Melvin Brewing’s Founder Discusses Sexual Harassment and Future of the Company
Earlier this month, April 2, Melvin Brewing celebrated its third annual 2×4 Day, an international unofficial holiday created by the Jackson, WY-based brewery to commemorate the success of their highly decorated 2×4 Double IPA. The flagship beer has garnered top honors at the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup, North American Beer Awards, and the 2018 edition of 2×4 Day saw satellite celebrations at 40 locations across six countries.
However, this year’s festivities came at a precarious time for Melvin Brewing, who was recently embroiled in a sexual harassment incident that occurred last November at Menace Brewing in Bellingham, WA. While the incident first took place last year, it was brought to attention by media outlets just over a month ago. At the same time, Melvin also drew criticism for insensitive content posted on the contact page of their website, which made references to being touched inappropriately.
Melvin has since responded to the content by issuing the following statement:
“Over (a) year ago, we made a poor decision on our website in regard to contacting Melvin Brewing,” Melvin said in the public statement. “The Touch Us header was meant to be a silly joke but in hindsight it was inappropriate, and we want to extend a heartfelt apology to anyone who was offended. Please know that we may be irreverent and like to have a good time but in this case, we crossed the line.”
The aftermath has resulted in a groundswell of beer fans who were understandably angry and disheartened by both incidents, with many calling for the employee’s firing. Additionally, some beer drinkers, as well as beer bars, as detailed yesterday by the Seattle Times yesterday, have called for a boycott of Melvin’s products.
In today’s undercurrent of rampant sexual impropriety and recent awareness around assault and harassment, we felt it was important to speak with Jeremy Tofte, founder of Melvin Brewing and Ted Whitney, sales director for Melvin Brewing, in hopes of opening up a dialogue around what happened, and what Melvin, as an organization chose to do as a result.
PorchDrinking.com: Firstly, I wanted to thank you for your willingness in having this conversation, as it’s a tough one to have, but it’s extremely important, especially in today’s climate. Could you start by telling us what exactly happened in Bellingham?
Ted Whitney: One thing that we want to be really clear about — because it’s been very distorted in various reports and especially in social media — is exactly what happened. We’ve got a verbatim quote from the offended waitress. We want to make sure that’s getting out there too because a lot of this firestorm has been generated by our willingness and desire to keep this out of the press, as we went through it the first time back in January at the request of the people affected by it. We’ve learned the court of public opinion doesn’t deal with privacy at all.
Jeremy Tofte: On the night of the incident myself and our brewer from Wyoming, Kirk, went to visit a local brewery and we brought them a six pack of beer as a present. The owner was not there. So we sat down and had a couple beers. When the other three customers in the building saw that we were from Melvin, our brewer being from Wyoming, just cracked open a Melvin beer and said, “Oh, you haven’t tried Melvin? Here have a sip of this.”
Instantly when the waitress heard the sound of a can opening, she came over right away and said: “You can’t be doing that here, that’s illegal.” And so Kirk said, “Oh I’m sorry darlin’.” He was sitting down, she was standing up by his right shoulder. And unfortunately, he put his arm around her while he said he was sorry. And it landed on her butt and went down her butt onto her upper thigh, and in no way should any of our employees ever touch someone without their permission, especially people they don’t know, but the rumor mill decided that other things happened that night instead of what actually happened and that is a quote from her.
PD: What steps were taken immediately after the incident occurred, and what steps have been taken to better educate the Melvin staff to prevent something like this from happening in the future?
Jeremy Tofte: We sent our GM to the brewery twice, our local Bellingham brewer went to meet with them and one of our night managers went to meet with them and I called the owner to talk with him as well in the next month. In the next month is when the rumors started circulating, rumors that were very bad for everyone that was involved, and that were so far from the truth. It’s unfortunate that anyone would have an imagination to even spread those lies. And so what we did once we found out about those rumors getting back to us, we have an HR Department, and we had our HR reach out to their brewery to try and get an interview with the waitress and owner. They had previously denied interviews, but we kept on pressing until they were able to give us one because we wanted to interview everyone involved because we wanted to get the full story.
And once we got the full story, that’s when we took appropriate action within our company and did not release the story because it was not the public’s business, it was a personal matter between the victim and Kirk.
Since that time we’ve instituted company-wide sexual harassment training for all 100+ employees. We’re also bringing in specialists to talk in person. And we decided to address the root of that problem with our brewer, which we thought, was a dependency on alcohol. He agreed to go to 30-days of off-site rehabilitation outside of San Francisco. He has since returned back to Wyoming and now he’s taking three days a week of counseling and he has random UA tests that go back five days for the next three years if he wants to stay on the team.
It’s really easy to fire someone, but it’s a lot harder to help someone. And we saw this as a chance where we can hopefully change his life for the better, after we’ve watched him struggle with alcohol dependency for the last several years.
At Melvin, we rally around the people that are our family members and if they make an error our first instinct is not to throw them under the bus, our first instinct is how can we make them better? And a few people on the Bellingham social media firestorm were calling for his head, but we know we can make him a better person and he wants to be. So that’s how we’re moving forward.
PD: There have been mixed reactions from fans and retailers, but some have called for reactions that range from firing the brewer to boycotting Melvin, how do you all feel when you see these types of reactions?
Ted Whitney: It seems like we’ve arrived at a moment where people are really hot on this idea of an eye for an eye. If there’s a wrong or perceived harm, we need to revisit harm on the offender. And I think we’ve got an awesome opportunity at this point in history, to create a better society and create a world where instead of an eye for an eye, we teach people not to take eyes in the first place, and if harm is done, we teach people to make it right and make it so that harm like that won’t happen again. And this is an awesome opportunity for all of us to create better dialogue and better discourse.
Jeremy Tofte: Instead of shaming Kirk, which is totally acceptable in this day in age, and he did something he regrets and he did something we don’t tolerate, but publicly shaming him isn’t gonna help the problem as much as us helping him to get treatment.
PD: These acts of sexual harassment and misogyny aren’t an isolated problem in craft beer. What can we do as an industry to address these pervasive issues head on?
Ted Whitney: We’ve arrived at a time when we can all agree that these things need to be behind us, they’ve been tolerated for way too long.
They’ve been culturally ingrained for a long time and I’m stoked that we’ve arrived at a time when we can have productive conversations about how to move beyond this. In terms of how we can implement those changes, I think it comes down to raising awareness about the harm that misogyny and harassment cause and keeping an open dialogue around the occurrence of these things. A lot of people aren’t going to change overnight. It’s going to take productive dialogue and learning, and a discussion of a willingness to do better.
Jeremy Tofte: I was talking about it with our crew, online we’ve been called misogynists, racists, homophobes, etc, from all the hate and vile that’s come out of Facebook, but none of our strong powerful independent women would work for Melvin if we tolerated this type of behavior in this company.
Ted Whitney: So much pain comes from feeling like you’re not understood and the court of public opinion and the social media realm really feeds people what they want to hear and what they want to read and whips them into a frenzy, and it doesn’t let them really examine the facts or the reality of how culture looks on the inside.
Jeremy Tofte: It’s amazing what can happen when two people sit at the table together and talk it out.
PD: You all have said that Melvin doesn’t promote “bro culture”. That said, so much of the Melvin brand revolves around having fun and partying, and of the language is very tongue-in-cheek and anti-authority. So how do you draw the line of distinction between the two?
Jeremy Tofte: At Melvin, we don’t walk around and get really drunk every day. At Melvin we are a tight-knit group, we all identify with each other because we’re a little different than say a lot of the consumers, and maybe that’s why we’re so close to each other within the community. And we don’t make a secret of the fact that we have a lot of fun doing what we do for a living. So I can see the fraternal aspect of us being together and enjoying each other and getting other people to enjoy our experiences and enjoy them. That feels good to us and we like to be inclusive and have other people see that we are having a good time and have them join us. Does a good time mean drinking too much? No. Does a good time mean belittling someone and making fun of someone? No. That’s not what we’re about.
When I think of bro-culture I think of your typical frat boy that you’d see on a movie, and that’s in no way who we are or what we do.
We did have one person that made a mistake, but it doesn’t exemplify the entire team. That one person has been taken care of and shown a new path toward rebuilding trust, not only among the community but also trust among fellow team members. So it’s definitely not business as usual, but we were never bad people to begin with, we’re just going to keep on teaching people, especially new hires, as we grow more, what the foundation and culture are and that we what we don’t tolerate.
PD: It was announced that Melvin had released Your IPA, with a portion of sales going to fundraising for medical debt forgiveness, and with the branding of the face being a mirror. Is this, in some way, introspective about some of these incidents? What was your biggest learning from all of this?
Jeremy Tofte: I think the biggest was that we were growing so fast, we started as a 20 gallon system and then a 3 bbl system and in the last few years and now we’re on a 60 bbl system and everything is moving so fast, we have to pump the breaks and slow down and make sure things don’t get past us we have our eyes on everything in the company.
Ted Whitney: We also need to make sure we’re living out the intentions of Melvin. We’re clarifying our core value statements and discuss them more often and we have to make sure our actions speak to core values. Take feedback and evaluate where we’ve been told we’ve gone too far. Your IPA started a year ago. We’ve got this incredible megaphone that is our brewery and the entire world can hear what we say, so let’s say something worth hearing. And we came up with this idea for the Mirror Man looking for a way to help forgive medical debt and that really got us to set our course and say we can do a lot of good here. We can affect people in a positive way. We’ll have a formidable distro network that can raise a ton of money and do a ton of good.
The mirror man on the label is an awesome character. We put him on there, because want this to be for everyone out there. It’s a beer that’s by people for people. It’s a great opportunity look at how our business is moving forward and what kind of good we can do out there in the world and really think of our responsibility to create a great work environment for our staff and to develop a killer platform for doing good in the future, and that’s what we’re keenly focused on how can we change the world to create our vision of what a better place looks like, and create more space for dialogue for how much good we can do as a brewery.
PD: How do you feel when people say that they now refuse to drink your product because of these incidents?
Jeremy Tofte: We’re not responding to people that are threatening our staff or making false accusations. It’s the people that are meeting in person and emailing us individually that we’ve had some great takeaways having great dialogue.
Ted Whitney: When people reach out they are often enraged when they contact us and what’s happened is they’ve heard a version of the story that’s outrageous and we address that. We tell them what actually happened and we talk about what they’re so upset about and we address their concerns to say, “Hey there are things that we’re doing that we can do better. We’re not faultless. We’ve certainly stood at the line and we’ve probably crossed it a few times, but what you were so upset about isn’t what actually happened and we need to have a dialogue about that.” And that’s where things like bro-culture come up or I heard you say something rude at a beer fest and any number of those complaints are valid. That’s where we can be more sensitive in the future and we can set a better example going forward. It’s just a bummer that the truth moves so much more slowly than fabrications did around the internet.
Jeremy Tofte: I spent three years personally bringing beer here from the Thai Me Up system. I grew up here. I was bringing six barrels back of 2×4 to all the bars and we’ve had lines of 100 people waiting to tap the 2×4. It’s tough for all that goodwill that we’ve been doing the past five years to be gone in a 24-hour news cycle. So the people that are really supporting us and really see how this played out are supporting us even more now. It’s a chance to show them what we do and how we’re going to do great things in their neighborhood.