The 16-ounce cans have started to show up at shops here and there, labels depicting an Aztec princess, along with the Spanish, “La chela mas chula.” In beer parlance, a nice cold one.
At first glance, one might mistake these Cerveza Xteca cans for imported product, but the beer, dubbed Mexican Style Lager, is brewed right here in San Diego, intended for locals. The beer company’s Chicano founders originally wanted to label it “Mexican-American Lager,” but the TTB couldn’t quite grasp what that means in terms of beer. Mexico’s over there, it reasoned, America’s over here. The Federal agency struggled with the concept of a borderland identity.
American craft beer has too, on the whole. Marketing studies have been commissioned, conference panels assembled, all trying to tap the market potential Mexican-Americans could bring to craft beer if they embraced it en masse. Craft brewers from Cleveland to Colorado have tried to appeal to latinos, with Mexican lagers and seasonal Cinco de Mayo beers flavored with the likes of hibiscus and horchata. Few have made their mark.
“We’re not trying, we did the R&D already,” says Xteca cofounder Xavier The X-Man, a longtime Magic 92.5 FM disc jockey who spins the syndicated Sunday Night Oldies Show. “It’s at our quinceaneras, at our weddings.” He adds, “We know our market… our market is our family, it’s our friends.”
The X-Man started Xteca with friends Mario Lopez and Fred Sotelo, who broke into the urban apparel scene in the 1990s with the Toltec Originals apparel line, and have each continued on with successful design and branding careers.
The three men have deep roots in the local custom car building community, not traditionally a bastion of craft beer enthusiasts. “San Diego was the craft capital,” says Sotelo, “but there was no beer that any of us liked.” Their friends in the neighborhood and in the lowrider community found IPAs too bitter, domestic beers too watered down. They conceived of Xteca (pronounced Ex-Teca) back in 2015, as something by and for their community.
Lopez already had the Aztec princess label in mind, styled after Jesus Helguera, a hugely influential Mexican painter extolled in lowrider culture, and known to generations of Mexican-Americans thanks to widely distributed calendars bearing his artwork, ranging from portraits of Mexican life to depictions of Aztec mythology.
Sotelo had a brewer in mind: his nephew, Carlos Appel, an experienced industry vet who formerly made beer for Mike Hess Brewing. What they didn’t have was a brewery. “We started looking to purchase a place,” explains Sotelo, “But it’s impossible in San Diego right now, without selling our kids... real estate prices are crazy and these long-term leases are astronomical!”
They struck a contract brewing arrangement with Novo Brazil Brewing in Chula Vista, and started with a single beer: a flaked-corn Mexican lager. Working around the schedules of their existing careers, the partners began selling the beer to retailers themselves. Even Xavier would make sales calls after his weekday radio show concluded at 3pm.
They took a cue from local craft beer companies and marketed Xteca with booths at large events, though not events typically associated with craft beer crowds. More often it’s mariachi festivals, Spanish language film screenings, and custom car shows, where their branding has resonated with Mexican-Americans being newly introduced to craft beer. “Our following is actually not just millennials,” notes Sotelo, “We’re getting a lot of baby boomers and [gen] Xers.”
It’s worked. Xteca produced less than 500 barrels of beer in 2018, and are already on pace to at least double that this year. They quickly outgrew the 40-barrel batches they could produce at Novo Brazil, and have started contract brewing 100 barrel batches at AleSmith Brewing in Miramar. Their Mexican Style Lager is served at restaurants from Little Italy to San Jose, and they recently struck deals to sell cans in Petco Park and Wal Mart.
Appel says they plan to release a second beer later this year: a dark lager in the Vienna-lager meets dunkel style that has thrived for generations south of the border, though less so in American craft beer circles. Which is fine. Xteca is looking to create Mexican-American craft beer circles.
“That’s kind of the story of our company,” says Sotelo, “We’re always having to educate people about being Mexican American, and Chicano, and who we are.” Regardless who the TTB thinks that is.
“This is definitely authentic Mexican American lager,” says Xavier the X-Man, “proudly made in America.”