With the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, Garrett Oliver Aims to Create Lasting Change in Beer and Spirits - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

With the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, Garrett Oliver Aims to Create Lasting Change in Beer and Spirits

Story: Emma Janzen

Photo: Matt Furman Photography

Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling

In 2019, the Brewer’s Association conducted a survey that presented the beer industry with sobering statistics regarding the diversity of its workforce. According to chief economist Bart Watson, “the data show that similar to craft consumers, brewery employees are disproportionately white relative to both the general U.S. population and where breweries are located.” More specifically, the survey states that 89% of brewers and 76.2% of production staff working within the beer industry are white.

For many beer professionals, including Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, this wasn’t new or surprising information. It was simply a stark reminder of the state of the industry. In his 30-year tenure as a brewer, Oliver has always been aware of the lack of diversity in the beer world, even within the walls of the brewery he had called home for so long. Recently, he admitted that he’d often wonder why Black applicants weren’t applying for brewing positions. “My old formulation was that maybe people aren’t interested, or that it wasn’t my fault, because I would put job listings in all the regular journals, and etcetera,” he says. “In the beer community, we all see ourselves as really nice, equitable and fair people, but the actual facts, the truth, is the way we’ve done things historically has produced inequities in our industry today. That includes me.”

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May, and the ensuing protests again racism and police brutality in America, Oliver decided he needed to personally take action to see the change he’d been waiting for. “I decided to reverse the way I was looking at the situation,” he says. “What if it wasn’t somebody else’s fault? What if it was my fault? What could I do about it?”

In early July, Oliver announced the formation of The Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling. Named after the legendary beer and whiskey author, who Oliver says played a profound role in helping him get his footing in the beer world when others questioned his capabilities, the grant-making non-profit will begin by awarding two scholarships—The Sir Geoff Palmer Scholarship Award for Brewing and The Nathan Green Scholarship Award for Distilling—to qualified BIPOC candidates. To generate the necessary funds, Oliver says he’ll reach out to potential partners for donations, and he has also launched a GoFundMe campaign, which has generated more than $84,000 in the first 17 days of fundraising.

“In the beer community, we all see ourselves as really nice, equitable and fair people, but the actual facts, the truth, is the way we’ve done things historically has produced inequities in our industry today. That includes me.”

The ultimate goal is to remove societal barriers that keep BIPOC on the margins of the beer and spirits industries. “We know that African Americans in the United States have about one-tenth the family assets or personal assets of other families. People of color in general are economically disadvantaged,” Oliver says. “To give you some idea, the Master Brewers Association of the Americas generally run around $3,000. These are intensive courses that last a couple of weeks. On the longer side, you have the American Brewers Guild; Out of that program we’ve probably hired 7 or 8 people because the course is worth the money, but it costs $10,000. So you start to get a picture unfolding here: If we’re going to do this, we need an ongoing campaign that raises enough funds to actually pay for a number of people to further their education over time.”

Oliver is quick to point out that there are paths into the beer and spirits business that don’t involve a formal education, but his goal with this program is not only to jumpstart careers for a handful of brewers. It’s to build an entirely new system from the ground up by sparking a cycle of education and mentorship that will establish a lasting foundation for future generations. “We want to take people who are doing a great job and give them knowledge so that when they come back from the course they will be more more valuable employees, generally more employable and have greater career opportunities, and can then step up in the organizations they are in, and within a short period of time, act as mentors for people who are coming in behind them from our programs and others,” he says.

To create lasting, structural change, ideal candidates for the first scholarships will be people who are already working within the beer industry but do not have formal education yet. “The person who has demonstrated a commitment to doing this already is more likely to succeed on average than somebody who might be working as an accountant and homebrewing on the side,” Oliver says, adding that the foundation does plan to create future grants for individuals with no professional experience in addition to creating broader community outreach programs. “The idea that you’re going to start from the ground floor and bring people up into the brewhouse is a function of ego. It’s your belief that you can wave a wand and things are just going to be better, like that! Unfortunately it’s not really true. It’s work, really hard work, and it takes time to do it. So we are going to start with people who have a relatively high probability of success, who can then later help out other people. It’s a ladder and everybody drops it behind them.”

“I don’t think change requires a perfect understanding of how we got here, but it does require an understanding of where we are and where we would like to be,” Oliver adds. “We just have to make a few connections between people, and make use of this wonderful community we’ve built, and we’ll get it done. I have zero doubts that we’ll get it done.”

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