Putting a Clan in a Can

Putting a Clan in a Can

Morgan Crisp and 7 Clans Brewing

Words by Jonathan Shipley

Photos by Sabrina Hill

The name of the first woman was Selu. According to Cherokee legend, she originated from the very first cornstalk for the purpose of righting the serious wrongs of Kanati, the first man. Selu, goddess of the corn, taught her sons, before they killed her, how to plant and farm corn. Death does not matter to Selu. For even in death, Selu is resurrected with each harvest.

The name of the first Native American woman brewer in North Carolina is Morgan Crisp. A member of the Cherokee Nation, she started creating craft beers after being in and around the food and beverage industry in Asheville. Crisp, president and owner of 7 Clans Brewing with her husband, Travis Crisp, began her own brewery to share the stories of her people through beer. One of their first recipes was their 7 Clans Blonde Ale. It is inspired by Selu. The rich, medium-bodied ale incorporates a hint of corn to symbolize Selu’s eternal gift to the Cherokee.

Crisp’s gift to the Cherokee, and beer lovers far and wide, is to showcase good brews with the good news that Native Americans have a firm hand in telling their own stories and being proud of those stories. “It’s easy to be afraid,” Crisp says, undaunted as both a person of color and a woman in a predominantly white male industry, “but I had to do it, come what may.” What’s come are Crisp’s stories, and, by extension, the stories of the Cherokee, told through malts and mashes, casks and kegs, adjuncts and ABVs.

The story of Crisp’s brewery can start in Asheville. It can start with Sela, too. It can start when Crisp had her first craft beer. It can start with her mother. Crisp herself is a mother eager to pass on the legacies and traditions of her family and of the Cherokee people to her daughter. Those are stories too. There are many ways for a story to start. “The spirit of the craft brewers struck me,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of it.” With her husband, who says, “We pride ourselves on being entrepreneurs,” she thought that perhaps she could marry two things she loves—beer and storytelling—into a business. 7 Clans Brewing began to take shape.

Based in Cherokee, North Carolina, 7 Clans takes its name from the seven clans of the Cherokee: A-ni-gi-lo-hi (Long Hair), A-ni-sa-ho-ni (Blue), A-ni-wa-ya (Wolf), A-ni-go-te-ge-wi (Wild Potato), A-ni-a-wi (Deer), A-ni-tsi-s-qua (Bird), A-ni-wo-di (Paint). “This essential societal structure,” announced on the brewery’s website, “is matrilineal, recognizing the inherent responsibility of women to lead their communities in times of war and peace.” There have been only a few wars (barely skirmishes) and much peace. 

War: There are those who fear that an Indian starting a brewery will only exacerbate the preexisting stereotypes of Indians as drunks, lost on their reservation lands. Among contemporary Native Americans and Alaska Natives, 11.7 percent of all deaths are related to alcohol. By comparison, global deaths from alcohol is 5.9 percent. A survey of death certificates from 2006 to 2010 shows that deaths among Native Americans to alcohol are about four times as common as the general U.S. population. Also, a note: Cherokee land isn’t a reservation. The Cherokee bought back their land. The land is called the Qualla Boundary. “We couldn’t even have alcohol in the Qualla, except at the casino, until recently,” Crisp notes. She’s eager to expand her business on this tribal land. “There are people who are concerned, but there are others doing it and including our culture with no ties to us.” She references other businesses using the Cherokee name for all sorts of goods and services with no ties to the Cherokee Nation nor care of the Cherokee people. She says, “We’re so used to being used, to being portrayed in a certain way. These portrayals are false. They’re wrong and have nothing to do with us. I wanted to take ownership, to tell the stories of the Cherokee as a Cherokee.”

Peace: The craft beer industry has welcomed Crisp with open arms. “They make me feel at home. There are all sorts of different people with different perspectives and viewpoints. It’s exciting.” She understood, making her way through the industry as her dreams of becoming a brewer came fuller and fuller into fruition, that she had a voice—a voice that could be heard. “I can tell my own story now.”

She can do that in cans. Each of the beers she brews has deep personal connections. The aforementioned 7 Clans Blonde Ale celebrates womanhood. “I am a mother. Like my mother before me, I have a responsibility to my family, my tribe, my ancestors, to pass on all I know. That we have value. That we are not of the past. That we are not erased. That we are here. Hear, hear,” she says and raises a glass.

The Hop-Rooted IPA the brewery makes is in honor of her father and grandfather, both men who worked their farm and protected the land. “I got to dig in the dirt with them,” she recalls. Those childhood memories gave her a deep appreciation for the natural world and its cycles. The IPA is a harmonious blend of hops.

The Bended Tree Chestnut Brown Ale tells a story too. The Cherokees of the past made elaborate trail systems, leading them to hunting grounds and leading them home. Messages for future travelers were left on rocks and trees. “There are still markers that we were here,” she says of the North Carolina landscape, like bended trees. Guideposts, they were. The brown ale is malt-forward, leading thirst travelers today to the bottom of a pint glass.

Where will Crisp’s path lead? What chapters of her story are yet to be written? She’s started Frog Level Brewing Company, a microbrewery and taproom in Waynesville, North Carolina. She opened a taproom in Asheville in 2022—arguably the best beer town in all the South. She’s also eyeing a place within the Qualla, though she’s unsure as to when. “I’m an Indian. We have to let it happen. It will when it’s supposed to happen.” This is to say, another story set to begin.