This Indigenous-Owned Brewery Is Making Beer with Wild American Hops

November 19, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, November 19, 2020

Centuries before Christopher Columbus bumbled his way into the Bahamas or the Wampanoag tribe saved a group of Christian sectarians from starvation near Plymouth Rock, members of the Puebla Nations were already foraging hops in the mountains of New Mexico. While peoples in what is now modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands first began cultivating Humulus lupulus around the 13th century, they did not discover these fragrant vines. Botanists speculate that the hop plant’s genetic origins stretch back 6 million years to Mongolia and that its seeds followed nomadic hunters across the Bering Strait to North America 500,000 years ago. By the time European colonizers showed up, Humulus lupulus neomexicanus was already prized by indigenous tribes for its medicinal properties. 

“Neomexicanus has a long history here. It is the original wild hop of America,” says Missy Begay. “From my research, a lot of the local tribes, including my own, which is Navajo, had been using it in herbal applications and remedies.”

While practicing as a physician at the University of New Mexico Hospital, Begay noticed that a substantial number of her Navajo patients still turned to these ancient herbal remedies, including hops. Today, the genetic fingerprints of Neomexicanus live on in cultivated hop varieties like Sabro and Medusa. Although these modern-day hybrids are easily obtainable in T-90 pellet form, Begay was fascinated by the ways in which this ancient variety's ancestral lineage was so closely intertwined with her own. 

Begay’s partner, Shyla Sheppard, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, shares her obsession with hops. In 2016, the couple opened Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., the only Native woman-owned brewery in the United States, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Though they may have bonded over their shared love of German beer while studying at Stanford, they always wanted Bow & Arrow to represent their indigenous heritage. New Mexican blue corn, prickly pears, and the wild persimmons that grow along the banks of the Rio Grande have all made their way into their beers.

Neomexicanus has a long history here. It is the original wild hop of America.”

“When we make these hyper-local beers, that’s something we’re really excited about. In many ways, I feel like we’re inventing these styles of beers,” Begay says. “If you try to brew beer that’s in balance with your environment, it’s only natural that you’re going to be influenced by the surrounding landscape. That’s what we’re about: trying to figure out what the beer of the American Southwest tastes like.”

Curio, a series of foeder-aged farmhouse ales, represents the ultimate embodiment of that quest. Essentially all of the ingredients, from the barley to the hops sourced from Billy Goat Hop Farm, are native to the American Southwest. Bow & Arrow’s house mixed culture draws on wild yeast gathered from strategically placed traps around the brewery. Foraged Navajo tea leaves and wild sumac berries are Curio variations destined for the bottle, but Curio with Foraged Neomexinus Hops is already turning heads with its aromatic flavor profile anchored by bushels of fresh, wild hops from the mountains of New Mexico.

“The yeast comes from a peach tree that grows on our property and also the local lavender fields, which are a few miles away. That’s the origin of Curio. We started with this wild yeast and tried to just do everything as local as we could,” Begay says. “Once you add this wild hop quality to it, it becomes very complex. It’s very earthy, but it’s also balanced. It’s definitely a bottle you savor and think about.”

Photo courtesy of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co.

In order to obtain those nuanced tasting notes, Begay and Sheppard strapped on their hiking boots and went foraging for the elusive Neomexicanus. What they found was surprising—fragrant, fist-sized cones with a flavor profile reminiscent of Noble hops, yet utterly distinctive.

“As we were picking hops, which were a lot bigger than anticipated—some were the size of the palm of your hand—we discovered that over their growth stages, they took on different aromatic qualities,” Begay says. “I would say the aroma has these notes of damp earth and wild onion, with moderate dank notes. It’s definitely got that wild, organic, garlicky, root vegetable quality, which makes a lot of sense, since it grows at higher elevations.”

Bow & Arrow has only had their foeder for a little over a year now, but Begay is already excited for the possibilities it opens up. Although the brewery made a name for itself with pilsners, lagers and IPAs, it has branched into ambitious wild sours and farmhouse ales like Desert Revival, which ages on blackberries in oak barrels for a year, or With Love From New Mexico, a wine hybrid. Curio and its foeder-aged brethren open up the path to funkier fermentations.

“The foeder is like a living entity. You have to keep on feeding it,” Begay says. “You may think you’re the master, but you’re definitely not the boss. The barrel has its own ways of doing what it wants to do. Unpredictability isn’t always what you want to look for, but in this case, we welcome it.”

We feel a sense of responsibility as an indigenous brewery to make sure that we remain true to our culture.”

Embracing unpredictability has been paying off for Bow & Arrow. For years, mainstream food media in the United States largely overlooked the contributions and innovations of the nation’s original inhabitants. Thanks to trailblazers like Andy Murphy, founder of the Toasted Sister Podcast about Native foodways, and Sean Sherman, the James Beard Award-winning founder of The Sioux Chef, which focuses on pre-Columbian cuisine, that’s changing. 

As one of the few Native-American business owners in the craft beer space, Begay says she recognizes the importance of representing her heritage in a way that is authentic and respectful. Prior to starting the brewery, Sheppard’s background was in social impact investing, a philanthropically minded subset of venture capitalism, and Bow & Arrow’s commitment to social engagement reflects that. Before COVID-19, Bow & Arrow served as something of a hub for Albuquerque’s indigenous community, hosting everything from dinners for the local Native girls' basketball team to fundraisers for nonprofits benefiting LGBTQ organizations, conservation efforts, and Native communities. Every aspect of the brewery, from the causes it supports to the ingredients used to the designs in its taproom, is deeply rooted in the beliefs of its founders.

“We feel a sense of responsibility as an indigenous brewery to make sure that we remain true to our culture,” Begay says. “We try to be really mindful, to make sure we don’t pick all of the hops at once and that our practices are sustainable. Once our head brewer is finished, we’ll take pails of these ingredients back to the mountains or the woods where we found them, so they can go back to their home and hopefully resprout new plants. That’s just honoring the traditions of our culture.”

Scouring the woods for Neomexicanus is hard work, but Begay doesn’t mind. In the process of digging through history, Begay and Sheppard have created something radically new. 

“Manually foraging and preparing the hops means this is definitely a labor of love,” Begay says. “This beer is really beautiful. It’s a real, true American original in all aspects.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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