Last weekend, I took a car, a train, a trolley and a very long, meandering walk to downtown Tijuana for the sixth installment of the Baja Beerfest. My goal: to try as much Mexican cerveza artesanal as possible and make it back home in time for a gnarly case of the post-borracha Mondays.
With more than half of Baja California's 50 or so breweries and street food from across the state posted up in tents along main-tourism drag Avenida Revolucion, my mission was easily accomplished.
But in addition to finally getting to try horchata porters, lupulo-filled pale ales and black IPAs from breweries with names like Silenus, Insurgente and Border Psycho, I also discovered a rapidly growing beer scene full of energy, culture and promise.
Sure, proximity to San Diego has helped spur Baja's interest in craft beer making in the last few years, but Mexico's new brewers are hellbent on doing something all their own, something that rejects the Tecate and Modelo that has for decades dominated the cantina landscape and something that must be seen and tasted to understand.
Thankfully, the Asociación de Cerveza Artesanal de Baja California (the equivalent of California Craft Brewer Association) organizes annual and occasional beer festivals across the state, inviting these new small brewers to pour their latest experiments. And with more Mexican homebrewers taking their craft to the public every month, American beer fans will soon be begging to drink what's being made across the border.
In the spirit of trying new things, here's five reasons why there is no better time than now to drink Baja beer.
5. Exclusivity Laws Just Got Overturned
For Mexico's small craft breweries, July 11 is la dia de independencia. That's the date just a few weeks ago when the country's federal government told Mexico's two largest breweries that their duopoly days are over. Grupo Modelo (Corona, Modelo, Pacifico) and Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (Dos Equis, Tecate) have for decades maintained nearly 100% of the Mexican beer market, both through their sheer size (one is owned by Belgium's Anheuser-Busch InBev, the other by Dutch company Heineken) and their use of exclusivity agreements, which ensure bars and mom-and-pop shops don't sell anything else. But with a new decree telling these macros to reduce their exclusivity contracts to 20% of total establishments in the next five years, small brewers can now have their beers sold at local corner stores and neighborhood bars, driving even more growth in an already burgeoning scene.
4. Baja is the Center of Mexico's Beer Scene
No other Mexican state has picked up on craft beer quite like Baja. Call it a result of geography (San Diego's scene can't help but spill over the border) or an extension of the region's culinary and wine explosion (happening in places like el Valle de Guadalupe), because either way, the northwest part of the country churns out a large percentage of the cerveza artesanal in Mexico. With cities like Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada now boasting nearly a dozen breweries a piece, the region's growth can also be easily tracked through the Asociacion de Cerveza Artesanal de Baja California, which formed two years ago with only 20 members and today represents nearly 50.
3. Nanobreweries are Thriving
In the U.S., breweries that make less than five barrels at a time are anomalies, small-batch wonders often overlooked in a sea of 10 and 15-barrel systems. At that tiny size, distribution outside of the area is nearly impossible as brew days yield only a few kegs per round and turning a profit in American dollars requires brewers to keep their day job. But in Baja, nanos are far more common and many of the estimated 60 breweries currently selling in the state are of this size, born from garage setups and homebrewing operations. Tijuana's Ley Seca, for example, makes only one barrel at a time (two regular-sized kegs) while Old Mission brewpub in Ensenada, one of the bigger and older breweries, makes 3.5 barrels at a time. Small batches don't always mean better beer, but it does allow for more experimentalization and for the locals, it means more fresh beer made closer to home, which is always a good thing.
2. Mexico's Craft Beer Scene Doesn't Need You
Sorry American beer geeks, most of the nuevo Mexican brewers have no intentions of bringing their wares to the States and are more interested in getting their own fizzy yellow beer drinkers to “Toma Local. Toma Artesanal.” But beer stays in Mexico for reasons beyond the will to continue to grow a national market for craft. Bringing beer to the U.S. requires a lot more than just finding a distributor. Despite its proximity, the beer would still technically be an import food item, requiring pasteurization and trade tariffs that could cost the brewery more than the beer is worth just to make it legal to sell in America. Most are satisfied to send their beer to other Mexican states and so far only Cucapá and Old Mission have made the push into Southern California.
1. Beer Fests Go All Day (and all night)
One of the best part of Mexican beer festivals is that they go all day and all night, giving you ample time to make it through all the vendors and soak in the atmosphere. Unlike in the States where most beer festivals dare not go longer than four hours (lest all the overzealous gabachos start puking in the parking lot), Tijuana's Baja Beerfest was two full days of 12-hour sessions that ended at 2AM, meaning that the party within the festival's fenced area at some point began to blend with the thumping nightlife along nearby 6th St. Of course these extended hours are to facilitate a different kind of atmosphere than the beer fests stateside, so there's no need to chug as much beer as fast as you can. Just sip on a few tasters an hour, meander from booth to booth and ask all the questions you want without fear of being booted too soon by those pesky American security guards.
For more information about Baja Beerfest, visit bajabeerfest.mx/index.html
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.