Wormtown Brewery in Worcester has gained a reputation for its hoppy ales, lively taprooms, and its smiley face icon, whose creator was born in the city.
But in recent weeks, the brewery has become mired in controversy. Four of the five members of Wormtown’s ownership group have stepped away from day-to-day operations as the company investigates allegations that managers made inappropriate sexual and racist comments to staff. And now two former employees are considering legal action against Wormtown, saying they were victims of discrimination.
The dramatic fallout at Wormtown comes amid an international reckoning over the way women and other underrepresented groups have been treated in the largely white, male-dominated craft beer industry. A social media campaign begun by Brienne Allan, a Massachusetts brewer who has been sharing instances of abuse in the industry, has led to the ouster of executives around the United States and internationally.
Women who work at Wormtown say their experience demonstrates the difficulty many people have had speaking up, with recently departed staffer Kate Mastro citing a “boys club” atmosphere where some men “feel untouchable and they feel emboldened.” Some women say they experienced backlash when airing concerns even as the #MeToo reckoning was taking place.
Other Massachusetts breweries have faced complaints about their workplace culture recently, and some — including Harpoon and Lord Hobo — have launched internal investigations in response to allegations posted online by Allan.
On Thursday, Lord Hobo’s board announced that it would be replacing chief executive Daniel Lanigan with Brian Walsh of Smuttynose Brewing Co., citing a “need for clear and experienced leadership,” after Lanigan was cited for inappropriate behavior in several anonymous Instagram posts. Lord Hobo also said it would add three new members to its board of directors.
But the disruption in Wormtown’s executive ranks is the most pronounced result so far.
“While the investigation continues, I can say that there will be disciplinary action, up to and including termination and other recommendations,” said Wormtown general manager Scott Metzger. “We are appalled by these claims.” Managing partner David Fields, CFO Kary Shumway, and partners Rich Clarke and Jay “Digger” Clarke have all stepped back, but remain involved in the brewery’s strategic vision.
People who have worked at the company say leadership initially seemed reluctant to make any changes in response to their concerns.
As Allan began her campaign sharing incidents at breweries around the country, the women inside Wormtown took notice. It inspired bartender Sarah Gibbons to e-mail Metzger, her boss. “Myself and others deserve to be treated better,” she wrote.
“Let me think on this for a few days and get back to you,” he wrote back, according to an e-mail obtained by the Globe.
Metzger said that in the ensuing days, he reached out to the staff, redistributed the HR policy, and convened an internal committee “to create more transparent policies and procedures with regards to workplace harassment.”
But several female Wormtown employees were concerned about the boys club’s ability to police itself. So they took their frustrations public, sharing them anonymously with Allan, who published them on her Instagram account.
One post came from a woman who said she had approached her boss about addressing sexual harassment at the company. His response? “Women at this company have sexually harassed [me] too.”
Another described co-owner Jay Clarke as berating female managers, asking for rides home after drinking in the tap room, and bringing employees to a strip club. Clarke responded to the post by sending a companywide e-mail.
“This garbage that is thrown out there at me is not anywhere near the truth,” he wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by the Globe. “I have every right to defend myself and stand up for myself!”
Wormtown did not make Clarke available for comment.
The women had attempted to speak out, but were feeling even more under threat. Once the #MeToo reckoning began, one anonymous posting read, “it even started getting worse.”
Metzger said Clarke’s comments were “not to be interpreted as the company response,” pointing instead to messages he released the day after the postings were published.
But the discontent at Wormtown had been simmering for some time. Mastro and Gibbons say they have hired an attorney to explore their legal options. In an interview, they described how what appeared to be a promising career opportunity became a frustrating and demeaning existence.
Both women served as taproom employees at Wormtown, and when they were hired, were told that the rapidly growing company — which has three taprooms and over 60 employees — would provide them ample chances for career growth.
“The opportunities were going to be endless, that was what was pitched to me,” said Mastro, who joined Wormtown in 2019.
Both said they embraced their roles and available leadership opportunities as they arose. Mastro was promoted to taproom manager of the Worcester location, and Gibbons said she took on work throughout the organization, making deliveries, packaging beer, and helping train staff.
But she said she quickly understood that some senior male employees were being held to different standards than the women who worked there. That sense of invincibility, she said, led to a culture where crass — or worse — statements could be made in the presence of employees, without penalty.
Mastro, who is Asian American, said that Wormtown co-owner Ben Roesch singled her out due to her ethnic background. She alleges that he told her the company should brew a rice beer in her honor and call it “Me So Thirsty.” Mastro said she was in a room with several other people when it happened: “I was just so taken aback.”
Roesch is working under Metzger while the investigation is underway.
Mastro said another employee, who still works at the brewery, made a habit of making sexist comments to staffers, even at a Pink Boots event celebrating women in the beer industry.
“He made a joke about my hands being so small and said, ‘My [expletive] would be so big in your hands,’ ” she said.
Mastro said the staffer approached her months later with a half-hearted apology saying he was sorry if anything he said made her feel uncomfortable.
Gibbons said she also faced demeaning comments, with Roesch mocking her as “literally the bottom of the totem pole” in the organization, and another employee gleefully joking: “Doesn’t it suck that I make more money than you?”
Roesch was also not made available for comment.
Both Mastro and Gibbons say they believe they were compensated less than their male colleagues and faced discrimination when trying to advance. New ideas from male employees were encouraged and rewarded, while women’s were dismissed, they said. Attempts to bring up concerns were often swatted away, with management saying they’d get back to them.
That never happened. And eventually, both Gibbons and Mastro said, they grew so uncomfortable at work that each sought out therapy to deal with the stress.
“I was having legitimate panic attacks,” Mastro said. “I couldn’t sleep or eat, I had to increase my medication because of the trauma.” Both women have now left the company.
Metzger said Wormtown has hired an outside organization to conduct a formal investigation into allegations concerning racial and ethnic slurs, sexual harassment, and bullying. A second organization has been hired to advise on “professionalizing our HR function,” he said.
“The allegations from Gibbons and Mastro were not previously reported to us,” Metzger said. “Had they been previously reported to us, we would have investigated them immediately.”
Mastro and Gibbons said their attorney, Ashley Pileika, sent a letter to Wormtown outlining the nature of the allegations in early June indicating that she is prepared to file a lawsuit.
Mastro had already put in her two weeks’ notice when Brienne Allan’s postings began circulating on Instagram, but Gibbons said she was emboldened after seeing other women speak up.
“I don’t think I would have felt empowered to leave otherwise,” Gibbons said. “Brienne bringing all this to light is giving us validation about the depression and anxiety we experienced.”