Former English major Alex Zobel ’08 took a hiatus from teaching to start Armistice Brewing Company in Richmond, Calif. Together with brother Gregory, she opened the small, taproom-oriented brewery, creating a welcoming space for their community while supporting local nonprofits with their Ally Tap program.
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal arts approach helped you along your career path?
A broad, liberal arts education has been useful for me in my career as an academic and as a small business owner. Obviously, the English major set me up for success in my Ph.D. program at UCLA. I actually met my dissertation advisor through Professor Carol Ann Johnston in my senior seminar. My studies at Dickinson were rigorous and prepared me for the deep dive of academia. After opening the brewery with my little brother, however, I realized how little I was using my other skill sets, which were largely neglected in that academic deep dive. A broad, liberal education gave me the ability to be a specialist in the ivory tower and a generalist in business.
What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?
My favorite activity at Dickinson spans organizations—it was the emphasis on service-leadership, which found its way into my teaching at the university level (where I taught and designed service-learning courses), and it’s an ethos that undergirds our Ally Tap program at the brewery whereby a dollar of each pint from our Ally Tap goes to support a different nonprofit that's doing great work in our community.
What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?
Our service trip to Mississippi to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
How do you stay involved with Dickinson?
We collaborate with Dickinsonians in the Bay Area. From using bourbon barrels from Sonoma County Distilling Company (founded by Adam Spiegel ’06) to concocting a Viking-themed beer dinner with Chef Taylor Bell ’11, we’re always finding fun ways to connect with the work of other Dickinsonians
How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?
Gregory and I started home-brewing together after our mom got some bad health news. We knew that she wanted us to repair our fraught sibling relationship, and brewing beer together became our armistice, so to speak. We were both living in Los Angeles at the time—I was in graduate school at UCLA, and he was working in the film and TV industry. We ended up moving home to take care of Mom a few years later, and at that point, I was deep into my dissertation. The academic job market was looking as dubious and as exploitative as ever, so brewing quickly moved from plan B to plan A. The best part about my work is that I get to see what beer can do when it’s doing its best work. Armistice is a small, taproom-oriented brewery. We’re not in the business of sending beer out in kegs and bottles; we’re in the business of creating a space for meaningful interaction and conversation. Richmond has very little in the way of third spaces (i.e., spaces that aren’t workplaces or private homes), and it’s been incredible to see the kinds of collaborations and connections that arise out of merely providing a space for neighbors to interact.
What does your current work entail?
We wear all the hats here—we’re brewers, chemists, microbiologists, light industrialists, composters, marketers, yeast wranglers, plumbers, accountants, photographers, social media managers, writers, community members, bartenders, therapists, Richmond evangelists, beer judges, etc.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
I don’t have time for the other things I love, especially teaching. I hope to return to my work as a volunteer faculty member at the Prison University Project in the spring. Brewing scratches many itches for me, but it will never scratch the teaching itch, and teaching is easily where I derive the most value. I need to get back into the classroom. I'll be giving a paper at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting this year on teaching Shakespeare and service-learning, and I'm hoping that gets me closer to the classroom.
What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?
I’ve had a diverse post-Dickinson life. I’ve lived abroad; I’ve lived in a Berkeley co-op; I currently live on a permaculture farm in a tiny house that I designed myself. I’ve opened a business and obtained a doctorate. Something unforgettable that changed me forever? Definitely teaching. My first teaching gig was in Singapore’s Ministry of Education right after I graduated, and that’s when I fell in love with it. I’ve taught in diverse settings and institutions since then—prison, community college, top tier research universities—and I can’t wait to get back into the classroom.
If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?
Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, Edmund Spenser or John Milton.
You just built a time machine: where and when do you go?
Definitely 16th or 17th century England—either during the Reformation or during the civil wars. I spent seven years studying that period, and I’d love to experience it firsthand. Here’s a huge proviso: I’d want to pass as male and have all the privilege and access afforded to men in the period. I'd be like Virginia Woolf's Orlando before their gender transition.
If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
I’d be better at time management or I’d just have more time. I don’t feel like I have the time for many of the relationships I value and the values I hold. I’d like more time for teaching, for activism, for reading and writing, and for the relationships that nourish me.
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Published February 23, 2018