Patrice M. Palmer Is Forging a Fresh Future for Brewing - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Patrice M. Palmer Is Forging a Fresh Future for Brewing

Patrice M. Palmer’s job is to make their job obsolete. Since October 2019, Palmer has been the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) specialist at New Belgium Brewing, a role that exists jointly with Colorado State University’s College of Business, where Palmer is also the director of social and cultural inclusion. In Palmer’s ideal future, neither role needs to exist. “I work every day to make sure that diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a thing you have to hire a person to do—that it’s so embedded in the culture, it’s just the right thing to do. And it’s right for your bottom line,” Palmer says. “I work to put myself out of a job.”

But today’s beer industry still very much needs Palmer. A first-of-its-kind benchmarking survey released in 2019 by the Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent breweries in the U.S., found that 88 percent of independent brewery owners and 89 percent of brewers are white. Among independent breweries owned by a person or people of a single gender, just 4 percent are woman-owned. Nonbinary employees didn’t register as a full percentage point in the survey.

Palmer is a crucial voice in making New Belgium, the country’s 11th largest brewery (owned since 2019 by Kirin Holdings), a more inclusive and equitable business. But their influence extends beyond the walls of the brewery’s headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado: Palmer is also enrolled in a doctoral program at Baylor University, where their ethnographic research focuses on workplace inclusion at breweries in northern Colorado.

Despite the relative dearth of other Black, queer, and trans people in the industry, Palmer believes beer is fundamentally universal. It’s brewed in Africa, Asia, and native cultures around the world—but those truths have been largely excluded from the beer history canon. “History is the blueprint from which you build. It gives you the structure and the layout,” Palmer says. “In beer, if we are truly about creating an inclusive environment, we have to acknowledge the piece of ourselves that has not been written.”

Put another way: Representation matters. This is another fact that professionals in the DEI space believe, in a perfect world, wouldn’t need to be championed. To simply exist as oneself in the brewing industry, regardless of race or gender, would be enough. But until the industry gets there, Palmer is setting an example more brewery employees—and beer drinkers—need to see. “I felt like a unicorn for a very long time, and Patrice came along and I was like, ‘Oh shit, there are others,’ ” says Toni Boyce, a former lab chemist at New Belgium who is Black and identifies as nonbinary.

Despite the relative dearth of other Black, queer, and trans people in the industry, Palmer believes beer is fundamentally universal.

Boyce says they consider Palmer a mentor, a colleague, and a friend. Palmer helped them understand more about the gender spectrum and was “instrumental” in Boyce’s decision to come out as nonbinary; Palmer also encouraged them to launch their project called Blaq & Soul, which celebrates the Black LGBTQ+ community through food and beer. “Patrice comes across, to me, as wanting to know a lot. They really want to learn and they want the world and the spaces that they enter to be better for people like us,” Boyce says.

Palmer is able to do that effectively, Boyce says, because of their combination of academic training and lived experience. It enables Palmer to see the organizational changes that are needed to foster diversity and inclusion, and to empathize with those who’ve been denied equity. This insight comes from Palmer’s being an outlier in beer—not only demographically, but also in terms of literally not drinking beer. Until they joined New Belgium, Palmer, who drinks rarely, would drink wine, bourbon, and Cognac. Beer commercials didn’t seem to include people like them—they were full of white guys playing sports or whistling at women. Palmer figured beer just wasn’t meant for them.

But Palmer also has a habit of diving into new and foreign environments. When looking into graduate programs, Palmer was initially wary of Baylor, a Baptist institution that only removed a prohibition against “homosexual acts” from its code of conduct in 2015. But Baylor wanted Palmer, and Palmer has thrived there. Ditto New Belgium. The joint CSU–New Belgium job posting initially struck Palmer as “weird,” but that only made them more interested in applying. “My favorite line is from the [1989] Batman movie with Jack Nicholson, when the Joker said, ‘Wait ’til they get a load of me,’ ” Palmer laughs. “I read the job and was like, ‘Why do they care about DEI in beer? Do they really want this?’ Well, I’m going to really give it to them.”

Palmer says New Belgium understood that DEI work is a process, and that no single individual is going to transform an entire company overnight—nor should they be expected to. This is where most companies fail, according to Dr. J Jackson-Beckham, principal of Crafted For All, which provides management consulting and educational experiences in the craft beverage industry. Jackson-Beckham says most companies hire a DEI specialist to solve a problem, rather than integrating that position into the overall corporate structure. At New Belgium, she says, they have more established resources than are often found in the industry and a leadership team that understands the need for those resources.

Part of why Palmer’s been successful is because New Belgium is giving them support. And a larger part is because of their empathetic personality. “Patrice is great with human beings. I mean that in a really profound way,” Jackson-Beckham says. “And they laugh more than anybody else I talk to. They’re always laughing.”

Empathy and patience may be Palmer’s greatest skills, given that they work in DEI, an area many people find uncomfortable. They’re essentially asking people to confront the way they think about and relate to other people, sometimes challenging deeply held beliefs.

Palmer credits their father, an Army drill sergeant, with teaching them how to be a leader. While other drill sergeants might scream, curse, and berate subordinates, Palmer’s father was the opposite, building people up to give them the confidence to achieve a common goal. “My dad’s thing was, ‘They have to believe that what they’re doing is the right thing, and it doesn’t work if I’m tearing them down all the time,’ ” Palmer says. “I’m a drill sergeant in the sense of knowing you’re going to get through this thing and I’m going to push you in a way that will get you across the finish line. I won’t drag you; I will push you.”

One tactic Palmer uses to push people—gently—is “ouch/oops” phrasing. Knowing that discussions about race, ethnicity, gender, and disabilities can get thorny, Palmer asks co-workers to use “ouch” to signal that something another person has said feels wrong. It’s non-accusatory, but signals discomfort and pain. “Oops” is a way for a person to apologize for a mistake—like using the wrong pronouns to refer to someone, for example—but still continue on with a conversation.

Steve Fechheimer, CEO of New Belgium Brewing, says the ouch/oops language and Palmer’s overall nonjudgmental approach have been “really liberating” for him, personally, as well as for the company. “Part of the reason people don’t take as much action as they want to take is because they’re really afraid of doing the wrong thing,” Fechheimer says. “More than anything, Patrice has given me the confidence to continue on the journey. They’re really amazing at making me feel comfortable with making a mistake.”

People will naturally make mistakes. Jackson-Beckham points out that humans are categorizers; it’s how our brain works. We make assumptions based on prior interactions or information and apply that to new situations—which can lead to stereotyping. But where Palmer has the potential to change the entire beer industry is not just in their call to confront these stereotypes. It’s in the way they stand as a living testament to how stereotypes fail us.

“What’s so wonderful about Patrice is they just will not fall into an easy box. They just will not be stereotyped. Talking about their likes and dislikes and cultural heritage, you just don’t know what’s coming and you have to pay attention to the humanity of Patrice,” Jackson-Beckham says. “You’re rewarded for putting all the stereotypes aside for the person you find in front of you.”

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