On a hot and sunny Friday afternoon last September, the Monday Night Brewing Garage had already begun to fill up with chino-clad weekend warriors ducking out of work early to congregate over pints of Slap Fight IPA. It felt like any other Friday afternoon in a drinking establishment might: lively, laid-back. But over in a roped-off corner of the brewery, underneath a giant American flag, the vibe was palpably different.
Here, the founding trio of Monday Night—Joel Iverson, Jonathan Baker, and Jeff Heck—were tightly huddled around a circular table, shoulder-to-shoulder with a small group of people. They’d been taking visitors over here for the last couple hours, and in this moment, the group of visitors happened to be exclusively composed of journalists: one who lives in Southwest Atlanta, another who grew up there, and myself. We were all there for the same reason: to hear the founders answer some tough questions in the aftermath of a tumultuous week. Days before, news spread that Georgia’s vote-suppressing and vocally xenophobic Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, had recently been endorsed at an event that a small business PAC hosted inside the brewery. Thanks to a few television crews in attendance, word of the event trickled out online and was quickly picked up by news outlets within days. Public reaction was swift.
At the tail end of that week, in which the story had cycled through the lightning-fast stages of milkshake-ducking over the course of two or three days, Monday Night’s founders privately reached out to those who’d expressed disappointment or disapproval and invited them here, for an informal, highly intimate, and perhaps curiously covert-seeming AMA.
A few necessary lines of clarification that the three men shared at their open-house: Monday Night Brewing does not officially endorse Brian Kemp, nor any political candidate. Historically, the brewery has hosted a range of groups from both sides of the political spectrum. The brewery wasn’t compensated for the event, nor did Monday Night work with the Kemp campaign directly: the event itself was hosted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a Republican-leaning membership organization and lobbying group (of which the brewery is a member) that supports President Trump’s border separation policy and, of course, backs Brian Kemp as Georgia’s next governor. (I reached out to the NFIB, but despite asking lots of questions about this story, they did not respond to my request for comment.) The brewery has also emphasized the fact that they didn’t close off the brewery or even serve beer at the event—it took place while normal operations were underway.
All of those things are true. But, while Monday Night isn’t explicitly throwing its weight behind a xenophobe, this is what some consumers saw: an event for a Republican candidate running on a fear-stoking platform, endorsed by a Trump-aligned PAC, happened not only inside a brewery that built much of its brand on a grassroots sense of “community,” but at a business where presumably, some of its own employees (and guests) could potentially be affected by Kemp’s more dangerous policies. In fact, only a year ago, Monday Night had opened its second location in the historically black but swiftly gentrifying region of Southwest Atlanta, where longtime residents are in danger of being displaced by people who look a whole lot like the white faces that parachute into the West End on the weekends to hang out at the brewery. Who look like, you might say, the kind of people who’d vote for someone like Brian Kemp.
On a purely cynical, strategic marketing level (“optics,” we call it now), it was a very bad look, especially given the—apparently unexpected?—presence of news crews. The takeaway for those seeing and tweeting the headlines was equal parts maddening and intoxicatingly simple: Monday Night supports a xenophobe. Monday Night is #cancelled.
The truth, of course, is a little less black-and-white than our modern moral sorting system may allow. The men who founded Monday Night do not believe that undocumented immigrants should be kidnapped in Brian Kemp’s pickup truck and deported, as far as I can tell. (The three founders declined to be interviewed for this story). Monday Night, as a business, does not vocally support discriminatory “religious liberty” legislation, or publicly endorse a guy who held a shotgun next to a kid in his campaign ads.
In fact, as of mid-September, it says so right on their website: in the days following the online pushback, Monday Night composed and published a detailed explanation of their core beliefs as a brewery—beliefs that, according to the founders, had always been integral to the company, but also beliefs they’d never taken the time to reflect upon and explicitly communicate, to the public or to their own employees, in the seven years they’ve been operating as a brewery. That is, until the shit hit the fan.
Could the brewery’s leaders have done a better job parsing through the potential ramifications of agreeing to such an event? Yes. Might they have thought a bit more about how it looked to some of their neighbors, like the primarily black residents of Southwest Atlanta? Yup. Should they have listened to the woman on staff who balked at the idea of hosting Kemp, who voiced her concern to the brewery’s leadership beforehand, who was ultimately overridden, and who was later reduced to tears explaining all of this at that AMA? Do I even have to ask?
Of course, there was another group of people angry in the wake of the Kemp news that week, but they weren’t mad at Monday Night: they were mad at the people who were mad at Monday Night. Enter the “stick to beer” constituency: the group of people who have the privilege of not letting politics infiltrate their day-to-day life, who roll their eyes at the prospect of a business like Monday Night stooping to a public apology or “pandering to leftie snowflakes,” who’d never expect or desire their neighborhood-made Pilsner to come with a side of politics.
They believe it’s any organization’s constitutional right to serve or host or profit off of whomever they like. (This is correct, incidentally, though not something anyone in this scenario wanted to take away. But in light of Kemp’s stance on so-called “religious freedom” legislation, it’s also kind of ironic). These are the people who’d prefer not to think about social issues like, say, toddlers in cages at the border as they’re drinking their beer, and the people whose safety and livelihoods likely won’t be affected by said issues.
For breweries operating in the hellscape that is 2018, determining whether to be politically or socially involved, and at what level, isn’t just a matter of morals: it’s also marketing. There are consumers who insist that commerce can—and should—exist in a moral vacuum, and there are consumers who see that kind of neutrality as spineless, to whom “being apolitical” is tantamount to being complicit. Breweries are left to answer the question: who do we serve?
While Monday Night was busy answering to its fans, another Atlanta brewery was working on its own project. Second Self Beer Company’s rainbow-hued cans of Pale Ale, released in honor of the city’s Pride celebration, benefit Lost-n-Found Youth, an organization that works to get homeless LGBTQ youth in crisis off the streets. Coincidentally released just a few days after the Monday Night mishap, the project was a sharp contrast to all the buzz around Kemp.
Founder Jason Santamaria doesn’t see Second Self as an explicitly “political” brewery, but he does believe in the value of being socially proactive: “I can't just sit in my office and not be aware of what's happening politically out there,” he says. He also points out that a cause as humanitarian as getting homeless LGBTQ kids off the streets should, in theory, be nonpartisan, though he acknowledges that isn’t the reality.
Rather than fully jumping into the political fray, Santamaria says the brewery uses the ideals of “love and respect” as a North Star that governs their projects, partnerships, and company ethos. It’s been like that from day one, and he credits that early value system to the brewery’s steadfastness in its principles: “If you don't have those conversations early, they're much harder later.”
I asked him whether Second Self has had any internal conversations about how they might handle political requests, especially for a divisive candidate like Kemp. He tells me that the question came up back in August, when a Hispanic youth organization (HYPE) hosted a roundtable at Second Self that included local political activism groups the Red Clay Democrats, the Latino Caucus of the Democratic Party of Georgia, and the Young Republicans.
“We discussed it then, and we decided that, if it were a candidate against those values of love and respect, then we would not host anything here,” Santamaria says.
Even without actively participating in politics as a business, Santamaria recognizes the inherent risk involved in some of Second Self’s collaborations. “Even if it's a charity that we all love, there's going to be someone who will have a problem with it,” he says. “But I feel like any time you make a stand on anything, you have some risk.” He adds that in the two years they’ve released the Pride cans, they’ve received a few ugly comments on social media, “but to counteract those two or three negative ones, we've had hundreds of positive ones.”
A few negative comments, however, pales in comparison to getting dragged by Tucker Carlson on Fox News, which is what New York’s Threes Brewing experienced after the release of their Gender Neutral beer in 2017. (Carlson’s review of the Lager, which benefits LGBT causes: “everything I dislike in the whole world, summed up in a single 12-ounce can.”)
Threes Brewing has worked on a handful of what they call “cause beers,” benefitting progressive organizations like the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign, and the New York Anti-Violence Project (the Gender Neutral Lager benefitted the latter two). Their People Power Beer campaign, which supports the ACLU’s voter mobilization efforts, has spread to 83 breweries in 30 states since its July launch. But Threes’ CEO and co-founder, Josh Stylman, insists that nothing about the brewery is political. From his perspective, it’s just a matter of being on the right side of history. Like Santamaria, he points out that social issues like transgender protections and voter outreach should be something we can all get behind, no matter one’s political affiliations.
Even so, and even though the New York brewery is admittedly in what Stylman calls “an enclave,” they’ve still been subject to vitriol, from Carlson and from regular consumers. “We received a lot of hate messages to our website, and blog comments that were utterly disgusting,” Stylman tells me over the phone. A few, perplexingly, even accused the brewery of working for Al Qaeda.
But, he adds, it never even occurred to him that embarking on a project like that would be considered a “risky” business move—despite what some peers told him after the fact. “We got some feedback that suggested that we may be going too far,” Stylman says. “And our response was that, if standing up for people whose voices are being drowned in society is going too far, then we're very comfortable with that.”
It’s worth noting that Threes generally does not host fundraisers for political candidates, regardless of their stance, primarily because Stylman views the intertwining of money with politics as “the root of all that is wrong with our country right now.”
One brewery that does consider its work deeply political is Maryland’s Denizens Brewing Co., where Black Lives Matter signage hangs in the taproom and politicians are, in fact, warmly welcome, so long as their platforms align with the principles of equality and inclusion championed by the brewery’s founders. Speaking with GBH earlier this year, Denizens co-founder Julie Verratti—who, incidentally, has political aspirations of her own—said that hosting Chelsea Clinton to rally for her mother during the 2016 primaries was “one of the proudest days I’ve ever felt as a business owner, to be able to be involved at that level.” In Verratti’s eyes, the risk of losing a few customers who might be turned off by the brewery’s involvement in the election was worth it for the opportunity to take a stand and act on its values in a real, measurable way.
In late October, Iowa-based Singlespeed Brewery made headlines for declining their local Republican party’s request to host an Election Night event in the space. In a follow-up blog post on the brewery’s site, owner Dave Morgan spelled out his thinking behind the decision, and included his original response to the request in full:
“Hosting an official election celebration, for a party that currently stands and fights against many of our beliefs, does not ring true to me,” said Morgan in his response to the county GOP treasurer who inquired about the space. “Simply put, it just doesn't feel like the right fit.”
These shows of political support aren’t just for smaller breweries like Second Self and Denizens, either. New Belgium—the fourth largest craft brewery by volume in the country—also made a public show of support for Clinton leading up to the 2016 election. They, too, viewed the resulting negative feedback as worthwhile.
“This may be the price we pay for speaking out in support of policies we see as beneficial to our business and to our communities,” said Bryan Simpson, the brewery’s media relations director, in a November 2016 interview. “We’d be absolute hypocrites, however, if we enjoyed those benefits but were not willing to stand up and support them when it absolutely counted the most.”
[Disclosure: New Belgium is the underwriter of Good Beer Hunting’s Into the Wild series.]
For a lot of entities, from neighborhood breweries to billion-dollar celebrities, navigating politics wasn’t always part of the job description. In terms of how consumers expect public figures to engage in the discourse, so much has changed in the last decade. It’s inconceivable now to imagine a time when Destiny’s Child performed at George W. Bush’s inauguration, with Beyoncé pumping up the audience: “I wanna hear you say BUSH!" Two years later, the Dixie Chicks would be essentially blacklisted by the music industry for expressing dissent that today would feel practically pedestrian: the bare minimum of what many might expect from performers of their stature.
Meanwhile, and until only recently, critics lambasted Taylor Swift, whose silence during and after the 2016 election spoke volumes to some. Refusing to take any sort of stand publicly, Swift projected the kind of carefully calculated, one-dimensional neutrality and doe-eyed white lady naiveté specifically engineered to be palatable to a mass-market audience: the fewer people offended, the better. For centrists who prefer their musicians stick to music and their breweries stick to beer, this is a business decision. But in the eyes of consumers for whom politics has real, high-stakes ramifications, a brand’s decision to consciously “take a side” is far more meaningful than a marketing strategy.
The challenge breweries face in 2018 is deciding which of those constituencies to stick up for and which to alienate, because it’s becoming less and less realistic to satisfy them all in equal measure.
But people and their communities have expectations of breweries that, say, a local dry cleaner or hair salon might not have to answer to. As a hallowed “third space,” that establishment outside of work and home where members of a community can assemble, breweries forge a connection with consumers that goes deeper than that of a transactional relationship. There’s attachment. There’s a mutual sense of investment. Consumers expect more, simply because these spaces feel so deeply personal. And with that, Threes’ Stylman adds, breweries get an upper hand in their ability to facilitate dialogue. With that ability, he says, “comes a certain level of responsibility to do that work.”
Second Self’s Santamaria agrees.
“It's easy to stay heads-down on things and just focus on whatever you're making,” he says. “As a manufacturer, you can just sit and make beer all day. But we're more than that.”