Conner Watts always had a dream of opening a brewery and began a love affair with beer as a home brewer when he was just 18. Twenty years later, this expat entrepreneur in Mexico has become Puerto Vallarta’s brewmaster, introducing a variety of craft beers to the city by the bay.
Watts, 38, opened the Los Muertos Brewing Company in Puerto Vallarta’s southside just five years ago and now has added another location just north of downtown along Avenida Francisco Villa near Colonia Gaviotas.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in the ski resort town of Park City, Utah, about a half hour from Salt Lake City by car, Watts graduated in 2002 from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance.
“I basically started becoming an entrepreneur as soon as I graduated,” Watts said. “I was sort of lucky that the economic bubble had burst and jobs that I thought I was going to get didn’t really exist any longer. I didn’t want to do the jobs that were available to me so a buddy from school and I started an online dating service for musicians and people who loved music.”
That business lasted about three years before the partners transitioned into an online data management service. But people-oriented Watts needed a business that was more social in nature.
“I had a buddy from California who said, ‘I have this idea to start a bar and I think you’d be a great partner’, Watts said. “I said, ‘You’re crazy. Bars and restaurants just go out of business.’ As it turned out, we were really good at it and our place became pretty popular in Park City.”
Watts and his partner built The Sidecar bar and operated it for five years before he and his wife Stephanie decided to sell it and move to Puerto Vallarta.
“I sort of learned the business that I’m in now at The Sidecar,” he said. “I did everything, from sweeping floors to bartending to doing the books.”
Watts had been vacationing in Puerto Vallarta since he was a teenager and was married there in 2009. That’s when they decided to live in PV fulltime.
“My wife was sick and tired of living in the cold, so we decided to move to Puerto Vallarta,” he said. “We wanted to learn a new culture, a new language and live a certain type of lifestyle. We knew we couldn’t get that if we just moved to Arizona, Texas, California or Florida.”
The couple moved to PV in 2010 and rented an apartment in Amapas, a mostly hillside neighborhood that rises to the south of Zona Romantica and has sweeping views of the bay.
“It wasn’t until we had been here a while that we started to figure out what we were going to do,” Watts said. “My wife was working for an online vacation rental company and was supporting us.”
It didn’t take long before his childhood dream of brewing beer started to become a reality. With five years experience building and operating a successful bar in Park City under his belt, Watts set out to learn the microbrewery business.
“I spent the summer of 2011 living in Fort Collins, Colorado,” he said, “figuring out how to brew on a commercial scale because when I had done home brewing I never did it on that kind of scale. I reached out to a handful of brewers who were producing craft beers on that scale in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Fort Collins. That’s how I learned microbrewing.”
With the help of a local realtor, they located a building in a prime spot south of the Cuale River on a corner just a few blocks from the Bay of Banderas, secured a construction permit and began building what was to become the Los Muertos Brewing Company.
“It was extremely stressful because it was a question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg,” Watts said. “We would have loved to have had our business license before we bought the building, started major reconstruction or bought the brewing equipment. We continued investing based on the promise of a well-connected local man who was handling all of the paperwork required to open a new business. He had been recommended to us by an attorney friend of ours so we had faith that he could make it happen for us.”
It took a little less than a year and about US$5,000 to secure all the permits, licenses and fees required to open Los Muertos Brewing Company. The couple set up a Mexican corporation and self-financed their new business after liquidating their assets in Utah.
Los Muertos Brewing Company opened its doors in 2012 and its large, gourmet-quality pizza –the most expensive in town – became an immediate hit. But reviews of its beer the first year were flat.
“Our first batch of beer was excellent,” Watts said, “but we had insufficient cooling so the batch of beer got worse for a while. We knew how to fix it but it was a long process getting it fixed. We were able to figure out the cooling problem after our first high season in business but the damage had been done. It took a while to restore our reputation for producing good craft beers.”
Los Muertos Brewing Company offers between seven and 12 flavors, depending on the time of year and storage capacity, including an India Pale lager and a few other seasonal brews.
“I’ve learned a lot about different styles of beer and what people like,” Watts said. “That’s part of what has made us successful. I was the first brewmaster in PV but I hired someone local and he is now our head brewmaster.”
Watts and his wife live in a large studio apartment they purchased very near their business on Puerto Vallarta’s south side. Watts said they purposefully chose a studio apartment because “then you don’t have as many people asking to stay with you. You don’t want extra bedrooms.”
The move to Vallarta was easy for them since Watts had visited PV often throughout the years and stayed with his mother’s best friend, a permanent resident of Mexico. Before their move south the couple studied Spanish to learn what Watts called “tourism Spanish”.
“We had a really good base of Spanish,” he said, “but all the locals we met wanted to practice their English and we wanted to practice our Spanish. Once we got into construction of our building, our Spanish improved because we were dealing with workers every day and had to communicate with them in Spanish.”
We asked Watts to list the top three things he loves about living in Puerto Vallarta and Mexico: “I love the weather. I love that you can do what you want down here and are not as constrained as in the U.S. where there seems to be a law for everything. And I love that even after living here for a long time you can still drive down the street and see something that will still make you smile, like seeing a donkey in the back of a truck. You realize that you are in a totally cool, unique place.”
Watts has this word of advice for anyone thinking about joining the expat community in Mexico: “If you move down here, be patient. Anything you have to do, like opening a business, know that nothing is going to be as efficient as you would hope or expect.”