Cheers to Change looks to create a more equitable local craft beer industry

Cheers to Change founding members Ezekiel Gomez and Natasha Souther. (Photos courtesy of Bosque Brewing)

Cheers to Change, an initiative created to improve equity and accountability within our local craft brewing industry, quietly came into existence last summer. Now they are starting to make their presence known, and will host their first industry event this week.

Bow & Arrow will host the Brewing Industry Pride Night this Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m., so to learn a little more about this event, and Cheers to Change’s overall mission, I sat down with two founding members, Ezekiel Gomez and Natasha Souther, at Bosque Brewing last week.

“A big motivating factor of starting Cheers to Change was being a queer person in the industry and not feeling like I had a sense of community within the industry with other queers,” said Gomez, the taproom operations manager for Bosque. “For instance, going to CBC, the Craft Brewers Conference I think in 2018 in Nashville, it was really an eye-opening experience because out of all of those thousands of people, I did feel like one of a kind.

“That was a big motivating factor for Cheers to Change is to unite the local brewing industry, especially for members of the industry that aren’t represented as heavily. Gay people, trans people, people of color, that was a big factor for the event as well. We want to gather the queers in the industry together and unite and show each other that we’re here, that we have each other’s backs, that you’re not alone.”

The summer of 2020 was one of significant social change in America, and much of what was happening inspired the founders of Cheers to Change to move forward.

“We started conversations around Cheers to Change in May of last year,” said Souther, the communications and engagement manager at Bosque. “We were watching the virtual CBC and also just feeling really ignited about everything going on socially around Black Lives Matter. The brewing industry has a lot of power. Individual breweries have a lot of power. You have a lot of power as a journalist. Collectively, we can have so much more power.

“Events and people seeing themselves, I think, is such a great tool for creating that community. And then, we couldn’t do events last year. We’re really excited for people to just be able to see each other again. The loudest voices are the people seen the most often. I’m just excited for people to see each other.”

Wednesday’s event will be the first of its kind for the group, whose founders also include Leah Black (NM Brewers Guild), Vanessa Bowen (Bowen Creative), Tammy Lovato (Marble Brewery), Mariah Scee (Second Street), and Asa Stone (UNM/CNM).

While it is technically an event for industry professionals, and seating at Bow & Arrow is limited, Gomez and Souther both said that members of the public can show their support.

“We’re limited on the amount of people we have,” Souther said. “We’re not really doing RSVPs or anything like that. I think we can have 35 on the patio at Bow & Arrow. If it ends up being that we don’t have a lot of people show up, and other people want to come be a part, come hang out at Bow & Arrow that night. That would definitely be awesome. Kitsune will be there that night, too.”

Gomez, whose pronouns are they/their, said the event is for any industry employee who wishes to show their his/her/their support.

“Also, it’s not just limited to queer people,” they said. “Allies can come, people who really want to support. We’re going to have some really cool T-shirts that say ‘Make Beer More Queer.’ Those were printed by No Coast Goods. They kindly and generously donated their services making shirts for us. We’re going to vote on which local queer organization is going to be the benefactor of all the funds we’re going to raise from the T-shirts. It could be Casa Q, it could be the Transgender Resource Center, but we’ll have some options for everyone to vote on.”

While this event is more than worth noting, it is far from the only work that the Cheers to Change members are doing at present. In the wake of the recent revelations of widespread sexual harassment and abuse throughout the national craft beer industry, as brought to life on the Instagram feed of an East Coast brewer who goes by the moniker of RatMagnet, Cheers to Change has offered help to anyone who has experienced any sort of discrimination or mistreatment in New Mexico. That help is often in the form of having private conversations and giving people a safe space to discuss their varied experiences.

“I would say that (the first thing) others think about New Mexico beer is it’s a small community,” Souther said. “Everyone I’ve personally spoken to has (different) experiences, specifically women, specifically queer people, people of color, Black people, Indigenous people. They have their stories, but there’s a lot of fear behind exposing things that they’ve experienced. Because the people they have stories about are very well loved in the community. Sharing a story like that opens you up to a lot of criticism and other abuse. Wow, why would I want to deal with that? There’s not a lot of safeguards for people to report those sorts of things in a community that’s so small when (some) people are really beloved.”

There were no specific instances in the stories shared on Instagram where a New Mexico brewery was called out, but just because that did not come to light online does not mean it has not occurred here.

“I think we saw some people that are beloved in the industry being called out with Modern Times and Tired Hands and then stepping down because there was power behind RatMagnet’s post,” Souther said. “People really were getting up in arms. I don’t think there were any New Mexico stories shared with RatMagnet. We’ve had some private conversations with people who aren’t willing to share their stories. For us it’s more about let’s provide you a community where you feel seen and feel safe to share those things. We can do what we can to help make the brewing scene a more acceptable place.”

While no one has gone public yet in New Mexico, Souther said there are many unfortunate factors as to why women and others do not want to come forward.

“It’s really easy for people to dismiss individual interactions because they’ve never had that (type of) interaction,” she said. “Instead of listening to those interactions and thinking how can we be better, how can we acknowledge the harm that has been done, they’re just kind of dismissed. I think that’s definitely the culture of beer, according to the last (Brewers Association) statistics — which nothing has come out since 2018, I’m hoping we get some updated statistics soon — beer is 88 percent white male. I’m considered a diversity hire in some ways as a white woman. How can we just establish more protections for people that don’t fit into that?”

One of the ways Cheers to Change is aiming to help is through education, starting with the actual professor on the team.

“We’re hoping to start some educational series,” Souther said. “Asa (Stone) is on our leadership team and because of her educational background, we’re starting to build an equity/anti-racism program with CNM, and just figure out ways to help educate people. Everyone has their stories, I have my stories, we all have our stories, but with a community so small, it is really hard to get that sort of stuff out. People that do share their stories publicly aren’t followed up as well.”

Souther also suggested that breweries need to take a long look at their hiring processes, from how and where they advertise open positions, to the physical requirements that sometimes turn away many potential candidates.

“I think with breweries there are some steps that are pretty easy to take,” she said. “If you really want to make what I think are necessary steps to create a more equitable brewing industry, where are you posting your job openings? Are you only posting on your website? If you are, yes, we have a small community where some people know to look there through word of mouth, but I think you’re cutting yourself off an entire population of people who don’t think they can apply because they’re not (already) a part of the industry. You need to post your job openings outside your website. There’s a lot of resources in the city and state that will share your job openings.”

Ultimately, for there to be change and great equality within the industry, it will have to come from the brewing community, starting from the ownership level on down.

“I think that’s the other piece, realizing the power that you have, and for me, I think this is a Spider-Man quote, but with great power comes great responsibility, and the bottom line is we have so much power in this local industry,” Souther said. “If you are not wielding the power you have to create a more equitable industry, you’re doing your community a disservice, in my opinion.”

More on Cheers to Change can be found on Facebook and Instagram, so please consider following both feeds.

We are all hopeful for positive change, and for a more equitable and safe environment for everyone in the brewing industry. All of us in the Crew raise our pints to the members of Cheers to Change, and wish them luck in these early efforts to create a better beer community.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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