In a reversal of fortune for a heralded brewery, Melvin Brewing has fallen into a #MeToo-style storm, with Seattle bars boycotting its products after a sexual-misconduct allegation in Bellingham, complaints of offensive content on its website and overall “bad-boy” culture.
BELLINGHAM — Posted high on the side of Melvin Brewing’s building here, a billboard gives a glimpse into the state of mind of this embattled brewery and bar: “We are hazy after this weekend but our beer is not.”
Melvin Brewing, one of the most heralded breweries to debut in Washington state in recent years, has had a turbulent few weeks.
Its corporate headquarters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, apologized for some offensive content on its website including the joke, “Show us on the doll where Melvin Brewing touched you,” making light of a tool therapists use to address child sexual assault.
Help for victims of sexual abuse
• King County Sexual Assault Resource Center www.kcsarc.org
24-Hour Resource Line: 1-888-998-6423
• Crisis Clinic: 206-461-3222
• Shepherd’s Counseling Services: www.shepherdstherapy.org Offers long-term, affordable therapy for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. 206-323-7131
• National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE
Its cook and servers scrubbed down the pub’s facade one Saturday after a vandal spray-painted, “go back 2 Wyoming,” “(expletive) u Melvin” and other epithets.
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Its owner Jeremy Tofte flew into town to address the alleged sexual misconduct of his star brewer.
Tofte reprimanded the brewer and added a “comprehensive” sexual-harassment policy for his employees. “The hurt we caused, there is no excuse for that. For that we have apologized immensely,” he said.
But it was too late.
In a signal of the ever-growing reach of the #MeToo movement, the repercussions against Melvin Brewing have been swift. In recent weeks, the Bellingham community has turned to social media to call on residents and businesses to boycott the company. Many bars and bottleshops across Western Washington have obliged, including about two dozen bars in Seattle.
In South Lake Union, TeKu Tavern has removed Melvin’s six-packs from the cooler and left a note in its place, explaining it does not “support a company that makes light of sexual misconduct.”
In Belltown, Chris Elford, a respected figure in the local beer community, has stopped carrying Melvin beers at his acclaimed bar No Anchor, calling the culture at Melvin “toxic” and added that its pedophile “doll” joke was “an insane level of hubris.”
“I am shocked a company as large as Melvin went through with posting something like that.”
The backlash is a reversal of fortune for one of the darlings of the beer industry. Even in a market oversaturated with IPAs, Melvin beers stood out. They are known for floral and piney suds that are bitter and boozy but easy to drink; their IPAs have medaled at some of the most prestigious beer competitions.
The beer had a cult following in Seattle and in years past was a major draw at Seattle’s biggest beer festival, Seattle Beer Week. The team’s love for kung fu flicks and the Wu-Tang Clan was part of its shtick. At one Capitol Hill bar, where they were the headliners, they cranked up hip-hop and brought in a crew dressed as ninjas to stage a fight, throwing ninja stars around and accidentally punching and cracking a patron’s rib, according to management.
The announcement that Melvin was expanding to Bellingham this past summer was some of the biggest news in the Washington beer community in 2017. For one, it helped solidify Bellingham, which already boasts several award-winning breweries, as one of the major beer destinations in the Northwest. Some called Bellingham the next Bend, Oregon.
But the goodwill between Melvin and its new neighbors began to sour, especially after an alleged sexual-misconduct incident that took place Nov. 20 and which recently has come to light.
The accusation concerned a veteran brewer who works out of the company’s flagship brewery in Wyoming but was in Bellingham that week.
After work, Tofte said, he and the brewer walked two blocks north to Menace Brewing with a six pack. Tofte said the beer was originally intended as a gift for the owner of Menace.
But the brewer cracked open one of the cans while seated at a table, and a server came over to say they weren’t allowed to bring their own beer to drink, Tofte said.
The brewer responded, “I’m sorry, darlin’,” according to Tofte.
Tofte said he did not see what happened next.
According to an internal memo from Melvin that was leaked to The Seattle Times and later confirmed by Tofte, the brewer “put his hand around her waist, then moved his hand lower and touched her butt and upper thigh area.”
The detail of the incident as outlined in the memo was based on an interview the human-resources director at Melvin conducted with the alleged victim after the incident was reported to management.
The alleged victim declined to comment to The Seattle Times. No charges were filed.
An independent source not associated with Melvin Brewing confirmed the inappropriate-touching incident to The Seattle Times.
The brewer was immediately suspended and also entered into a 30-day drug-rehab program, Melvin management confirmed. He is back at work at the brewery in Wyoming and is attending counseling sessions and must submit to two urine samples every week “for three years,” Tofte said.
Melvin is implementing a new sexual-harassment policy that includes mandatory sexual-harassment training for all of its employees in Washington and in Wyoming, a company spokesman said.
The reprimand didn’t quell the furor — only intensified it. Several bartenders and patrons around town have said that some Melvin employees have been rowdy and obnoxious at other establishments, making lewd comments and even bringing in their own beer to drink.
Some patrons and barkeepers have said Melvin has not only flaunted its “bro-culture” around town, but also online. Its website is a source of much tension. After complaints, management removed several offending passages and fired the contract copywriter responsible for the content, a company spokesman said.
Among the complaints logged by local residents: The website ran a contact page under the heading “Touch Us.” You could click to “opt-in” to date one of the Melvin owners. Its public-service announcement once read, “Don’t drive if you’re drunk … that’s what your sober friends or pregnant partners were put on this earth for.” And its pedophile doll joke drew condemnations from sexual-abuse victims, the beer community, as well as the community at large.
Melvin management has issued apologies online and in person, explaining the tone of the website was meant to be “irreverent.”
In an email to The Seattle Times, Janet Lightner, a spokesperson for Boundary Bay Brewery, replied, “I find it disturbing that the leadership of a company in 2018 is willing to hang its marketing hat on the word ‘irreverent.’ It goes against our values as a community and I suggest a close look at the true meaning of that word.”
The heart of Melvin’s problem isn’t about a few loose cannons running around Bellingham, said Mari Kemper, co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham. She said Melvin’s management has cultivated a “bad-boy” image as part of its branding to sell beer. “It’s the culture that they created.”
At his brew pub in Bellingham recently, Tofte was in walking shoes, having spent the long day “pounding the pavement” to meet with his accounts and anyone who wants to hear him out.
On the complaint that he runs a company with a “bro culture,” Tofte characterized it more as a tight-knit group that likes to hang out, let loose and have fun — not cause trouble. But he has heard the community’s concerns, and he vowed that his brewery will be a better neighbor. “We realize that that level of excitement does not work here, and we are going to pull it back a notch.”
He rattled off the names of five female employees in management to underscore that his 120-employee company is not some all-men’s club.
He said he’s remorseful for offending some people but added some stories spread were “half-truths” to “lies.” Tofte believes there was only one incident, not many, where his employees brought beer into another bar, for instance.
The expansion of Melvin in Western Washington is a homecoming of sorts for Tofte, 44, a Mount Vernon native. That made it all the more hurtful to see his bar vandalized, he said. He still plans to open a pop-up bar in Bellingham in the Fairhaven neighborhood in May. Melvin may also expand to Olympia as well as San Diego.
He’s forming a cultural committee made up of his employees and community members to help gather feedback and address how Melvin can improve.
“We messed up, but we are trying to make it right,” he said.
Its corporate headquarters has sent out a companywide memo that read in part, “you know that Melvin Brewing loves madness but we draw the line on misconduct and harassment of any kind.”