Hoppy Birthday

Hoppy Birthday

Everyone on the brewery floor seems happy, even though it’s a slushy winter morning, they’re all bundled in flannel and fleece and the equipment is so loud it’s hard to talk. Rock and roll is blasting in the background, and there are plenty of elbow bumps and smiling eyes above masks as the first run of brewer Alisa Bowens-Mercado’s BGM—that’s Birthday Girl Magic—Vanilla Porter rolls off the conveyor belt.

In addition to being the first Black woman brewer in Connecticut, Bowens-Mercado may be the first Black woman to appear on a can of beer. This limited release—advertised as “beautifully dark, incredibly smooth”—celebrates her 50th with a festive purple label depicting the birthday girl herself, her hair flying as she dances in her Rhythm Brewing Company T-shirt. “Est. 1971,” the label reads.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

While Bowens-Mercado may have been established in the early ’70s, Rhythm Brewing is just three years old. Founded in March 2018, it’s a business born of pleasure. Attending beer festivals and visiting breweries was the go-to leisure activity for Bowens-Mercado and her husband, John, when she wasn’t busy running her other rhythmic business, Alisa’s House of Salsa in Westville, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.

At a beer festival on Cape Cod several years ago, Bowens-Mercado says, she looked around and noted how few women—“If they were there, they were being dragged along by their boyfriends”—and how few people of color were there. On the drive home, her husband asked why she was so quiet. “I said, ‘I’m gonna make my own beer.’” Remembering the moment, she laughs. “He’s like, ‘And I know you are.’”

Knowing that, as a woman of color in a white male-dominated industry, she had to know her stuff, Bowens-Mercado spent the next few years researching beer. She learned that in an industry with more than $110 billion in annual revenue, women and people of color were capturing just a fraction of one percent of the business. “I said if I’m consuming it, I’m gonna own it,” she says.

New England, she says, is “IPA heaven,” but she found herself longing for the kind of classic lagers she remembered her grandmothers drinking in the 1970s—“Miller High Lifes in pony glasses”—while they played their records and she and her cousins danced around the house. “That’s exactly what I was going for,” she says. The taste may be a bit different—those ’70s beers were maltier—but “we want to change the face and the taste of the beer industry, and that’s by… highlighting the beauty and the inclusion of lagers and what they once were.”

Rhythm’s flagship lager is unfiltered and hoppy, more complex and flavorful than your ordinary filtered lager. The hops come from South Africa, and Bowens-Mercado developed the recipe herself to be what she calls “a total step up from the classic lager”—”the Buds and the Coronas and the Heinekens” that she wants Rhythm to be shelved beside nationwide. Rhythm is already well on its way. You can find it in 480 locations statewide, including big box stores like ShopRite and Trader Joe’s and mom and pop shops like The Wine Thief and Temple Wine and Liquor.

Rhythm’s BGM Vanilla Porter is just that—a rich porter with a fun twist of vanilla that Bowens-Mercado hopes will appeal to women drinkers who may prefer a hint of sweetness. You won’t find the porter in stores; it can be ordered online but only until it’s gone.

Rhythm doesn’t have a physical location of its own. “I wasn’t building a brewery, I was building a brand,” Bowens-Mercado says. The beer is brewed and canned at Black Hog Brewing in Oxford, which hosted a BGM Vanilla Porter launch/birthday party on February 25.

Up next, Bowens-Mercado is toying with a couple of possible recipes for a limited release for Women’s History Month—maybe a sour or a seltzer. While female brewers are rare today, she notes that wasn’t always the case. In fact, brewing beer was for millennia one of many domestic chores undertaken by women.

Those days were long gone by the time Bowens-Mercado was growing up, but the women in her family still had relevant lessons to pass on. “My nana always just said, ‘Listen, find your rhythm in life,’” she remembers, as she continues to follow that advice.

Rhythm Brewing Company
(203) 809-2431 | alisa@rhythmbrewingco.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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