comScore

Meet Doña Chela, Minnesota’s first Latino brewery

Latin America meets Minnesota in this rich lager.

Latin America meets Minnesota in this rich lager. Jerard Fagerberg

Sergio Manancero’s phone lights up, and he instinctively picks it up off the bar top. It’s been this way all afternoon. He can barely get through a sip of his lager without a notification barging into his handset.

Manancero is eight credits shy of his bachelor’s in sociology at the University of Minnesota, where he also coordinates international trips for the school’s Center for Outdoor Adventure. Undergrad life has been fulfilling for the first-generation Latin Minnesotan from Maple Grove, but Manancero’s ever-developing love for craft beer is undeniable. Last year, he deferred graduation a semester to launch Doña Chela Cervecería, Minnesota’s first Latino-owned brewery.

“When I started getting into craft beer, I noticed that there was an underrepresentation of diversity,” Manancero says from his barstool at Bar Luchador. “People are calling this the Renaissance of Beer, and I think that’s awesome, but [craft brewers] need to think about starting brands that are more inclusive.”

Manancero calls 2016 a proof-of-concept for Doña Chela. The company launched in July of that year, and in the 13 months since, they haven’t yet turned a profit. They’re still contracting all their brewing out to Sand Creek Brewing in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Manancero bought a Nissan NV200 van with his own savings, and he hand-delivers beer to Doña Chela’s 50 local accounts between classes and work.

That’s why his phone is so restless—he’s the owner, distributor, and marketing manager of Doña Chela, so nothing gets done if he takes time off for normal life.

“It’s not coincidental that I had to add a second semester,” Manancero says. “I pick beer up at 7 a.m., go to class at 8, leave class at 10 to do beer deliveries until I have class again at 1, and then I go to work until 11:30, when we close. Then, I go home and do that the next day. I’m always answering text messages.”

Sergio Manacero

Sergio Manacero Jerard Fagerberg

Doña Chela currently bottles one beer—a Mexican-style Vienna lager called Lager Bronce. Manancero likens it to Modelo Negra, but that’s more of a sales pitch than an honest assessment. Lager Bronce is rich and bready, abounding with barley sweetness. It’s far more complex than run-of-the-mill Mexican macros like Pacifico and Corona. But more than being just a good beer, it’s a perfect emblem for Doña Chela’s origins.

Manancero is the son of Uruguayan immigrants, but he was born and raised in Minnesota. Lager Bronce has allowed him to externalize this multinational identity struggle. Brewed with a South American lager yeast common in Mexican beers, Lager Bronce is all Latin American, but the grain is sourced completely from Minnesota.

“Growing up as a first-generation American of immigrant parents, I’m trying to assimilate two cultures,” Manancero says. “That’s a problem that a lot of first-generation kids of immigrants have.”

According to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of Minnesota’s 276,000 Hispanic citizens are foreign-born. At a median age of 24, this demographic is a prime target for craft beer, and several local breweries have tried to appeal to this population: Indeed and Big Wood both make tentpole Mexican-style beers, and Dangerous Man is occasionally advertised in La Prensa de Minnesota. But only Doña Chela has the heritage to speak to these consumers on a personal level.

“The average Latin Minnesotan walks into the liquor store, and they want to buy something that’s from home,” Manancero says. “But Corona is owned by Constellation Brands in Chicago. It’s barely an import. And so why not buy something from the place that accepted you? The place where you live and work?”

One lesson that Manancero has learned from Doña Chela’s maiden year is that this conversion is exceedingly difficult to make. Lager Bronce drinkers are far more likely to be white local-beer devotees than evangelized Modelo drinkers. Hispanics in Minnesota make a median annual income of $20,000, and 19 percent of Hispanic adults live in poverty, making cheap standbys a more justifiable expense than a carefully honed craft brew.

Compounding this, the lack of ethnic diversity in brewing means Latin Americans feel like the Renaissance of Beer is passing them by. Breweries are white-dominated and English-speaking environments. They can be intimidating spaces for Latin Americans, leading to a knowledge gap that can only be circumvented through a cultural shift.

“Part of it is educating the Latino community about craft beer,” Manancero says. “People are gonna grow up in craft beer culture, and they’re gonna want something that represents their culture. If the only thing that’s out there is European and Nordic beer styles and beer halls that don’t apply to them, they’re gonna feel like they’re missing out.”

Doña Chela is designated as a public benefit corporation, similar to Elliot Park beermakers Finnegan’s. This means that although Doña Chela does intend to raise profits that benefit shareholders and the company owner, it is also legally obligated to consider the business’s impact on the community and society as a whole.

Doña Chela was incorporated to promote economic and social well being in the Latin American community in Minnesota. Though Doña Chela hasn’t made the money Manancero will use to support the social aspect of his business, Manacero has been actively planning for that moment. He’s been sitting in on Minneapolis City Council meetings on Lake Street and working with the Latino Economic Development Center to identify problems to eventually address.

“It’s not just about being successful in the craft beer industry but how to turn that success into positive social change for the craft beer industry here in Minneapolis,” Manancero explains. “For example, when someone who doesn’t speak English calls 911, it takes somewhere between 90 seconds and two minutes for someone who speaks Spanish to come on the line. Then what you get is shop owners who call the police but can’t communicate that something’s happening, so they get robbed. How do you change that socially without just adding more police? You have to change on a different level. Adding visibility to that is what makes it happen.”

With his first year in the rearview, Manancero is looking forward to three or four new beers he has in concept, all of which incorporate elements from Latin American countries like Paraguay and Costa Rica. With a portfolio specced out, he and his business partner have turned their full attention to finding a production space.

They’ve narrowed their search to two potential locations—one in St. Paul, and one in south Minneapolis—with hopes of breaking ground before the end of 2017. They envision the taproom as a community meeting space where Latin Americans and the general beer-loving population can cohabitate, a physical manifestation of the concept Doña Chela has proven in the past 13 months.

“It’s in the bottle, and people are buying it,” he says with a determined laugh. “I’ve proven that people are ready for this thing I’m proposing, this cultural cross of Latin culture and Minnesota beer.”

But Doña Chela will need the undivided attention of Manancero to keep evolving beyond the prototype stage. If Doña Chela catches on like he hopes it will, Manancero won’t be able to manage the brand between seminars and outdoor adventure trips. Luckily, that problem is scheduled to resolve itself.

“When I graduate, I lose my job, so this is do or die.”

Doña Chela Lager Bronce is available at bars and liquor stores around the Twin Cities metro. Look for it on bottle lists at Bar Luchador, Hola Arepa, Lyn 65, and Young Joni. It is also available in six packs at Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits, Hi Lake Liquors, and all Haskell’s locations. Check out their website, donachelabeer.com, for more information on how to find Doña Chela.