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Randolph professor publishes brewing research

Untapped coverCommunication studies professor J. Nikol Beckham recently contributed a chapter to Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Craft Beer, from the West Virginia University Press. The volume is currently available for pre-sale and will be released in March 2017.

Edited by Nathaniel Chapman, J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard, Untapped is a collection of 12 previously unpublished essays that “analyze the rise of craft beer from social and cultural perspectives.” Beckham contributed the volume’s fourth chapter, “Entrepreneurial Leisure and the Microbrew Revolution: The Neoliberal Origins of the Craft Beer Movement.” The chapter is derived from research for her doctoral dissertation, “Cultural Economy of the American Brewing Industry from Prohibition to Today,” which she conducted at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“The ‘microbrew revolution,’ the moment when high quality, small-batch beers began to re-enter the American marketplace in significant numbers, was of particular interest to me,” Beckham said. “This is what sparked the rise of the contemporary American craft beer industry and culture that is flourishing today.”

Beckham was particularly drawn to the microbrew revolution’s “origin stories” and tales of the “founding fathers” of the American microbrew revolution, including Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Fritz Maytag, and Jim Koch, among others.

“These rags-to-riches style stories of industrious men with passion, resourcefulness, and a ‘risky’ idea to make good American beer are widely told and retold, which is always something of interest to a communication studies scholar,” Beckham said. “When stories—particularly origin stories—are retold with any degree of frequency, it’s usually a good sign that they are performing some sort of cultural work, beyond merely relaying information. Wanting to know what exactly these stories were ‘doing’ in the world was what inspired this vein of my research.”

Beckham discovered a personal interest in beer as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, when she worked as a bartender in downtown Blacksburg. One of the advantages to the job was that she received a free “shift drink” at the end of each shift.

“I always picked the most expensive things on tap—hey, if you’re going to get something free, why not?” Beckham laughed. “So, I sort of accidentally tasted a wide range of what was available in terms of craft beers in the late 1990s.”

After earning her degree, Beckham was hired for a job that required extensive travel and was able to try local beers across the country. While earning her master’s degree at San Diego State University, she enjoyed Southern California’s thriving craft beer scene and attended numerous festivals and tastings. She began homebrewing in 2007, and has since worked at a homebrew shop, taught brewing classes, and helped organize a charity homebrew festival. Her hobby quickly became an academic interest, and in 2010 she began writing her dissertation.

J. Nikol Beckham

J. Nikol Beckham

“So much of my passion and energy was already in the beer scene, it wasn’t much of a surprise that I took an intellectual interest in it as well,” she said.

Beckham often finds herself “drawing upon beery anecdotes” during her classroom lectures, and will also serve as the faculty advisor for the Randolph College Zymology Society for the upcoming academic year. Though beer studies courses are not offered at Randolph, nor at most other institutions, Beckham sees potential.

“Beer has come to help define entire segments of American life, from masculinity, to working class identity, to the collegiate experience and entire cultural geographies in pubs, saloons, and now tasting rooms and tap houses,” Beckham said. “We drink beer in per capita volumes that rival coffee and milk. Phrases like ‘this Bud’s for you’ and ‘It’s Miller Time’ are part of our cultural vernacular. And during the Olympics, Budweiser has literally been rebranded as ‘America’ on its packaging. So beer and other common food commodities are excellent points of entry for looking at American history, culture, politics, economics, social life, and of course media and communication.”

In addition to being published in Untapped, Beckham’s research has garnered considerable attention in the craft brewing community. Her work has been cited and profiled in multiple academic articles, and she has been interviewed by radio stations and on podcasts. She is also completing a book manuscript from her dissertation, tentatively titled “The Value of a Pint: American Beer, Cultural Change, and the Stubborn Materiality of Contemporary Capitalism.”

For more information or to pre-order Untapped, visit

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