By: Bruce and Beer
Bruce sat down for a phone call with brewer/drag queen Kevin Learning/Anne Xiety. Kevin is a brewer at Ol' Beautiful Brewing in Calgary, AB. Please follow Kevin on Instagram at @anne_xiety_.
Bruce: Hello darling! Thank you for taking some time to chat.
Kevin: Thank you! Before we start I want to get a beer.
B: Oh but of course. What are you drinking?
K: Ol’ Beautiful. We love a free beer. I am currently sipping a cherry beet sour. I spent hours cutting beets by myself.
B: I love the dedication! So I have some questions for you, starting with how long have you been in the industry? You’re quite accomplished and have a lot of skill so I figured you arrived from the womb with hops and a yeast beaker in hand.
K: (laughs) Well that’s flattering, thank you. I’ve been in the industry for 6, 6 ½ years or so but I sort of stumbled into it, really. At that time i’d been drinking craft beer casually, like I’d enjoyed a Fat Tug here and there but I have a marine biology degree so when I graduated obviously I did not find a job (laughs). So I started working part time in a tasting room, and from there I worked my way up. I did so many jobs there – I managed the tasting room for a brief amount of time, I worked on the keg desk, I distilled for a year making whiskey, then I did QC there for the majority of my time mostly doing microbiology and all the science stuff. After that I moved to Factory where I was doing that as well and I was there for about
a year running their lab. That’s when I also started to dabble in recipe development and the brewing side and I realized then that that’s more my speed. I loved being in the industry but I loved the creative aspect and actually making something.
B: Yeah that’s totally understandable. I must say that the Brut IPA you gave me a sample of during that time was delightful. And so was the sour you brought to the Pride party you sponsored. I still love the Miss Tanjie beer name too.
K: It’s funny to see – they’re still making them now and I see them every once and a while in Calgary and I’m like “hey! I made that!”
B: Oh wild! Ok so you mentioned Fat Tug, was that like your gateway beer, or a first favourite?
K: Yeah Fat Tug was definitely the first craft beer that I had. I remember very vividly, I was maybe 22 and at a craft beer party at the Pint downtown. I hadn’t had craft beer at the time but my friend basically forced a Fat Tug in my hand. That particular batch (because you know Fat Tug never tastes the same way twice)...
B: (laughs) Oh yeah the wild card Fat Tug flavors. It’s part of the fun.
K: Yeah! That batch was really good, it was a fun event, all the craft beer nerds there were really nice and friendly and I kind of realized ‘oh I can fuck with this’.
B: Nice! So that was your first favourite craft beer?
K: I think so, yeah. It’s more the nostalgia of it and when I first started I was young and stupid so I was like “this is so drinkable and it’s like 6% I’m gonna get so drunk!”.
B: (laughs) Oh god I remember those days. I think we all went through that phase.
K: Fully (laughs).
B: There is something to be said for the nostalgia factor though. Sometimes I’ll be out somewhere and I’ll be like “y’know, I’ll give it a shot, I’ll have the Fat Tug and see how it is”. The last couple of times I’ve had it, it’s been pretty decent. I think they worked out the kinks of a new system and nailed down some processes.
K: Yeah I think they really nailed their procedures over there [Vancouver Island].
B: Ok so Fat Tug, first favourite. What’s your current favourite? You can say one of your own, that’s totally fine.
K: I was going to say that I think some brewers fall into this trap where they drink their own beer more often than anybody else’s because it’s free and it’s right there (laughs). I’ve been spending a lot of time drinking the Ol’ Beautiful IPA lately, it’s called Melody. It’s been around since the beginning but I’ve made some pretty big, I was going to say tweaks but I’ve overhauled it so it’s a pretty solid, classic West Coast IPA. Those are pretty few and far between these days, so (laughs)...
B: Honestly, thank you. I am always on the hunt for a good West Coast IPA and I miss them SO much. I hope they come back. I’ve sampled a lot of your work so I have to ask – what is your favourite style to brew? Do you like a challenge, are you big on sours or classic styles?
K: I think my brewing style is a lot like my drag style, in that I don’t like to be contained in a box. I like to think outside the box and do crazy things and I’m definitely not a beer purist so I’m down to use and add whatever ingredients I can think of. Lately though, I have been drawn a little bit more to the standards. My experience so far at Ol’ Beautiful is that people are really loving the sours and the fruit beers which have always been my favourite things to make, but now that I’ve made so many of them I kind of just want to make a really solid pilsner (laughs).
B: Nothing wrong with a solid pils! It’s so damn hot in Vancouver in the summer I’m always looking for a lager or pilsner or something under 5%.
K: Yeah crushable beer is my thing, for sure.
B: So you mentioned your brewing style is like your drag style which ties nicely into my next questions: what inspired you to get into drag and are people surprised that you work in beer and are a queen because as we all know very well, the beer world is very cisgender and heterosexual?
K: I’ll start with the second part first. People are often definitely surprised because beer is always seen as a very masculine job and even when my queer friends come into the brewery and see me working they’re like “oh my god you look so masc” and I’m like “oh no, I’m just sweaty and dirty” (laughs). But yeah people are often surprised. As far as I know I’m the only brewing drag queen. I’d love to meet another if there’s one out there! (laughs)
B: I’d love to organize a Drag Brew Day. Maybe not where people are in face though (laughs)
K: I would never brew in drag (laughs) based on how sweaty I’d get.
B: (laughs) Makeup just melting off you everywhere.
K: I would look busted (laughs).
B: What was your drag inspiration?
K: I think it was kind of a multi-part thing when I started. I had gone through a really serious breakup so I was “reinventing myself” but the big thing at the time was that I didn’t have any connection to the queer community. I didn’t have any queer friends at all, and queer spaces, especially gay bars are so centralized. And you can’t go to these places to meet friends, people size you up and decide if they want to fuck you or not. If they do, great and if they don’t then they don’t want anything to do with you. I was really drawn to drag because I saw the community and all these tight groups of friends doing something that they loved. The makeup and creativity was really inspiring too, I was like “I really want something like that in my life”, and that was before I was brewing so I really had no creative outlet at that point.
B: Do you find parallels between the beer and drag communities? It’s a niche thing, there are terms specific to each – like if you heard someone say, for example, the old-school phrase “serving fish”.That’s a specific thing to drag and people outside of it likely wouldn’t know it.
K: Oh absolutely! I feel like both are kind of large communities where you can just dip your toe in and just enjoy it as a drinker or a viewer or you can get really involved and deep-dive into it. There are definitely parallels and both beer and drag are so heavily community oriented.
B: The casual aspect is something I’ve noticed in terms of drag and I’d like your thoughts. I’ve seen so many mid-20s, mostly cis straight white dudes on social media or starting podcasts about Drag Race and I’m like …what? Why? So do you think this is a sign of a changing time where people are going to be more accepting and see this as “real” entertainment or are they here for the “lol it’s a man in a dress” aspect?
K: (laughs) I haven’t seen that but it doesn’t surprise me that straight men think we care about their opinions.
B: (laughs forever)
K: So that’s great. I think that with Drag Race, yes it’s definitely getting more mainstream. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know. Drag Race is showing us a specific type of drag and a specific facet of queer culture and it doesn’t always give the full picture or full historical background. I hope, if these people are making money on this and they aren’t part of the community are at least donating it or learning.
B: Yeah I look at Drag Race and to use a beer analogy, it’s like the macro lager of drag. It’s palatable drag for everybody.
K: Oh fully! Yes!
B: Whereas something like Commercial Drag, where I met you, is more out there. It’s like a cool little sour beer that maybe you don’t know totally what’s going on with it but you know it’s going to be fun and enjoyable.
K: Oh god fully, Commercial Drag is like a barrel-aged Brett sour saison! (laughs)
B: I heard that Commercial Drag is possibly getting a craft beer sponsor?
K: Yeah I think they are and if it works out it’s going to be really great. The brewery has always been very accepting and forward-moving so I was happy to see them reach out.
B: I won’t say what brewery now for confidentiality but they were also reached out early on to Diversity in Brewing to ask about resources and to take Bruce’s Guide to Inclusivity so I’m stoked to see that too.
K: One of the other brewers there used to work with me and she reached out to me and put together this really cool panel discussion that we filmed and put on YouTube. There was a lot of racial diversity as well as different sexual identities and gender identities, like a nonbinary trans person, an Indigenous Two Spirit person, a Black guy, myself and some others and we did a roundtable discussion. None of us are experts in this sort of stuff so we just spoke to our experiences in the industry, things that were really positive and our own experiences with misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism to share with the industry to share and be like look this is just a handful of experiences in the industry you’re working in so it’s something to think about.
B: Yeah that’s where I think a lot of the initiatives are going now, like we want to make sure that craft beer is for everybody. I know people say that now but, is it really though? I don’t feel comfortable going to a lot of places in Vancouver. Would you be comfortable with discussing a few experiences you’ve had with discrimination or anything like that in the industry?
K: Yeah, totally. There’s been lots. I think with homophobia specifically, it’s rare that I face overt instances. Typically it comes in the form of microaggressions. But there’s been issues where people want me to take over brewing a brand because it’s fruit beers, and they just assume that i’ll be good at making fruit beer. Which, fair, I am, but don’t make that assumption. There’s also been cases where people have said things and I’ve called them out on it then word gets around that I’m this horrible person for calling someone a homophobe. Then down the road I’m job hunting and not getting callbacks for jobs I’m qualified for and I’m like “hmm it’s interesting that you’re friends with this person and now I’m not getting callbacks”.
B: Yeah I made this comment on Jorden Foss’s podcast, but I’d bet that a lot of straight dudes are “fearful” of gay men because the gay men might treat the straight men how they treat women.
K: Yeah absolutely.
B: Yeah and if you’re being told that you’re being homophobic or what you’re doing/saying is problematic, your first reaction shouldn’t be to double down or get angry.
K: Absolutely and hearing other people’s experiences with other forms of oppression is like…it seems like everyone’s response is to get defensive or say “I’m not!” or try to explain yourself. The best way to react is to say sorry or thank you for letting me know that, take some time to reflect on it. It’s going to make you uncomfortable but that’s the way it is. Like, yes I’m queer but I’m still a white, more-or-less cisgender male but I’m not perfect and I make mistakes as well and it’s important that everyone is aware of that. Because when you get defensive and make it about you, you’re not being productive.
B: 100%. You can always be learning while you’re unlearning. People are always going to make mistakes but it’s how you proceed after that’s super important.
K: Yeah. One thing I’ve noticed, especially with brewers in Vancouver, craft beer is kind of an alternative scene and a lot of people who get involved with it, especially in the brewing side are people like me who were never really popular in high school or never really had that feeling of fitting in. And now they’re doing something seen as cool and they’re good at it, so now it’s like they have an ego and it’s getting to their head and they think they’re so much better and they don’t think about how they’re treating people or how they’re acting.
B: I can totally see that. So I know a handful of gays in the industry, but not many. The straights I know in the industry outnumber us like, 10:1. Do you think that’s because the industry is largely managed by straight white dudes?
K: Yes and no. I think it’s a matter of representation as well. When I first started in the industry, I didn’t see any other queer people at all, and at that time too I was still really uncomfortable with my queer identity. So when I started at the brewery, I wasn’t closeted but I wasn’t acting like my genuine self. It was very much this character that I put on because I’m working with dudebros and I need to be that dudebro as well. It took me years to feel comfortable to open up at work and be myself. But yes representation is important and now that we’re seeing more and more women in brewing, you can see the impact over the last 5 years – the Pink Boots brews, more women entering the industry, and that thought of “oh women can’t be brewers, they can’t lift a malt bag!” is kind of starting to disappear. Like
so many women are stronger than men, get out of here with that! Last year I was able to put together an event, we called it The Queerlab, which put out an open call to all the breweries in Alberta that anyone who was LGBTQ+-identifying was welcome to come do this collab brew with us. We made a big event out of it and it was really cool to see 8 breweries represented with 20 people in attendance (all queer). I expected like 3 people to be there and was really happy to see so much and having things like that where people can see us? Maybe more people will want to enter the industry and I assume that the same could happen with racial diversity. Like once every beer publication stops putting a white man on
the front, with the occasional white woman, we’ll start to see more diversity in that sense as well.
B: It’s no surprise that most of the tasting rooms here are largely full of white people. I was talking with a friend who mentioned that she heard from a woman who said that she loved craft beer but doesn’t go out to drink it because it’s ‘not for her’. She said that when she does go buy beer, the people there are all white and as a Black person, she doesn’t feel like the scene is for her. And it sucks to hear that but I can understand it. The question I’ve been asked a lot though is how to promote and show that you’re an inclusive space without seeming like you’re pandering? I don’t know if I have an answer to that.
K: It’s definitely difficult. As a business, it has to come from within, from your own practices. Like your friend for example, if they were to go to a brewery that had a handful of people working there or even just one in the tasting room or in production and they saw that, maybe they would see that and think “oh maybe this is my scene’. I think it comes down that. It’s one thing to post on Instagram “oh we love people from all walks of life! Come on in!” but when everybody working is from one walk of life, it’s like “hmm...that’s suspicious”.
B: Sounds about white. And you’re right about representation; I’ve been a beer nerd for years but when I went into a tasting room a few years ago and was like “oh damn there’s a cool lesbian working here”, I decided to keep going back. And now that cool lesbian is one of my dearest friends.
K: Absolutely and having that sense of closeness just from shared experience is so powerful.
B: Yeah when you meet another queer person, you instantly have that shared experience and
community understanding, and you can make jokes that the straights won’t get and it’s nice to just have that feeling.
K: Yeah sharing that part of your identity on top of your love of craft beer is a huge connection.
B: Totally! And when we did that Pride Brew a couple of years ago and we had the big gay party for its launch, my friend (who’s a straight guy) said he’d never seen that many queer people in a brewery at once. Neither had I, to be honest and it was so fun to have that community overlap.
K: I’m hoping that attitude changes as well. There’s so many queers who love beer, so I wish that wasn’t a surprise and I wish it wasn’t a surprise to see a gay dude drinking an IPA and not like, a raspberry fruit beer.
B: Yeah there’s still some real unfortunate stereotypes out there. Some bros think that just because I’m queer and married to a woman, I’ll bro-down with them and join in with their misogynistic comments and attitudes and I’m like “nah man, I respect women”.
K: Let’s just ditch the stereotypes!
B: I know, they benefit no one.
K: That’s the thing, like no one benefits and even straight white dudes aren’t immune. This is the furthest thing from actual oppression but I know a guy who can’t grow a beard and he gets made fun of all the time because “brewers have beards!” y’know?
B: Ha! Yeah that’s definitely the stereotype there.
K: I got dragged so hard on that panel because someone said “why do all brewers have a beard and a hop tattoo?” and I was like “Oh shit. I have a beard and a hop tattoo”.
B: But you also have that awesome sloth tattoo and that sets you apart (laughs)
K: (laughs) True.
B: If there’s anyone queer reading this and they want to get into the industry, do you have any advice? If you could go back and tell your young queer self some advice, what would it be?
K: I think I’d tell myself that you can be your authentic self and not have to worry about it. There are resources out there and yeah it’s not perfect but you’re going to waste a lot of time pretending to be something that you’re not to fit in when you could be thriving doing your own thing. And if anyone out there is queer and wants to get involved, just go for it. Throw yourself in. Like I said before, the industry is so community based. If you want to get into brewing, look into brew school or apply to work in a tasting room and get to know the brewer. They’re probably happy to teach you a thing or two. Maybe you can move up like I did. I don’t have the formal training, I was just keen and taught myself and learned from the people I worked with. The tasting room manager at Ol’ Beautiful the other day shadowed me for a brew day and I showed her how all the equipment worked and she had a great time. So maybe one day she’ll be a brewer.
B: That’s so awesome! And the actual steps for making a beer aren’t that hard. You can get little homebrew kits at Costco and places like that. It’s the science and the sanitizing and QC that’s the challenge. But the actual process isn’t rocket science and I think there are people who see the tanks and hoses and all the science and get intimidated. Would you say that even just trying to do a homebrew if you’re interested would be a good place to start?
K: Oh yeah, absolutely! The general process is quite simple and when you get it, THAT is when you can deep dive a little more. Homebrewing is great, you can be casual or very intense, it’s all up to you. When I started in the industry – I have anxiety so I was like “Oh my god I need to know everything about beer before my first shift!" in a part-time tasting room job (laughs). So I read Beer for Dummies cover to cover. That’s actually a great book, so if you want to learn about beer, read that. Because I learned a lot from that (laughs).
B: (laughs) That’s fantastic. What are your dreams for the industry and with all the movement starting now, do you think that’ll keep going? Do you think we’ll see positive change?
K: I hope so. I think we eventually will. I’m definitely inspired by seeing the progress of the Pink Boots Society with women in the industry because now it’s like, I’m not going to say it’s 50/50 but there’s a LOT of women in the industry now and no one bats an eye at it. We can definitely do that with queer people and racially diverse people. My hope is that it happens sooner rather than later. It IS going to happen, so I think we can look forward to that.
B: Agreed! I have one last question and it’s a bit light and I hope we can have fun with it. I have a list of 5 celebrities. If these celebrities were a beer, what beer or style of beer would they be? The first one is Carly Rae Jepsen.
K: Oh my god, Carly Rae Jepsen would be like, a super effervescent passionfruit saison.
B: My wife literally used effervescent for her answer as well (laughs) she said a super effervescent, dry, Brut IPA.
K: YES! (laughs)
B: What about Lady Gaga?
K: She would be a Belgian Tripel.
B: (laughs) I had to.
K: RuPaul would be a really bland brown ale, like a true dad beer.
B: Like an ancient bottle of Newcastle that was once cool but now we don’t want to talk about it.
K: Yeah literally like a dad beer for the people who have never grown with the times and changed their ideas.
B: (laughs) Yes! What about Dua Lipa?
K: I love her so much! She would be an imperial lager. Like a crushable beer that gets you fucked up.
B: Fuck yeah! What would Lizzo be?
K: She’d be like, a plum stout.
B: I have a bonus question: Janelle Monae?
K: Janelle Monae, I think pink so she’d be a pink lemonade sour!
B: (laughs) That is one of my favourites of your beer. Thank you so much for chatting with me darling. We miss you terribly in Vancouver and no one can set a wig on fire quite like you.