Despite what Samuel Adams might lead you to believe, beer isn’t actually that all-American. In fact, long before America was even America, beer was already being brewed here—with corn, by Native Americans.
Brewing and fermentation have been ancient practices in both Mesoamerica and South America. In North America, low-alcohol, corn-based beers have historically been used in Native-American ceremonies. But this legacy is not well represented within mainstream beer culture.
Lately, however, Native American-owned breweries including Seven Clans, Bow and Arrow, and Indian Joe have helped to revive indigenous traditions and quash stereotypes that have beset the community for so long.
For Max Moran, the owner of Indian Joe in Vista, California, his brewery is a tribute to his family’s beer history. In the 1900s, Moran’s great uncle Will “Indian Joe” Giddens was known for brewing excellent beers made with ingredients like prickly pear and elderberry, gathered from nearby reservations in northern San Diego. Inspired by his ancestor, Moran started brewing small-batch beer in his 20s, under the tutelage of his father and a German master brewer. He made beers with sage, raspberries, and apricots gathered from the area. “People went crazy over them,” he said. So, in 2012 he launched his brewery, naming it in honor of his uncle.
Others Native-American brewery owners came to the beer world through other means, but found success by leaning into their heritage.
Shyla Sheppard, the co-owner of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in Albuquerque (along with Missy Begay), was a social impact investor before she co-founded the brewery in 2016. She saw beer as a good business opportunity initially, but soon realized its potential as a means for expressing indigenous identity. “I realized that I hadn’t really seen anyone focused on creating a sense of place or highlighting this unique part of the country” in the beer world, she says. “We were both Native women, and there are certain culinary aspects we thought would be interesting to incorporate into our beer.” They’ve since brewed beers using Navajo tea, sumac berries sourced from a Navajo enterprise, and blue corn.
With Seven Clans, a barely year-old nomadic brewing operation located outside of Asheville, North Carolina, founder Morgan Owle-Crisp was initially interested in the brewing business because she saw how Asheville’s social scene had been shaped by the craft beer boom. But when it came time to create a brand, she thought of the original Cherokee mother, Selu. “She is the goddess of the corn. She represents compassion and sacrifice,” Owle-Crisp says. It seemed only appropriate to dedicate the inaugural beer—a malty blonde ale—to her, with a depiction of Selu on the label.
Owle-Crisp adds that women are typically responsible for making fermented beverages in Cherokee tradition, and Seven Clans continues that practice as a woman-owned business. Even the name of the brewery is a reference to the matrilineal social system that many Cherokees follow today.
But as much as beer is a part of indigenous history, many Native Americans have a uneasy relationship with it. In the wake of colonization, when tribal land was seized and many communities were forced into abject poverty, a lot of these fermentation traditions were halted. At the same time, Native Americans were stereotyped as alcoholics, and many communities who lost their land have dealt with addiction issues. Even when Prohibition ended in 1933, Native Americans were not allowed to drink or purchase alcohol until two decades later.
Owle-Crisp says that the Qualla Boundary, where she grew up in western North Carolina, has historically been dry ever since Cherokee chief Yonaguska suffered from alcoholism and banished booze from the territory in 1819. As a result, running a brewery “has been a really controversial topic” within her tribe, she says. “There are still people in our tribe that are traditional and practice temperance. Also, we are in the Bible Belt.”
The beer industry has not traditionally been the most friendly to Native Americans, either—from the corporate beer behemoths opening stores on tribal land to the racist imagery that appears on countless beer labels.
You have to realize, Native Americans are such a small population, and there are people that have never met a Native American.”
“I feel like it is an act of sovereignty,” Owle-Crisp says of her company. For so long, she adds, Native-Americans have been told what they can and can’t do related to alcohol. “That’s crazy to me. Sometimes we still put these stipulations on ourselves without realizing we are doing it. You hear people say, ‘We don’t want alcohol here because there are all these social issues.’ I wanted to stick my neck out against that.”
She’s hopeful that the emphasis on the social aspects of the craft beer movement will change Native-American communities’ perceptions about beer. “Cherokee people have always been very social,” she says. In her mind, there’s no reason beer shouldn’t be a part of that culture.
And just as she hopes to change Native Americans’ perceptions of beer, she hopes to change the rest of the country’s perceptions about Native Americans. “I have been able to tell my story through beer,” Owle-Crisp says. “I am able to say, ‘Here we are. This is us.’”
Bow and Arrow’s Sheppard echoes that thinking. “I want to rise above it,” she says. “I was excited to reclaim some of those things that were authentic to us and our experience.”
For her, that means coming up with branding that speaks to Native American culture in the Southwest. Bow and Arrow recently released its Bolos & Bling, the label for which was designed by Native-American artist Dale Deforest. “[It] pays tribute to the strong heritage of silversmithing in the Southwest and procurement of luxury jewelry, including the Bolo tie, throughout the world,” says Sheppard.
“The difference in what we are doing here is that there is a lot more thoughtfulness,” she adds. “It is not just, ‘We think this is a cool image.’ There is a story behind every one of our labels.”
Moran of Indian Joe wants to use his platform to empower other Native Americans, and his brewery puts on fundraisers to benefit the community. Likewise, Bow and Arrow hosts a lecture series on everything from the importance of access to public lands to the drought in the West. It has held events to support clean water access for a special needs school on a Navajo reservation, and it spearheaded a winter clothing drive for Standing Rock last year.
Owle-Crisp believes strongly in the power of beer to effect change.
“You have to realize, Native Americans are such a small population, and there are people that have never met a Native American,” she says. “Beer is so universal. It can bring people together. It can bridge gaps.”