‘Don’t Be Mean to People’: How Ponysaurus Became a Beacon for Inclusivity
Together We Stand NC
Three summers ago, Nick Hawthorne-Johnson and Tyrone Irby sat down for beer—and a serious talk. The two knew each other as friendly acquaintances through Ponysaurus Brewing Co., a Durham brewery, taproom, and beer garden Hawthorne-Johnson opened with business partner David Baldwin in 2015
"Drinking a pint of beer makes it easier to have conversations, particularly about things that are uncomfortable to have conversations about, whether that's talking to a first date or talking about social issues,” Hawthorne-Johnson says.
Just a month earlier, George Floyd had been murdered by Minneapolis police officers, and much of the country was still reeling from the news. For its part, Ponysaurus was taking time to do some soul searching—and more importantly, listening. The brewery’s typical flurry of social media activity had fallen quiet, and in mid-June it addressed that silence in an Instagram post: “... please know that our silence does not equal apathy. Quite frankly, we decided our role in the Black Lives Matter movement needed to start with listening,” it read.
“We talked a lot about how we wanted to be effective and supportive and an ally to the people who were being active,” Hawthorne-Johnson recalls. “And I just felt like as a company, we didn't need to say more; we needed to listen more and pay attention.”
Around the same time, Irby was laying the foundation for what would become Together We Stand (TWS). The confluence of these two forces—one seeking to listen and one seeking to be heard—quickly gave rise to Together We Stand’s first event. It also marked the beginning of a meaningful collaboration between the grassroots organization and the community-focused brewery.
What started as a rally during Covid has grown into an annual tradition. TWS hosted Unity 5K races at Ponysaurus in 2021 and 2022—and the crowd keeps getting bigger. The organization’s reach has also expanded to cities across the state with Unity 5Ks and other events in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, Greenville, Fayetteville, and soon Asheville. But Irby emphasizes that it all began at Ponysaurus.
“It developed more than I thought it would,” Irby says. “Our goal was started right here. It really started with this guy [Hawthorne-Johnson] because he’s the guy that said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
Hawthorne-Johnson is quick to downplay his role and instead redirects credit back to Irby and the TWS team. This reaction is indicative of how Ponysaurus elevates the community and its partners; the brewery doesn’t sell itself as an advocacy or social justice group, but rather uses its platform to spread the message and invite others to join the cause.
"By virtue of just being a place that people know about and pay attention to, we kind of have a megaphone. Whether we use it or not, it's there. And I feel it's important for the people who do have that to use their voice responsibly and promote things that are good for everybody,” Hawthorne-Johnson says. “We don't ever want anybody to confuse us as being an advocacy organization—we are a brewery.”
His colleague Sarah Voran, director of marketing and strategic development for the brewery’s parent company, Cast Iron Group, echoes this sentiment. Voran first began working at Ponysaurus six years ago and has both witnessed and been a part of shaping how the brewery positions itself with social causes.
“I think the main thought process when we decide to take action or what to take action on is really thinking with intention, thinking ahead of time where our impact is going to lie,” Voran says. “We are a place that is based in the community, and we have wonderful beer. But we can only do so much in terms of advocacy. So we're pushing people toward the people who are on the ground and working hard to do the advocacy. And we acknowledge that that's not us, but we can help people get to that place.”
Ponysaurus has been participating in public discourse from its early days. In 2016, when the North Carolina Legislature passed House Bill 2—the so-called “bathroom bill” that discriminated against the transgender community—Ponysaurus took a stand. Although Hawthorne-Johnson says his first instinct was to lash out against the hate-fueled statute, he and the team decided to take a different approach.
Thus was born a new beer and an enduring mantra, Don’t Be Mean to People: A Golden Rule Saison. Featuring North Carolina ingredients like barley, wheat, and sorghum, the beer served as a petition against HB2. And although the beer itself was the brainchild of Ponysaurus and Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough, nearly 40 breweries across the state joined the cause and put the Golden Rule Saison on tap.
“Instead of saying all the vitriolic stuff we wanted to say to [the supporters of HB2], we could lead by example and maybe be tolerant of their poorly thought-out position and their intolerance,” Hawthorne-Johnson says. “And it could go with a message that’s hard to disagree with: don't be mean to people no matter what your political position is.”
Although many breweries joined the Golden Rule Saison movement, “Don’t Be Mean People” has become an integral part of the Ponysaurus brand—the brewery even has T-shirts with that signature line available for purchase. It also continues to sell the Golden Rule Saison, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting EqualityNC, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, and QORDS (Queer Oriented Radical Days of Summer), a camp that empowers queer youth in the South.
Last year, Ponysaurus once again exercised its power to turn hate into compassion. Following anti-LGBTQ comments by lieutenant governor Mark Robinson, the brewery created The Lieutenant Governor's Fund for the Fabulous. Complete with a rainbow-speckled website, the campaign celebrates the LGBTQ community and reminds guests that Golden Rule Saison sales help support EqualityNC and QORDS.
This fall, Ponysaurus Brewing will open a second location in Wilmington with a third spot slated for Raleigh in early 2024. Entering a new market can present myriad challenges, not the least of which is figuring out how to become a valued member of an existing community. Although the brewery has made connections across the state thanks to its growing distribution list, opening a public-facing brick-and-mortar is a different undertaking altogether.
But Ponysaurus plans to follow its own playbook: listen first, support those doing the advocacy work, and, of course, brew excellent beer.
“Part of that process for us is education. We don't want to step into a new community and start talking about the things we think are important in their community,” Hawthorne-Johnson says. “We want to listen first and understand the issues that are happening and the way the community is approaching them. We want to be added to the conversation.”