Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., the first Native women-owned brewery in the country, has created a genuinely Southwest-centric beer brand based on connections to the landscape, people, and magic of the region.
The beer aisle at Kelly Liquors on West Alameda Street in Santa Fe is an unusually cold place, which is lucky for the hundreds of six-packs that reside there, lucky for the people ready to drink them, and lucky for me, who arrived in a car without air-conditioning on a high eighties day in August 2021.
Falling short of climbing in the beer case, I take in the options. IPA. Stout. Lager. More IPA. The truth is, there are too many options. It’s a sea of hops and it feels monotonous until I reach a bottle with dusty pink artwork.
Etched on the label are thin gold lines that create mountain tops and pretty geometric shapes. Minimal sans-serif font spells out Desert Revival. Desert Revival. It’s a barrel-aged apricot sour ale, fermented on natural apricots with brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. I don’t have the slightest idea what that means, but I’m sold.
If you’ve frequented a beer aisle in New Mexico lately, you already know this is a beer by Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in Albuquerque. If you haven’t, meet the first Native women-owned brewery in the country. It’s also the unofficial, especially after seeing it, official champion of beer-label design.
The Rock Between Mile Markers 14 and 17
The great craft beer boom that’s firmly in the mainstream was already alive and well in the Southwest when Shyla Sheppard and Missy Begay founded Bow & Arrow Brewing five years ago.
Stanford graduates, the two turned a home-brew hobby into a serious business. Their press coverage ranges from Glamour to Hop Culture, and it’s easy to see why—their taproom in the Wells Park neighborhood in Albuquerque (608 McKnight Avenue NW) is straight-up beautiful.
Walk in and you’ll find tall white walls, gold-finished taps, brand elements throughout the space, and flattering lighting. It’s feminine. It’s welcoming for those of us a little less likely to be considered the “target market” of a male-dominated industry. It’s a mood.
Perhaps even more than a noticeably women-owned business, Bow & Arrow Brewing is a decidedly Southwest enterprise. Evident in branding, ingredients, and spirit, the Southwest flows through the veins of Bow & Arrow as Sheppard (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes) and Begay always intended.
When we’re seeking out these ingredients, we make sure that the ingredient is abundant, that it’s not endangered, that we can collect it safely, and that it’s something that we can put safely into our beers.
Begay was born in Albuquerque and raised on the Navajo (Diné) Nation. It’s clear in speaking with her that the land, culture, and heritage of the Southwest drives her decisions as the company’s co-founder and creative director. From bottle labels to beer names, every element of Bow & Arrow’s branding is about telling stories of the region. In her role as creative director, Begay works with artists and designers to best tell these stories. (It feels worth noting that Begay is also a full-time physician. She describes her role at Bow & Arrow as “a really awesome hobby.”) When Begay talks about her process, there’s an emphasis on authenticity. There’s no match for the in-your-bones knowing that comes from lived experience.
For some of the company’s early illustrations, Begay worked with a friend from high school, artist Dale Deforest, who is from Shiprock, New Mexico. “From Monument Valley to Bisti Badlands, he actually grew up in that area, so when I said, ‘Can you draw that rock that exists between mile markers fourteen and seventeen on your way out of Farmington?’, he was like, ‘Yeah, I know which one you’re talking about.’”
There’s a notebook at Bow & Arrow (location not disclosed) full of potential beer names. Begay said that it becomes harder every month to come up with a name that isn’t already in use, which may account for recent releases like Goes Well with Queso, Lullabies, Legends, and Lies, or Through the Desert on A Horse with No Name. This challenge makes for some charming and possibly slightly-awkward-to-say-out-loud results. Imagine yelling for a pint of Goes Well with Queso at a busy bar.
The narrative feel is befitting for a brand whose mission is telling true stories of the high desert landscape we call home. A sky that can take your breath away any night of the week, the smell of burning piñon, the feeling of running in a monsoon, getting woken in the middle of the night by coyote cries—there is a sense of familiarity when you recognize someone else who gets it. That’s the feeling I get looking at Bow & Arrow—anyone can enjoy the cool sunset imagery, but if you know, you know.
The storytelling in Bow & Arrow’s branding is, like the shape of the adobe wall silhouette on their Hola Hazy (a hazy India Pale Ale), subtle, precise, and thoughtful.
“We try to tell stories that either we lived or that our ancestors lived and make sure that we try to tell that correctly and carefully,” Begay said. “When you’re working on these things that you actually live or experience, it becomes really easy to be involved and to create that process because it’s very authentic.”
While some of us judge a beer by its label (guilty), Begay and Sheppard brew beers that stand up to their exterior, embodying the Southwest in their literal content, too. Another of Begay’s roles is considering the use of Southwest ingredients in their beers.
“I come from a family of what is now known as foragers. I’m Navajo and Diné, my grandma was a Navajo botanist,” she said. “I grew up learning about plants and understanding their uses and medicinal purposes.”
Unlike most other products we consume, alcohol ingredients aren’t regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. Regardless, Begay makes a point of including responsibly sourced plants.
“One of the first herbs that I believe we used was Navajo tea, or Cota tea. I grew up as a kid drinking that as your everyday Kool-Aid so it made perfect sense to try and put that into a beer,” Begay explained. “When we’re seeking out these ingredients, we make sure that the ingredient is abundant, that it’s not endangered, that we can collect it safely, and that it’s something that we can put safely into our beers.” She is a doctor, after all.
As is typical in the industry, Bow & Arrow doesn’t disclose its formulas, but they often share a long description of what’s in their beers, and it’s easy to sense their pride.
“It’s really fun because I think to go out and find an ingredient that lives out there in the wild and to actually make a plan to go get it, to find it, to cultivate enough of it without disturbing its natural habitat, and then bring it back, prepare it, and put it into our beer, that’s not something that you find in most craft beers,” said Begay.
Since the beer industry churns out an astronomical amount of beer each year, sustainability can be hard to achieve. Yet at Bow & Arrow, innate respect for the land is woven throughout the manufacturing process.
“A lot of the beers are using tons and tons of commercial product,” Begay said, “which of course is necessary, but I think when you cultivate a beer that’s so special like that, you put a lot of care and attention into it, that it becomes something really unique and special and we’re really proud of that.”
A Seat at the Table
When I spoke with Begay in mid-August, Bow & Arrow was six days shy of opening the Rambler, its second taproom. Located about 180 miles northwest of Albuquerque in Farmington, New Mexico, the Rambler (5100 E Main Street, #109) is a testament to Bow & Arrow’s devotion to home.
A majority of New Mexico breweries with second locations open in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Farmington, with a population of 44,372 (2019 Census), seems like an unusual choice for a burgeoning business, but, as Begay explained, it felt entirely on-brand to expand to the Navajo Nation border town.
“We have a lot of family there and we spend a lot of time in the Four Corners,” she said. “It really embodies the spirit of our brewery—celebrating the outdoors, having respect for nature, trying to work with the local farms and all that. So we think Farmington is a really good fit for us.”
The location in Farmington, the use of local ingredients, beers with names like Denim Tux—Bow & Arrow Brewing does things their way. When they opened five years ago, it was the first Native women-owned brewery in the country. Diversity in the beer industry is growing, but starting off was far from easy for Begay and the brewery.
“Anytime you enter a space that doesn’t automatically feel welcoming to you, it definitely is a challenge because people might not think you belong there, and a lot of people have trepidations about what value you can bring to that table,” she said. “I think history and unfortunately the current times have taught us that we can’t exist in this binary perspective. That we need all people of color, all perspectives at the table if we’re going to move forward in a more sustainable way.”
With five years, two taprooms, a prolific selection of beers, and a number of industry acknowledgments including the 2020 Brewbound Rising Star Award under its belt, Bow & Arrow is seated firmly at the table in all its Southwest glory. Begay acknowledged the role the company can play for future brewers dreaming of their own place in the industry.
“When you run a business in New Mexico, you have to make sure that it inspires the next generation of people,” she said. “We’re hoping that the next younger craft brewery coming up behind us is inspired by what we do and also wants to represent New Mexico in that really true way.”