A Conversation with Nancy Palmer, Craft Beer Industry ‘Defender’

A Conversation with Nancy Palmer, Craft Beer Industry ‘Defender’

An estimated 19.9 million students attend U.S. colleges and universities each year according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. But, only 27 percent of them actually go on to work in their major another study suggests. So, what does a University of Georgia graduate with a double major in religion and philosophy like Nancy Palmer do with her life? They make history. That’s what they do.

Nancy Palmer began her career in the nonprofit world working with physically challenged Georgians before dipping her toes into the beverage industry waters. Becoming a first level Sommelier at the age of 23, she worked in every capacity you can think of in the alcoholic beverage industry. So, when she brought the burgeoning brewers guild of Georgia on as a client while working as a beverage consultant, she says it was because of her knowledge of the restaurant industry. It wasn’t long until she dove headfirst into those waters becoming the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild’s first full-time employee and to this day, their only employee.

Witnessing a Small Business Revolution

“The transition into the industry was smooth. And, while there’s a lot of pretension in the wine industry, there isn’t in the beer industry. As a woman, there’s a distinct feeling. I like the openness and nerdiness of it all,” she says.

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When Palmer stepped to the helm of Georgia Craft Brewers Guild (GCBG) in 2010, she had 15 brewery members. Today, as executive director she supports more than 50 Georgia breweries and brewpubs, over 75 allied trade partner members, and is tracking over 80 breweries in planning since the passage of Georgia’s SB85 in 2017, which finally allowed Georgia breweries to sell straight to the beer lover in their breweries. This movement is what Palmer refers to as a “small business revolution in the beverage alcohol sector.”

Serving as a registered lobbyist, she just completed her fifth session where she’s gotten two major pieces of legislation passed thus far. Her efforts made history earlier this year when Palmer became the first female ever to accept the F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award.

What often seems a man’s world, Palmer takes in stride.

“It’s an industry that I adore. Beer is for everyone. In my experience in the industry, like any industry, insensitivities happen. It’s true, that I’m one of the few women in this position. But, the owners in Georgia are a tremendous support. And we have a great relationship,” she says.

Political Realities of Georgia Beer

nancy palmer award
Nancy Palmer receiving the F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award during the 2018 Craft Brewers Conference. (Brewers Association)

Even still, she says it’s been challenging as a Southern state that’s behind craft beer growth. “Our brewers didn’t have the rights and revenue streams like other states.” And, while she believes there is such a thing as Bible Belt push back, she credits the broader issue of tradition for delayed growth in the Southeastern craft beer industry. Regardless, she believes in perseverance: “We showed up and chipped away. We’re here and have unique biz model that deserves consideration.”

Considering Georgia is the fifth largest state for U.S. beer manufacturing, as Palmer points out, and with the presence of big names like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, “We have to consider that everything we want and how that affects the larger coalition as a whole,” Palmer says.

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When considering legislation change, the scope of GCBG’s membership demands extra care to the path of her organization. For example, in 2017, Georgia became the last state to enact  taproom sales direct to the consumer. Advocating for more brewery-friendly beer laws was a multi-year process for Palmer and her colleagues.

“For political and practical reasons, when we get taproom sales so do AB, Miller and Coors. If we’re talking about something like franchise law, are we comfortable with all sizes being able to do this?” she asks.

Palmer focuses on building bridges in order to make change happen, and says she and the guild have a “great relationship” with the larger beer makers in the state.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. The political reality is that they pay taxes and employ just like us. I have that added consideration. I can’t pick a fight for the wholesalers and AB at the same time and win.”

The moral to this story is: “Everyone must work together for the whole,” according to Palmer.

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Georgia’s legislative session is set to convene January 14, 2019, when Palmer must take in account with her members to see what can be done. “All of our members want everything,” she says with a good-hearted laugh. She explains that the outcome of Georgia’s gubernatorial election might impact what she wants to accomplish in the 2019 session, so she’s waiting until she knows the outcome before finalizing the year ahead.

For the outsider, all of this may sound like a movement for only the privileged. By gaining proper perspective, one begins to realize there are many cogs to this wheel.

“I think that craft breweries really stand out as impressive corporate citizens that deeply care about their communities. When we take time to invest in small family-run craft breweries, they are able to have a tremendous positive effect on those communities. They’re gathering places. They don’t shy away from getting elbow deep. By investing in craft breweries, you’re investing in communities,” says Palmer.

Inspired by Energy and Entrepreneurship of Georgia Breweries

Talk about community, and you don’t have to dig too deep into the red Georgia clay to find it. SweetWater Brewing’s ongoing work with the Riverkeepers Alliance, Creature Comforts’ Get Comfortable campaign, and Service Brewing’s focus on veterans organizations are a fraction of the work Georgia breweries do to give back to their communities. It’s work like this that inspires Palmer.

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“What I really love about my work is being around these entrepreneurs. They have so much energy and passion. Frankly, they’ve put everything on the line to do this. The energy people have when they’re making something with their hands is exciting and I feed off it. The people across the country that do what I do…they’re tremendous individuals. There’s only 36 executive directors, but we can get a lot accomplished.”

Speaking of tremendous…

Nancy Palmer may have never entered the “ministry” with her religion degree. The luxuries associated with her once romanticized philosopher’s profession are long gone. But, keep an eye out, because it’s a good chance this won’t be the last we hear of Palmer making history.

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