A few years ago, when Sergio Manancero was a Marine serving in Camp Pendleton, Calif., he dreamed of opening a bar of his own, a place that would mean something to him, his family, and his community. Saturday night in north Minneapolis, that dream was a reality and on full display at Manancero’s popular and meaningful 15–month-old brewpub La Doña Cervecería (241 Fremont Ave. N.,), which bustled with salsa dancers and post-Vikings game perdedores and perdedoras drowning their sorrows in Minnesota’s only Latinx-owned and -catered to craft brewery and brewpub.
“In the Marine Corps, it’s just always a fun thing to think about, opening your own bar when you get out; that’s all any of us wanted to do,” said Manancero, sitting at his own bar last week, sipping a pint of his own brew. “So when I came back to Minnesota and I started going to breweries, there was underrepresentation of the Latino kids that I knew while growing up with my family here in Minneapolis, and I was trying to understand why they weren’t at the craft breweries like everybody else.”
A 2009 graduate of Osseo High School who got his bachelor of science degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota after serving in the Marines, Manancero is the son of parents who immigrated from Uruguay to Minnesota in the late ‘80s. Growing up in Maple Grove, he says he never experienced the cultural segregation from the white Minnesota majority that so many people of color have, because all his parents’ friends were fellow first-generation immigrants.
“In our neighborhood, our best friends were the Argentina family that lived a couple blocks away, and my dad worked really close with a lot of guys from Venezuela, Mexico, and Ecuador, so when we had holiday parties, all the kids I played with were also Latino,” said Manancero.
“I didn’t even realize how different everyone was until I got older and in middle school, and nobody really understood my parents’ background and my background, so I spent a lot of time explaining Uruguay, explaining that I wasn’t Mexican,” Manancero continued. “I dealt with a lot of that growing up and that feeds a lot of what’s here: It’s a culture mix. I’m born and raised in Minnesota, but I’ve been trying to explain myself as a Latino the whole time, so for me, this place is a really good conduit for [connection]. Craft beer is a really easy way to bring people together and share culture and explain, ‘This is who I am.’ ‘This is our culture and this is what we do.’”
“I love the salsa nights here,” said La Doña regular Yancy Walker, surveying the brown, black, and white mix of brewpub-goers Saturday night. “I was born and raised in El Salvador. I lived in Florida before I lived here, and I’ve had struggles with the lack of Latin vibe in the Cities since I moved from Florida. But I love it here. I love the music. This is a really old song they’re playing [by Eddie Santiago on the bar p.a.], and I just love singing along to it. It makes me feel at home.”
Manancero first launched La Doña as a stand-alone homebrew beer in 2016, which he sold out of the back of his truck. He and his partners found the space next to the Royal Foundry Craft Spirits distillery in the winter of 2017 and brought on head brewer Dicky Lopez, who had done time at Surly, Fulton, and Northgate breweries.
“We’re really about making sure it’s comfortable for people of color and comfortable for communities that historically haven’t been attached to craft brewery, both in terms of the clientele and also the employees,” said La Doña marketing director Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, who also works as a labor journalist and editor for Workday Minnesota. “Most of our folks are brown, Spanish speakers, our brewer is of Mexican descent. All of those elements are really important for us. It’s not just a tagline, it’s real. It’s just the way we operate.”
To that end, La Doña is a multitiered event space: The beer is varied, delicious, spicy, and exceptional; a likewise delicious variety of food is available via the local food truck Smashflag; salsa dancers and lessons dominate late Saturday nights; Spanish classes happen the second Monday of the month; yoga classes hold forth on Tuesday, soccer clubs fill up the summer months, and the back room doubles as the UR/IN art gallery, which highlights “Latinx-hearted artists.” Its ubiquitous Day of the Dead branding gives La Doña the feel of a playful sacred space, and perhaps most significantly in terms of good vibes, the brewpub is blessed with the 24/7 presence of the stunning sculpture “La Doña,” by sculptor Kordula Coleman, which is surrounded by candles and serves as something of an altar, perfect for gathering round with a pint and contemplating all this life and death.
“We’re rented out by progressive organizations for fundraisers and by meetings of the Latino Police Officers Association,” said Nolasco Gomez. “Our pricing is accessible, we’re not looking to gouge people, we want people to use the space. And we’re big. We can do a lot. We can accommodate a lot of different types of people.
“A big emphasis in the beginning was, ‘Hey wouldn’t it be fun to have a brewpub that’s focused around soccer, but for Spanish-speaking soccer clubs and the Latino soccer experience,’ as opposed to Brit’s or wherever else. It’s kind of evolved from then. Hilariously, we didn’t intend for this; soccer is important for us, but the soccer field has become kind of a [play pen] for kids. Parents put their kids in there and we have birthday parties. So now we’re a family-friendly place.”
Nolasco Gomez calls La Doña “a pioneering concept in the oversaturated brewery world,” and the couple hundred drinkers, diners, and dancers Saturday night would undoubtedly agree.
“I was a Ph.D. student in modern Guatemala history. My family’s Mexican; we grew up in L.A., and I’ve always been really connected to Latin America,” he said. “The Ph.D. work on Guatemala also means I’ve been an expert witness for most of the last six years for Guatemalans seeking political asylum.
“So I’m always thinking about ‘What is the experience of Latinx people and immigrants who have moved to Minnesota?’ I always think a lot about what it means to have been raised in Minnesota as opposed to Los Angeles for a person of color. It’s extremely different. Like, I grew up in an area that’s 90 percent Mexican in one of the biggest metropolises on the planet. And I know people [of color] here who grew up in Bemidji or something, and I don’t even know what that would be like. That’s wild.
“In my previous life I worked in music [as a journalist and show promoter] because I wanted to hear that music and feel that vibe and put on Latinx music shows. I take for granted that folks around here don’t have those kinds of spaces, and that’s why this is so important to me. Because I know this hasn’t existed before, and wouldn’t exist if Sergio hadn’t had the idea.”
Like many bar owners before him, Manancero wanted to create a pub that functions foremost as a neighborhood gathering spot.
“We want to create community in the neighborhood,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who come here from other parts of Minneapolis, and they see that it’s like any other part of the city. The buildings are accessible, the people are accessible, you don’t have to be like, scared to come to north Minneapolis. That’s a narrative that’s been pushed that I am not a fan of, at all. Because that has not been the case; we’ve been nothing but loved by everyone here.
“People have said to me, ‘Thank you for opening a place in the Harrison neighborhood that is so inviting to everyone. Because that’s a huge piece of it. If you can’t be a local brewery, then you don’t really have much. We wanted to be local to the people who live in the community, because there’s not a ton over here, and it’s great to have people who have lived here for 30 years come in and say, ‘Finally. There’s a brewery walking distance from my house and I can go have a beer.’ That pays big dividends for me. That gives me great energy.”
All of which is true to the La Doña’s mission statement: “To celebrate the vibrancy, breadth and depth of Latino and Minnesotan culture through superior product and customer experience as a fully operational brewery and community/event center, while raising awareness of and providing support to social, economic, and environmental issues that impact us all.”
“On any given night, there are people here who one hundred percent don’t speak English and only speak Spanish and the bartenders have to interact with them in Spanish, and that’s really fun for us because that’s why I hired bartenders who can speak multiple languages,” said Manancero. “On salsa nights, we have a ton of Latinos from all over the metro. Latino people come all the way from Shakopee to go salsa dancing, and white and black people from north Minneapolis here in the Harrison neighborhood, which is amazing. I’m super happy we ended up here, and it’s been really fun to interact with all those people.”
“When I was in college, one of the classes I took was the sociology of alcohol. Once a week, we’d go to the bar: ‘Don’t get drunk, pay attention to what’s going on, write it down and we’ll talk about it,’” said Manancero, sitting at the gleaming island bar in the center of the brewpub. “The island bar is a total step away from every craft brewery that’s out there. But any dive bar in any neighborhood you go to is an island bar, because it’s better for people talking to each other across the bar. So that’s been super important for this bar. From a sociological perspective, that’s given us a leg up on people having a conversation.”
“The class was a lot about how the industry advertises and how different groups of people behave and interact with each other at the bar. And where alcohol comes from, and the fact that there’s archeological evidence that suggests civilization started farming barley because they could make it into beer. Beer’s been a staple for thousands and thousands of years.
“The next 20 years of the industry is going to be amazing. Not only here, but everything that happens here is being chased very closely by Latin America. When I was in Uruguay in 2015, there was one craft brewery in this town of 100,000 where my parents are from. So I’m excited to go back now and see what that brewery’s doing. Bring ‘em a growler and say, ‘If you’re ever in Minnesota …’”