Ren Navarro loves beer. If you ask her to pin down one favourite, she can’t – there’s simply too many to choose from for a connoisseur such as herself. “That’s like seeing someone with multiple kids and asking them, ‘which is your favourite child?’,” she says with a laugh.
Like many people who enjoy a cold pint, the Kitchener, Ont. native prefers her beer options diverse – in flavour, appearance, aroma and mouthfeel. But she’s also at the forefront of change in the industry, pushing for more inclusion of diverse people in places where it’s lacking – mainly representation in breweries and in advertising. In an effort to kick start a larger national conversation, Navarro created Beer.Diversity. Launched in 2018, the company addresses the “lack of diversity in the Canadian beer industry” head-on while offering ways for the community to work together to make it more inclusive and approachable for people of colour, those in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond.
After a career as a sales rep for a renowned brewery, Navarro identified a sizeable gap in the industry and sought to fill it with people from a variety of backgrounds. She first co-founded the Toronto-based Society of Beer-Drinking Ladies (SOBDL), which was a smashing success, welcoming all female-identifying people who wanted to bond over brewskies (fun fact: it’s now the largest women-focused beer group in North America) before setting her sights on Beer.Diversity. We chatted with Navarro about her time working in the industry, the gradual changes in representation and how diversity of flavours can help the Canadian beer industry.
Tell us a bit about your decision to place periods between “beer” and “diversity.”
“I talk about beer. Period. I talk about diversity. Period. I talk about the diversity in beer – all the different styles – and I talk about the diversity of beer, including all people and backgrounds [that are involved]. The name was dreamt up about two-and-a-half years ago, although the company is branching out – it’s not just beer anymore, but it’s too late to change the name and I have no idea what I’d change it to.” [laughs]
You’re on the frontline of change in this industry. What shifts have you seen so far with breweries regarding diversity – both the successes and challenges?
“I’ve been in the beer [industry] for seven-and-a-half years, which is why I’m so passionate about it. I don’t think you can be in beer for that long and be ‘meh’ about it. [When] I started there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me – there weren’t a lot of women, in general. Now we’re seeing more diversity – not just in terms of women or people of colour, but also those from different backgrounds such as Indigenous brewers, people with disabilities and older folks. I think we still have a far way to go, though, because it’s still only a small handful. You think about all the beer consumers and what they look like – we need to reflect that more within in the industry itself.”
How can Canadian breweries work towards the type of diversity you’re promoting and where do we go from here?
“I think it’s about education. We need to get to the point where we can show that it’s open to everyone. Representation always matters. Stop being so scared. There is this fear of the unknown or fear of being perceived as being fake. The more people you can welcome in, the better it’s going to do. Baby steps, but it’s happening.”
What changes are you seeing with representation for the LGBTQ+ community?
“There’s definitely more partnerships and community outreach – and it’s not just about Pride Month saying we should talk about this group of people. It’s become more about working together for a common goal. For a brewery, engaging more people means they will make more money, but it’s also about highlighting groups that don’t get the spotlight on a regular basis. Working with an LGBTQ+ community is win-win for everyone involved because people who didn’t think that they were welcome within the beer community learn that they are – and [in turn they] learn that they’ve got certain skills that are invaluable to the brewery [workforce].”
How can diversity help shape beer varieties and recipes?
“It happens when you start looking outside of the ‘norm.’ Think about all those fun beers that come out in the summer, like guava or pineapple-passion fruit. These are fruits that are known to certain groups. I’ve seen a passion fruit tree, but a lot of people haven’t. For me, that’s about being part of a Caribbean background – it’s about the acknowledgement that there are other flavours. It’s bridging that gap because a group of people that may not have thought they were welcome within the beer community are seeing things that they know as a regular, everyday [item]. I think seeing the diversity – and seeing that breweries are willing to make changes – leads to the inclusion of [even] more people.”
What’s your favourite Canadian craft beer or brewery?
“That’s like the hardest question ever. [laughs] Oh man, I love a lot of beer. I really love the things that Left Field are doing; they’re in Toronto. Muddy York, who is also in Toronto and Dominion City Brewing, which is in Ottawa – I think all three of them make fantastic beers, but they are also community-driven. For me, a lot of it is about ‘what does the brewery do [about diversity]’? You can make the best beer, but if you don’t interact with the community, it doesn’t matter. I know you asked which one is my favourite beer, but I’ll say all three of those.” [laughs]
This interview has been edited and condensed.
First photo courtesy of Racheal McCaig; second photo courtesy of Chris Thiessen/Toque Ltd.