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Getting to Know the Ensenada Beer Festival

Mexico’s largest beer event spotlights a new world of craft


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The recent Ensenada Beer Festival boasted more than 120 breweries, mostly Mexican. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

If you’re a San Diego craft beer fan, you need to get to know some of our brewing neighbors to the south. My first visit to the Ensenada Beer Festival, held March 13–17, opened my eyes to a whole new world of talented up-and-coming craft beer brewers.

The festival officially begins with three days of meetings and conferences, followed by two days of beer festival. This year, more than 120 breweries (mostly Mexican) poured for the event, which took place for more than eight hours each day. Three stages with live music entertained the thousands of attendees who made this the largest Mexican beer event to date. (Attendance estimates ranged from about 7,000 to 8,000 for the two days combined.)

The general consensus is that the Mexican craft scene—the epicenter of which is in Baja Norte—is about seven or eight years behind San Diego. From what I can tell, that lag basically means a smaller number of breweries are working to evolve a specific and marketable identity (a “Baja-style”) and are still in the process of organizing and developing best practices for an industry that’s trying to navigate through various arcane and conflicting government regulations. In terms of quality and variety, Mexican craft is well on its way to rivaling San Diego—again, in 8–10 years, my guess is they’ll have fans all over the world and will be taking their rightful places on the podiums at all the major international beer competitions.

The current boom in Mexican craft is fueled by various factors, not the least of which is Baja’s proximity to San Diego. Aspiring pro brewers in Mexico have long been aware of what’s happening here; they’ve had a chance to watch it up close and to taste it as our industry has come of age. Also notable is the recent increase in communication and collaboration between our local brewers and their colleagues south of the border. During the past few years, many San Diego breweries have pursued collaborations with Baja brewers: Coronado, SouthNorte, Mason Ale Works, Bitter Brothers, Duck Foot, and Pizza Port, to name just a few. These partnerships have resulted in some of San Diego’s best brewers sharing resources, knowledge, and creativity with their Baja counterparts—brewers who are looking to learn from San Diego while they work simultaneously to develop their own distinctly unique and exciting Mexican identity.

This year's Ensenada Beer Festival, which spanned two days, was the largest to date. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

The inspiration, it should be said, goes both ways. The Mexican lager craze that swept through the San Diego beer scene during the past 18 months or so is just one testament to the fact that our brewers are finding styles, techniques, and flavors from Mexico to emulate in their latest beers. Stone’s XoCoveza? Inspired by a Mexican style made with distinctly Mexican ingredients. Horchata stouts? Habanero IPAs? You get the point.

Being an avowed San Diego beer snob with previously limited exposure to Baja brews, I’ll admit that I went down to Ensenada fully prepared to be underwhelmed. What I found, however, was an impressive collection of serious and talented brewers who are—by and large—making very good beer. I didn’t get to sample from all 120+ breweries (alas!), but my general assessment was that the great majority of what was being poured was solid and well made. The truly poor-quality stuff was the exception (as it is in San Diego) and even the spottiest lineups tended to have at least one beer with some star quality (usually a stout).

So, Americano surfers, day-trippers, and Baja adventurers who love craft beer can now rest easy. A whole new world is opening up to us, and the days of venturing to Mexico and being forced to choose only between Corona, Pacifico, and Modelo are gone forever. Salud!

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