Skip to main content

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The San Francisco Giants’ stadium, Oracle Park, will now sell three craft beers from a brewery owned by the Yurok Tribe. It’s the first partnership of its kind with a Major League Baseball franchise.

Linda Cooley, CEO of Mad River Brewing Co. Inc., said the partnership represents the Yurok Tribe’s sovereignty being taken seriously and having a positive relationship with a professional sports team.

“It’s one of those things that you think is never going to happen. We’re never going to be at that level of recognition or taken seriously. Seems like we're either tokenized, or only considered for casinos or funny memes,” the Yurok tribal citizen said.

Around late summer in 2021, the brewery began looking to other avenues to take the company and saw how the baseball team embraced diversity.

The Giants have had a Native American Heritage Night for over a decade, which the brewery plans to participate in this year. The team hired Alyssa Nakken as MLB’s first full-time woman coach, the stadium has an LGBTQ night and "Until There's A Cure Day" event that raises awareness of HIV and AIDS. 

Notably, the team implemented a way for fans to contact security after an incident at the Giants’ Native American Heritage Night in 2014.

“Any fan wearing culturally insensitive attire, using obscene or abusive language, engaging in antisocial conduct offensive to those around them or displaying any other offensive behavior is subject to removal from the ballpark,” according to the team’s website.

Fans can text 'FOUL' to 69050 if they witness such behavior.

“They’ve just been so inclusive for all these different ethnicities and we thought maybe we can take Indigenous people to that next level with them,” Cooley said.

The deal will last for two years with the drinks being sold across multiple locations in the stadium. The Mad River Brewing logo will also be on neon signs throughout the stadium.

“We are excited to welcome Mad River Brewery into our corporate partnership portfolio. Our organization is committed to promoting and celebrating our diverse community, and in partnering with Mad River, we can help give Indigenous peoples a presence beyond their borders,” Jessica Santamaria, director of partnerships & media at the San Francisco Giants, said in a press release. “Working with Mad River Brewery represents a prioritization to highlight smaller, non-traditional brands alongside ours.”

The three drinks that will be offered are: the Historic State Park IPA, which highlights the tribe’s partnership with California State Parks to return Indigenous names to parks; Steelhead Extra Pale Ale; and Undammed Huckleberry Hopped Hard Seltzer, which represents the tribe’s work to remove dams on the Klamath River, huckleberry being indigenous to the Humboldt County and what the Yurok tribe has eaten for a very long time.

“One of the most important things we’re fighting for in Northern California is water,” Cooley said. 

Related stories:
Craft Brew with a side of culture
Emotions run high over new beer can
Tribal citizen to expand brewing company 

How it came to be

The Yurok Agriculture Corporation purchased Mad River Brewing in October 2019. The independent craft brewery has been established for more than three decades and has won countless industry awards.

In an effort to rebrand, the brewery took a “shot in the dark,” found which person to contact on LinkedIn and pitched their idea. Immediately, the Giants contacted them back. The Yurok Tribe’s goals, struggles and mission were thoroughly discussed.

“To be able to start this pathway and hopefully we see others and have other stadiums that have this is incredible. It’s a dream come true,” Cooley said.

Then came the Major League Baseball lockout which lasted for four months until March 10. The deal was still confirmed, but it was just a matter of waiting for the company until the lockout ended. 

Cooley said they were elated when the baseball season resumed. Employees from the company and tribe plan to attend the first game against the Miami Marlins on April 8 at Oracle Park.

She looks forward to seeing people’s reaction to the product and see what they can improve.

“Being able to get out and interact with people who are actually drinking it and being able to talk to them is really exciting — getting that live feedback and taking it and being able to tell people myself why we're here and what we’re doing,” she said.

They are also planning a live tasting sometime in April.

She said the company has been talking with another professional sports team, but cannot reveal who it is. She hopes to partner with the NBA and NFL in the future.

Tribal commitment

Cooley said the community reaction from the Yurok Tribe and from around the world has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Being told that we can’t do certain things because we’re Indigenous, and that’s just not true, that's a lie, that’s a form of suppression. Breaking out of that is something we can all celebrate no matter what ethnicity you are,” she said.

The company is also working with Ioway Farms, which is owned and operated by the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, to supply ingredients for the brewery’s operations to have a “more inclusive product.”

The company is still committed to inter-tribal business, such as casinos and other tribal-owned businesses. They hope to refocus on that soon.

“Supporting each other should be first and foremost,” Cooley said.

‘It’s not just about brewing’

Cooley began working in the beer industry on her 21st birthday. She originally planned to be a social worker, but chose to go down a different path due to the stressful nature of her work.

She said her coworkers in the beer business became like family and she had fun. She was fascinated about the variety of skill sets that go into making the company a reality.

“I attempted to get out a few times, and it just keeps pulling me back. It’s a time to sit with people you love and share stories. It’s an art to create these beverages, alcohol or not. To talk with the people who grow your ingredients, the art on the labels, where it goes and who you’re supporting,” she said.

Cooley’s advice for other tribes who want to dip their toes in the industry is to find someone who has extensive experience in the beer industry.

“It’s not just about brewing, it’s sales, it’s distribution, it’s marketing. It’s having that full vision,” she said.

And to figure out what you want to share about your culture and what you don’t. She added that it’s important to reach out and talk with your people.

Mad River Brewing has moved outside just craft beer; the Yurok Tribe’s ownership has allowed them to tell their story.

“Now, with Mad River, it drives me to tell not just my story, as a girl from the rez, but for Indigenous people to get those lies and false narratives down,” Cooley said. 

Indian Country Today - bridge logo


Like this story? Support our work with a $5 or $10 contribution today. Contribute to the nonprofit Indian Country Today. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.