AUBURN, California – “The first thing that surprised me was how happy they were to be here.”
That’s what Jerry Moore, owner and CEO of Knee Deep Brewing Company in Auburn, California, said about the employees with autism that the company hired in its canning and packaging operations in 2020.
But Moore didn’t set out to hire people with autism out of charity.
“We were having trouble finding reliable, hardworking employees to do the work,” he said. Moore acquired Knee Deep Brewing Company a few months after it was founded in 2010. Initially using a contract brewing facility in South Lake Tahoe, the brewery shipped kegs to bars and restaurants just over the Nevada border in Reno. Fast-forward to 2013, when operations moved to its current home, a 37,000 square-foot, 40 BBL brewhouse with multiple 120 BBL fermenters.
Today Knee Deep cranks out kegs, cans, and bottles and expects to hit 15,000-16,000 BBLs in 2023. Knee Deep beer is shipped throughout the country and to Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, and for the first time this March, Singapore—with a tap room on site where visitors can taste beers as the brewing happens.
Call it a brew with a view.
2020 was also about the time Knee Deep’s hiring woes threatened to slow down production. Moore reached out to PRIDE Industries, a Sacramento area social enterprise that recruits, trains, places, and supports people with disabilities to provide a wide variety of manufacturing services. It turned out to be a great match for Knee Deep’s needs.
“We’ve been extremely pleased with our PRIDE Industries team members,” Moore said. “They show up on time, work hard, are a lot of fun, and have turned out to be a perfect fit.”
Such a great fit that when Knee Deep launched its first special brew to call attention to Autism Awareness Month in April 2022, they named the beer Perfect Fit, complete with a PRIDE Industries logo on the cans to call attention to autism and promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce. The brewery made 10 barrels and sold out in a few weeks.
“It was an English style IPA which people liked,” said Brewmaster Dean Roberts, “but I think people also liked the cause of autism awareness, and it gave them a reason to choose that beer.”
This year’s Perfect Fit will be a classic west coast IPA with Cascade hops, 5.5 ABV, and an IBU of 30. Knee Deep is making 30 barrels this time around in anticipation of the demand. The company will be donating a portion of proceeds to The Michael Ziegler PRIDE Industries Foundation, which provides programs to help people with disabilities, veterans, and foster youth become job-ready, and to Autism Rocks, a local foundation promoting acceptance and inclusion of neurodiversity in schools, communities, and workplaces.
“Awareness is great, but we want to do more,” Moore said. “We see the power of acceptance and inclusion and we want to spread to the news.”
Should other breweries consider hiring people with autism or other disabilities? “It’s not that different from hiring anyone else,” Moore said. “It’s finding the right person for the right job. This job happens to work for these individuals, and they love it.”
Take Zach, for example. He’s one of three PRIDE Industries employees at Knee Deep. Ask him if he likes his job and he’ll answer immediately: “I love it.”
“They’re happy to be here, and that’s contagious,” said Brewmaster Roberts. “We’re all one team and everyone enjoys working together. You don’t even think about the disability part anymore.”
It helps that a PRIDE Industries job coach is on hand to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“I love working with this team,” said coach Aaron Cartwright-Vasquez. “They’re great workers—I have to make sure they take their breaks.” Cartwright-Vasquez provides transportation for those that need it, and makes sure everyone understands their schedules, which can vary from week to week. “They’re waiting for me every morning with a smile on their faces.”
PRIDE Industries provides contract manufacturing services for consumer-packaged goods, electronics, and medical devices. Services include manufacturing, supply chain and logistics, and packaging and fulfillment. Customers range from local businesses like Knee Deep Brewing Company to global powerhouses like Hewlett Packard.
“Knee Deep Brewing has always been proud to have the best people working for it,” the company says on its website. “Without them, we would not be where we are today. With great people, comes great beer!”
Cheers to that!
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