Alumni Voices: Niko Tonks on Craft Brewing and Bricolage

Now that the spring semester is well underway, we thought we’d offer up some more words of wisdom from one of our alumni. This week, we feature recent grad Niko Tonks, who shares about his experiences with craft brewing and oral history.

How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?
At present, I have two jobs: I am a brewer at Live Oak Brewing Company here in Austin, and I am also an oral historian for Foodways Texas, slowly working my way towards completing a Texas craft brewing oral history project. It’s easier to see how my second job is informed by my work in AMS at UT – the second half of my (admittedly short) graduate career was dedicated to work with food studies, oral history, and craft beer, so it was a natural. I have been lucky to be associated with fantastic organizations such as the Southern Foodways Alliance and Foodways Texas, and both the professional training and real-world experience I have gained from those connections has been and remains invaluable.

The first job, however, is a bit more complicated. My day-to-day existence consists of manipulating large quantities of grain and water, in the hopes of turning them into beer. This doesn’t necessarily seem easy to connect to a graduate degree in the humanities, but things are more interconnected than they seem. Beer is a social beverage with a rich cultural history, and I am fortunate enough to be employed at a brewery that exists both in the “new world” of American craft brewing and the “old world” of European tradition. As such, I am involved in both archival work, re-creating traditional styles that are of a particular time and place, and bricolage (see, still got some grad school words in me!), mixing old and new in (hopefully) productive and tasty ways. Being an AMS student taught me that it is important to be mindful of and knowledgeable about history and tradition, and that it is often the combination of new and old, whether it be in terms of applying a new theoretical lens, thinking of a new way to interpret a well-known history, or simply applying academic rigor to previously unexplored cultural phenomena, that is the most productive mode of scholarship. It might seem like a stretch, but it is a framework that remains central to my life as a brewer.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

My biggest piece of advice would be to pursue opportunities more aggressively than maybe you think you should. I came into grad school eager to keep my head down and learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and then maybe later figure out what I wanted. This is not to say that students should come in laser-focused on one area of study, but rather that they should cast a wide net in terms of classes and readings, and always be looking for the little bits and pieces of books, articles, or seminars that speak to them, and try to tie them to their interests. You might be surprised at what suddenly seems like a viable and important thing to devote the next two – or five – years to.

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