The nationwide reckoning with racism and diversity has reached the Minnesota craft beer industry.
In the past week, Minneapolis’ first Black brewery co-owner and several employees of color departed the North Loop’s One Fermentary & Taproom amid a staff dispute over reopening days after the police killing of George Floyd. Meanwhile, the white CEO of 56 Brewing in northeast Minneapolis stepped down after the revelation of a 2018 incident involving a Black employee drew outrage on social media.
Mahad Muhammad, 32, is a former employee of both breweries. In his mother’s native Ethiopia, brewing is a tradition, and he grew up watching her make beer.
“I used to run around in the kitchen to help her,” Muhammad said. But he never thought it would lead to a career in the craft beer industry, where he would find himself at the center of the debate over race and inclusivity in Minneapolis’ brewing community.
Earlier this week, 56 Brewing co-owner Kale Johnson, who is white, was accused of tying a knot resembling a noose and waving it at Muhammad, a Black man and then a 56 employee, during a March 2018 birthday party at Grumpy’s Bar in Minneapolis.
The incident came to light more than two years later when a witness, Caroline Brunner, described it in a comment posted to the Instagram page of Brewing Change Collaborative, a Minnesota group that advocates for diversity and inclusion in the state’s brewing industry. Brunner encouraged others to “skip 56 Brewing.”
“He ended up grabbing this little tiny rope he had and made it into knots, and looked at me and said, ‘Come here, boy,’ ” Muhammad recalled. “I said, ‘Not cool,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m kidding.’”
Johnson then repeated the words “Come here, boy,” according to Muhammad, but again brushed it off as a joke. In an Instagram post this week, Muhammad described the night as “one of the lowest moments in my life.”
In a June 30 post on 56 Brewing’s Facebook page, Johnson said he was demonstrating sailor knots and had placed a bowline knot on the table.
“There was no verbal discussion or talk of a noose or threat of hanging,” the post read. “The employee said that it caused them discomfort to see the knot. I apologized immediately and said it was my fault for not realizing how it could affect others.” Johnson referred to his actions as “white privileged behavior.”
As hundreds of critical comments piled up on a series of posts about the incident, Johnson resigned as CEO Thursday, according to the brewery’s Facebook page.
“It is apparent that my continued presence at the company is creating a negative impact to the company that I love,” Johnson wrote. “I understand now that recent and past events have caused people that I care about hurt and pain and for that I am truly sorry.”
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, a local industry group, said it is investigating a code of conduct violation by 56 Brewing. Johnson did not respond to several requests for comment.
“In no uncertain terms: Black Lives Matter,” read a post on 56 Brewing’s Facebook page following Johnson’s resignation. “We will work tirelessly with our actions to live up to these words and ideals.”
Muhammad, who left his job at 56 Brewing in August 2018, said the culture there and in the industry as a whole is unwelcoming for people of color.
“This is a nationwide epidemic,” he said. “You do feel tokenized to an extent.”
In recent years, the craft beer industry has drawn criticism for its handling of race and diversity issues.
A discrimination lawsuit against Michigan’s Founders Brewing — among the most prominent names in the business — garnered national headlines when Tracy Evans, one of the company’s few Black employees, alleged he was fired after complaining about the company’s racist work environment.
A 2019 report released by the Brewers Association, a national trade group, found 88% of U.S. brewery owners are white and three in four are men. Just 1% of owners and 0.6% of brewers are Black, the report found.
“Similar to craft consumers, brewery employees are disproportionately white relative to both the general U.S. population and where breweries are located,” the report read.
In Minnesota, an April survey of about half the state’s breweries by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild found people of color make up just 6% of brewery employees, according to Lauren Bennett McGinty, the guild’s executive director.
“I don’t think that these incidents are new to the industry,” Bennett McGinty said. “I do think that [they] are coming to light now because people no longer want to stay silent about racism and bigotry,”
Still, Muhammad’s passion for making beer did not waver. He went on to work as an assistant brewer at One Fermentary & Taproom, a brewery that was hailed for its diversity and inclusion efforts when it opened last fall.
But last week, Ramsey Louder, one of the company’s founders and the first Black co-owner of a Minneapolis brewery, announced that he had resigned on June 12. Louder wrote in a Facebook post that he realized his “vision and values differ from those of ownership of ONE,” adding that he wants to create a brewery that doesn’t just welcome people of color but also exists where they live.
Louder said the stress on the company during the COVID-19 outbreak reached a boiling point in the days after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Gov. Tim Walz’s June 1 date for reopening bars and restaurants coincided with protests across the Twin Cities and the nation.
“The thought of reopening on June 1 didn’t sit well with me,” Louder said in an interview, noting that many of his employees are people of color who were out protesting every night. He said he had a difficult time convincing co-owner Sally Schmidt that One should wait to open.
When Louder stepped down, Muhammad and a several other Black, brown and Indigenous employees resigned in solidarity.
Schmidt said she is unsure how many employees quit.
“Some staff have resigned and I have heard that others may tender their resignations as well,” Schmidt said. As of July 3, 75% of One’s staff are people of color or LGBT, far exceeding the industry norm, she added.
Louder and Muhammad say they hope to collaborate with other people of color looking to diversify the industry and brew a new future in Minnesota.
“I am absolutely looking forward to making sure that comes to fruition,” Muhammad said.