Caroline Lease remembers the constant comments about her appearance while working in a taproom, the unwanted flirting that often went too far.
Paloma Mejia recalls sitting at the bar after a brewing shift and having male customers assume a man had made the beer they were drinking.
Allie Gray remembers crying in bathroom stalls after sparring with employers over an extra $1 per hour, while she said male co-workers with the same level of experience were paid more.
Ask these women and many of their colleagues about working in Tampa Bay’s craft beer industry, and they’ll tell you they love what they do. They’ll talk about how proud they are to represent their gender in a traditionally male-dominated field. They’ll point out that there are more women working in craft beer than ever before.
But they’ll also say that sexism and discrimination in the industry are common, and that gendered stereotypes about beer and the people who make it have created significant barriers to entry, particularly for women of color.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke with 15 women about their experiences. They describe a culture in which male colleagues and customers often don’t see them as equals. Many say they have been overlooked or discredited because of their gender. Some detail instances of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Many of the women acknowledge there has been progress in the industry in recent years, especially at breweries that have made equality and inclusion a priority.
The future of Florida craft beer is female, they’ll say. But getting here has been anything but easy.
‘A constant struggle’
Florida is home to roughly 370 craft breweries, and Tampa Bay has around 90, the largest concentration in any area of the state. The industry is a huge driver of economic growth and tourism, a draw for travelers, investors and homeowners.
In 2020, Florida’s craft beer industry contributed roughly $3.1 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group that tracks and promotes independent craft breweries in America.
About 24 percent of craft breweries in the country are owned by women, and 0.2 percent of owners identify as nonbinary, according to a new benchmarking survey from the association. The same study showed that roughly 93 percent of craft breweries surveyed are owned by white people.
Though specific statistics were not available, the gender and racial makeup at local breweries generally mirrors national trends: Ownership in Tampa Bay is mostly male and mostly white.
Frances Antonio-Martineau founded the FemALE Brew Fest in 2017 after noticing a lack of representation in her craft beer community. The Broward County native and craft beer aficionado was a local chapter leader for Pink Boots Society, an international nonprofit supporting women in the industry. She sits on the organization’s national board.
Now in its fourth year, the festival attracts hundreds of beer fans from all over the state and brings together women in the industry.
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“Just being a woman in general (in the industry) is a constant struggle,” Antonio-Martineau said. “(This is) a way to network and empower each other.”
Many women interviewed for this story felt like they had been overlooked for jobs as brewers. They blame misconceptions that women cannot perform the physically demanding tasks required.
Mejia, 34, has often been the shortest person working in production positions. At 5 feet 2 inches tall, she’s figured out how to hoist 55-pound bags of grain onto her knee and into bins. She’s gotten good at lugging heavy equipment around for hours and even better at sticking up for herself when a man assumes she needs help.
“I like proving them wrong,” Mejia said.
Mejia, who is Peruvian, moved from Miami to Tampa in 2018 as a single mother and was hired by Cigar City Brewing, first as a cellar worker, taking care of post-brewing jobs like sanitizing fermentation tanks, and later as a brewer. She said she has been respected by colleagues there, but comments questioning her ability based on gender and stature have been steady throughout her career.
Another common observation among the women interviewed: The industry perpetuates the stereotype of a typical brewer as a white, bearded man wearing flannel.
Stacy Maynard, an event coordinator at St. Petersburg’s Grand Central Brewhouse, said working in craft beer was something she didn’t think possible. Maynard, who is Black, moved to St. Petersburg from Trinidad and Tobago when she was 11.
Now 36, she got interested in craft beer in her 20s when she started frequenting local breweries. She doesn’t recall seeing many people of color — and hardly any women — working in those spaces.
“My perception was that all of the brewers were these guys with big beards and tattoos,” she said.
Even women with years of experience said they have been overlooked or otherwise discredited.
“It didn’t matter how much I learned or what I did, it was just never enough,” said Lease, who said she left craft beer for the cocktail world several years ago. She was tired of being constantly talked down and “mansplained” to at work.
“I had to know 10 times more than anyone else in the room to be even considered for a seat at the table.”
The local reckoning
Several women interviewed for this story said they had been sexually harassed, especially when working front-of-house positions like bartending and waiting tables. Unwanted comments and harassment came from male colleagues and customers.
Executives at highly regarded breweries across the country have been ousted this year following allegations of sexism and harassment. It started in May, when Brienne Allan, a production manager at a Massachusetts brewery, asked her Instagram followers if women in the craft beer industry had experienced sexism in the workplace.
Hundreds of women from across the country weighed in with stories of sexism and sexual harassment, and, in some cases, incidents of violence and physical abuse. Allan started sharing the responses anonymously, and the effort snowballed. Women working in Florida’s craft beer world have come forward with their own allegations.
Erica Jones began posting complaints on Instagram in May about her former employer, Hidden Springs Ale Works in Tampa. Jones, who was hired at the brewery in 2016, worked as a tasting room manager and social media manager and sometimes behind the bar.
She said she was screamed at by a male employee at the brewery, and she accused the owners of fostering a toxic work environment. She left the company in October 2020.
In an interview with the Times, Josh Garman, who with his wife Jacqui owns the Tampa Heights brewery, denied Jones’ accusations.
“While we are aware of allegations made toward us and despite how deeply uncomfortable it is to be unfairly accused, we support the right of women in particular to be heard, even when we vehemently disagree with the allegations being made,” he said in a prepared statement.
Garman said the company has instituted a third-party process in which employees can report incidents anonymously and that the company supports “improvements in the craft beer business culture as it relates to matters of diversity, equity and inclusion for all.”
Both Jones and Garman have hired attorneys, but no lawsuits have been filed.
The timing of Jones’ allegations coupled with the current climate in the craft beer industry created a lot of noise in the local brewing community. Beer festivals including South Florida’s Free the Whales and Georgia’s Brownie Bash dropped Hidden Springs from their list of attendees, while breweries like Tampa’s Angry Chair Brewing and Georgia’s Pontoon Brewing said they would stop collaborating with the brewery. The Times reached out to other current or former Hidden Springs employees. None of the workers contacted wanted to talk.
Shortly after Jones’ initial posts, five former female employees of Cigar City Brewing in Tampa alleged that they were sexually harassed by a male employee at the brewery. All five women said Michael LaDuke, a bartender who was hired at the brewery in 2015, repeatedly subjected them to sexually explicit comments. One woman said she had a sexual encounter with LaDuke while she was intoxicated.
Sam Lloyd, the assistant general manager at Cigar City, compiled the women’s allegations into a statement that she passed on to the brewery’s human resources department. She said Cigar City fired LaDuke after receiving the employee complaints. The Times reviewed the statement, which contains accounts from the five women and includes allegations that LaDuke sexually harassed them at work on multiple occasions. The women range in age from 22 to 36, and most of the events occurred over the course of a year and a half, culminating in early 2021.
The alleged incidents started in 2017, when a woman said she had a sexual encounter with LaDuke after attending a wedding at a brewery in St. Petersburg.
Brianna Paradise, then 25, said she had thwarted repeated romantic pursuits from LaDuke during their time working together but had remained friendly with him. Both he and Paradise attended the wedding, with LaDuke offering to be the designated driver. Paradise said she proceeded to get drunk, and LaDuke drove her home.
“He was invited in, and I was met with aggressive, unsolicited sexual advances that I admittedly was entirely too inebriated to turn down,” Paradise later wrote in a letter to Cigar City management.
Paradise said she woke up the next morning ashamed and terrified. She called a friend, another Cigar City employee, and told them she felt like she had been taken advantage of.
“This was not something that I ever wanted to happen.”
Paradise didn’t file a complaint with her employer at the time. She blamed herself and figured that because the incident happened at her home, the company’s involvement wasn’t warranted. She thought she’d be able to put what happened behind her and move on. But over the next few months, Paradise said LaDuke kept harassing her.
In April 2018, Paradise left Cigar City to move to Denver, Colo., where she still lives.
In May of this year, Paradise was contacted by Lloyd, a close friend and former manager of hers at Cigar City. Lloyd told her four other women had reported being sexually harassed by LaDuke. That’s when Paradise agreed to sum up her experience in a written statement for Lloyd.
Another employee whose encounters with the bartender were detailed in the written statement said that she’d “experienced LaDuke’s hand slipping” as he walked by her and that he “accidentally” brushed her butt multiple times. The 22-year-old worker complained in the statement that LaDuke “constantly” spoke to her about wanting to see her breasts and made comments about the two of them engaging in sexual intercourse.
Lloyd said LaDuke made inappropriate comments to her as well, including references to his sex life.
”Everyone knows that there’s this line,” Lloyd said. “And I have never seen someone cross the line so badly.”
Gino Megna, a Clearwater-based attorney representing LaDuke, said his client no longer works in the craft beer industry and did not want to comment on the allegations. LaDuke declined multiple interview requests from the Times.
“A lot of it is exaggerated and frivolous,” Megna said.
For Lloyd, who has worked at Cigar City since 2015, the complaints about LaDuke illustrated a troubling pattern in the industry in which young women were too afraid to speak up and feared retaliation. LaDuke was a well-known and well-liked employee at the brewery. He even had a limited-edition beer named after him.
“I felt like nobody would have listened to these girls if they came forward individually at the time,” Lloyd said. “A lot of the people were shocked, because he was really stealthy about doing it without witnesses.”
Lloyd praised the company for responding quickly to the women’s claims.
Cigar City declined an interview request for this story. In an emailed statement, human resources partner Gabor Bukszar said the company does “not comment on specific employee matters, past or present.”
“At Cigar City Brewing our success is dependent on our internal teams, and we recognize our co-workers as our strongest asset,” the statement said. “Every member of our team is held to a high standard of professional conduct, and we do not tolerate harassment of any kind.”
At the time, LaDuke also was working at Bastet Brewing in Ybor City, but he stopped working there a few days after his employment with Cigar City ended. In an emailed statement, Bastet owner Tom Ross confirmed LaDuke was let go after he informed Ross and his business partner that he had been fired from Cigar City for “alleged misconduct.”
Lloyd said she got into a “little bit of trouble” for not reporting the women’s complaints to human resources sooner. As a manager, it was her job to report complaints of sexual harassment right away.
“Every one of them said, ‘I don’t want to go to HR, please don’t talk to HR,’“ Lloyd said. After several of the women involved left the company, Lloyd was able to compile their statements. Since then, one other employee — a line cook — has been fired for inappropriate behavior, Lloyd said.
When asked whether they thought Cigar City had encouraged a culture where sexual harassment was overlooked, both Lloyd and Paradise said no. But both said that sexual harassment and inappropriate comments from male colleagues and customers is common in the industry.
“It’s a very inherent part of the job,” Paradise said. “I think everybody has at least one story.”
Traditional human resources departments don’t exist at every brewery, especially at places smaller and less established than Cigar City.
Breweries that are members of the national Brewers Association are encouraged to report instances of sexual harassment or other violations, which can lead to disciplinary action or the loss of membership. But the association considers only claims made on or after Aug. 6, 2020, when the association’s new code of conduct was adopted.
The events that rocked the local craft beer scene this year echo a pivotal incident from 2018, when co-founder of 7venth Sun Brewery Justin Stange was charged with misdemeanor battery of an ex-girlfriend. The case was dismissed after Stange completed an intervention program.
In a 2018 Times article detailing the incident, the brewery’s co-founder, Devon Kreps, said she had been emotionally and physically abused by Stange. The revelations caused a big stir in the tightly knit beer community, and Kreps immediately severed professional ties with Stange. She’s now the sole owner of the award-winning brewery with taprooms in Dunedin and Seminole Heights and has become a vocal advocate for women working in beer and a role model for those looking to get into the profession.
Veronica Danko, who together with her then-husband opened the popular craft beer bar The Independent in St. Petersburg in 2005, called the 7venth Sun incident an “eye-opener.”
“It was disappointing,” Danko said.
In the years since that 2018 incident, both Danko and Kreps said they have seen industry conditions improve significantly for women, though this year’s revelations might make it seem like things are backsliding.
Kreps, 43, is one of a few female brewery owners in the Tampa Bay area. She employs 16 people between the Tampa and Dunedin breweries and estimated roughly 40 percent of her staff are women. She expects that number will grow.
“Hopefully they see other women working in this industry and, if they have a passion and a love for it, they pursue that passion,” Kreps said. “It has been absolutely lovely and wonderful to see women get more involved.”
Danko, now divorced and the sole owner of both Independent locations in St. Petersburg and Seminole Heights, said she sees many more women working in the industry than ever before.
“They’re amazing, they’re strong, they’re supportive of each other, they’re fierce,” she said. “Some of them own breweries. Some of them are brewers. Some of them are marketers. Some of them have their own businesses and support craft brewing.”
Susie Bennett, 32, works as a microbiologist and quality assurance analyst at Motorworks Brewing in Bradenton. She was drawn to craft beer because of the work environment and a fascination with the “intersection of science and taste.”
Bennett’s day-to-day duties include everything from overseeing the brewing process and checking oxygen levels in beer to pulling samples and running sensory panels and educational seminars.
Bennett, who is Honduran and the secretary of Pink Boots Society’s Florida chapter, has taken on an additional role in diversifying her workplace. She has recruited women for jobs at Motorworks and helped establish a scholarship fund for women looking to further their beer education.
“Coming into a male-dominated field, I always see the value in having diversity on a team,” Bennett said. ”From where I started to where it is now, there are so many amazing women and so much talent in our industry.”
Maynard has worked at Grand Central Brewing since it opened in December 2020. As a woman and a person of color, she is still in the minority. But she sees reason for optimism and praised her employer for creating an inclusive work environment.
“I do see a lot of positive change,” she said. “There needs to be more. The issue is mainly a lack of awareness: People don’t realize how many women and men of color there are that are just as interested in the brewing industry. And I believe there are a lot more people that would be interested in it if there were more options.”
Many women interviewed for this story said that additional attention from the state’s brewers guild and other craft beer organizations could help promote more equitable and safe conditions.
The Florida Brewers Guild, a nonprofit trade organization that lobbies for craft breweries in the state, remains dominated by men. The leadership team has 14 men and two women. Brooke Malone, one of the women on the board and an office manager at Walking Tree Brewery in Vero Beach, said the guild recently adopted an inclusivity statement from the Brewers Association. She said the guild cannot provide members with legal services, but it tries to help with supportive resources, including online forums and educational seminars.
“We are in the process of growing and learning from the Brewers Association the things that we can do to become a better guild,” she said.
Several local breweries, including St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing Company and Grand Central Brewhouse, have adapted codes of conduct that encourage diverse, equitable and safe working cultures.
Green Bench owner Khris Johnson said the brewery recently revised and updated its code of conduct while participating in the global Brave Noise collaboration, an effort spearheaded by Brienne Allan, the Massachusetts brewery worker who sparked the movement this spring. Brave Noise advocates for more inclusion and safe working environments in the industry and requires participating breweries to post their codes of conduct on their websites.
Johnson said the past decade has seen improvements for both women and people of color in the industry.
“The landscape looks very different than it did then,” Johnson said. “It’s not just a few of us influencing the industry anymore and it creates an opportunity for a far more diverse crowd. We’re not quite at a point where that influence and representation looks like the rest of the world around us.”
Since speaking to the Times for this story, Mejia has left Cigar City Brewing and now works with Bennett and several other women at Bradenton’s Motorworks. She said she has seen progress for women in the craft beer world but echoed that there is still a lot of work to do.
Gray recently was hired by Kreps to work at 7venth Sun Brewery’s Tampa location. She has become one of the area’s most vocal advocates for change in the industry.
The 27-year-old co-hosts the podcast No More Pours and is marketing coordinator for the Florida chapter of Pink Boots Society. Her Instagram account @littlehopflower has more than 12,000 followers and she is among a growing number of women harnessing the power of social media to call out breweries suspected of wrongdoing.
“I can see change happening,” Gray said. “I mean, it should have already been happening, but whatever, we need to get the freakin’ fire going.”
Support local journalism
Over six months, reporter Helen Freund conducted multiple interviews with 15 women working in the Tampa Bay craft beer industry. Her research included attending industry panels, festivals and networking events aimed at women in craft beer. Please consider supporting this kind of journalism as a Times donor or subscriber.