Nestled at the end of Whalley Ave., about two miles from Yale’s campus, is a dance studio bursting with rhythm and life. On most nights you can find Alisa Bowens-Mercado, the owner of Alisa’s House of Salsa, standing at the front of the room teaching the class, tapping her feet in a dynamic one-two step. No one would ever guess that Bowens-Mercado had spent her entire day going door-to-door selling beer to local stores. Her beer, to be more precise. As the owner of Rhythm Brewing Co., Bowens-Mercado is the first African-American woman to brew beer professionally in Connecticut. “They call me Lady Lager. They go, ‘Budweiser’s the king of beer, and you’re the queen of beer,’” she said.
It wasn’t always salsa dancing and beer for Bowens-Mercado. Born and raised in Bethany, Conn., she spent her childhood summers working for her parents’ construction company. “I think that’s where I get my entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “During summer breaks I would go into the office with my mom, and my brother would go into the field with my dad, so we learned how they ran the business and the office.”
Bowens-Mercado left Connecticut to study political science and criminal justice at Northeastern University. While there, she enrolled in the CO-OP Program, where students spend one of five undergraduate years working for an established company. After a stint working at the public defender’s office in New Haven, Bowens-Mercado began to question the path she had taken with her studies. So when her parents asked her to take over the family construction company, Bowens-Mercado did not hesitate: “I love breaking barriers… It became my mission to open up doors for women and minorities in this male-dominated field.”
Bowens-Mercado set a goal to create economic opportunities for her employees and the greater New Haven area by making sure to specifically hire minorities and women from the community. A self-described advocate and go-getter, she explained that people began to take notice of her work, eventually asking her to sit on the small business committee for the city and speak to other women in the construction world.
One such speaking opportunity happened to be in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she was asked to speak to women who were involved with the local construction industry. Bowens-Mercado laughed as she explained that, although her visit to Puerto Rico was a business trip, it was the type of business trip where you could enjoy yourself for at least one day. “Like a scene out of a movie,” she recalls walking into the lobby of the El San Juan Hotel and seeing a group of people salsa dancing, moving back and forth in a swirl of color. “It was the most beautiful, the most elegant, the most energetic thing I had ever seen. I was addicted,” she said. In San Juan, Bowens-Mercado decided that she wanted to keep salsa dancing, and she took up lessons immediately upon returning home.
Soon after, Bowens-Mercado explained to her parents that she was ready to leave the construction company to pursue her dream of salsa dancing. And then she opened up her first salsa studio on Chapel St. Since opening the studio, Bowens-Mercado has been tied to Yale and its students. One of her first big classes was a group of students from the School of Forestry, a group so large that they couldn’t all fit into the studio. That was almost 20 years ago. Now, she teaches a class every Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
But Bowens-Mercado was ready for her next project. About five years ago, while attending a beer festival in Cape Cod, she noticed that there were only IPAs and stout beers to drink — there were no lagers, your typical Bud Light, Heineken, Corona. So Bowens-Mercado decided to brew her own beer. “I’m going to make my own beer that I can drink, a beer that my tastebuds are used to. I’m the first African-American and first African-American female to brew beer in our state’s history, which is wonderful because hopefully this will inspire all people, but especially those who don’t think that [they] are represented in an industry that has been typically white-male-dominated,” she said.
After four years of recipe development and practice batches, Rhythm Brewing Co. launched their first product, Rhythm Unfiltered Lager, this past year. An homage to Bowens-Mercado’s grandmothers who were both avid beer drinkers, she wanted to infuse the beer with a little bit of their spirit for life. Hence the tag-line: “Find your rhythm with each sip.”
Bowens-Mercado explained that her grandmothers always encouraged her to work hard and in a way that was not solely self-fulfilling. “They were both strong women, they both had their own lanes in life; I don’t think they went with the norm. My grandmothers were like rockstars — they were drinking beer, which I thought was cool,” she said. “I would hope they would be really, really proud of what I’m doing.”
As with her work in the construction field, Bowens-Mercado has made it her mission to create economic opportunities in the beer industry, an industry that brings in about $100 billion in wages. “With an industry that’s doing that much monetarily, something there just didn’t make any sense to me. People of color are some of the biggest consumers, but when we don’t own a lot of these [companies], it’s just money going out, not money going in,” she said. “I always tell people it’s bigger than me and a can of beer.”
Rhythm’s launch has not been without obstacles. When going to different restaurants to sell the product, Bowens-Mercado finds herself having to explain to people, “‘No, I’m not one of the shot girls. I own the brand, it’s mine.’” But Bowens-Mercado doesn’t let the disparaging reactions get to her. “At the end of the day… [other brewers] embrace you. If you’re making a good damn beer, that’s all people care about; they don’t care who’s making it, they don’t care if I’m a female, they don’t care if I’m African-American. They want to sip on a good beer,” she said.
Bowens-Mercado’s day starts and ends with beer. When the liquor stores open, around 9 or 10 a.m., Bowens-Mercado is there with her mother, the other half of the self-named “Rhythm-Nation” sales team, knocking on doors and giving out samples. As if she needed another way to stand out, Bowens-Mercado goes around with an LED tap handle to give to restaurants so that, no matter where you are in the room, you should be able to see Rhythm’s light. After an evening of teaching classes, either in the studio or at Payne Whitney, it’s time for Bowens-Mercado to come home and end her day, having dinner and beer with her husband. And then the next day, she does it again. “[I] see how I can go out and make the beer world and the salsa world a better place.”
Bowens-Mercado plans to open her own tap room in 2020 in Stratford, Conn. “We want to be known as the new taste of lager. We want to be known as that next, newest brewery.”