While the fun and suds of Bellingham Beer Week 2018 nears Saturday's last call, one Bellingham-area brewery has remained noticeably quiet — its logo seemingly symbolic of the elephant in the room.
It's not that embattled Melvin Brewing Bellingham doesn't want to be part of the celebration of the Bellingham craft-brewing community, owner Jeremy Tofte said in an email — it's that it simply hasn't been included this year.
The fact that Melvin — a brewing company based in Jackson, Wyoming, but with a Bellingham location on Meridian Street — hasn't been a visible part of the festivities is just one of many ways Melvin faces continued backlash nearly seven weeks after news surfaced of an alleged sexual misconduct incident by a Melvin's employee against a female employee at another Bellingham brewery and inappropriate content posted on the brewery's website.
"We think Bellingham Beer Week is an amazing way to celebrate local breweries and the wonderful community that surrounds craft beer," Tofte said. "We look forward to being more involved in Beer Week festivities in the years to come."
Tofte said the brewery learned in March that it had been removed from the Tap Tour map — a "passport to awesomeness," according to the tour's website, allowing customers to get stamps at each of the locations on the map that, once full, can be traded in "for some pretty cool stuff."
Tofte said Melvin reached out to Tap Trail co-owners, Brian Seales and Scott Pelton, who also host the Bellingham Beer Week website, to discuss their removal from the map and ask to advertise on the Beer Week website alongside other local breweries.
"In those conversations, Scott and Brian stated Melvin was removed from the Tap Trail map due to the perception of Melvin in the community coupled with pressure from a couple local breweries and sponsors," Tofte said. "After several candid discussions, both owners agreed they would consider allowing Melvin on the Bellingham Beer Week website once they spoke with the 'heavy hitters' in the Bellingham beer community to see where the 'Melvin vibe' was."
Melvin has not heard back, Tofte said, and it does not have any ads on the website, any events listed on the Beer Week events calendar and is not included among the venues hosting an event.
Pelton said no one at Tap Trail, Bellingham Beer Week or the Taps, Caps & Corks LLC spoke directly to Tofte about any promotional or business decisions and an official statement about omitting the brewery from the Tap Trail was emailed to Melvin's then-general manager in Bellingham, who is no longer with the company.
"The decision to remove Melvin from this season's Tap Trail map and from promotions through this year's Bellingham Beer Week came after internal discussions about our company's values and an overwhelming response from the Bellingham community, the local and regional craft brewing community, our followers and our advertisers about a series of incidents involving Melvin Brewing," said Pelton, co-owner of Tap Trail and Editor/Sales Director.
"Not only did we receive a high volume of messages from the local community, we looked at how the region's greater craft beer community — that we're a part of — responded. This was the best decision to make for our company."
Pelton said Melvin may be able return to the Tap Trail and future Bellingham Beer Week promotions.
"If Melvin can repair their reputation with other breweries and our core audience, we'll welcome them back and look forward to promoting their events," he said.
Melvin still planned to participate this year, Tofte said, by attending other Bellingham Beer Week events and hosting a release party Saturday, March 28, for a house-brewed Baltic Porter.
'It hurts us folks at Melvin'
Melvin's exclusion from the Tap Trail and Beer Week are not the first time the brewery has felt heat for actions Tofte admitted were inappropriate.
In March, social media erupted as word spread that Melvin's contact page on its website was titled "Touch Us" for more than a year. The contact page also included the header of "Show us on the doll where Melvin Brewing touched you." Both references, and others that could have been found offensive, have been removed.
Outrage also focused on the alleged actions in November of a Melvin employee against a female employee at nearby Menace Brewing in Bellingham. An internal memo from Melvin leaked to the Seattle Times and later confirmed by Tofte said the Melvin employee “put his hand around her waist, then moved his hand lower and touched her butt and upper thigh area.”
“To clear the air, in November one of our Wyoming-based employees went to one of our neighboring establishments and acted inappropriately,” a statement by Melvin in March said. “This has been dealt with internally with our employees and an official apology was issued to the individual involved.”
In response to the incidents, Melvin's brewery on Meridian was vandalized with graffiti on the evening of March 10.
Tofte said the brewery has not seen anything "of that sort" since.
"Instead, the 33 Melvin Bellingham employees have now become the target of discrimination and harassment from their local community," Tofte said. "Threats of violence have been made against them in public spaces and general hate speech towards them on social media, just to name a few, have become a regular occurrence. It hurts us folks at Melvin to know that our Bellingham staff is getting bullied for something they had no part in by the same people who claim to be open and tolerant."
Tofte said his staff has tried to take "the high road in the process," and is trying to answer criticism and anger with conversation.
"If the people that hate us took the time to meet us face to face, they would know that we are neither homophobic, misogynist, racist, or sexist," Tofte said. "If our company culture was as negative as it’s currently perceived, none of these 33 bright and awesome people would still be working for us. Our local staff does great work and are part of a team, family even, as well as a company that supports them."
'How is progress possible?'
According to reports, Melvin, which reportedly brewed 20,000 barrels of beer in 2017 after producing 8,000 in 2016, also is feeling the effects monetarily.
A blog post Monday by Jeff Alworth at beervanablog.com about Melvin noted that the brewery had a low number of customers and included a picture showing fewer than two dozen people seated in the brewery at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, while "breweries nearby — Kulshan, Menace — had great crowds on a gorgeous sunny day."
The Seattle Times also reported in an April 19 article that dozens of establishments around the Puget Sound have boycotted Melvin's products as response to the brewery's actions. The article included a sign posted in a beer cooler at Teku Tavern in Seattle that said, "This space used to hold Melvin Brewing product. We no longer carry their products because we are a value-based company, and their values do not align with ours. We hold ourselves and the companies we work with to a higher standard and will not support a company that makes light of sexual misconduct."
In spite of the boycott, the continued social media outrage surrounding Melvin and the low patronage Alworth witnessed, Tofte said the brewery has received a tremendous amount of support and advice from "loyal customers."
"Many patrons who used to frequent the brewpub on occasion are now coming in several times per week and bringing new customers with them," Tofte said. "Customers have told us that at first, they had feared the judgment and backlash they may receive from patronizing Melvin, but once they get to know our staff, they walk away with a new perspective. When honest conversations are held, our staff can explain what kind of company we are and clarify the negative opinions of the people that are basing their knowledge on us from social media posts or by second- and third-hand telling."
Tofte said he hopes communication with more Bellingham community members continues after Melvin has "owned and dealt with the incidents."
Tofte said Melvin has updated company polices and worked with an outside company that provided sexual harassment training to its 120 employees. The Bellingham brewery also hired a community outreach specialist and is forming partnerships with area non-profits, such as Brigid Collins Family Support Center, Tofte said, getting Bellingham-based staff enrolled the center's Stewards of Children program.
"We are looking forward to educating and empowering our staff to become advocates for child abuse prevention and hope other local businesses and breweries will join us," Tofte said. "Through efforts such as these, it is our hope that our local image will shift back towards Melvin’s mission of making world-class beer while having fun and supporting great causes."
How those efforts create change and whether Melvin will be accepted back into the Bellingham beer community — only time will tell.
"Melvin Bellingham will continue to make great beer and food while providing a safe, open and fun place for people to work and frequent," Tofte said. "In the end, certain circles of the Bellingham community are demanding social change — some through hate speech and some through boycotts — as a means for justice. These tactics are affecting the 33 local staff and 14 local investors that are a part of the success of the Melvin Bellingham brewpub. Without dialogue or the opportunity to improve, how is progress possible?"