Interviewing with Beer: Navigating the Distinct Challenges of Oral History Research

Recent Washington State University graduate John Tappan Menard reflects on a few of the unique demands of oral history projects that he discovered while completing his graduate thesis on the craft beer movement.

By John Tappan Menard

“I don’t know what you two are planning, but you can’t talk about securities fraud around my kids,” the woman scolded us. Though she did not appear intoxicated, the several empty beer glasses behind her suggested otherwise. I was sitting in the basement of a fruit warehouse turned pub, interviewing a former master brewer of the Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. We were not, as she thought, planning any sort of securities fraud, but we were discussing the financial shenanigans which had ultimately caused the collapse of the company. My interviewee and I, though perplexed by the request—who would have thought finance would be such a controversial topic?—agreed to keep it down. Satisfied, she left and we resumed our discussion. We’d hardly said more than a few words before the woman came back, bellowing this time. “I told you! You can’t talk about that!”

“Perhaps we should move elsewhere?” I suggested, fearing that the situation would escalate.

“No,” my subject objected, “we’re staying here.” Rising from his seat, he began to verbally spar with the woman, asserting our right to discuss whatever we pleased within the confines of a bar. His aggressiveness paid off, she left, kids in tow, and my interviewee was able to finish telling me about how the United States’ first post-Prohibition brewpub came to its lamentable end.

I was conducting research for my master’s thesis on the Yakima Brewing and Malting Company and its founder, Bert Grant, one of the early pioneers of the craft beer movement. Though Grant died in August 2001, many of his former employees and customers were still around to talk to, and I reached out to them as part of my research for my thesis. My intent was to fill a gap in the literature on the birth of craft beer. Grant is venerated in Yakima, which is also the hop capital of the world, and well-regarded as an important pioneer within the industry, yet books on the rise of craft beer usually devoted no more than a sentence or two to Grant and his accomplishments. Why the silence? The absence of thorough corporate records and Grant’s death almost two decades ago are probably the biggest reasons. The company is defunct, extant records may have been destroyed or languish in some dusty basement, and unlike other pioneers, Grant is no longer alive to share his story. Yet the memory of Grant remains alive in the people who knew him, and by interviewing them I hoped to reveal his legacy.

In an ideal situation, an oral historian conducts an interview in a quiet setting, perhaps in an office or conference room, but I had no office or conference room, and regardless, many people are hesitant, reluctant, or flat-out unwilling to be interviewed about their pasts. The mere presence of a recorder and a consent form are enough to make people unwilling to talk. So, you meet them where they are most comfortable, and sometimes that means in dank, dusty bars or loud coffee shops, rife with background noise and interruption. 

A tipsy eavesdropper was not the only challenge I faced conducting research for this project. During a visit to the local museum where a large collection of Yakima Brewing ephemera and memorabilia was held I was informed by the curator that the collection had been taken back by the donor. Apparently, the collection had only been a temporary loan, a fact which had not been communicated to me. The loss of unfettered access to my primary source of information came as a crushing shock, and I briefly wondered if I was going to still be able to complete my thesis. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with the donor, and he graciously allowed me to come view the collection in his home. As nervous as I was about going to a stranger’s house, I did, friend in tow, and for two hours we frantically photographed as many documents as we could in the dining room, the TV blaring in the background as his two kids watched cartoons.

While many of my interview subjects were difficult to contact because they guarded their privacy, other prospective narrators were too high in profile to easily contact. How does a lowly graduate student get in touch with—and get an interview with—Ken Grossman, co-founder and president of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, one of the largest and most successful breweries in the United States? The answer, I discovered was relatively simple; just fill out the “Contact Us” forms which are ubiquitous on company websites. I had surprising success requesting interviews via filling out web forms. In every instance, my message worked its way up through the corporate chain, and within a few days to weeks an assistant reached out to schedule a phone interview. Only one company declined to put me in touch with its president, but only on the grounds that he was out of the country for an extended period. Typically, I was granted very limited time to conduct an interview; I was, after all, merely the 9 to 9:30 appointment on the schedule of a very busy individual. It was paramount that I conduct the interview efficiently.

A unique trait of oral history is that the interviewer needs to be flexible and adapt quickly to changing circumstances. People, and the environments in which they feel comfortable talking, are often unpredictable, and a researcher needs to be prepared for that. Ultimately, those looking to chronicle living history need to be willing to put themselves in unfamiliar situations, and not be afraid to reach out to anyone and everyone. Particularly in close-knit industries like brewing, expect some people to be reticent about sharing their stories. However, it is important to collect these stories while we can, especially since most breweries do not methodically preserve their records. In just a few decades, telling a story like Grant’s may be possible. 

John Tappan Menard holds a Master’s degree in Public History from Washington State University. His other oral history work includes a biography of Washington State University President Glenn Terrell, appearing in Leading the Crimson and Gray: The Presidents of Washington State University, WSU Press, 2019.

Featured image: “Craft Beer Tasting” by Jonathan Grimes, licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0