“You work with beer? Sounds like an absolute dream. What an easy life.”
Anyone who’s working, or has ever worked, in the beer industry will have heard something along those lines. If your job involves making, selling, or marketing beer – or any of the myriad roles that make the industry hum – then surely, the theory goes, you've got a dream gig.
Certainly, many people come into craft beer through their own passion and love for the drink, but what happens if that passion fizzles out, or at least becomes hard to hold onto when times get tough?
It can lead to burnout. That feeling of exhaustion, cynicism, and depletion that can come with rocking up to the same job each day isn’t unique to beer but, in an industry filled with small businesses and fuelled by plenty of shiny optimism, how does the beer world take care of the people that make it what it is?
Such questions led Katie Muggli (pictured above centre) to launch Infinite Ingredient: an American not-for-profit designed to support people in the craft drinks space while pursuing wellness within the industry.
“The mission,” Katie says, “is to actively support the mental and physical wellbeing of individuals working in the craft beverage industry through outreach, education and access to resources. To get them access to counselling, get them access to coaching, and just to get some support out there for people who are in the industry.”
The organisation launched in the middle of 2021, with its arrival following revelations and conversations around the problem of sexism and gender-based violence in the industry sparked by an Instagram post by brewer Brienne Allan – issues the Australian industry has grappled with too. Beyond showing how prevalent sexism was, that moment also made it clear to Katie that brewery staff often had nowhere within their workplaces to turn for support.
“All of these stories about all these really horrific, really traumatic experiences in the beer industry were so specifically catalogued in this one place,” she says.
“We’re not a benefits-rich industry, especially in the US; mental health care, in particular, is prohibitively expensive.”
Although Katie launched Infinite Ingredient in the months that followed, it was also borne out her own earlier decision to leave the beer industry after years of working both in beer and hospitality.
“A lot of that was rooted in burnout,” she says. “I didn’t want to step into another role at another brewery and have it be more of that same cycle.
“For several years, I was thinking, ‘Someone will figure it out; someone who’s more qualified than me.’”
That someone turned out to be Katie, who says she designed Infinite Ingredient as a resource for small brewery employees looking to find support. To achieve this, the focus is through an Employee Assistance Program that provides a wide range of resources to help employees navigate work-related issues.
“We have a provider that has all these amazing resources,” Katie says. “They have sessions with Masters level certified counsellors, then there’s 24/7/365 phone access to counsellors, and things like medical advocacy or work-life coaching.”
It’s a comprehensive network that requires funding which they’re still raising, and it's made all the more wide-ranging due to the audience Katie wants to be able to access it: everyone who works in a craft brewery in America.
“It shouldn't matter if your annual output is less than a thousand barrels a year, your employee should still have access to these sorts of resources,” she explains, adding: “Sometimes a barrier to access to these types of things can be the business owners themselves. They’re super inundated with eight million other things.”
To get a sense of the scale of burnout in the American industry, last year saw Infinite Ingredient launch its first Craft Beer Burnout Survey, with the results published earlier this year. Katie saw a need for quantifiable data to show that burnout and craft beer wasn’t limited to her own social circle but was instead a national issue. As with the Drinks Agents For Change’s Diversity Survey in Australia, it also provides a baseline to measure what’s occurring over time.
“In order to start talking about this in meaningful ways, we have to know what we're looking at,” she says.
In total, 388 participants from 42 states responded; they worked throughout the industry, as owners, brewers, venue staff and salespeople. An astonishing 100 percent of respondents said they had experienced a severe degree of burnout across three categories that relate to occupation exhaustion, an increased mental distance from a job, and a reduced sense of personal efficacy. If 100 percent doesn’t quite sound large enough, compare it to burnout among American doctors: following two years of COVID, they reported an all-time high of 63 percent last year.
Although COVID would likely have played a part in the survey's results (which it certainly did across the Australian workforce), Katie points to the industry’s reliance on passion as having an impact too.
“It’s not any one thing; it is that combination,” she says. “It's because it is such a passion-driven industry; the unfortunate side of that coin is that that's really easily exploited.
“There’s a passion tax: you don’t get paid much but you do get to do something that you like that helps to pay your bills.”
For a long time, craft beer has also benefited from an influx of people wanting to join the industry because it's seen as fun, or because they’ve spent years making beer at home and want to turn their hobby into a career. But many breweries face issues with retaining staff, both here and in the US and Katie points to how much staff retention matters for any business.
“You’re losing institutional knowledge [from people quitting through burnout] and there’s the cost of training and turnover,” she says. “Do you really want to do that as a business?”
She adds: “There’s just this overwhelming view in terms of both the inwards perception and the outward perception that the industry is somehow immune from common business problems.
“It is fun and cool, but those things don’t magically make it without its problems and issues.”
For the most part, beer is made of four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. But the craft beer world wouldn’t be what it is without a key fifth ingredient: its people. As the industries both here and in the States deal with growing (and, in some cases, contracting) pains, there is a chance for that ingredient to be treated with more care and, in turn, for the industry to grow more sustainably.
As the Infinite Ingredient mission statement says: “We believe that in order to do better one must be able to take care of themselves wholly, so they can show up and do the work involved in crafting the inclusive and limitless beer industry of the future.”
And who wouldn’t want to drink to that?
Have you experienced burnout working in beer in Australia? We're planning a follow up to this focused on the Australian beer industry so, if would like to speak to Will, please get in contact. Any conversations will be treated with confidentiality and can be handled anonymously for anyone preferring to speak off the record.
The Crafty Pint's founder, James Smith, is hosting an industry discussion about mental health in the good drinks industry on September 13. Details and tickets here.