To understand beer culture in Mexico, you first have to understand its recent lack thereof.
By Derrik Chinn
(Check out Derrik Chinn’s Press Release!)
Mexico bows beneath the weight of a historical beer duopoly. Two companies, Grupo Modelo in Mexico City and Monterrey-based Grupo Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma, dominate the domestic market with a familiar cast, namely Corona, Tecate, Pacifico and Dos Equis. Thanks to these brands, the general international consensus regarding Mexican beer is that it is meant to be consumed in large quantities, preferably in the sun alongside emerald waves, and always requires shoving a lime wedge down the bottle to enhance its flavor.
But just across the border, San Diego is home to a highly concentrated amount of some of the world’s favorite craft beers, so much that in 2009 Men’s Journal named the city the beer capital of the U.S. It was only a matter of time before that growing objection to the mass-produced likes of Budweiser and friends would begin to seep its way under the border wall and into Baja.
Such a shift in the tide of colloquial beer tastes eventually gave rise to the Asociacion de Cerveza Artesanal de Baja California (the Baja California Craft Beer Association), a group of 40 or so homebrewers that for the past two years has organized its annual Baja Beer Fest, usually held in Ensenada in March. Last weekend the fest made its Tijuana debut, a two-day run of some 100 local craft brews in front of the historic Jai Alai building (one of the city’s oldest) between Seventh and Eighth streets on Avenida Revolucion in downtown Tijuana.
This was the Baja Beer Fest, mind you, which isn’t to be confused with the TJ Beer Fest, a more commercialized ordeal orchestrated by Cerveceria Tijuana and San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. that was happening a few miles east in the parking lot of the Caliente casino. What exactly led two major beer fests to take place in the same city on the same weekend is a complicated tale, but the 20,000-peso stand rental (about $1,500) at the latter is essentially what led ACABC to organize another round of its own fest, this time in Tijuana and simultaneously, deliberately right under the TJ Beer Fest organizers’ noses. The competition proved confusing for many but for craft beer devotees, this was without a doubt the place to be.
Seven in total turned out for Saturday’s cross-border ride to the fest from Bottlecraft beer boutique in Little Italy; not surprisingly most were seasoned cyclists looking to offset the impending cerveza buffet. (True bike folk rarely need a reason to ride but when it involves crossing an international border, an excess of home-brew waiting on the other end is definitely an incentive.) It’s not every day you embark upon a self-propelled journey from one urban extremity such as San Diego – one of the world’s most romanticized – to another that is arguably one of the world’s most misunderstood. Needless to say, the experience is as underrated as it is surreal.
The 20-mile route took us from downtown San Diego along Harbor Drive over to Main Street, through National City and Chula Vista along the eastern stretch of the Bayshore Bikeway and into the sagebrush beyond Dairy Mart Road before finally arriving at the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing. There, the peloton dismounted and front tires pointed at the sky, awkwardly shuffled through the turnstiles and into Mexico. Minutes later and now officially in Latin America, we were chaining up our rides at the fest alongside, appropriately, a zonkey named Monica. (Zonkey: a donkey painted to look like a zebra, timeless Tijuana icons for better or for worse; also known as a burro rayado.)
Just on the other side of the gates was Francisco Talamante, ACABC president and founder of Ensenada-based Cerveceria Canneria, a Spanglish reference to the port city’s many fish canneries. Who better to ask where to begin the sampling marathon? Aside from the cup of Canneria’s La Bombera red ale in his hand, that is. For hoppy, Virgilio and Insurgente. For malty, Ramuri and Kudos. But more important, he recommended sticking to the 2-3 oz. samplers that each brewer was offering for around 10 pesos (75 cents or so), saving full pours – priced at 35-50 pesos ($2.50-$4) – for personal favorites.
Aside from a one-off walk-up at Cerveceria Kili – makers of an oaky Irish red ale and a stout brewed with Turkish and Guerrero coffees – and a random IPA at the Baja Craft Beers stand, a tasting room set to open in La Cacho in late July, that’s exactly how the afternoon played out. The strategy of asking each brewer where to head next in a sea of options proved productive, maybe even elitely curated, at least for an open-ended pallet like mine.
The rotary kicked off with Insurgente, run by brothers Damian and Ivan Morales. Tijuana’s would-be craft brew poster boys, the pair seem to wind up with multiple ribbons whenever awards are being handed out. While their La Luposa IPA continues to win popularity contests among their five brews the mid-afternoon sun called for a full cup of Tiniebla, a Witbier heavy on orange peel and coriander but the lightest of their roster. It’s intended for weaning people off Tecate, Ivan confessed.
From there it was on to Cerveceria Zesde. ACABC’s youngest members, Alan Castoreña and Enrique Seamanduras are a pair of Tijuanenses who are ironically barely old enough to purchase beer north of the border. Dutch for “six,” Zesde is a reference to Sixth Street, the epicenter of Tijuana’s recent nightlife renaissance that served as the birthplace for their brew. Their regular roster includes a vanilla stout, British and amber ales, the Das Falco IPA (named after one of the city’s celebrity graphic designer DJs) and a strawberry lambic. But today they were serving a coffee stout and a honey blond, both made specially for the fest.
Next up was Silenus’ Munich-style maibock, whose heavy caramel flavor hides its high-alcohol content (at 6.8 percent, slurring soon becomes unavoidable). This may have been the day’s overall champion. Two words: liquid flan. A side of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla was sadly nowhere to be found.
Ramuri was a name that kept popping up over the course of the day, recommended by several brewers. While their Diablo Blanco (White Devil) “premium Mexican lager” came off as a sort-of deluxe Corona and the Saison (pale ale) for some reason had me thinking of bleu cheese (not necessarily a bad thing but neither necessarily intentional either, although Saisons are known for getting rather funky), their Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears) oatmeal stout — brewed with medium-roast Oaxacan coffee — was definitely another personal favorite. Also on tap was a cider that I’d normally pass on because of its sweetness but it was probably the most memorable brew that I tasted, solely for the fact that it was made with green apples from Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana’s most iconic open-air market.
Onward to Bosiger, the house craft brew at Swiss-themed sports bar Sotano Suizo in Plaza Zapato and probably the closest any beer at this fest came to keeping with the Reinheitsgebot, to try what one of the Silenus guys called the best Hefeweizen in the world. “And I hate Hefeweizens,” he said. Along with their porter, head brewer Demian Bosiger said it’s their most popular of their whopping list of 20 brews, even though his extended family back in Switzerland thinks it’s too much of a chore to drink. “Too complex,” he said. “They apparently also think I’m an idiot for brewing with habanero.”
The long return trek (albeit on the trolley; 20 miles is enough pedaling for one day) and the setting sun on the mind, it was time to head back north. In four or so hours I banked 13 beers, three full pours and 10 tasters. Not bad for an afternoon crash course on Baja craft brew, during which I came in contact with not a single lime wedge. Somewhere in there was a pitstop at Kokopelli, a mariscos stand that’s usually parked on the southern edge of downtown at Ocampo and Boulevard Agua Caliente. Run by graduates of Tijuana’s Culinary Art School, their pesto octopus and marlin pibil tacos are set to make their Travel Channel debut on Andrew Zimmern’s forthcoming food show “Border Check” sometime later this year. An hasta luego to Talamante, who invited us all to Mexicali’s installment of the Baja Beer Fest once temps drop into the 90s sometime in the fall, followed by a grand finale photo atop Monica, and back to the border we went.
I’ll stop short of wishing every brew whose name I bothered to scribble down were more readily available in the U.S., at least for now. Who’s to say whether Tijuana is destined to become the beer lover’s Mexican Field of Dreams. But judging by fests like this, it very well could.
One thing’s for sure, TJ. If you brew it, and brew it well, they will come.
Derrik Chinn- From unassuming reporter to freedom-loving Turista Libre (free tourist), Derrik Chinn’s reputation as underground concierge to the traveler has grown. Chinn, who has been spidering about in Tijuana with groups of tourists looking for a different kind of Mexico experience, is now sharing some of his insights and perspectives on Baja.com.
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