When Jose Beteta, Tamil Maldonado Vega and Martín Vargas opened a craft brewery in West Denver at the end of 2019, they knew they would have to offer their community more than just beer to drink.
Upon starting the business, the three founders of Raíces (Spanish for “roots”) Brewing Company were facing a “plateauing” craft beer industry, according to Beteta, and one with very little minority representation, he noticed.
According to the Boulder-based Brewers Association’s 2019 data, 88% of brewery owners polled across the country identify as white, while 2.4% consider themselves Hispanic or Latino.
But Beteta and his team saw estimates of an $11 billion potential Latino craft beer market in the U.S. as they were getting ready to open. And they wanted to figure out how to tap into it.
“We did some soul searching around that,” Beteta said. “The craft beer industry was starting to realize you couldn’t just be about beer, you had to engage with the public.”
In 2018, the Brewers Association conducted its initial brewery diversity benchmarking survey, the same year that the organization brought on its first-ever diversity ambassador to help foster inclusion across the industry.
In Denver, the Raíces partners and more brewery owners are thinking about diversity in their owns ways.
“We like the (craft beer) industry because it’s very collaborative,” Beteta said. “Here, we don’t see the beer itself as the key to this project. It’s one of three main things”: cerveza (or beer), community and culture.
“Exactly what we wanted to do here is to celebrate Latin American culture as much as possible, in all its diversity,” Beteta said.
With the help of a grant from Denver Arts & Venues, Raíces has been hosting regular live music sessions since it opened in December, from bachata dance brunches to evening mariachi performances.
The owners bring in Latin American food trucks, they serve a non-alcoholic malta (or malt), similar to root beer, and they stock plenty of toys next to the dance floor and stage, so the whole family is invited.
“You get kids here leaving at midnight,” Beteta said. “We’re very cautious and aware of making sure everyone’s welcome.”
He and Maldonado Vega came to beer from careers in economic and community development. After four years of searching for a brewing space in Denver, the Raíces team landed in this rapidly changing industrial district off West Colfax, called Sun Valley.
Turn a full circle from anywhere in their taproom, and you’ll see the following: the downtown Denver skyline, the future home of Meow Wolf, Broncos stadium and Lakewood Gulch Park surrounding the South Platte River, then uninterrupted views of the mountains beyond them.
“This is it,” Beteta said of the location.
Come September, they’ll host a second annual Suave Fest on the land surrounding Raíces, inviting Latin-owned breweries from around the U.S., including a dozen from Colorado.
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Let your product do the talking
In their second year of business, the owners of Novel Strand Brewing, located in the beer-saturated Baker neighborhood, say little has changed from their opening intention of making high-quality “craft” that speaks for itself, and of facilitating conversation around it.
But in representing Dominican, black and Israeli communities, Chantel Columna, Ayana Coker and Tamir Danon say that too often they have become the focus of the beer’s story.
“It shouldn’t be all the time, ‘Hey look at us, look what we did,’” Danon said about this kind of attention. “Whether it’s the beer or whether it’s diversity, let your actions and your product and your vision do the talking.”
In Novel Strand’s neighborhood space, which they share with coffee company Queen City Collective, an hour-long interview over pints of kolsch turns from beer to language and cultural barriers, and from marriage to soccer and hair styles.
Perhaps you’ve seen Novel Strand’s marketing for the Green Queen, for example: a silhouetted woman with dark skin and a tall afro, wearing a green patterned dress and holding a glass of golden beer.
“It’s just imagery,” Columna said. “But I hear that it’s beautiful, because people like seeing themselves represented on an image that is true, you know, that’s not overly sexualized.”
And the more people who see themselves represented honestly, whether as the face on a beer or at the head of a company, the more they know what possibilities are available to them, she added.
But before the conversation could drift too far, Danon brought it back around to their focus, to what’s brewing.
“You don’t have to say it’s awesome, you don’t have to give us a medal or pat us on the back. But you saw it, and now in your brain, it’s a little more normal,” he said. “We want to be the space for growth by just showing that, and letting it be in front of you. You don’t have to drink it, but we’ll pour you the beer.”
A sense of Mexican hospitality
Cheluna Brewing opened at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace in 2016 and bills itself as the first Latin-owned and operated craft brewery in Colorado.
Owner Javi Perez said that when he and his wife, Jen, came up with their Oaxacan-inspired taproom — which has hand-stuccoed walls and splashes of azulejos (ceramic tiles) — “we built the brewery to have a sense of Mexican hospitality.”
The Perezes played Latin music in the background and brought in ingredients for otherwise European beers, like flor de Jamaica (hibsicus), cacao and chiles. They gave their brews Spanish names.
“When we first opened, we didn’t know of any other breweries that were Latino-owned,” he said. “When we first opened, we actually had people complain that (the beer) names weren’t in English,” like their Gose de Tamarindo or the Chilango Hefeweizen.
In addition to running the brewery business, Javi is an emergency room physician in Denver. Jen has a career in teaching and counseling. When Perez talks about the patience and education involved in running a “female-owned and Chicano-owned brewery,” he uses these two words over and over: “love and kindness.”
“I just look forward to the day that our people are embraced as readily as the foods, the flavors, the sights and the music (of Mexico),” he added.
But what is American beer really?
On South Broadway, Dos Luces Brewery owners Sam Alcaine and Judd Belstock are taking the concept of a Latin American brewery to another level. They’re altogether avoiding beer styles that come from Europe and instead focusing on those indigenous to pre-Columbian America.
Starting with corn as the main ingredient, they brew new versions of traditional Incan chicha and Aztec pulque. They call Dos Luces a “mission-based company.” Their mission? “To change the way people think about beer,” Belstock said.
When he and Alcaine started thinking about their own project after working together at Miller Brewing, they began by asking questions.
“All American craft beer was kind of derived from European beers, but what is American beer really?” Belstock said. “And what are the actual fermented beverages of Latin America?” Alcaine added.
The question is more personal for Alcaine, whose mother and father emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba and El Salvador, respectively, in the 1970s.
“There was always this thing where they left and never really talked about going back,” he said. “For me, connecting with those roots and where my family came from … this is an attempt to explore that, and see what that all could mean in a more modern sense.”
After 18 months of serving chicha and pulque rather than pilsners or porters in Denver, “it’s definitely an education experience for people who come in the door,” Belstock said.
“Eighty percent of people who walk in the door still are expecting Pacifico or an IPA that has some sort of Mexican ingredient in it,” he added. “And the education isn’t just about the beers themselves. We are trying to educate people about the cultures that these beers came from.”
Taste what’s brewing
Raíces Brewing Co., 2060 W. Colfax, (720) 295-2437, raicesbrewing.com
Novel Strand Brewing Co., 305 W. 1st Ave., (720) 949-0246, novelstrand.com
Cheluna Brewing Co., 2501 Dallas St. at Stanley Marketplace, (720) 600-0020, cheluna.com
Dos Luces Brewery, 1236 S. Broadway, (720) 379-7763, dosluces.com