By Gregory Daurer | Jun 19, 2018
"This brewery brings me back full circle," says Pérez, wearing a T-shirt that says "Mexcellent" within his 10-barrel brewery's gaily-tiled serving space, while Mexican tunes pour out of the speakers.
Growing up in Los Angeles as a child of Mexican immigrants, Javier "Javi" Pérez, 52, initially wanted to be a chef, but his parents strongly disapproved. After all, that was during an era when celebrity cooks didn't respectably populate TV channels. So Pérez instead put his passion for serving people -- and his love of chemistry -- into a medical career. Presently, Pérez works at the Denver VA Hospital as an emergency room physician. (And, as a side gig, he occasionally works on a trauma unit at a NASCAR racetrack in California.)
But he's also now a professional brewer. After homebrewing for more than 20 years, Pérez gets to please the public by serving something palatable and flavorful, just like he wanted to do as a youth with culinary arts on his mind.
As far as his beers go, Pérez says, "I try really hard where possible to make them balanced, so that there's not an overwhelming flavor one way or another." He has "something for every kind of palate" -- from hop heads to those who might prefer his "tart, fruity, savory, dark-chocolatey" beers.
At Cheluna (a mashup of chela, Mexican slang for ice cold beer, and luna, Spanish for moon), he blends flavors informed by his Latino heritage into traditional styles. There's a Berliner weisse in which the sourness is attenuated by the addition of hibiscus flowers. Similarly, a German gose is sweetened with the addition of tamarind. Chilango, a wit beer, features habanero chile pepper and mango, reminding him of the Mexican candy of his youth. (A "Chilango" is also a slang term for someone from Mexico City.)
There's a Mexican coffee stout with cinnamon and cloves, served on nitro. In his rich and dark Coco-Xoco, a slight sweetness from coconut mingles with bitterness from cacao: Pérez says, "I don't use much hops in the porter recipe, which is the backbone for the beer, because I want the bitterness to come from the cacao nibs."
However, Pérez understands not every drinker wants unfamiliar flavors. When the construction crew working at the brewery's location, the Stanley Marketplace, referred to themselves as "cowboy beer drinkers," and one declared, "I'm not into this craft bullshit," Pérez found their sweet spot by offering them his crowd-pleasing, well-executed Lowrider Mexican Lager. The beer's Chicano-related name is fitting: "It's really the low temperature you use to ferment a lager. [The beer is] very slow in finishing. The mantra for a lowrider is 'low and slow.' That's lager: low and slow."
On the higher-IBU side, Ojo Rojo ("Red Eye") Imperial IPA is named after the F-16 squadron, nicknamed the Redeyes, at Buckley Air Force Base. Pérez collaborated with the squad and crew on the beer – and he says they requested an IPA with as much ABV as he could pack into the brew. It's a quenching imperial ale at 10 percent ABV with a lime-like citrus note.
A version of his Benito's Imperial Stout, aged on pureed blackberries within Oaxacan mezcal barrels, got served this year at the Savor event in Washington, D.C. (paired with baklava and dried fruit). Further attesting to Pérez's growing repute as a brewer, his collaboration with Arvada's Spice Trade Brewing was cited by Westword beer writer Jonathan Shikes as one of his favorites at the 2017 Collaboration Fest. And 5280 magazine selected Cheluna as its editor's choice for best new brewery in its Top of the Town 2017 issue.
Cheluna brewed 353 barrels in 2017, and Pérez hopes to do around 500 in 2018. A few restaurants serve his beers, but he sees Cheluna as primarily a neighborhood brewery -- in an area, equidistant between the Stapleton neighborhood and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, where home construction is increasing (the Park Hill and Lowry neighborhoods are also nearby).
Pérez recalls pointing out the structure that now houses Cheluna to fellow members of his running group on the trail and saying, "If I was going to open a brewery, wouldn't that be a great place for it?" Lying dormant for years, the former Stanley Aviation facility (which, at one time, manufactured ejection seats for military planes) is now Stanley Marketplace, containing several restaurants and other businesses in its formerly industrial space.
Pérez says the brewery, which he opened with his wife Jennifer, has given him a chance to put down roots in Colorado, after living in California, New York, Texas, and Alaska.
And he salutes the state with his quenching ToCo Session Pale Ale. "It smells like a pine forest," says Pérez. "It smells like the Rocky Mountains." The beer incorporates barley from Root Shoot Malting, hops from High Wire Hops, and yeast from Inland Island. "And, believe it or not, our water's from Aurora!" he says with a chuckle.
Given that Cheluna is just a hop, skip and jump from DIA, Pérez says he sometimes gets travelers fresh in town, Cheluna being the first brewery they visit.
"I want them to have an awesome experience," says Pérez. "I want them to know Colorado beer is good -- and you should be glad to be in Colorado."
Pérez hopes to offer them a "Mexcellent" Colorado experience at that.
Favorite beers: When asked to name his favorite Mexican beers, Pérez says, "I'm preferential to the Dos Equis lager for the lighter-colored lagers and I also love Modelo Negra, which is a dark lager." Pérez also cites a local beer for its own "Mexican-style": "I love Copper Kettle's Mexican-style chocolate stout, which has some habanero chile peppers in it, along with the chocolate. And [the pepper is] subtle, so it doesn't burn your mouth. It's easy to drink -- and delicious."
In terms of American craft beer, Pérez also has a soft spot for two ales from his youth. "I love Anchor Steam beer," he says. "There's still always Anchor Steam Beer at my house. And Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Those two."
Challenges: "The operation of the front of house," says Pérez. "Learning about staff and managing the staff and the interpersonal issues that come up with staff. Working with the public: making sure that the public is satisfied and that you're serving them appropriately. We opened this place to serve people. That's our function: making sure people remember that. So, front of house is a little more challenging, lots more to learn about."
Opportunities: Word of mouth via select tap accounts, such as at restaurants Las Delicias, Four Friends Kitchen, and Old Chicago locations in Denver and Grand Junction. "Financially, the best thing to happen for a brewery is increased foot traffic and on-site consumption," say sPérez. "That's the boon that helps us buy equipment and keep our staff. If we're able to distribute, that's considered positive marketing."
Needs: Pérez wants more people to come directly to the source and try his beers, maybe grab full Crowlers to bring home. "Figuring out how to get a little more known in the area," he says. "Increase in visits, increase in our taproom sales."