by Ale Sharpton
Photos by Patrick Heagney
Pull quote: “Though I know the process can feel slow, we’ve done a lot already to make Georgia better, but there are still big wins that we need.” Nancy Palmer, Executive Director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild
Nancy Palmer’s name is renowned not only in the South’s craft beer scene, but also throughout the nation—and for good reason. Serving as the executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, Palmer has spearheaded some of the most significant law changes in the Peach State’s history, including arguably the most impactful—2017’s State Bill 85, which permits breweries to sell their product to their thirsty supporters directly on site and to go, plus other unprecedented benefits. On a national level, she has also received the prestigious F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award by the Brewers Association in 2018, honoring her diligence and successful lobbying efforts. She is the first woman to receive such an accolade.
A proud University of Georgia graduate with a double major in religion and philosophy, Palmer is also known for her outgoing personality, humor, sophistication, and keenness for fashion. The latter was utilized during the cover shoot of Southern Craft Beer’s Summer Issue, as Palmer settled on a flowing floral summer dress from bags of wardrobe options presented to her on location at the scenic terrace of midtown Atlanta’s luxurious Loews Hotel. Following the afternoon’s session captured by revered photographer Patrick Heagney, Palmer did not let the glass of Creature Comforts’ Tropicália used in the shoot go to waste and happily fielded a Q&A to discuss her career, the presence of women in the craft beer industry, and the overall standing of Georgia’s beer scene.
Southern Craft Magazine: How did you get to be where you are with the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild?
Nancy Palmer: I was working as a consultant in the restaurant industry when I heard about this “little organization” that could use some consulting work. I started working with the Guild part-time, working with the leadership to help make the organization look, feel, and act like something that breweries could sustain. Once the Guild was established enough to hire an executive director, I naturally applied for the job. That was six years ago!
SCM: Yep, time flies! Since your appointment, are you happy about the rate of inclusion regarding women in the craft beer industry?
NP: First, across the country, there are actually tons of female Guild executive directors—maybe even more than men! So I haven’t found that there’s any challenge with being a woman and a leader in this area of the industry. In my job, I deal with brewery folks and politicians—all of which are mostly men. The politicians are much more difficult to work with as a woman.
But just because I personally find the industry welcoming, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do. First, it’s difficult for anyone to walk in anywhere where they don’t see people that look like them. Diverse hiring makes the practice much easier down the road, but the initial challenge is to actively, purposely recruit to make your business reflect your personal diversity goals. I’d love our industry to get a little better at understanding that minorities aren’t just going to wake up one day and decide to walk into an industry that looks very male and very white; the industry has to work—I mean really work—to make minorities feel comfortable, and then it’ll start getting easier for everyone.
Second, and more specifically, more often than not, I see breweries where the face of the brewery is a male owner. The same goes for a brewmaster. These breweries almost always have female employees, but they’re in sales or running the office operations. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think there’s something insidious about having the men go to the beer festivals, awards ceremonies, press interviews, industry events, and be seen while there’s a very competent woman in the background without whom the business would be in disarray. Of course, there’s no beer without a brewmaster, but there’s also no beer without a salesperson or someone to run payroll or an office manager organizing everyone’s calendars or a taproom manager…You get the point. I think the industry could really work on highlighting the cadre of employees that support the brewmaster and owner, and those employees are more likely to be minorities than the guys in the jobs we’ve learned to venerate. Basically, I’m saying let’s all send our office managers to GABF [Great American Beer Festival]!
SCM: Well said. What’s an average day for Nancy Palmer working for the Guild?
NP: [Laughing] There isn’t an average day for me, except for when the state legislature is in session. Those days are very straightforward. You wake up, go to the Capitol, stay there all day long, and then go to some kind of event at night. When we’re out of session, my day-to-day duties vary pretty wildly. Just like everyone else’s in that it’s a balance of managing the immediate stuff with finding time to work on larger and longer-term projects. Based on the feedback I get, I’d say that our members find the Guild’s legal, regulatory prowess and knowledge very helpful; [they] find our legislative initiatives very valuable; and after those efforts, [they] find the work we do with continuing education and cost-saving programs helpful, as well. I can say that every day I answer at least one—but usually several—questions about state, local, and federal laws and regulations for our brewers. Every day.
SCM: What is the most challenging part of your job?
NP: I think the most challenging part of my job is accounting, but that’s just because I’m the furthest thing from a “numbers person.” But there’s no doubt that the hardest and biggest job the Guild has to do on a whole is to continue to push Georgia to become a competitive craft beer state. I have a tongue-in-cheek campaign to “Make Georgia Average!” [laughing] If Georgia was an average craft beer state, our breweries wouldn’t have a cap on the amount of beer they can sell to the public, our breweries would be allowed to self-distribute, our breweries would be able to easily enforce distribution agreements, and we’d have twice as many breweries doing those things! Though I know the process can feel slow, we’ve done a lot already to make Georgia better; but there are still big wins that we need.
SCM: That’s real. Well, what can Georgia’s craft beer scene look forward to?
NP: Clearly, Georgia has a lot of new breweries to look forward to. We still rank 50th in breweries per capita, and we have a lot of breweries to open if we’re going to move the needle on that statistic, so that’s very exciting! But on the flip side, we rank 15th among states in total craft beer production. Yes, we know we don’t have a lot of breweries, but the ones that we have make a lot of beer and are larger than breweries in other states. I am concerned that there aren’t as many taproom-only breweries opening as I thought there would be at this point. That’s clearly where national trends are heading, but for every small, taproom-only brewery that opens, it feels like two breweries with major distribution goals open. Ultimately, Georgians are going to have a lot more state-made craft beer available at their local grocery stores in the next year.
SCM: What law would you want passed if you could snap your fingers and make it a reality?
NP: [Laughing] Am I allowed to make it a really long bill that includes everything I want? Initially, I was thinking about a state law, but actually I think I would pass a federal law. If the Federal government could regulate things like direct sales, shipping, and distribution rights, then all of the breweries in the country would be on the same playing field. That’s what makes Georgia so frustrating! Our brewers can’t make money or change their business models like breweries in nearly every other state. While parity across state lines isn’t a big deal for a small neighborhood brewery, it is a big deal for border cities that want breweries to open, and it’s a really big deal for breweries competing across state lines with businesses that have more flexibility and cash flow than our Georgia-grown businesses.
SCM: Speaking of cities, which ones in Georgia are you keeping your eye on in terms of craft beer growth?
NP: Clearly, Atlanta is going to continue to see growth; but I’m more excited about the very small towns that could use a little brewery in their downtown. I think we have a lot of towns that would love it. Specifically, if there’s any city that I think is underserved, it’s Augusta. It’s Georgia’s second largest city and could have such an exciting beer culture. Everyone run to Augusta and give that beer scene some love!
SCM: Last, what beer are you going to want to toast with when you get this issue in your hands, and where would you want to be when you have it?
NP: I’ll probably walk down to Georgia Beer Garden on Edgewood Ave. in Atlanta and try any pale ale I haven’t tried before. You see how I avoided picking a favorite brewery there?
SCM: Yep! Well done. Very political of you.