There was a moment last May when Ryan Piec could have walked away. COVID-19 was surging, the country was on lockdown, and Piec had just been laid off after eight years as the head brewer at the Westminster Promenade outlet of Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery. Although he had been working on his plans to open Mestizo Brew Cantina for a while, this seemed like the worst time to try to pull it off. “Nobody knew what was going to happen to our industry, and I thought maybe it was asinine to try to open a new brewery,” he says.
But after talking with friends in the industry, Piec and his partners decided to push forward with their plans — their dreams, really — for the brewpub, which is now under construction in a former auto shop at 6800 West 38th Avenue in Wheat Ridge. The brewpub will serve several styles of its own beer, along with Mexican and Latin American street food, including tortas ahogadas, cemitas, trompo-cooked carne al pastor, Ecuadorian pinchos (similar to kebabs), Salvadoran pupusas, Argentinean steak sandwiches, posole and mole wings.
“We had to either scrap the whole thing or find a way to take advantage of our situation and embrace being post-COVID head on,” he says. “So that has been our focus.”
“Instead of having to make dramatic changes to adapt," like many existing breweries have done over the past eight months, "we can open as part of the first generation of post-COVID restaurants,” Piec continues. "Just like there were things about the airline industry that never went back to normal after 9/11, there are going to be things about the service model that will never be able to get back back to the way they were before [the pandemic].”
Sanitary practices — gloves, masks, touchless ordering and payment — are obvious ones, but there will also have to be changes to how, when and where people eat.
Piec says he and his wife and their business partner, Ian Hunt (another former Rock Bottom brewer), are lucky because their business model already called for food and beer that could easily be taken to go. But now they plan to really ramp up those efforts. “We're buying a nano-canning line, which we weren’t planning on doing yet,” Piec says. And for the first six to eight months after opening, Mestizo will operate primarily on a food truck-style carryout model. Piec and Hunt also plan to offer catering to offices, some of which are slowly reopening, since co-workers likely won’t be going out for big lunches or after-work happy hours like they used to.
“We want to open in March,” Piec says. "If the pandemic has subsided and the restrictions are lifted by then, that's great. But we're planning on there still being restrictions.”
In the meantime, Mestizo will run a food truck on site to get both revenue and a buzz going. The recipes come from Piec and his head chef, Raphael Gomez, who worked with Piec at Rock Bottom and was also laid off in March when the chain's parent company, Craftworks, closed all of its restaurants nationwide.
Gomez was born in Mexico but has been cooking in brewpubs for many years and was a “rock star” line cook at Rock Bottom for the past fifteen, Piec says, adding that “his skill set is through the roof.” Gomez currently operates his own food truck, as well, near 78th Avenue and Federal Boulevard.
ancestry Piec’s grandparents on his mother’s side also came from Mexico, while his grandparents on his father’s side were born in Poland. So Piec, who was raised in Chicago, calls himself a mestizo, a Spanish word that refers to a mix of Indigenous and European ancestry. Although the word can be used as a slur, it is more often used with pride, which is why Piec says he is “appropriating” it for the brewery.
As for the beer, Piec says he will brew a flagship Mexican lager to pair with the food (as well as for serving in micheladas), but will also create a wide variety of other popular styles. He and Hunt are both graduates of Chicago’s famed brewing school, the Siebel Institute of Technology, so Piec says they can brew anything. “We are seasoned Colorado brewpub brewers. I will brew what people want, and I know what that is because I have been brewing twenty minutes up the road for a decade.”
The offerings will include the Mexican lager, a session IPA, a hazy IPA, and a variety of seasonals that cover the spectrum from traditional Belgian and German styles to beers that use Latin American ingredients such as tamarind, Mexican chocolate and chile. Most will be designed to appeal to a wide audience, because although Mestizo will specialize in street food, Piec and Hunt also want it to have the “corner neighborhood brewpub” feel to it.
“There is still a need for that in Wheat Ridge,” he says, adding that the combination of Mestizo with Colorado Plus Brewpub (just a block away) and nearby Right Coast Pizza will make for a nice craft-beer destination. “It’s a terrifying time,” he adds. “But we are turning it to our advantage, and our location is a big part of it.”