SAN DIEGO — On Feb. 26, restaurateurs, chefs, bakers, brewers and winemakers from all over the country woke up to the announcement of this year’s James Beard Awards Semifinalists.
Just two or three San Diegans each year are lucky enough to land a spot on the semifinalist list. But this year, there was only one: David Favela, founder and CEO of Border X Brewing in Barrio Logan, which holds the distinction of being San Diego’s first Mexican-owned brewery. Favela is one of 20 nominees in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Producer category. Final winners will be announced March 25.
Favela, whose Border X Brewing makes Mexican-inspired craft beers, said he was so stunned by the news that he “literally fell to the floor.”
“I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it,” said Favela, 52, of Rancho Bernardo. “It’s such a huge honor to even be in the company of these nominees. And to know that people sat around this table and said that we deserve to be in this group? I’m in shock. Happy shock.”
Born and raised in Escondido to parents of Mexican heritage, Favela spent 22 years with Hewlett-Packard, working his way up to into leadership positions that took him all over the world. Looking for a way to spend more time with his family about six years ago, he leased a small industrial space in an Otay Mesa business park and started home-brewing small batches of traditional beers with his nephews, Martin and Marcel Favela, who grew up on both sides of the border.
Then, one day the Favelas had an epiphany. Instead of trying to duplicate the flavors and ingredients of European beers, why not draw on their own culture, traditions and flavor palate?
“We’re not Irish. We’re not Czech and we’re not German. Why aren’t we showing up in our beers?” he said.
So, his nephews started experimenting with traditional Mexican ingredients and flavors and came up with what would become the company’s signature product, the Blood Saison, a bright red fruity and tart beer with pink foam inspired by a drink the trio had grown up drinking, the traditional Mexican hibiscus tea known as agua de jamaica.
“Other brewers had played with hibiscus flowers but never put much in, just a handful here and there. We put in bags and bags,” Favela said. “When I first tasted it, it was a revelation. I thought, ‘this is the best beer I’ve ever had in my life.’ We are honoring our own experiences and acknowledging that flavor is universal. No one culture has a monopoly on things that taste delicious.”
Since then, the company has produced many more Mexican-inspired brews, including the Horchata Golden Stout, made with vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks; and Abuelita’s Chocolate Stout, made with cinnamon and Mexican chocolate. This year the company will produce about 2,000 barrels of beer. Most of its output is served at its two tasting rooms: a 200-seat tasting room and taco bar in Barrio Logan with nine beer taps, and a recently opened 250-seat space with 16 taps in the L.A. County city of Bell. The company also started canning some of its beers this past fall.
Favela left Hewlett-Packard in October 2018 to focus full-time on Border X Brewing. His wife, Carmen, is the brewery’s director of marketing, nephew Martin is chief operating officer and nephew Marcel is the brewmaster.
Favela said he thinks the Beard committee not only appreciated Border X’s unique beers, but also its unorthodox marketing strategy. Rather than try to market a niche Mexican-themed beer to the broad beer-drinking public, they decided instead to focus on young Latino beer drinkers and build tasting rooms in largely Latino neighborhoods.
“I traveled all over the world visiting tasting rooms and what I found was that we were never the target market. We were an afterthought. Nobody designed a space for Latino males in their 20s and 30s. So when we did, and we acknowledged their tastes and preferences, it touched something deep in our customers,” Favela said.
“The biggest compliment I ever received was from a customer who called our tasting room the ‘living room’ of the community. He said that we all live in small urban housing and apartments but when we want to be with friends and hang out, we come to your place.”
The tasting rooms are also centers of border culture, with Mexican art on the walls, concerts by Mexican singers, loteria and cumbia nights, Dia de los Muertos celebrations and Latino film festivals. Favela said that dedication to true culture has helped Border X attract a growing non-Latino customer base who are seeking an authentic experience, rather than what he calls the “romanticized hacienda” atmosphere found in national chain Mexican restaurants.
“Our mission in San Diego was to grow the vocabulary of brewing. Our contribution to the San Diego beer scene was creating beers that reflect the border, that reflect our culture and that connect with our customers,” he said. “We’ve been at it now for five years and I think we’re on to something.”
For the full list of the 2020 James Beard Foundation semifinalists, visit jamesbeard.org.
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