Although there remains a lot of debate on when and how beer was first introduced to Native Americans, many believe that tribes across North America were already drinking various types of fermented beverages for a millennium. However, hops – the typical ingredient crucial at making beer – weren’t introduced to the Americas until Europeans arrived, so it wouldn’t have been beer in the traditional sense.
Regardless of ingredients and introduction, Native Americans have long used local ingredients to create masterpieces in the culinary and beverage worlds. And many tribes continue to do just that, as they enter the world of craft beers.
SkyDance Brewing Co. is one of the first Native American-owned breweries to launch in the U.S.
One of the first Native American-owned brewing companies in the country, SkyDance Brewing Co. has recently had a grand opening in Oklahoma City – and with it comes increased recognition of Native American breweries.
Jacob Keyes, a member of the Iowa Nation, opened SkyDance Brewing Co. in 2018 in honor of his father. Since then he’d been running the brewery out of a co-op, but recently opened his own location.
Keyes said he and his father had always wanted to open their own brewery. One day, Keyes found one of his father’s beer recipes and made a batch. His friends insisted he enter it into a competition, which he won. That evening, Keyes’ brother called him to say their father had died.
“I felt like it was a sign I had to start the brewery,” Keyes told Gaylord News, and he has been involved with the Ioway tribe since he was young. Before starting the brewery, he worked in the casino industry.
Community and his Indigenous culture are key components of the new brewery.
According to the Skydance Brewing Co. website, it is the first Native American-owned brewery in Oklahoma City. In a statement to the Oklahoma City tourism board, Keyes said, “Our goal is to use the branding (and) storytelling through our beer to educate people when they come into the taproom. Even though we’re in Oklahoma, and there’s 39 tribes here, a lot of people don’t fully understand them.”
He also hopes people come with questions, eager to learn more about his culture and identity.
“We want (customers) to come in and be surrounded by the culture,” Keyes told VisitOKC. “When they ask what Fancy Dance, our number one beer, means, we have an opportunity to tell them about that dance and how it’s important to our people.”
Perhaps most shocking is the success the brewery has already enjoyed. Alcohol isn’t allowed on Ioway trust lands and Keyes’s territory is dry. Yet many of the nearby casinos have his beers on tap — in some bars, his tap handles claim over half of the available real estate.
There is a small but growing network of Native-owned breweries popping up across the U.S.
The past decade has seen an explosion of craft beer breweries in the U.S. as small businesses tap into growing demand for food and drink rooted in local traditions and ingredients. Although many Native Americans have long been told they can’t participate in the business world, or that alcohol is off-limits thanks to a colonial history that used alcohol to decimate Native populations, some are jumping at the opportunity to join the craft movement.
Bow & Arrow Brewery, in Albuquerque, NM, is the first and only brewery in the U.S. owned by Native American women, and it has carved a space in the predominantly white and male-dominated industry by showcasing elements of their tribal identities, communities and ingredients through beer.
“People take for granted what’s in the backyard,” Bow & Arrow co-founder Shyla Sheppard explained to The Guardian, about the brewery’s infusion of special, local ingredients such as New Mexican hops, sumac berries, blue corn, regionally sourced malt and Navajo tea, an herbal plant used by the local Hopi, Pueblo and the Navajo Nation.
For some Native American-owned breweries, owners say it’s paramount that they reclaim their culture from exploitation.
Like Skydance Brewing Co., many of the other breweries use names that harken to their experiences as Native Americans. Rincon Reservation Road Brewing, for instance, has a blueberry Saison called Tuupash, inspired by the Luiseño word for “sky,” as well as an amber ale called Red Rattler that’s an ode to the red diamond rattlesnake that lives on their reservation in Southern California.
Some of the breweries use ingredients native to their reservations or have historical importance to their people. Corn is incorporated in 7 Clans blonde ale, not for taste, but for symbolism. Owle-Crisp says she wanted to craft a beer in honor of Selu, the First Woman and mother of corn for the Cherokee people. Similarly, Rincon Reservation Road has used locally sourced honey, sage and elderberries in their brews.
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