How a Halifax brewery is working to break down craft beer stereotypes

The stereotype of a craft beer drinker is a young, white man with a beard. Halifax's Good Robot Brewing is changing that.

At Good Robot Brewing, diversity isn't just found in the staff, it's in the clients they try to attract

Giovanni Johnson adds hops to the mix. (Robert Short/CBC)

When Giovanni Johnson applied to some Halifax breweries for a job in 2016, he didn't fit the stereotype of someone interested in craft beer.

He's not a young, white man with a beard. Rather, Johnson is black and originally from the Bahamas.

The 26-year-old first became intrigued with the brewing process while a student at Mount Saint Vincent University majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. In one class, they swabbed trees to obtain yeast cultures and made cider with it. He was inspired to make some wine and beer.

When Johnson decided to seek work in the field, one of the places he applied was Good Robot Brewing in north-end Halifax.

"I didn't have a huge knowledge of craft beer," said Johnson.

Today, he is believed to be the only professional black brewer in Nova Scotia.

Good Robot embraced Johnson's desire to learn the science behind brewing. (Robert Short/CBC)

Joshua Counsil, one of Good Robot's co-founders, took part in what turned out to be a three-hour interview with Johnson over beers.

"He was just real chummy and super easy to get along with, and his application, you know, was sort of an ace in the hole in terms of the educational background required to be a brewer, so after that it's just technical and trade skills, and that stuff can be fairly easily taught," said Counsil.

While Johnson was hired to work on the retail side, the plan was to get eventually get him on the brewing side. Within two months, he was there.

Kelly Costello cleans out mash at the brewery. (Robert Short/CBC)

Besides being one of four brewers employed by Good Robot — two of whom are women — Johnson is the quality assurance and control person for yeast.

Johnson said he draws on his scientific background every day on the job, whether it's microscope work he does with yeast, the importance of maintaining an aseptic environment or identifying hops with the right terpenes in them.

"So many scientific things tie in when I make beer," he said.

Johnson said he likes brewing tropical-style beers and incorporating ingredients such as mango, pineapple, grapefruit and coconut.

Going against the grain

Diversity is a key pillar of Good Robot's operations, and it starts with trying to connect with markets besides the young, bearded, white male.

"Diversity is making efforts through marketing, through policies, operations, etc., that try to break that mould a bit and invite different communities in," said Counsil.

Jill Bernier is the tap-room manager at Good Robot. (Robert Short/CBC)

For example, Good Robot has a partnership with a local group that promotes Bahamian culture in Halifax, which has resulted in Caribbean-inspired beers and themed events. Next month, Good Robot is holding events on the week International Women's Day falls, including a tap takeover featuring beers made by female Nova Scotia brewers or from breweries owned by women.

Counsil said more than half of Good Robot's guests are women.

"Bringing a different crowd into your brewery is always good … everyone enjoys beer," said Johnson. "It's definitely a positive thing and a plus to have diversity and inclusion in the brewery."

On the operations front, Good Robot looks in part to its staff for feedback.

"For example, we've gotten quite an education from our events director, who is trans, and also a good friend of mine, and has really sort of educated me, as well as a lot of the team on why gender-neutral washrooms are so important to them and why it's important for us to sponsor and invite queer community into the space," said Counsil.

Ren Navarro of Kitchener, Ont., started Beer. Diversity. and regularly gives talks around southern Ontario about diversity in beer drinkers and the industry. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Ren Navarro, the owner of Beer. Diversity., an Ontario-based business that works with restaurants to improve their diversity, said beer drinkers are people of all colours.

"It's not just a bunch of white guys with beards and I think those are the things that we kind of forget about," she said.

A customer stops by the Good Robot shop on Robie Street in Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

Navarro said the beer industry in Canada is slowly becoming more diverse. She said there are a few things breweries and beer bars can do to become more diverse.

"Good customer service is the first way to go because if someone has a great experience they're going to start bringing their friends and they're going to bring people who look like them, and it's going to change your landscape," said Navarro, who is black.

She said if job applicants don't have perfect experience as it relates to beer, look at what else they have to offer.

"If you're looking for a sales rep and they don't have beer sales, what kind of sales experience do they have?" she said. "I mean, you sell one product, you can sell anything, so it's kind of opening your eyes to these things."

Good Robot is one of many Nova Scotia breweries. (Robert Short/CBC)