For most, the words "Mexican beer" conjure an image of a bottle of pale yellow fizz with a lime wedge stuffed down the neck. But it only took a quick lap around the second annual Baja Beer Festival, held on a recent sunny Saturday in Ensenada, to see that modern Mexican brewing couldn’t be further removed from that. Here, some 3,500 thirsty attendees from both sides of the border swarmed the booths of 44 craft brewers sampling nearly 80 different beers: brawny stouts, hop-addled IPAs, espresso porters, and light-bodied wheat beers brewed with basil and orange peel or tinged pink by fresh strawberries.
But you’d never know all this variety existed. See, in Mexico, government-issued liquor licenses are snatched up by one of two powerful brewing conglomerates responsible for familiar brands like Corona and Tecate, who then resell them to bars and restaurants, leaving their proprietors beholden to selling those companies’ beers exclusively. But recently, smaller producers have started pushing back, and a nascent craft beer scene has emerged here, anchored by commercial microbreweries like Cervecería Tijuana and Mexicali’s Cucapá—one of the only Mexican craft labels to gain U.S. distribution—as well as a host of enterprising homebrewers.
"The name says it all," says Damian Morales, the brewer behind Cervecería Insurgente, while serving samples of his tasty Tiniebla wheat and Nocturna black IPA. "We’re trying to be insurgents and rise up against the beer monopoly in Mexico, to change palates one at a time and not compromise on flavor."
"Being next to San Diego is one of the detonators of this movement," says Paco Talamante, president of the Association of Craft Brewers of Baja California. "We are privileged to have Stone, Ballast Point, Karl Strauss, and much more next to us, influencing our palates and noses."
Some Baja brewers are consciously going against the hop-heavy tide sweeping in from the north. "There’s such an overflow of IPA and hop that I had to go for something different," says Gustavo Peña, brewer at Monastika, who specializes in session-style beers in the English/Belgian tradition.
"I try not to imitate the American-tasting beers because we have to come up with our own Baja beer," says Marciano Escovedo, a 3-D animator by day who makes a Turkish coffee stout and other brews for Cervecería Kili by night. "Baja has very good food; we should have good beer, too."
You can find the above-mentioned beers and lots of others at The Beer Box, 4499 Boulevárd Sánchez Taboada (near Boulevárd Abelardo Rodriguez) and at Tasca de la Sexta, 1906 Sixth Street (between Madero and Negrete) in Tijuana.