically and sociologically researching the lives of front-of-house service and back-of-house production workers, managers, and ownership before and after the onset of the pandemic. Living, talking, and working with brewers and bartenders, we saw first-hand how the appeal of this unconventional job went hand-in-hand with the material, psychological, and existential strains that workers routinely experienced. The pandemic exacerbated and added to these strains.
Workers we spoke with frequently expressed that the job perks and access to passion-driven careers were less and less a compromise for poor compensation and sub-par work conditions. Even the perks of working in a brewery had become sources of strain.
For instance, many celebrated the informality of their jobs, but found the loose organizational structure detrimental in responding to pandemic policy shifts. Many also appreciated a lack of internal hierarchy, but worried about their ability to advance their careers.
Collaborators almost universally celebrated the free beer and brewery swag that came with their employment. Even so, a significant number struggled to fend off over-consumption.
More troubling for those who followed their passion and took a leap into a new career was the identity crisis and lack of direction when that passion faded.
A Gilded (C)Age
The angst, uncertainty, unfulfillment, and burnout we heard from workers in craft beer were all there before the pandemic. Working amidst undulating business closures, reduced capacities, and changing public health mandates has underscored these sentiments. But it has also created the existential space for people to radically reevaluate their relationship to labor. When stripped back, dealing with the hidden strains of these once-desirable jobs have caused workers like Joe to wonder if it’s still worth it.
Industry conventions are the root of much of professional brewing’s precariousness.
For one, brewing is hardly a lucrative career path. While some breweries implement living wage systems, most brewery servers and bartenders face the same unstable (and often unsustainable) tipped wages with which many in the service industry struggle. Brewers fair little better. According to Salary.com, the average brewer’s annual salary in North Carolina is just under $43,000 (SoFi lists the average cost of living in NC as a little more than $38k, for comparison.) Many brewery workers also work without benefits, medical or otherwise. “I don’t live paycheck to paycheck,” said one brewer sardonically. “It’s more like every two paychecks.”
For another, while craft brewing celebrates a certain DIY sensibility and flow-to-work organizational style, the all-hands-on deck ethos is often untempered by serious consideration of employee experience. Brewery employees are often expected to wear many hats, helping in another department when work slows in theirs. This allows breweries to maintain agile and cost-effective workforces. However, the always-on-your-feet nature of service and production work can burn employees out.
Finally, our research points to a troubling relationship between alcohol overconsumption and occupational hardship. As their industry’s main product, it’s perhaps unsurprising that beer would be a persistent form of recreation among brewers. It’s difficult to imagine a gathering of brewing industry members—a festival, a conference, a guild meeting, etc.—without the presence of beer.
The issue of substance abuse in craft brewing and similar jobs (such as the restaurant industry) is not new—think of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. But the brewing industry is exceptional in the ways that consuming beer is tied to the skill and passion for making beer.
“Being a brewer means being all in on beer,” said one industry veteran who admitted to struggling with his drinking. He shared how awkward he felt when he started cutting back. “People would ask why I wasn’t drinking, where was my beer, ask if I was still a brewer, etc.” In the end, he just quit brewing altogether. “When the thing you rely on for your career is also undermining you, that’s exceptionally risky.”
“No Job is Perfect”
The pandemic and the Great Resignation are social phenomena still in motion. It will take years to understand how the pandemic has reshaped industries and affected the livelihoods of those working within it. Even so, our research suggests that these strains have significantly exacerbated and highlighted craft beer’s existing employee strain. These are unlikely to subside in a post-pandemic era.
Our claim is not that the U.S. craft brewing industry can be characterized as a uniformly miserable experience. Many of the brewers and bartenders in this study found their occupation generally enjoyable.
“Bartending always sucks, but I’d rather work with the chill folks at the brewery than the assholes I used to get stuck with at bars,” one veteran brewery bartender told us. Others who are aware of the imperfections of their jobs take a realist’s perspective. One head brewer who had bounced around several breweries in several states, explained. “No job is perfect. I may not love brewing every day, but I love it in general.”
Slowing the Burn
Still, if the craft industry wants to survive, it’s time to work toward making brewing a better opportunity. Some of these changes are already underway as breweries grapple with the ongoing labor shortage. The crisis has prompted employees and employers alike to reevaluate industry conventions that contribute to worker precarity. With fewer skilled workers on the market, the prospect of working in hybrid service and manufacturing positions for less-than-competitive wages is appealing to fewer potential employees.
The ProBrewer job board suggests that employers are implementing increasingly competitive compensation strategies—including higher wages, subsidized insurance, retirement, paid vacation—to attract and retain talent. Many veteran workers did not associate these kinds of benefits with brewing work, and a number had approached their employers requesting adjustments at threat of leaving for a more sustainable position.
Other changes could go a long way toward establishing sustainable and higher-quality careers not only for craft beer workers, but for workers operating in similarly non-corporate structures across agencies.
For instance, while the ad-hoc nature of brewery organization and the informal atmosphere of employee-employer relations can make the craft industry appealing, it also adds to its precariousness. A corporate-style organizational structure would likely be an unwelcomed overcorrection, but breweries can reduce employee strain by implementing clearer, more structured job roles and more attentive regulation of employee responsibilities. While some may balk at feeling overly-managed, many of our respondents claimed they would experience less stress if allowed to excel in a clearly-defined lane.
Further, craft brewing would benefit from tapping into the growing discussion around employee experience. While traditional benefits may be outside the budget of small companies, even small teams can implement tested and innovative solutions to improve employee wellness. Eliminating the uncertainty of tipped wages is one demonstrated strategy. Making time to listen to and meaningfully act on the needs, concerns, and ambitions of your employees is another.
The industry also needs to address the problematic role of alcohol in its community. If the goal is to create a sustainable industry, then that sustainability must be created with the positive and negative implications of that industry’s chief product in mind.
These issues dovetail in a need to holistically address the craft industry’s culture. Business as usual is no longer adequate. Expanding perspectives on operational culture is one of the many promises of craft brewing’s growing DEI initiatives.
These are tricky problems made all the trickier by the environmental, economic, and social pressures of the day. The good news is that the brewing industry is full of passionate, hardworking, and creative people. If they collaborate to develop and implement interventions that center employee wellness, the craft brewing industry can not only survive, but thrive.
Aaron Delgaty is a cultural anthropologist who has spent over four years researching the US and Japanese craft beer industries. He is currently a market research specialist for The Starr Conspiracy and teaches anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill.
Eli Revelle Yano Wilson is assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. He is author of Front of the House, Back of the House: Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers (NYU Press, 2021). Dr. Wilson’s research broadly examines how work, culture, and social inequality intersect in the new economy. He is currently working on a new book on craft beer workers.