NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Drawing inspiration from her grandmothers’ passion for dancing to good music while sipping on a lager, Alisa Bowens-Mercado embarked on uncharted waters when she entered the craft-beer business. Entering a male-dominated industry few African-Americans have pursued, Bowens-Mercado educated herself about the intricacies of the business and started Rhythm Brewing Co. in 2018.Since then, her beer brand has experienced substantial growth in popularity and she hopes to expand across the country. Her mission is to have Rhythm Brewing Co. beer on every shelf, while employing a diverse team of employees. Her hands-on approach has helped her further her education about the industry and how it works.
Located in New Haven, she is the first black woman to own a brewery in Connecticut and only the fourth in the country to accomplish this feat. The brewing business is a billion-dollar industry, and Alisa is doing her part to make sure spread that wealth to the African-American community.
Bowens-Mercado shared her story of perseverance and barrier-breaking with Zenger News during a recent conversation. She also talks about the future of Rhythm Brewing Co.
Percy Crawford interviewed Alisa Bowens-Mercado for Zenger News.
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Zenger: Congratulations on everything that you have accomplished up until this point, and I’m sure you are just getting started. Tell us about Rhythm Brewing Co.
Bowens-Mercado: Rhythm Brewing Co. is tapping into an untapped demographic in the country. And Rhythm Brewing Co. is moving in directions to make sure that we are included in this brewing industry that is generating $114 billion annually. And people of color are receiving less than 0.005 percent of that number. So, I’m on a mission.
Zenger: I have never been to New Haven, but one wouldn’t typically think of it as a heavy cultural city. Am I correct or way off-base?
Bowens-Mercado: When people think of New Haven, they think of Yale University. There is a large black and brown population right here. It’s very diverse with Latinos and Asians. New Haven specifically has a very wide demographic. Essentially, you’re right because Connecticut is not known for having an abundance of people of color (laughing).
Zenger: You’re known as the first African-American woman to own a brewery in Connecticut, but I would be interested to know where you rank globally because that can’t be a high number, can it?
Bowens-Mercado: It’s not, and I will tell you, we are the first in Connecticut, and we are the fourth in the country. There’s not even a handful of us doing what we are doing. That’s why it is so important that I am able to share my story with you. Women were the first brewers; let the truth be told. But now, women of color, there are a few of us in the country in the industry.
Zenger: Were there any specific barriers in place that you had to overcome because of gender or race?
Bowens-Mercado: That’s a wonderful question, and it’s two-fold. I made sure that when I got into the industry, I was well-equipped and very knowledgeable of what I was getting into. There were barriers because, number one, people didn’t want to fund a black woman getting into a white, male-dominated field. They wouldn’t come out and say that, but that was a reality. When it came to going to get recipes made and getting funding for brewing equipment and finding a contract brewing space, they had never seen anyone that looked like me even embarking on something like this.
So yes, there were initially those people that were like, “Black people don’t even brew beer; why is she diving into this industry?” They didn’t want to give me any funding, but perseverance and knocking down doors and kicking down doors, we were able to get an angel investor that said, “You know what? You believe in yourself, and I’m going to believe in you. Just go prove me right.”
Zenger: Rhythm Brewing Co. just started in 2018. Are you even shocked at the amount of progress it’s made in these two-plus years?
Bowens-Mercado: We’re actually speaking on my third-year launch anniversary — on March 10.
Zenger: Oh wow! Congratulations on that milestone.
Bowens-Mercado: Thank you! We’re celebrating today. It’s unbelievable. The Associated Press kind of picked us up early on. We had black media outlets that picked up the story. In three years, 480 locations later, and the movement … there is a movement that Rhythm Brewing is bringing to the country. We are blessed. We are beyond excited for what the future holds for us. It seems like what we have packed in three years, for most people it may take them five to 10 years to do. But we really are very blessed from what we have been able to accomplish in the last three years. And the press has been unbelievable.
Usually when you hear about black stories or black entrepreneurship, it’s the same industries that always get the attention. When you say there is someone black in the brewing industry, and then it’s a female, that’s the beauty of it and that’s the blessing behind it, because it’s different. But it really does come down to exposing us as a people to the industry, but then it comes down to economics. We need to have employment opportunities and economic growth strategies within our communities.
It’s bigger than a can of beer here. I have a conscious effort going on so that we can have factories around the country, so that we can employ our people. No different than these big-brand companies that you see on every single shelf and every single store, bar and restaurant across the country and across the globe.
Spring is here bring on the warm weather! Our Rhythm Unfiltered Lager (pictured) & our Rhythm Blue Unfiltered Light Lager is perfect for Sippin’ this season. Check out our Rhythm Finder located on our website!#RhythmBrewingCo #FindYourRhythm #lager #lightlager #ladylager pic.twitter.com/KzsQBFAeE9
— Rhythm Brewing Co. (@rhythmbrewingco) March 22, 2021
Zenger: It seems to me that you are pretty hands-on with the day-to-day operations of the company.
Bowens-Mercado: Oh, very hands-on. I have literally tapped into my inner beer spirit (laughing). Again, when I got into this, I had to make sure I was very knowledgeable of the industry and what I was getting myself into. I brew, so I go on my brew days; I go on my canning days, when they package the beer, when it goes to distribution. When people call, they get me. I’m very hands-on, I’m very accessible, and that’s what it is all about. I want people to take this journey with us, and the only way you can do that is to include people in your story within that journey.
Zenger: I will ask a question that may seem dumb, but not really. Are you a beer drinker?
Bowens-Mercado: (Laughing). I am a beer drinker. I need to bring you back to the ’70s, because this story actually started back then. Both of my grandmothers were lager drinkers. So, on special occasions, we would dance and sip and converse about finding your rhythm in life. So, playing homage to my grandmothers, my palate was always for beer. While some women are like, “I drink martinis; I drink a glass of wine,” I was always the person in the room asking what they had on tap.
So, my palate going back years ago has always been a love for beer. Not only do I make it, but I responsibly consume it. But that’s a fair question because some brewers might not drink beer. I am a beer drinker. And for those who don’t drink beer, we make the best beer cocktails ever. We kind of got that beer cocktail campaign rolling. I teamed up with mixologists, and they make the best Rhythm Beer cocktails ever. You can find your rhythm in more ways than one.
Zenger: I love the name of your brand, Rhythm Brewing Co. We have all witnessed the person who never dances at parties get a few beers in them, and they are out on the dance floor. So, this name goes hand in hand with an atmosphere.
Bowens-Mercado: My grandmothers always had music playing. Since I was 3 years old, I was always in dancing schools. But I will tell you, my other career is, I am a professional salsa dancer. I own and operate Alisa’s House of Salsa, which is my … I call it my 20-year-old because we just celebrated two decades at the studio. So, people always call me “The Rhythm Finder.” They are like, “If you go to Alisa, and you can’t dance, if she can’t find your rhythm, then you probably don’t have it.”
It was funny. It was a slogan. When we were toying around with ideas for a name for the brand, I was like, do I tie in my love and passion for salsa music, and dancing with my grandmothers and music being a huge part of my life? We knew it was a no-brainer. Rhythm Brewing … that is how that came to be.
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Zenger: Your beer contains South African hops. I need to know more (laughing).
Bowens-Mercado: Yes! We wanted to pull the history into the brand, literally. Some lagers that have been out on the market for years use variants of South African hops. Once I got my hands on South African hops and I smelled them, I immediately went back to, these are vibrant and strong; these are powerful, but there is a subtlety to them. When you think about strengths, it comes from the motherland, so I knew I was going to have South African hops as not only part of the story, but when you sip on our beer, you’re really sipping on history.
Zenger: You mentioned educating yourself on the business before you jumped in. But are you still learning things?
Bowens-Mercado: Oh yeah! I learn something new every day. Whether it’s with the brewing process, whether it’s with distribution networks, whether it’s the whole statistics in the beer industry. It’s an amazing process, and I’m still learning something new every single day. I’m learning that there are a lot of women beer drinkers in the country that you don’t hear about.
And there are black beer organizations in the country that we don’t hear about. There are women’s organizations out there that drink beer. So, every day I get an email that comes across my desk, and it’s just a learning process. But it’s a beautiful thing because so much goes into this. I’m a sponge. I love learning and sharing. Once you learn, then you share. So I can equip myself to share even more when you become more knowledgeable.
“When you walk into a room and your the only one that looks like you in the room…. That’s when you know you’re in the right room. That’s when change happens.”
A day at the office
Making history during Women’s History Month !#rhythmbrewingco pic.twitter.com/24cL3b3zLZ
— Rhythm Brewing Co. (@rhythmbrewingco) March 16, 2021
Zenger: Where would you like to see Rhythm Brewing Co. be at five years from now?
Bowens-Mercado: My mission is to become the first nationally distributed black woman-owned beer brand in the U.S. I’ve put that from my mouth to God’s ears. We’re just looking for strategic partners to pursue those opportunities. In five years, I’m seeing Rhythm Brewing Co. plants and factories all over the country — employing a diverse group of people working in these factories.
Because here’s the thing, Percy. If we’re going to consume something, we should own it. We just can’t consume and contribute trillions of dollars into industries and into economics, and we don’t have ownership of it. So, in five years, I want the beer all over. In every store where you see those other beers, Rhythm Brewing Co. will be on every single shelf in every single store. We will have factories, and we will be able to employ people in breweries. Again, economic growth for our people.
Zenger: You sound like a very determined individual, so I will be on the lookout for your beer on the shelves very soon. I appreciate your time and again, congratulations on this monumental accomplishment. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Bowens-Mercado: I think that we’ve seen last year and this year that the country needs to find a new rhythm, even if it’s one sip at a time. Whatever your new rhythm is, whatever your new normal is, just go out and find it. But I thank you for this opportunity for me to share this story. I really appreciate this.
(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Matthew B. Hall)