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San Diego breweries named in wave of sexual harassment claims; Modern Times CEO steps down

The interior of the Modern Times tasting room in North Park in 2014.
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey)

Instagram account sparked a #MeToo-like avalanche of posts about toxic work environment for women in craft beer and bar industry nationwide

The founder and chief executive of well-known San Diego craft brewery Modern Times is stepping down amid continuing fallout from viral social media posts alleging rampant discrimination, sexual harassment and toxic work environments for women in the brewery/bar industry.

Jacob McKean, who founded Modern Times in 2013, apologized for any incidents of harassment at the 300-plus employee brewery, according to a statement posted Wednesday on the company’s website.

“No one should ever have to be traumatized at work,” said McKean. “My heart aches for anyone who came to work for us — full of hope for a career they expected to have with us — only to have that experience marred by harassment. That is truly awful, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart to anyone who has had that experience.”

The brewery has begun a formal search for a new CEO and fired an employee accused in the social media thread of grabbing someone’s crotch.

The outpouring of employees sharing their stories of misogyny, harassment and worse stemmed from an Instagram thread started by Brienne Allan, production manager at Notch Brewing in Salem, Mass. The posts on her account have been the talk of the brewery/bar industry worldwide for more than a week, and were first reported by San Diego freelance journalist Beth Demmon on VinePair.

Social media is buzzing with accusations against high-profile brewers and breweries.

Formerly the head of the Boston chapter of the Pink Boots Society — an international nonprofit that supports women in the craft beer industry — Allan recently had her credentials questioned by men as she helped set up for an upcoming beer festival.

That prompted her to pose the question about a week ago on her personal Instagram page (@ratmagnet,) “What sexist comments have you experienced?”

Thousands of anonymous stories poured in, including several dozen involving San Diego-area breweries and bars, as well as specific individuals in the local industry. Allan’s Instagram followers surged from about 2,200 initially to 43,000 as of Wednesday.

“I think this was bound to happen sometime, and social media, as we all know, is like a firestorm when it gets lit,” said Virginia Morrison, president of the San Diego Brewers Guild and chief executive of Second Chance Beer Co. in Carmel Mountain and North Park.

“It’s horrible that any woman or man or person has been subjected to physical or mental abuse,” she continued. “I think sometimes we like to tell ourselves that this is in the past. But it’s not. As a female myself, I can tell you this stuff is still happening.”

The Instagram thread runs the gamut from condescending comments to job discrimination, toxic work environments to verbal harassment to physical assaults.

An overwhelming number of people commenting have taken steps to ensure their anonymity, making verifying the claims difficult.

Still, the allegations are being taken seriously in a few cases across the country, particularly when there are multiple stories of misconduct.

Tired Hands Brewing Co. near Philadelphia announced on Instagram Tuesday that owner Jean Broillet IV will step down from daily operations.

McKean of Modern Times also is stepping back. The brewery was called out in more than a dozen posts for having a toxic work environment for women and people of color, with complaints ignored by management.

Modern Times said it will change its procedures for reporting harassment so that complaints go to an external third party and remain anonymous — rather than being handled internally.

It also pledged to conduct bystander and enhanced anti-harassment training, as well as prioritize the hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion manager.

“In order to navigate us out of this extremely difficult moment, we need leadership with the skill and experience to handle it effectively,” said McKean. “It’s time for a change.”

Thorn Brewing was named in three posts on the Instagram thread. Two tagged the brewery for employing a convicted sex offender several years ago who is no longer there. The third alleged an owner forced a kiss on a female employee during an event at Thorn North Park between 2016 and 2020.

Tom Kiely, general manager of Thorn, said such conduct is unacceptable on his watch, and he is taking this claim very seriously. He has begun an investigation and is working to bring in an independent third party to take complaints from employees uncomfortable with speaking to management.

“Your safety and well-being are paramount,” Kiely wrote in an internal message to Thorn workers. “So, if any of you have faced or are facing inappropriate sexual comments or actions from an owner, investor, manager or fellow employee at Thorn, it is important to me that this is addressed.”

The San Diego region was the subject of a significant number of allegations of misconduct in the Instagram thread, including some egregious physical assaults. Both craft breweries, as well as local bars and taverns, were called out.

“As the former co-owner of a small brewery in San Diego, I am not surprised that so many of these stories are from here,” wrote one anonymous poster. “The toxicity of the industry was a factor in me shifting my focus to wine, which is still male-dominated and sexist, but in my opinion less so, at least in San Diego.”

San Diego’s proportion of posts could stem from the size of the cluster of breweries in the region, estimated at roughly 125 to 150. Many of them are small operations without dedicated human resources departments.

“There’s are a lot more women in the San Diego beer scene than in other cities,” said Amy Spackman, chapter leader of the San Diego Pink Boots Society, the largest on the West Coast, with about 100 members.

“There is definitely credit that needs to be given to the women who are brave enough to come out — anonymously or not,” she continued. “It has always been the ugly elephant in the room that these things have occurred, and different breweries have different cultures that maybe enable some of these people to be ratty human beings.”

Spackman hopes that the stories encourage bystanders to speak up when they see or hear inappropriate conduct — either from customers or fellow employees.

“It can be a weird position — how much do I step in?” she said. “I think people need to be stepping in a lot more.”

Allan and others posting on Instagram have called for the Brewers Association, which represents craft brewers nationwide, to police discrimination and harassment in the industry, expelling members for bad conduct.

Morrison, president of the San Diego Brewers Guild, also sits on the diversity, equity and inclusion committee of the Brewers Association. She said there is only so much that trade organizations can do.

“We really exist to educate our membership to help them succeed in their businesses,” she said. “We want people to be protected in our memberships’ places of business, but we don’t have any capability of enforcing that.”

But Morrison, an employment lawyer, is hoping to do something concrete locally in the wake of the accusations of discrimination and harassment.

She wants to see a discussion on ways to provide Guild members — mostly small businesses — with resources to better address harassment complaints, get an accusation investigated and support victims with mental health or trauma counseling.

“I really do think that with some education and awareness and training that we can do better as an industry,” she said, “and as a Guild, that is our focus right now.”

U-T staff writer Abby Hamblin contributed to this report.


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