The past decade has seen an explosion of craft beer breweries in the US as small businesses tap into growing demand for food and drink rooted in local traditions and ingredients.

Nowhere is this consumer movement more apparent, and unique, than at Bow & Arrow brewery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first and only brewery in the US owned by Native American women, 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.

“We have been very intentional about highlighting our special place in the south-west,” said Bow & Arrow’s co-founder and CEO, Shyla Sheppard, sitting with her fellow founder Missy Begay inside the high-ceilinged brewery. On one wall was a mounted cardboard sculpture of a buffalo bust – on another, a star-spangled Pendleton blanket set near a huge photograph of Monument Valley.

Shyla Sheppard: ‘People take for granted what’s in the backyard.’
Shyla Sheppard: ‘People take for granted what’s in the backyard.’ Photograph: Don James

According to Sheppard, this regional and indigenized aesthetic is present at every level of the Bow & Arrow business, from the art on the walls to the brewery’s “hop arrow” logo – symbolizing the cultural significance of the arrowhead to many Native American tribes – to the “beer and beer names”. The menu features selections such as Bolos and Bling (a play on the bolo tie of New Mexico and the jewelry for which Native Americans are known in the south-west), and Denim Tux, a playful reference to popular south-western apparel as well as a nod the color of the main ingredient, local blue corn, that is used in the beer.

For Sheppard, an economist and former social impact investor from the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, and Begay, a physician from the Navajo Nation, the use of local ingredients is another way to celebrate the region.

“People take for granted what’s in the backyard,” said Sheppard, explaining Bow & Arrow’s unique use of additives such as New Mexican hops, sumac berries, blue corn, regionally sourced malt and Navajo tea, an earthy, herbal plant used by the local Hopi, Pueblo and the Navajo Nation. “It was the drink of the summer,” said Begay, recalling days in the Canyon de Chelly region drinking cold homemade Navajo tea.

Hops, among the essential ingredients in beer, have long been used by Native Americans for their medicinal properties. “They recognized the bitter aspect of [hops] as an antiseptic. That kind of naturally led us to use Navajo tea,” said Begay, noting how the medical properties of the Navajo tea leaves led them to “a curiosity that transformed into this unique beer”.

Bow and Arrow’s neon facade.
Bow and Arrow’s neon facade. Photograph: Mike Graham for the Guardian

The sumac berries used in Bow & Arrow’s Way Out West-Sumac beer, meanwhile, are traditionally used by south-western tribes to make a refreshing drink.

More recently, Bow & Arrow began experimenting with wild yeasts found around Albuquerque.

“We have been trying to capture different native cultures in order to ferment our beer,” said the head Brewer, Ted O’Hanlan, explaining the process of putting wort (ground malt and water) outside to capture different microbes. “Depending on the moisture or wind in the air, you’re going to get a different native culture.”

“Incorporating local ingredients is part of our bigger plan, and I feel like we have just scratched the surface,” explained Begay.“We want to get to the point that not only are the additives locally sourced but also yeast – the thing that makes beer beer – is from this area.”.

Emilia Salas holds Navajo tea. She was part of the first graduating class at Central New Mexico Community College with a degree in brewing.
Emilia Salas holds Navajo tea. She was part of the first graduating class at Central New Mexico Community College with a degree in brewing. Photograph: Mike Graham for the Guardian

For Sheppard and Begay, who live just down the street from Bow & Arrow, the emphasis on place extends to a community-centered approach to daily operations.

“We are playing a part in creating this healthy ecosystem of businesses,” said Sheppard, who as CEO has taken pains to support local businesses by hosting local food trucks and volunteering space for neighborhood association meetings, not-for-profit fundraisers and pop-up markets.

That sensibility includes providing a safe and inclusive space for all – something at times lacking in the predominantly white and male beer industry.

Ted O’Hannan, the head brewer, checks the beers as they brew.
Ted O’Hannan, the head brewer, checks the beers as they brew. Photograph: Mike Graham for the Guardian

“You may find our brewery is more diverse than others,” said Sheppard. “Women have stopped us and said thank you for creating this space.”

Looking to the future, Sheppard and Begay see Bow & Arrow as part of a growing movement of businesses owned by native women. This year, the brewery hosted pre-conference kickoff event for the first annual Native Women’s Business Summit.

“To pack a room with Native women businesspeople was amazing,” said Sheppard of the nearly 150 people who attended. “I feel like there is becoming this critical mass where there is more conversation and dialogue and desire to support each other. To be a part of that is something we are very proud of.”

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