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Brewing Across the Border: Craft Beer in Baja California
Baja California might be best known for its beachside fish tacos and off-road racing, but in the last three years, the northwestern Mexican state has seriously upped its craft beer game, defining itself as the country’s largest contingent for “cerveza artesanal.” Spurred by loose alcohol regulations and proximity to San Diego’s beer scene, an entire generation of young brewers has been moving out of the homebrew realm, selling everything from Black Rye IPAs and Bavarian Hefeweizens to a small-but-growing market thirsty for anything except Tecate. But good luck finding Baja beer at your local watering hole—only two of the state’s estimated 80 breweries currently export to the US, meaning a trip across the border is necessary to experience the international beer scene that’s happening right next door.
Planning a beer trip in Baja is more difficult than doing one in the US, mainly because tasting rooms aren’t popular yet. Breweries are often hidden in backyards or in old mechanic shops, and some are only accessible by contacting the brewer ahead of time. The only sure bet is to find the local craft beer bar and hunker down till you try it all.
Earlier this year, veteran homebrewer Demian Bosiger built a glass wall around the back part of his popular Tijuana bar, Sótano Suizo, and installed a 3-barrel brewhouse. Now he makes beers exclusively for on-premise sale (until next year, when he plans to start bottling). “The plan is to be a full-grown, 15-barrel brewery in the next three years,” says Bosiger, whose sights are set on expansion to five states in Mexico. But now, inside the mall-turned-nightclub La Plaza de Fiesta, Bosiger boasts one of the only brewpubs in the city, where he churns out to-style European brews.
After moving across the border for college in Southern California, the Morales brothers (Ivan and Damian) of Cervecería Insurgente returned to their hometown “to give something back.” They built a 2-barrel nanobrewery on the second-floor patio of the Zona Rio, Tijuana, apartment they grew up in—walk-in coolers and all. Inspired by San Diego’s beer scene, they make (and bottle in bombers) an IPA, Black IPA, Witbier and a hoppy Brown Ale, and have plans for sours and barrel aging. “It used to be that Americans only came down to get drunk on cheap beer,” says Ivan, explaining that in recent years, Tijuana has become a culinary destination. “It’s also much safer than the media would lead you to believe.”
In a nondescript storage room attached to the outside of downtown Tijuana landmark the Jai Alai building, Cervecería Ki’li brews on a 50-gallon setup. Tired of paying high fuel costs to brew, owners and brewers Mariano Esobedo, Enrico Gonzalez and Rafael Guzman spent a year building their own all-electric system, which they believe to be the first homemade one in all of Latin America. The increased efficiency and production will allow the tiny brewery to expand its bottle distribution from four accounts to 22. “I want to give my people what they have been denied, either by politics, culture or ignorance—it doesn’t really matter why,” says Esobedo. “What matters is that people are learning, and we are contributing not only to the beer culture, but to the local culture.”
Silenus Cerveza Artesanal
Ivan Maldonado cut his teeth as a brewer for San Diego heavyweights like Coronado Brewing Company and Saint Archer Brewing before he and his friends, Salvador Villaseñor and Daniel Tapia, launched Silenus in Tijuana. Maldonado still lives his beer life on both sides of the border, splitting time between his job at San Diego’s Mission Brewery and weekends brewing at Silenus’ new headquarters in the industrial outskirts of Tijuana, where the brewery’s signature Maibock, Black Rye IPA and English-style Brown Ale are made.
At only 22, Enrique Seamanduras and his brewing partner, Alan Castorena, are two of the youngest pro brewers in Tijuana—and they’ve already been brewing for four years. Attending a private German high school in town, the friends were exposed to European culture early. A beer-filled teenage trip to Germany inspired Seamanduras to find a friend and start brewing his own. “I really appreciate and notice the big differences between a first-world country and a third-world one, and I try to coalesce the best out of them,” says Seamanduras. Brewing 30 gallons at a time, the fermentation room of Cervecería Zesde is a former outdoor bathroom, and the brewhouse is in what used to be a bedroom, at Castorena’s house high in the city’s hills. They brew twice a week—making beers like a smoked Saison and a winter Stout with piloncillo (raw sugar)—to keep up with demand.
El Día de Independencia
If you think American craft breweries have an uphill battle when it comes to chipping away at our macros’ market shares, try being a Mexican microcervecería.
Just two companies—Grupo Modelo (a subsidiary of AB-InBev that includes Corona, Modelo and Pacifico) and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (owned by Heineken, they make Tecate, Dos Equis and Bohemia)—currently control nearly 99 percent of the country’s beer market, a share they have maintained through exclusivity contracts they hold at an estimated 95 percent of beer-slinging establishments, according to Mexican newspaper El Economista.
These two brewing conglomerates usually agree to purchase the expensive liquor licenses for restaurants, bars and stores in exchange for the venues not selling competitors’ beer, leaving many of the Baja breweries unable to sell at even their local retailers.
In July of this year, however, the government, hoping to put an end to the beer duopoly in Mexico, passed a law that will force Grupo Modelo and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma to reduce the number of exclusivity agreements to just 25 percent of their total accounts, a figure that must be further reduced to 20 percent by 2018.
Even though the bill has its limitations (it excludes, for example, major retailers like Oxxo as well as the many liquor stores that the breweries themselves own), the news has Mexican craft brewers excited for the precedent—it sends a message that the government wants to see more diversity in beer, and it tells consumers that there’s a lot of local beer out there that they’re not getting.
“Cerveza artesanal” is just the latest development in Baja’s culinary revolution. It started with the burgeoning wine region Valle de Guadalupe; now there’s scores of excited young chefs statewide who are reinventing Mexican cuisine.
“Baja is producing most of Mexico’s craft beer, and so for us, it is another thing to add to all the culinary reasons people visit here,” says Juan Tintos Funcke, Baja’s secretary of tourism. “We have wine, we have food and now, we have beer. Craft beer has become, for us, part of the whole gastronomical picture.”
Like in Napa and Sonoma in California, where wineries and breweries are cornerstones of the farm-to-table lifestyle, Baja’s growing foodie presence can be seen in both the state’s urban and rural environments.
In the Valle de Guadalupe, just outside of Ensenada (where most Baja breweries call home), grapes grow along the roadside; wine-tasting rooms situated off dirt roads are flanked by restaurants serving seasonal, locally sourced cuisine. And in the heart of Tijuana—mere blocks from the office building where Cervecería Insurgente brews—lies Food Garden, a new experiment where popular callejeros (street food vendors) are given a permanent kitchen in an outdoor food court.
“My inspiration was the food truck lots in Portland,” says Ricardo Nevárez, Food Garden’s founder. “There, everyone eats local and fresh, so we wanted to do the same here. We are trying to tell people to eat local.”
In Mexicali, local authorities are using their power to promote the region’s craft beer industry by writing the city’s cervecerías into the revitalization plan for its aging Centro Histórico. The goal is to fill the city’s border-adjacent downtown with new restaurants and bars, but a stipulation for places looking to get an alcohol permit is that they have to agree to sell at least five Baja beer brands.
Cucapá is not only one of the biggest craft breweries in the country, it’s also one of the oldest, with roots going back to 2002 when Mario García, the owner of a local paper company, decided to open a Mexicali brewpub. Realizing they made better beer than food, head brewer Carlos “Charlie” Martinez says that the company moved production off-site and expanded. Now they brew nearly 14 brands, some with border-hopping themes, like Runaway IPA and Lookout Blonde. Today, Cucapá is one of the only Mexican craft breweries that exports to the US (find them in San Diego bottle shops and soon, in Texas).
Tres B (aka 3B, or Big Bad Brewing)
As the second-biggest microbrewery in the city (after Cucapá), Cervecería Tres B sits in a former mechanic’s shop in the center of Mexicali, where they brew their award-winning Strong Ale and traditional Bavarian Hefeweizen. Like all of Baja’s production breweries, Tres B doesn’t have a taproom and is not officially open to the public, but that doesn’t stop them from being a neighborhood hangout—they run an informal homebrew shop in the back and sell beer to-go for anyone who comes knocking with an empty bottle. Producing at 20 percent of their capacity right now, Rodrigo Hernández Mijares, one of the four founding partners, says they’re focusing on expanding; next on their radar is Mexico City, then Central Mexico, Guadalajara and Monterrey.
The four friends of Mexicali’s Cervecería 686 (named after Mexicali’s area code) used to be in a rock band together, but drinking Cucapá beers after practice inspired their new careers. Now they make beer out of a 1-barrel brewhouse installed in an industrial roll-up on the eastern edge of town. “People are beginning to explore new things, new flavors,” says brewer Francisco Nuñez of Baja’s beer scene. Even though they are one of the city’s newer breweries, 686 (“seis ocho seis”) put itself on Mexico’s beer radar by winning an award for its IPA this summer at the national beer competition, Cerveza Mexico.
A degree in culinary arts from the local university first piqued Moisés Sánchez’s interest in beer; then an internship at Cucapá inspired him to open the 1-barrel Cervecería Peninsula in his backyard, along with his friend, Carlos Teran (whose skill set as a former quality engineer comes in handy around the brewhouse). Expertly balanced beers with clean flavors define Peninsula’s lineup. Try the Jarocha Vanilla Blonde, Xoco Chocolate Stout and Playera, a citrusy IPA made with Chinook, Columbus and Centennial hops. “We have a great friendship,” Teran says of Mexicali’s craft brewers, “and we believe that teamwork and collaboration will push the craft beer movement faster.”
BCB Tasting Room and El Sume—beer bars
Since taprooms are still dreams for Baja’s production breweries, the bars are more important than ever to the scene. Establishments like Baja Craft Beers (BCB) in Tijuana and El Sume in Mexicali are the best places in town to “toma local.” Located on an industrial side street off Blvd. Agua Caliente, BCB boasts 42 taps and more than 300 bottles, including anything and everything currently available from the city’s 20-plus breweries. And at El Sume, it’s not uncommon to find members of the city’s tight-knit brewing community drinking each other’s latest.
Old Mission Brewery
A former commercial airline pilot and investment banker from San Diego via Boston, Paul Woronicz moved to Ensenada to be closer to his wife’s family. Four years ago, he opened Old Mission Brewery, a pizza-and-beer brewpub in the heart of downtown, where he makes nine year-round beers (including a Horchata Brown Ale with brown rice, vanilla and cinnamon). Woronicz has won nine gold medals at the Baja Beer Fest, plus “best new brewpub” in Mexico. In order to distinguish themselves from the US beer scene, Woronicz says, “the craft brewers in Mexico have to be creative [in using local ingredients].” He buys his “raw agave nectar from growers in Jalisco, vanilla from farmers in Vera Cruz and fresh piloncillo from artisans in Central Mexico.” This month, he’ll begin selling bottles in the US under the name Ensenada Brewing Company.
Eugenio Romero went to college in San Diego and stayed around for a job in the surf industry while he earned his MBA. When the surf company sold, he returned to his hometown of Ensenada and started making hop-forward, American-style beer to sell at a bar he opened walking distance from the cruise terminals. Demand quickly pushed Romero to expand into a facility up the road, where he says locals—not tourists—are his biggest customers (although tourism is picking up, he notes). Seasonals include a Centennial Pale Ale and a hoppy Belgian, while a highlight of his five year-rounders is Perro del Mar, a West Coast IPA with a light body and crisp finish. ■