Living in San Diego, I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t spent very much time in Mexico, which lies a scant 30 miles from my house. Like many Americans, I’ve managed to be dissuaded by the constant drumbeat of bad news coming out of our neighbor to the south over the course of the last decade, and for that I’m truly sorry. This vibrant border city is where the Caesar Salad was invented, and where Charles Howard first hooked up with Tom Smith and Red Pollard, who would eventually train and ride Seabiscuit. Like your favorite uncle at Christmas dinner, this town has stories to tell, and it’s about time that Americans started listening again.
As someone who provides regular coverage of the local San Diego craft beer scene, I’ve heard more and more talk about the industry in Tijuana over the last few years, and most of it has been good. With that in mind, when this year’s Expo Cerveza Artesanal (craft beer expo) rolled around, it seemed like an ample opportunity to get a feel for what’s brewing in Baja. After crossing the border, strolling down Avenida Revolución and generally feeling like Marcus Brody in Iskenderun, it was time to enter the festival. Here are five things that I learned.
Based on the marketing materials, Saturday’s session started at 2 p.m., but you wouldn’t have known it if you showed up at the festival grounds on time. When the Griswold family showed up at an empty Wally World parking lot, their initial impression was that they’d have the run of the place until the crowds showed up, and I had similar inklings about the expo. The magnitude of my rookie mistake dawned on me as representatives of the different breweries filed in at a leisurely pace until everything was finally up and running…at 4 p.m.
At American beer festivals, you generally show up during a three or four hour block of time to drink your allotted number of tasters before leaving. In the case of unlimited sampling events, you can often see people engaging in the futile attempt to drink $65 worth of beer two ounces at a time before the session runs out…with predictable results. What if there was a better way?
For the Tijuana Craft Beer Expo, 200 pesos (about $13) gets you in the door and buys your first two tasters. Once you’ve exhausted your sampling tickets, everything else is à la carte, so you’re only paying for the things you want to drink. You can buy tasters that will set you back a dollar or two each, or you can buy a full pour if you find something that you really like. The result is a crowd that samples brewery offerings at a leisurely pace, as there are much more cost-effective ways to get bombed.
America’s knowledge of Mexican beer is likely fueled by the same thing that fuels most knowledge of American beer: huge advertising budgets. Grupo Modelo spends mucho dinero selling Americans on escape to paradise…one case of skunk-prone clear bottles at a time. Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma’s bearded mascot -aka The Most Interesting Man In the World—implores people to stay thirsty for Dos Equis. Even in Mexico, current liquor laws allow those two big boys to gobble up 90% of licenses, and they in turn dole them out to bars and restaurants in exchange for exclusivity. Despite the obviously-stacked deck, things are growing to meet demand for something different.
Ivan Morales, Co-Founder of Cervezeria Insurgente has certainly seen growth in the scene. “More and more we’re becoming known as a craft beer town, and it’s really blowing up,” said Morales. “In the beginning, there was more beer than demand, but now we’re finally at the point where there’s more demand than beer.” After starting the brewery with his brother Damien in 2010, the two watched as the community of Baja brewers went from a handful to nearly 50 different breweries, and more than 35 of them were pouring at the expo.
It’s one thing to open a brewery, but you aren’t going to stick around very long if you’re not producing a good product. As you’d expect, Southern California has a strong influence on the Tijuana craft beer scene, as you’d be hard-pressed to find a brewery that DOESN’T produce a big, hoppy IPA. Cerveceria Insurgente’s La Lupulosa, which recently became available in the United States, is such a good example of the style that they’re selling more of it in nearby San Diego than they do in all of Mexico.
Besides the onslaught of hops, there are plenty of other things to try in the world of Mexican craft beer, and breweries are always experimenting with small batch concoctions. Tijuana’s Lúdica Artesanal came to the expo with a malt-forward red ale infused with chai tea, which worked as a flavor combination. Mexicali’s Puerco Salvaje brought a keg of Belga Negra, which melds a Belgian-style dark ale with mole, chiles and other traditional Mexican flavors.
One of the great things in the craft beer movement as a whole is the whimsical approach that many brewers take towards their companies and products, and Mexico has no shortage of that spirit. While you might be tempted to translate the name of Agua Mala brewery into “bad water,” which is something that’s a part of Mexico’s reputation, it’s actually named for an equally-unpleasant species of jellyfish that inhabits the waters off of Ensenada. Cerveceria Heisenberg features an Erlenmeyer flask in its logo which may or may not pay homage to Breaking Bad. Mexicali’s Cucapá Brewing Company has beers with names like Green Card Barleywine, and Runaway IPA, which features the silhouette of a family running across the border like you see on signs in San Diego. The most interesting tap handle award has to go to Cerveceria Calafia which made use of a repurposed Super NES controller.
Despite some personal miscues at the beginning of the festival, the experience of delving into the Tijuana craft beer scene was overwhelmingly positive. While you might have to wait a few weeks for the next big festival in Rosarito on June 27, opportunities to try Mexican microbrews exist at establishments like The Beer Box, Zebra Mexican Pub and the Baja Craft Beer Tasting room. Whether you live in Southern California or you’re just visiting, it’s worth it to grab your passport, exchange some currency and brave the border crossing crowds to see what’s brewing in Mexico.