Finding Her Rhythm
A local brewing pioneer sees business boom, even amid a pandemic
By Cara McDonough / Photography by Winter Caplanson
Beer wasn’t an acquired taste for Alisa Bowens-Mercado. It was always part of her life.
She remembers both her grandmothers drinking beer, lagers specifically. That might not seem the norm for grandmothers, but it was their norm. Beer was a tradition in Bowens-Mercado’s family – and that memory became her inspiration.
“As a woman, and as an African American, to own a beer brand, it’s paying homage to them,” Bowens-Mercado says of her grandmothers, now passed. “They always told me if there’s anything you want to do in life, you can achieve it.”
Bowens-Mercado certainly proved them right. A few years ago, creating her own beer label was just a notion. Today she’s the owner of Rhythm Brewing and a rising star in the brewing scene. They call her “Lady Lager.”
She gets major props for her beer: it’s a smooth-drinking, American-style unfiltered lager brewed with South African hops, offered in an original version, “Rhythm Unfiltered Lager,” and a light one, “Rhythm Blue Unfiltered Light Lager.”
But there’s more to this tale. Beyond crafting something downright delicious, Bowens-Mercado is also a rarity in the beer scene as the first female African American brewer in the state, and one of just a few in the country.
She’s occupying a space held mostly by white men. For her, that lack of diversity provided one of many compelling reasons to go for it.
Bowens-Mercado remembers the day she first thought about brewing her own beer. She’d always loved it (ordering lagers in college while her friends got cocktails) and she and her husband have attended many beer festivals together. They were at one in Cape Cod several years ago when she realized that nothing she’d tasted that day was quite hitting the spot.
“We’re in New England, IPA heaven,” she says laughing, noting that IPAs – or India Pale Ales, the hoppy darlings of the craft beer scene – are so prevalent that they sometimes crowd out other varieties. “I just wanted something that tasted like beer.”
On their way home that day, her husband noticed how quiet she was.
“If I’m going to drink it, I need to own it,” she remembers thinking during the drive. Furthermore, she knew there weren’t many women or people of color in the beer industry, despite those groups consuming the product. She wanted more representation.
So, like many beer-lovers before her have enthusiastically declared, she decided she’d brew her own.
The difference is that Bowens-Mercado meant it, then got to work.
This was despite the fact that she was already a business owner with plenty to keep her busy. Bowens-Mercado runs New Haven’s beloved and successful Alisa’s House of Salsa, Studio of Latin Dance. The studio, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, offers salsa dance classes for all levels (including online classes during the pandemic) and houses a professional dance team, as well.
The name Rhythm, in fact, speaks to the importance of music and dance in her life.
The House of Salsa has expanded through the years, and Bowens-Mercado – who sometimes calls the business her “first child” – says she expects it to be around for years to come.
No matter, she’d find time for beer, too, and after plenty of careful planning, she concocted her first brew in 2018, using the facility at Overshores Brewing Co. in East Haven. She moved from there to Armada Brewing, also in East Haven, and today she and Rhythm have found their home at Black Hog Brewing in Oxford. Bowens-Mercado is 100 percent owner of her business but gets plenty of help from her husband and mom, she says.
She didn’t open her own brewery right away, as a strategic measure.
“Let me see how this goes,” she recalls thinking. “Let me get demand out there without having to worry about a brick and mortar brewery.” It’s a decision she’s particularly grateful for today, considering Covid-19 temporarily shut down many breweries this spring.
Plus, she was right about demand. It was there. Now it’s growing – significantly. Bowens-Mercado sells Rhythm at a plentiful and increasing number of bottle shops, grocery stores, bars, and restaurants throughout Connecticut (you’ll find exact locations using the “Rhythm Finder” on her website). Consumers can purchase beer online from her website for pickup in New Haven, too.
“The demand for the brand right now is through the roof,” Bowens-Mercado says, adding that she’s in talks with larger brands looking to add the Rhythm label to their lineup. She’s proud of and pushing her timely message that: “America is finding a new Rhythm, one sip at a time.” That being said, she’s committed to the brand’s homegrown roots. She’s proud of the fact that you can call up the brewery and talk to her personally.
Bowens-Mercado believes that the unusual set of circumstances in our country this year – including coronavirus and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement – has had a real impact on her story and her brewing label. The pandemic, she believes, increased demand as beer drinkers looked to buy local, try something new, and purchase a product they could enjoy at home. She said that consumers drove across state lines to buy Rhythm beer, and that she’s forever grateful to her loyal and growing client base.
The public discussions surrounding race following the death of George Floyd mattered immensely to her personally and mattered to her business model.
“It really made people shift their thinking,” she says. “They said, ‘Why not support a company that looks like Alisa’s or has that mission?’ When there’s injustice, black businesses matter. And that’s coming from white folks, black folks, everyone. They were coming out and saying, ‘we support you.’”
In recent months, Rhythm has quadrupled its social media following and Bowens-Mercado is getting calls about the product from all over the world.
Of course, quality talks, too, she says: once consumers try her lager, they’re hooked.
“People know we are real and are doing this for the right reasons,” she says.
Phil Pappas, executive director of the Connecticut Brewers Guild, and Kat Manning, marketing and membership coordinator for the same organization, agree that having Bowens-Mercado on the Connecticut beer scene is incredibly important – and just plain fun.
“She’s honestly one of the most amazing people I have met in the brewing world,” says Manning. “She’s so personable and excited about what she’s doing. Her personality, plus being a woman and a woman of color is really good for our community and brings awareness to the problem of diversity, as well as providing an easy-drinking lager.”
Manning adds that the Guild has seen a shift in habits at state breweries, with more women and people of color exploring craft beer. The organization is actively looking to diversify and expand access and education, including spearheading a “Brewing Science” program at Sacred Heart University and working with groups like the Pink Boots Society, a Minnesota-based organization formed to empower women in the beer industry, including providing scholarships.
“Alisa has just been so phenomenal and so easy to work with,” says Pappas. “Once you meet her, or see her in interviews or on social media, you realize she’s just a powerhouse, she’s crushing it.”
Both say that Bowens-Mercado’s energy and penchant for storytelling is irresistible at festivals and other events. She waits patiently to chat with every fan who pays her booth a visit, and is a “sales machine,” when it comes to the beer, says Manning.
“Her positivity is just radiating, and is benefitting everyone,” Manning says, noting that Bowens-Mercado’s focus goes beyond her own brand to promoting other local purveyors through partnerships and collaborations. This summer, she worked with Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, to create the “Black is Beautiful” imperial stout as part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness about injustice against people of color.
Among all this action, Bowens-Mercado remains rooted in her origin story. Her grandmothers, she says, are cheering from a world beyond.
“What they and my parents instilled in me has carried on,” she says. And she urges others inspired to start a business – or achieve anything, really – to go for it, especially now.
“If there’s any thought you’ve ever had, this is the time,” she says. “I tell people to take a leap of faith. If you’re thinking about it, you can live it.”
As for Bowens-Mercado’s future goals, she’s says she is “keeping steady” while excitedly looking forward to what’s next. For this enthusiastic entrepreneur, merging passion with the desire to make this a better world is not only her mission, but a true talent.
“Everyone who is out there protesting, they don’t want business as usual,” she says. “And they don’t want brands as usual. There’s room for the Rhythm brand to give them something diverse. If we can unify folks in the country through beer, I mean, bring it on. That’s my dream.”