The owners of New Mexico’s Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. hope to inspire the next generation of Indigenous brewers
In spring 2022, Shyla Sheppard sat at a long bench in the two-story beer hall at Bow & Arrow Brewing Co.’s flagship location in Albuquerque, New Mexico, arranging flowers. The brewery’s co-founder and CEO, Sheppard cut the stems of purple, white, and golden blossoms, and tucked them into white ceramic vases. In the taproom, where ambiance is a vital part of the tasting experience, no detail is too small to escape her notice. Above her, a faux trophy mount of a sculptural white buffalo presides over the room. The sculpture reminds her daily of a lesson from her grandfather, who raised bison. He would tell her that, even in a blizzard, the buffalo would turn to face the storm.
Sheppard, who has heritage from the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara of North Dakota), and her business partner and wife, Dr. Missy Begay, who has Diné heritage (the term many Navajo people prefer to describe themselves) founded Bow & Arrow in 2016. They set out to simply make great beer, but in starting Bow & Arrow, they founded the first Native American woman-owned brewery in the U.S. and faced down stereotypes about who helms breweries.
After Bow & Arrow’s initial launch, Sheppard and Begay brewed a rather straightforward lineup of traditional beers: IPAs, lagers, and stouts, with no unique variations. But a year in, they debuted the wild and sour beers they’ve since become known for. Bow & Arrow cultivates yeast for its wild beers from the spritely estate peach tree growing on its patio and a nearby lavender farm, which also gives its beers a sense of place. “Going in, we were aware there were not a lot of people who looked like us. Our backgrounds made us unique, and we gradually wanted to develop that aspect of what we were doing,” Sheppard says.
Local and Indigenous ingredients, such as blue corn, sumac, prickly pear, and juniper, weave into both Bow & Arrow beers and the brewery’s new line of hard seltzers. “We wanted to explore our connection to this special place. The land, the people. Indigenous ingredients captured our imagination,” Sheppard says. The blue corn for Denim Tux, an American pilsner that anchors their core beer list, hails from a few miles down the highway where the Pueblo of Santa Ana cultivates the heritage crop, roasts it, and mills it as one of several tribal enterprises. And three-leaf sumac from Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, another tribally affiliated business, appears in a limited-release Foeder-Aged Farmhouse Ale.
Sheppard and Begay are building relationships with Native American farmers in the Four Corners area near their Farmington, New Mexico, taproom for ingredients they plan to feature in future beers, such as squash and pumpkin. And for the past two years, they’ve foraged for neomexicanus hops, a subspecies that’s grown in the American Southwest — and, as it happens, New Mexico — for millennia. “It’s a true American original,” Sheppard says. “In a lot of circles, it’s an ingredient that people get really excited about. The fact that we have wild hops that grow in our own backyard, we were fascinated.” The first year, the early harvest lent the hops a more herbal, onion flavor profile to their Curio beer. “We were like, ‘That’s cool. That’s what it wants to be.’” Last year, a later harvest yielded fruitier melon notes in a pilot batch of a wet-hopped Italian pilsner.
Many of these ingredients have cultural significance. Begay, a practicing physician in addition to being Bow & Arrow’s creative director, studies Native American, and in particular Diné, medicines to supplement Western ones. Her research unearthed examples of the Diné using the hops in antiseptic salves and tinctures to aid sleep. Sheppard and Begay have also foraged for Navajo tea, also known as greenthread (Thelesperma megapotamicum), which Southwest pueblos and tribes have used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes for generations. It was used to soothe stomach aches and other digestive upset, reduce fevers, and reduce dental pain, among other applications. Incorporating these elements into their beers lets Sheppard and Begay carry on their cultural practices while giving the ingredients a new purpose. “When you forage, you have to be in a good place mentally,” Sheppard says. “When you’d go out for a particular ingredient, it might hide from you. If it does present itself, we give thanks that it has presented itself.”
Bow & Arrow has earned critical raves, including being named one of Hop Culture’s 12 Best Breweries of 2021 and receiving Brewbound’s Rising Star award in 2020, and has achieved pop-culture success, even pouring at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Although occasional naysayers among Sheppard’s community have criticized Bow & Arrow for incorporating ingredients they feel should be kept among Indigenous peoples, Sheppard brushes off these reproaches. “Anything you do, especially if it’s pushing the envelope and it’s different, will gain some criticism. It’s never been anything I believe. I just disagree with their opinions,” she says.
Sheppard came to beer following a career in social impact investing in New Mexico. She had parlayed her Stanford economics degree into a decade of work immersed in entrepreneurialism, but always as an advisor, not an in-the-trenches business owner herself. She finally decided to fulfill her long-held dream of owning a business. If she was going to pour herself into building a business, she figured she may as well do so around her passion — beer. “I’m doing things I enjoy and the underpinning of it is approaching things with a level of respect and thoughtfulness.”
Foraging and sourcing heritage ingredients connects Sheppard to her culture, which she views as a way of reclaiming sovereignty. “I grew up with these stories of where we came from and our foodways. I feel fortunate to have had that because there’s been gaps in generations,” she says, referring to historical systems of oppression such as Indian Boarding Schools that interfered with Native American spirituality, languages, and foodways.
“We’re reclaiming our history and narrative. I think the contributions that Native people have had to agriculture have been erased or dismissed. It’s important to share that story to non-Native people, but also to other Native folks,” she says. “I think fostering that appreciation and connection to our history brings about healthier Native communities.”
And recently, Bow & Arrow has used its informal leadership role to educate and advocate. Prior to the pandemic, Sheppard noticed the rise of Indigenous land acknowledgements. She saw these hat-tips to Indigenous communities as the traditional residents of U.S. lands problematic. “On the one hand, I appreciated the acknowledgement,” Sheppard remembers. “However, people seemed to be acknowledged in the past tense. There was a disconnect there. I wanted them to acknowledge that we still exist.”
“Indigenous communities have been displaced, disrupted, interrupted, and imposed upon,” she continues. “They have experienced a loss of language, foodways, and kinship.” She wondered, how were these land acknowledgements doing anything to correct or counteract those experiences?
On October 11, 2021, Indigenous People’s Day, Bow & Arrow launched Native Land, a collaboration beer that invited breweries across the U.S. to use a provided IPA recipe for a common mission: “to acknowledge the contributions and history of Native American people in the United States,” Sheppard said in a November Instagram post. Participating breweries could also use a can design template that included space for a land acknowledgement.
Bow & Arrow released its inaugural Native Land brew in November, also Native American Heritage Month. It was made on the ancestral lands of the Tiwa People. Skydance Brewing in Oklahoma City followed with a beer honoring the Wichita, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, and Osage. Ruse Brewing in Portland, Oregon, recognized the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde with its Native Land brew, and Alchemist Beer in Stowe, Vermont, acknowledged the Abenaki. By the end of the initial campaign in March 2022, 53 breweries in 24 states and one Canadian province brewed Native Land beer.
Importantly for Sheppard, these beers didn’t just provide a written acknowledgement of the presence of native peoples. They were vehicles for activism. Each brewery donated a portion of proceeds to a Native American-operated nonprofit. So far, between $1,400 and $9,000 per brewery has gone to organizations like Natives Outdoors; tribal community projects; and Bow & Arrow’s chosen beneficiary, First Nations Development Institute, supporting Native American community economic development. The beer joined other notable charity beers such as Sierra Nevada’s Resilience IPA, which raised money for the Camp Fire Relief Fund.
Bow & Arrow’s reflections around land acknowledgements pushed Native Land beer to become widely adopted across the U.S. Although the project was initially slated to conclude in March, demand has already extended the deadline to September 2022 for participating breweries to join and release their beers.
“It’s opened people’s eyes to history so they can appreciate where they exist and whose lands they are on,” Sheppard says. “It’s exciting the awareness that’s been created among the brewing community and the public.” Native Land beer has also been meaningful for the brewers themselves. Sheppard says, “It feels like we’re being seen and heard. Like we’re not being pigeonholed into one type of person.”
Sheppard hopes the path Bow & Arrow is cutting through the brewery field is one that more Native-owned breweries can follow. They’re among a handful of Native-owned operations in the U.S., including Oklahoma City’s Skydance Brewing, as well as 7 Clans Brewing in Cherokee, North Carolina, and Rincon Reservation Road Brewery, which has two California locations. “Having done what we’ve done — in what I hope is a respectful way of incorporating our culture and background — I think it’s inspiring other brewers.”
Ashley M. Biggers is an Albuquerque, New Mexico–based journalist who writes about travel, cuisine, and wellness.