Following in the footsteps of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in Albuquerque, N.M., and Indian Joe Brewing outside San Diego in the city of Vista, Calif., Seven Clans Brewing joins the growing number of beer producers owned by Native Americans. As a female majority-owned business of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian members, the brewery also honors a larger legacy.
“First peoples crafted fermented beverages to consume socially, for medicine and ceremonies. From what we know about women’s roles in these cultures, it was most often the responsibility of women to make it,” says Morgan Owle-Crisp, Seven Clans president.
“Cherokee women have always been vital to their communities. In a matriarchal society, Cherokee women made the decisions for their families, grew and harvested crops, were warriors and had roles in government. We honor and respect our Cherokee women and want to emulate their strength and courage.”
The “we” in question includes Vice President Collette Coggins and two additional owners: Owle-Crisp’s husband, Travis Crisp (also a vice president and operations manager), and Frank Bonomo (secretary), all of whom are involved with other businesses. The Crisps own the book publishing and distribution company Cherokee Publications, operate hotels in Cherokee and Sylva, and construct modular houses in the Asheville area. They also have ownership experience in the restaurant industry.
Coggins and her husband own Cherokee Nation Construction, which has been responsible for the majority of construction for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. They also own several retail shops in Cherokee.
Bonomo is a radiologist and partner at Carolina West Radiology. They all work together, but Owle-Crisp says she and Coggins “are really the face of the brand,” which began with the concept of creating a tasting room/brewpub experience.
“It started with an appreciation of how the craft beer industry could start in a small town or in an underused area and instantaneously create economic movement and excitement around it,” Owle-Crisp says. “Economic growth in Cherokee has been particularly slow, and we have a personal interest in creating a spark that will hopefully encourage new entrepreneurs to arise.”
Seven Clans’ owners have not yet applied for a brewery license anywhere. Their first choice for a taproom is on the Qualla Boundary, where alcoholic beverage laws are administered by the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. They are also exploring several other locations in Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. In the meantime, Owle-Crisp and her business partners have contracted with BearWaters Brewing Co. in Canton to brew their recipes.
“That’s where we are right now: Learning, experimenting, making mistakes, making new friends and just trying to create quality beers that people will enjoy,” Owle-Crisp says. “Because we were unprepared to take a giant leap into the beer world, we thought it made sense to take small steps. For us, that meant creating our brand and trying it out in the market before building a brewery. We were impressed by BearWaters and their commitment to quality control, and we entered into a contract brewing agreement with them.”
Together, they’re working to create a few year-round brews. Hop-Rooted IPA will be released at the end of April, and there are plans for a saison in summer and two darker beers to finish out 2018. Grain for Seven Clans’ beers is being sourced from the Country Malt Group in Fletcher, while yeast comes from Asheville’s White Labs. For now, there’s MotherTown Blonde Ale, which debuted March 10 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
“Harrah’s has made it clear that they support Native American entrepreneurship, and we are grateful for their commitment,” Owle-Crisp says. “We were also able to meet Bret Michaels [who was there to play a concert], and he was very complimentary of our aspirations. He is a genuinely nice human. We gave him a beautifully made Cherokee basket full of swag, and we hope one day he wears one of our bandannas.”
Seven Clans already has cans — packaged using its own Cask Brewing Systems microcanning line — of MotherTown Blonde in a few area stores, including Asheville’s Appalachian Vintner, Blue Ridge Beer Hub in Waynesville and Bryson City Outdoors. It also has kegs at restaurants, including CJ’s Grille in Bryson City and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse at Harrah’s. The owners are concentrating on creating a solid brand before interviewing distribution companies, intentionally starting slowly to build its reputation one beer at a time.
And while it has yet to reach out to the other native-owned breweries, the brewery intends to form relationships with them. Also on the owners’ minds is the stereotype of Native American alcoholism and the potential resistance Seven Clans may face.
“Many Native American people have suffered from the addiction and misuse of alcohol. When whiskey was introduced to native peoples by colonizers, it came with some consequences that have been historically detrimental to native peoples,” Owle-Crisp says. “Because of this, many Native Peoples have — and rightfully so — a negative view on the use of any mind-altering substance. Many practice temperance and do not want their culture associated in any way with alcohol. We understand that position and respect their opinions.”
She continues, “Stereotypes exist, unfortunately, but people can choose to wallow in it and let those words define them or simply prove it wrong. It is not part of our mission to change people’s perceptions about Native Americans and alcohol, but if there is a positive change out of stereotypical thinking, we will be glad to have helped influence that.”