Nestled in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Central Mexico sits the picturesque colonial city of Morelia in the state of Michoacán. Designated an UNESCo World Heritage Site, the city was founded in 1541 and is known for the beautiful Spanish colonial buildings built from pink stone mined from the surrounding mountains.
Here you’ll find LaBru — ever growing in popularity. This craft brewery is owned and operated by two Americans who brought their talents and knowledge of beer making to México. The owners, Matthew Hikory andJeffrey Shults, shared their story of how two gringos accomplished what seemed impossible. Brewing beer in a country that is already dominated by huge breweries, LaBru started in 2006 when Jeffrey met Daron White and Rodrigo Cervantes. Jeffrey, who is the LaBru’s Master Brewer, is originally from Rochester, New York; he was in Michoacán rock climbing when he met his wife who is native to Morelia. Together Jeffrey, Daron and Rodrigo pooled their money together to get LaBru off the ground looking to keep costs down. For example, the 1st brew kettle and hot liquor tank were modified 500 liters pots found in Celaya, 1.5 hours north of Morelia, where they were used in the cajeta production (a Mexican style caramel made from goat’s milk). Using home brewing equipment, the process was slow but over time a following began in many restaurants in Morelia. In 2012, just as things began to speed up, both Daron and Rodrigo left México; thus Matthew Hikory entered into the picture.
Matthew, originally from Vermont, was backpacking through México and met a girl from Morelia, got married, and now has a beautiful family with 3 children. Still, those years in-between saw huge obstacles that Jeffrey wasn’t sure could be overcome. México lacked the infrastructure to really support craft brewing. In comparison, craft brewing in the USA makes up about 6% of beer production versus only about 0.1% in México. In the beginning, Jeffrey brought a loaded down truck full of grains, hops and whatever else he thought might come in handy. Jeffrey recalls “that’s quite a story.” Soon the grain ran out and the only modified grain used by the large commercial brewers was available, which was not ideal. The minimum order was a ton and suppliers often would not sell to them; they would go 2–3 months without producing any beer. Finally in 2009, a supplier opened in Chihuahua importing high quality grains and hops from the USA, Germany and the UK, which has allowed LaBru to maintain their unique brews.
Another huge obstacle was introducing the Mexican market to different styles of beer. For years the large commercial brewers have dominated the market and people’s perception of beer was limited. Even before LaBru began, Jeffrey brought an ice chest full of home brew from Rochester, NY to Morelia. Inside were 72 bottles with 10 styles of beer — “likely the heaviest piece of luggage ever to be put on an airplane” said Jeffrey with a chuckle. Each and every restaurant owner Jeffrey shared his beer with looked at him puzzled especially as they tasted the heavy stout beer. Only the German wheat beer brought a smile — why? It tasted most like the common commercial beers readily available in México. At the beginning of LaBru, Jeffrey would show up to parties with a 5-gallon keg and as he says — “no one knew a thing about this gringo with his strange brew.” He would hang around and take the time to share the story of his beer, always hoping this expensive hobby would grow into a viable business. Slowly people began to realize that it was quality beer, and the growth and popularity soon followed.
Matthew’s business mind has helped LaBru move beyond just a couple of guys brewing beer to a company with a plan — that plan — to get LaBru into more mouths across México. Currently LaBru produces 3,000 liters per month with a goal over the next 2 years to be producing 20,000 liters monthly. Yet with all this growth, LaBru is dedicated to working with other small craft brewers, maintaining an open door policy to share their knowledge and insight. They work together with these brewers to lower their costs when purchasing malt, hops, or yeast. Today, LaBru produces 8 styles of beer, including an American Wheat Style (light crisp hop flavor) they just released, a Winter Ale produced only in December and January featuring spices, vanilla and notes of anise. Two real standouts are their Stout, for which they won a silver medal at the 2013 Cerveza México (the national expo and competition for craft brewers) and a gold medal for their IIPA (Double IPA) along with ‘Best in Show’ at the same event. To round out their offerings they produce a Copper Ale, a Ginger Ale, an IPA and a Porter with hints of chocolate and coffee. In their first year on the national scene, 2013, LaBru finally began to get the recognition they craved. In September 2014, LaBru was selected as the ‘Success of the Year’ at the same expo for their efforts and growth in the world of artisanal brewing. It’s fitting in a city that is almost 500 years old that they approach beer making the old fashioned way. Using all natural ingredients and brewing on a small scale, each batch is only 350 liters. The mash is stirred by hand using a brewer’s wooden paddle. As Matthew says “a master brewer from 200 years ago could walk into our brewery and instantly recognize what we do because we do it the old fashioned way.” LaBru adheres to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1487 (Reinheitsgebot), which dictates the only ingredients that go into a beer: water, malt, hops and yeast. Jeffrey adds one more ingredient — a bit of his passion! The attention to the art form is seen as each and every bottle of LaBru is carefully hand bottled, each label individually applied with the lot number and alcohol content handwritten. All atestament to the care and passion these guys have for their beer. I for one am a fan!