Inspiration on tap: A conversation in celebration of Women’s History Month

March 31, 2023

Students enjoying on campus pub and grill, on the rocks

Quinnipiac’s Department of Cultural and Global Engagement (DCGE) hosted “Brewing Change: A Conversation & Tasting with Alisa Bowens-Mercado.” on On March 28

Inspiration was on tap during this Women’s History Month event at On the Rocks Pub & Grill. The talk was co-sponsored by DCGE, M&T Bank Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and M&T Bank Center for Women & Business.

Bowens-Mercado is founder, brewmaster, and brand owner of Rhythm Brewing Company, Connecticut’s first African American woman-owned beer brand. When her company launched in 2018, she became the fourth female of color in the multibillion-dollar US beer industry. Her flagship beer, Rhythm, is a modern American-style lager brewed with South African hops.

In a conversation moderated by journalism major Averial Evans ’25, Bowens-Mercado discussed her unique journey, her actions to change paradigms in the industry and society, and her hope to inspire other entrepreneurs.

A professional salsa dancer, Bowens-Mercado is also CEO/Artistic Director at Alisa's House of Salsa, which inspired her Rhythm beer brand name. A self-described “beer chick,” when she’s not dancing, Bowens-Mercado attends craft beer festivals and visits taprooms. She said attending a Cape Cod festival, where she noticed a lack of good lager and few female beer enthusiasts, motivated her to start her own beer company.

“I researched the beer industry three years before I made a drop of beer. I did that because I’m a female and woman of color getting into a very white, male-dominated industry. When I found out the beer industry was $114 billion annually, and that women and people of color were getting less than .0005 percent of that, I said, ‘If I’m drinking it, I’m owning it.’ And that’s when the journey started.” Says Bowens-Mercado

Currently, less than one percent of US breweries are owned by African Americans; yet multicultural consumers make up roughly one-third of the beer market. The female demographic is another untapped market. More women of color are also needed in the industry, and to do that, “…we all individually have a role to play,” to change the current narrative, said Bowens-Mercado.

“This is not just who we are, but what we do. We brew beer. We do things. We can talk about it through branding. We take the narrative back. I don’t want to be the last. I want one thousand Alisas running around, brewing beer. That’s how you change the culture. That’s how you change the conversation.”

She credited her parents for instilling a strong belief in her ability to succeed.
“Growing up, my parents said, ‘You belong in any room that you walk into.’ So it really started from them giving me that esteem. When somebody tells me I’m not supposed to be here, I’m perplexed.”

Bowens-Mercado was recently featured in the documentary, “One Pint at a Time,” highlighting Black brewers, brand owners, and influencers reshaping the craft beer industry. Of 9,000 US craft breweries, most are white male-owned with white males as head brewers. Only a fraction are owned by women and minorities or employ a female or minority head brewer. In a short clip of the documentary shared on March 28, Bowens-Mercado discussed encountering discrimination when she began contract brewing at one establishment.

“We did get some pushback. I don’t know if it’s a girl thing, I don’t know if it’s a Black thing. But you just have some people in the industry who weren’t used to seeing people of color in the industry. And then, all of the sudden, you’ve got this Black chick contracting in their brewery. And some people, for whatever reason, didn’t like that.”

Speaking with Evans, Bowens-Mercado said she meets adversity by acting as an agent of change.

“When you walk into a room and you’re the only one that looks like you in the room, know that you are in the right room. Because that’s where change happens.”
She said opening conversations at controversial moments can also bring change.

“Those conversations can feel a little disrespectful, but those are the best opportunities to have a conversation about what’s wrong in an industry. I can tell you, from many of those conversations, I’ve been able to speak to people about why this is so important that we are represented,” said Bowens-Mercado. “I want to make it comfortable for the next female, or person of color, or male; anybody that is an entrepreneur that’s thinking about developing or owning a brand. The conversations come out of adversity.”

Conversations have also helped Bowens-Mercado enter collaborations with national beer company Sam Adams and Two Roads Brewing Company (Stratford). Her “Black is Beautiful” collaboration with Two Roads involved local participation in a global social justice event. It also connected her with Two Roads brewmaster Phil Markowski, which started a pivotal conversation.

“That was the opportunity for me to work with his team and say, ‘Phil, when we have the launch, look at your taproom. It’s diverse.’ And that’s what they want to see -- new, untapped demographics in the brewing industry,” said Bowens-Mercado.

“Diversity and inclusion, it starts with conversations with the Two Roads of the world, and the Sam Adams. And locally, we’ve got to make sure everyone’s on board and can help with that change. Hire someone that doesn’t look like you in your taproom…it’s those small steps that create change.”

Within five years of launching Rhythm beer, Bowens-Mercado has received over a dozen awards, 150 recognitions, and has 400 accounts throughout Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. She recently began her newest enterprise, Rhythm Roasting Company, a Connecticut-based coffee brand. Bowens-Mercado’s next goal for Rhythm beer is national distribution.

“We are going to be the first nationally distributed beer company that’s owned by a female and owned by a female of color. I am not going to stop until that happens” said Bowens-Mercado.

“It gives females an opportunity to employ, to empower, to inspire; that’s how we collectively change the brands. My goal is national distribution. My goal is to have a manufacturing facility no different than the big brands and to make sure that my team is diverse. That is my dream, my hope.” Bowens-Mercado says

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