Josh and Joaquin “JD” Peña sat in their brand-new San Antonio taproom and waited. The brothers had drained their bank accounts making beer—explicitly Tex-Mex brews that reflect their childhoods in Corpus Christi—and putting together Islla Street Brewing, where they hoped like-minded Tejanos would embrace their style of craft beer.
“We sat there for a couple of hours and it was just empty,” says Josh of that opening day in December 2018. “Then we get one person, which turned into two, which turned into ten, and so on.” The then novel idea of brewing beer with Mexican pastries (the first brews were made with strawberry and pineapple empanadas) lit San Antonio social media ablaze, and the brothers were sold out by the end of the day.
The Peñas were ahead of the curve, and American beer makers and distributors are now playing catch-up. Nationally, Hispanics drink slightly more beer than other ethnic groups. According to a 2020 industry report, Mexican beer is almost single-handedly driving imported beer sales—which could help explain why so many American beer companies have begun to compete with brews with names like Chelada Picante and Lime Mang-O-Rita.
The ripples of the Latino boom in the commercial beer scene have also been felt in the craft beer world. Even though Hispanics made up only 21 percent of weekly craft beer drinkers in 2018, Marketing Insider reports that a majority of Hispanic millennials said they’d be willing to try craft beer if they knew more about it. Here in Texas, Tejano brewers tell me Tex-Mex craft beer, emphasis on the Mex, is more popular than ever. “It’s absolutely a renaissance moment for Hispanic craft beer,” said Josh Peña. Tejano beer makers are expanding their footprint with new and larger taprooms and distribution centers, making brews that reflect their identities, and bucking the trends that have led to the mainstreaming of their culture by big-time beer brands.
When the Peña brothers started brewing in 2017, lots of industry veterans told them to make “easy” and “drinkable” beers that imitated popular beers like Dos Equis or Bud Light. They’d go to brewery conferences and see the funny looks on peoples’ faces when they explained their vision for beer brewed with the flavors of their childhood. They admit they were anxious when starting Islla Street, not because of industry insiders, but because they knew what their family liked to drink. “Our family growing up always drank basic beers,” says JD. “So it was daunting when we first started.”
Ninety percent of the time, the Peñas develop their beers backward. First they come up with a name that makes them both laugh, usually a mash-up of a flavor with a nod to pop culture. “If the name doesn’t hit, it’s not worth it,” says JD. Then they experiment until they produce a beer worthy of the name. The result is a parade of punny brews like Concha la Flor, which this magazine named one of the most important Texas beers of 2019; Chupa Barrio Bros, a Super Mario Bros.–themed strawberry creme berliner brewed with Spanish candy; and Sandia de los Muertos, a watermelon-flavored hefeweizen for the Mexican holiday. Three years in, they’ve noticed an uptick in familiar flavors among their competitors. “Now everyone has a chamoy beer or is doing some sort of mangonada,” says JD.
If you ask Gabriel Montoya, native El Pasoan and the owner of the city’s DeadBeach Brewery, Latino beer makers have always had a leg up on the competition. “We’re Mexican!” he says. “Our community is a bunch of beer drinkers! Tío and tía will always drink. But we’re there to push the bounds of flavor and tradition.” As for persuading his uncles and aunts to spend eight bucks on a beer instead of two? “Yeah, that’s been a fun one.” But in the end, he says, new converts tell him that the quality of beer and the environment at his taproom make it worth the cost.
Montoya recalls a burly vaquero type walking into his taproom and asking for a Michelob Ultra. He told him they didn’t serve that type of beer, and instead poured a glass of DeadBeach’s Abuela stout, an 8.9 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) stout brewed with authentic Mexican chocolate. The man looked at the small glass and sneered. “‘Where’s the rest of it?’” he said, not used to the smaller portions served for higher-ABV brews. (Corona, for comparison, is 4.6 percent ABV.) “He slammed two of them back to back, and then asked me for another,” Montoya recalls with a laugh. By the end of the night, the vaquero had relaxed, enjoying his Abuela stouts and the company of the other patrons. “We’re busting the illusion that craft beer is only for one type of person.”
According to Hopalytics, a Texas-based data company that specializes in craft beer, community building is vital to breweries and their success. Seventy-eight percent of consumers said they patronized their local brewery during the pandemic out of loyalty, even if it was just for drinks to go. The Peña brothers, for one example, have benefited from their customers’ loyalty—cans of their Big Red–flavored Big Rojo sold out online in just three minutes in June.
Bobby Diaz sees his North Texas brewery, Odd Muse, as an opportunity not only to build community, but create a better, more inclusive one. “Farmers Branch doesn’t really have a history of acceptance, so we’re trying to change that,” he says. The Dallas suburb is best known in the state for 2006 housing ordinances designed to make renting a home as difficult as possible for undocumented immigrants, though the ordinances were never implemented and were ruled unconstitutional.
You’ll find change on tap, literally, at Odd Muse. Cambio, a chocolate stout brewed with chipotle, is a collaboration beer Diaz worked on with the brewmasters at Smittox Brewing, a Black-owned brewery based out of Plano. “The beer we made reflects the changing brewing industry,” Diaz says. “It’s two minority-owned breweries coming together.”
These breweries aren’t just moving the needle on representation, they’re making some of the most celebrated beer in the state. Hopalytics named Odd Muse one of the best new breweries in Texas last year. DeadBeach was the only El Paso brewery to crack the top 100 Texas breweries in 2019 (there was no formal list for 2020). In the same statewide survey, Islla Street was ranked number 22. Thanks in part to this success, both DeadBeach and Islla Street are in the process of expanding into new, larger spaces.
You can find Tejano-branded brews, everything from IPAs named after Tex-Mex diner food to more on-the-nose jalapeño beers, in taprooms across the state. For Tejano brewers, it’s complicated to see so many white beer-makers jumping on the bandwagon and raking in the dollars that follow. “It feels like some breweries just search Google for Mexican sayings and a piñata image and roll with it,” says JD Peña. Others are even more misguided and offensive, like a beer he’s come across that its owners market as Green Card Mexican Lager. “We’re coming at this from an honest place and just trying to do right by our grandpa,” says his brother Josh. “We’re not pandering.”
“It’s a fine line,” says Diaz. He isn’t opposed to what are perceived as Latino flavors like lime and Mexican candies in beer, but he steers clear of being too cheeky or glib with the names of his beers and doesn’t think a beer needs to be showy to highlight his culture.
The Odd Muse Mexican lager, 500 Pesos, is Diaz’s quintessential brew. Light and crisp, it’s a no-frills beer inspired by his grandfather, who graces the label. “We didn’t want it to be funny, just to have meaning,” he says. The brew has proven so popular, it’s currently out of stock, but Diaz promises it’s on the regular rotation and will be back in a couple of months.
When DeadBeach Brewery was founded almost ten years ago, Montoya was often asked who the demographic for his beer was, and he’d give an answer he thought was obvious. “It’s for anyone,” he says. “El Paso is a big hub for people who are passing through and we want everyone at our table.” That means having a range of brews on tap, from classic German-style brews for the military crowd visiting from abroad to Toma!, a fire-roasted red beer with green chile. “The great thing about brewing beer is we’re able to be creative. Our canvas is a sixteen-ounce glass.”
At the Laredo Brewing Co., the newest Hispanic-owned brewery on the scene and the first in Laredo, the canvas is still mostly blank. Owner Rodrigo Marroquin, who was born in Mexico City, became entrenched in the craft beer scene during his university days in Boulder, Colorado. By the time he landed in Laredo, he was sitting on old brewery equipment, the remains of a shuttered microbrewery that he had launched in Mexico. For fifteen years, he daydreamed and chatted with golf buddies about his vision for better beer in town. “It took me a long time to man up,” he says, but thanks to the free time he’s had during the pandemic and the evolving food and drink scene on the border, it’s finally the right time.
Laredo Brewing Co.’s first brews include a blond ale and a hefeweizen—light, drinkable stuff to beat the heat. Marroquin says once the company has its sea legs, experimentation with flavors and styles are sure to come.
The brewery doesn’t have a taproom yet and isn’t open to the public, but the local beer scene is already excited to see what’s next. “There’s definitely a demand for it,” says Valeria Contreras, co-owner of Cultura Beer Garden and one of the lucky few industry folks who’ve tried the first batches of beer. Marroquin says home brewers are showing up to his office door every day, wanting to taste some beer and take a peek inside.
Alas, all of the beer Laredo Brewing Co. has produced has already been claimed by local restaurants and bars. “I keep telling everyone, wait, wait, we need to get ready and make more beer, then we’ll invite everyone in!”
406 Durango, El Paso
Islla Street Brewing Co.
11911 Crosswinds Way, San Antonio
Laredo Brewing Co.
3910 E Del Mar Boulevard, Suite 201, Laredo
Odd Muse Brewing Company
4488 Spring Valley Road, Farmers Branch