There was a dusting of snow on the turf, but that didn’t stop a small group of soccer players from kicking a ball around outside a brewery in Minneapolis’ Harrison neighborhood.
Inside, on a recent, frigid Friday, two men were introduced by a third. “Mucho gusto,” the new acquaintances said to one another — Spanish for “nice to meet you” — as they sipped on pints of golden cerveza.
The soccer field in the parking lot of La Doña Cervecería (241 Fremont Av. N., Mpls., 612-315-4613) is just one bit of South American flair that owner Sergio Manancero wove into the Twin Cities’ first Latin-inspired brewery. Another: the sprinkling of Spanish language throughout the colorful warehouse-turned-taproom, from the conversation to the names of the beers.
Across the metro, in St. Paul’s W. 7th neighborhood, a group of four craft beer aficionados turned a hobby into a job when they became the nation’s first Hmong owners of a brewery. They took over Vine Park Brewing (1254 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 651-228-1355) last year, and they can barely keep up with the demand for their 651 Tyga Bite, the first beer they brewed specifically for their community.
Although craft beer — both brewing and drinking — is statistically a largely white, wealthy, male pastime, a boom in new breweries has led the industry to finally begin to diversify. There are now more than 150 craft breweries in Minnesota (up from 35 in 2011). Only a handful of them are led by people of color and women. But industry watchers say an explosion of interest in small-batch, high-quality beer made by local brewers is opening doors for nontraditional consumers and makers to grab a seat at the bar.
“It is changing,” said Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent craft brewers, which has recently launched a diversity committee to help breweries appeal to a wider variety of customers and staff.
“From a business perspective, there are a lot of breweries out there and a lot of them are fighting for a market share. One of the ways to differentiate yourself is the communities you are welcoming into your brewery,” Watson said. “Breweries have long been community gathering spaces, so it makes sense that they would take on a different shape to fit into those communities.”
That means that more and more, communities long untapped by the craft scene are now finding places to cultivate their tastes for beer comfortably.
“When you’re not included, you feel it,” said Jill Pavlak, co-owner of the first woman-owned brewery in Minnesota. When she and her wife, Deb Loch, opened Urban Growler Brewing Co. (2325 Endicott St., St. Paul, 651-340-5793) four years ago, one of their first initiatives was to keep the taproom warm enough so guests wouldn’t have to wear a coat. They also made sure chairs had knobs for purse straps, and that the parking lot was well lit. “Things women think about that men wouldn’t give a second thought,” Pavlak said.
Pavlak and Loch were denied by 12 banks before they could get a loan to open their brewery. But in just a few short years, the indignities they faced are finally dissipating.
“When we first opened, people were just amazed there was a woman brewer. They’d say, ‘Come on, who’s really brewing the beer?’ ” Loch said. “We don’t get those questions anymore. To me, it’s changing a little bit.”
Most of the recent gains in equality in the craft beer world have been along gender lines.
The distribution between men and women craft drinkers is beginning to even out, according to demographic data. As far as leadership, researchers at Stanford University found that as of 2014, 21 percent of breweries in the U.S. had at least one woman as founder/CEO or brewmaster/head brewer. No studies have been done since, but Watson from the Brewers Association believes it to be about the same today.
Ethnic diversity is a different story. Of new craft drinkers over a three-year period, 81 percent of them were white.
“There’s certainly still work to do,” Watson said. “It’s clear that if craft is going to take the next jump in getting into the broader beer community, reaching out to more diverse communities is going to have to be a part of that.”
In just a year, Touyer Moua has seen how eager his Hmong community has been to discover craft beer.
A home-brewer himself, he and three family members stumbled upon Vine Park Brewing last year. The 23-year-old brewery allows visitors to brew their own beer and wine on the premises, and after making their first batch, they were convinced they would buy the place. Six months later, they did.
Right away, they brewed a beer specifically aimed at Hmong drinkers, who, Moua said, tend to veer toward light beers like Bud and Heineken. The twist: They threw rice in along with the barley.
“Rice is our bread and butter back in our country,” said Moua, who immigrated to the U.S. from Laos as a refugee at age 2. Their beer, 651 Tyga Bite, is named for a particular fear his parents and other migrants had while crossing the jungle and the Mekong River to get to Thailand, and eventually the U.S.
“We made it through the jungle, we made it to the U.S., and we didn’t get bitten by a tiger,” Moua said.
Vine Park hasn’t had the capacity to keep up with demand. A recent funeral — which in Hmong tradition lasts three days — went through 60 cases of 12-ounce bottles and 45 cases of growlers.
The owners are actively looking for a larger location where they can brew on-site, with a taproom and a kitchen where co-owner Jai Thor, a sushi chef trained in Japan, can cook.
Moua, 42, who also works in real estate, believes there is room for even more communities to break into the Twin Cities beer scene.
“It’s contagious,” Moua said. “It just makes the craft brew scene more exciting.”
La Doña owner Manancero, 28, whose parents immigrated to Minnesota from Uruguay, got into craft beer after returning from Marine Corps service in 2013. He quickly noticed a gaping hole.
“It was kind of hard to see a diverse crowd in a craft brewery on a Saturday night,” he said. “And I realized that nobody in the Twin Cities was doing Latin-style beers.”
While finishing his sociology degree at the University of Minnesota, Manancero developed a recipe for an “easy-drinking” lager, lighter than the bitter, intense or experimental brews found in many local taprooms — and more like the kind of beer popular in Latin America. After two years of wholesaling, Manancero jumped at the chance to take over a warehouse near the Minneapolis Farmers Market.
Now, he has various cervezas on tap. A couple of them incorporate Latin American ingredients, such as Patagonian malt and Mexican coffee. But it’s the space — not just the beer — that Manancero wanted to make appealing to local Latinos.
“The beer they make in Latin America is the same as the beer they make all over the world,” Manancero said. “We try to do some of that. But, really, it’s about the experience in the taproom. It’s more about using my Minnesota heritage and my Latin heritage together in the craft brewing space.”
He brought the warehouse’s cinder block walls to life with Technicolor murals by Mexico-born Minnesota artist Luis Fitch. Half of his staff speak Spanish. And he installed that miniature soccer pitch out front for La Doña FC league games.
Nancy Alayon launched her Salvadoran pupusa truck, Qué Tal Street Eats, the same day La Doña opened, and she parks there almost every weekend to sell her thick corn tortillas stuffed with chicken, pork and cheese.
“It means so much to us to have a place we can come in and share the best of our cultures,” she said.
Patty Berntson drove 30 miles from Elko to visit La Doña. Originally from Chile, she goes out of her way to try breweries from different cultures.
“I like this place,” Berntson said. “It’s really colorful and really warm.”
Since La Doña opened earlier this fall, Manancero has seen it become a neighborhood hangout, where people from lots of backgrounds spend time together over a brew.
“Beer is the ultimate cross-cultural thing,” he said. “Talk about the easiest way to get to know somebody.”