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Good Beer Hunting

Aug 28, 2021

Every once in awhile I like to have someone on the podcast who I’ve been talking to or working with for awhile.

It’s not always easy to know when the right time is — I have to keep my eagerness in check. Often for a long time. Whether it’s the state of their business, or a major transition, or as market factors shift around it — I try to look for a sweet spot where the guest has learned enough about who they are and what business they’re in, but also started to develop their own vision for what the future might hold. It’s a moment where I see them sort of settle in to a groove. And the challenge is to get them to reflect on what that settling in moment is all about.

Today’s guest, Manny Valdes of Cruz Blanca in Chicago is someone I’ve consulted with over the past couple years off and on and he’s sought some perspective on all that. He’s a master at soaking up different perspectives and gradually, patiently, synthesizing his own.

Indeed, much of the work we’ve done has often felt like a slow-drip conversation between friends over a late dinner. And I’ve walked away with more intriguing questions than I had answers.

Manny falls outside the lines of how I’d describe most brewery and brewpub owners. While he’s a good operator and focused on the details, he clearly spends most of his time observing, imagining, and listening to the stories people tell about his brand. He factors it all in.

And while he’s spent a lot of time the past couple years trying to articulate who Cruz Blanca is - lately he’s seemed less…concerned. Or less…exacting about that. He’s been more playful and reclined in a way. And that, for me, was an indication that something was shifting and maybe positively so. And I wanted to talk to him about it.

Cruz Blanca has a particular history in Chicago - which we’ll get into. It was founded alongside Rick Bayless, a renowned Chicago chef who is largely credited with making Mexican food in the Midwest an accessible cuisine (that’s a very complicated thing to say, and those are my words, not Rick’s or Manny’s). And over the years, Rick brought that culinary mindset to craft beer as well, back when he created Marisol with Goose Island, a sort of citrusy, spiced wheat ale that’s a bit of a legend in Chicago.

Then he partnered with Constellation Brands to produce Tocayo - a beer that was supposed to fit into that Blue Moon area of the market - and was intertwined in some complicated ways with the Cruz Blanca brewpub in the beginning - but mostly just because of the timing. Tocayo and Cruz Blanca shared a sort of launch story - even if they were separate ventures.

So it’s important to clarify - I’m not sitting down with Rick Bayless, the chef and restauranteur today. I’m sitting down with Manny Valdez, Rick’s longtime partner in Frontera Foods, and the person who imagined and launched and is now independently building Cruz Blanca. A brewery with a story all its own - and mostly still ahead of it.