At Buena Vista Brewing Co., Chuck and Phil Ornelas channel their Hispanic heritage into their beers. Just four years ago, Buena Vista was a backyard hobby; now, the brothers are in the process of opening a new taproom and brewery in downtown Watsonville and recently purchased Watsonville’s three-year-old Slough Brewing Collective. Their success reflects the growth of brewery ownership by people of color in an otherwise stagnant industry.
A “wow” escapes me as I step off of West Beach Street in downtown Watsonville and into a hotel ballroom. White and gold Corinthian columns tower above the white tiled dance floor. On one side, a marble fireplace is tucked underneath a dark wood mezzanine. A gray and white marble bar dominates the far end of the room, and a disco ball hangs from the ceiling. The space is grandiose, a glamorous setting from another era — not exactly a traditional space for a taproom and brewery.
But brothers Chuck and Phil Ornelas, owners and brewers of Buena Vista Brewing Co., have big plans. Once complete, this event space/restaurant/taproom/brewery aims to be a vital gathering place for the Watsonville community and a cornerstone of the downtown area.
In the midst of this project, Buena Vista Brewing purchased Watsonville’s Slough Brewing Collective, a three-year-old brewery located off of Airport Boulevard. The brothers officially took over the brewery in August. They plan to continue to produce the Slough’s beers while also expanding production of Buena Vista-brand beers on the Slough’s seven-barrel system.
Either of these projects would have been notable for a microbrewery like Buena Vista, which Phil and Chuck, together with a third brother who has since left, founded in Santa Cruz just three years ago; combined, it represents a massive step forward for Buena Vista at a time when the craft beer industry has slowed. In 2022, the sale of craft beer by volume rose 0.1% and the beer industry overall was down 3%.
But Chuck and Phil’s passion for pouring their Hispanic culture into their beers has resonated with customers. At Buena Vista, the Ornelas brothers infuse their brews with traditional and familiar Mexican flavors like ancho chili and cacao, fresh mango and lime juice, tangy hibiscus, horchata spices and maize.
“That was important — how do we connect with our Hispanic community through beer?” says Phil. “Craft beer is difficult to bridge to the Hispanic market because we’re so used to all the import beer.”
Beer names and can art was no exception when it came to expressing their identity. One beer, This Bumper, a hazy pale ale, is an homage to an iconic scene in the 1997 film “Selena,” where two tough-looking guys attempt and fail to pull the famous singer’s bus out a ditch with their lowrider. The label for Calle Monterey, a pale ale, features worn cobblestones, and is a reference to a common street name in many Mexican towns and cities.
Some of the labels are nostalgic, like the Pelea de Gallos, a hibiscus-infused specialty ale. Its can art resembles posters seen in Mexico for cockfighting. The Ornelas brothers don’t condone the illegal sport, but the red swirl of hibiscus juice added to the beer during brewing reminded them of two roosters in combat. They point out that the ink “errors” on the can are intentional and a nod to the misprints found on the posters on walls.
To Chuck and Phil, making these kinds of beers feels authentic and resonates with customers who are Hispanic. “It makes sense to me. Not that the beer is any better or any worse if it’s not made by a Hispanic, but people make a connection,” says Phil. “We didn’t realize what we were doing was a thing.”
Chuck and Phil became aware that there weren’t many Hispanic brewers in Santa Cruz County through an offhand comment made by their friend Jorge Vazquez, one of the former owners of the Slough. “He says, now it’s three and four, meaning Hispanic folk,” says Chuck.
But the number of minority-owned breweries is changing locally as well as nationally. Although more than 93% of craft brewery owners are white and just 2.2% of brewery owners identify as Hispanic, Latino/a or of Spanish origin, the industry overall is trending toward more owners and customers who are people of color. Around the Monterey Bay area, La Cantina Brewing Company in Salinas, Mad Pursuit Brewing Company in Hollister and Hidden Hills Brewing and Blending in Carmel are just some of the breweries in the area that are Hispanic- or minority-owned.
Buena Vista says its brews appeal to non-Hispanic drinkers, too. “People just gravitate to the name. They don’t speak Spanish but when they have our beer it seems like they start speaking Spanish,” says Phil. “They make an effort to pronounce the name, like Chequesito Friday or Pelea de Gallos. Those are our brands that have a lot of culture in them.”
The beginning: Backyard brew days in Hollister
Phil began homebrewing beer in his backyard seven years ago at his home in Hollister. It was a backup hobby — he had originally invested in the equipment to make tequila, but discovered that making it at home is almost impossible. But he enjoyed the process, and his friends and family enjoyed drinking his homebrew, so he made more. It wasn’t long before Chuck began hanging out on brew days. “We were always growing. Our system was always too small for the next batch. We’d make beer and as soon as we made it, it’s gone,” says Phil. “So we always said, let’s make some more.”
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It eventually led them to purchase a brewing system from a former kombucha company in Santa Cruz. Although it was still technically a hobby, the brothers would regularly commute an hour or more from Hollister at the end of their work day to brew beer. In 2019, they decided to shift to commercial production, with an emphasis on kegged beer for distribution.
That all changed with the onset of the pandemic. Restaurants and public spaces were closed, which meant Buena Vista couldn’t sell kegs. “We had all this beer,” says Phil. “Honestly, we thought, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’”
They quickly pivoted to cans, at first just scrawling beer names in Sharpie on the outside. Phil and Chuck would do late-night home deliveries of beer after brewing well into the evening, sometimes not getting home until 3 a.m. The physical exhaustion didn’t matter — “Not if you like making beer,” says Phil. He says his brew days kept him going during this challenging time.
And Buena Vista was gaining a following. Restaurants reopened and wanted their beer, and repeat customers continued to place orders. Phil quit his day job in 2021; in 2022, Chuck did, too, and they began looking for a new, larger space.
They hoped to stay in Santa Cruz, which has a strong craft beer community, but they couldn’t find a suitable building. Then someone brought their current space on the corner of Rodriguez and West Beach streets to their attention.
A new brewery, taproom and restaurant comes to downtown Watsonville
Before the end of the year, the ballroom is set to reopen as the Cerveceros Union Taproom, a pub that will serve local craft beer next to familiar import brews and conventional brands. This will be one of three businesses operating under the same roof.
An adjacent room that’s about half the size of the ballroom will be the new home of Buena Vista. Its four-barrel brewing system will be in one corner, Phil explains, and this will be the place where guests can try new and experimental beers before they’re available to the wider public. A significant amount of work needs to be done, including electrical and adding floor drains and a cold storage box, but they’re optimistic about opening that space as early as January.
Both the Cerveceros Union Taproom and Buena Vista Brewing will have site-specific menus created by the third business, the Mariscos al Encanto restaurant, already operating next door. The Ornelas brothers co-own the restaurant with chef Victor Martinez, who took over the Mexican seafood restaurant 10 months ago and is experimenting with adding new items like fried chicken sliders and a brunch menu with bottomless mimosas.
The restaurant, taproom and brewery are three separate businesses, but guests will be able to enjoy them as one experience. For example, if one guest wants a beer from the brewery, and their friend wants a different beer from the taproom, and they both want a meal from the restaurant, that’s OK. Phil explains, “The brewery could have its own events or its own culture, and then the taproom would have its own and then the restaurant could have its own — or at one huge event they put it all together and offer something pretty spectacular.”
Phil and Chuck admit it’s a lot of space. Originally, they thought they would put their brewery in the ballroom, but then the owner lifted up a curtain and showed them the space next door. “Chuck said, ‘Let’s just do both.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Phil — the older brother — says with a laugh. But they considered that they had outgrown their original Santa Cruz brewery in the Sash Mill within three years; at least here Buena Vista would have plenty of room to grow. “We thought, ‘OK, yes, this is a suitable building.’”
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