Defining Mexican Craft Beer in Tijuana
For craft beer innovation, head to the Mexican border
All photos by Maggie Rosenberg.
Tijuana’s reputation as a frontier town is legendary. The line between San Diego and Mexico is the world’s most crossed border. When you pass over, the sudden difference in surroundings between two nations with different resources and cultures is obvious. However, the difference in beer between Tijuana and her northern sister city, San Diego, feels smooth. Regular migration and open collaboration have kept the beer scenes between two very different nations fluid.
San Diego is one of the most craft beer-centric cities in the U.S, and is significant to the story of American beer in many ways. The hop-forward double IPA style was invented in the area when Brewer Vinnie Cilruzo (now of Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa) accidentally added a double dose of hops to a the kettle when he was with the now defunct Blind Pig Brewing Co. Since then, San Diego has been ahead at the front of stylistic innovation in craft beer. Tijuana would be an unlikely beer city, if not for the influence of her American sister city.
Tijuana is notoriously violent and seedy. It has one of the highest murder rates in the world, but these statistics are greatly skewed by gang/cartel violence. Craft beer is a the type of gentrification that the city could use, and Tijuana is also now seeing a spike in third-wave coffee houses and boutique design studios as well. These are signs that Tijuana is successfully attracting a more sophisticated sort of tourist than the underage college students and brothel hoppers that it was once known for. Tijuana is becoming a desirable craft beer destination, and they’re doing it with a unique Mexican flair.
Tijuana is where the craft brew culture of Alta California meets the Mexican tradition of dressing up beer. Tijuana’s craft breweries feature many spiced and fruited beers. The city’s beer style is still in the process of defining itself, but the flavor profiles typically fall between Belgian influences and American craft. It’s a shift from the German traditions that built the Mexican beers of yore. A cynic might say that these seasoned beers are gimmicky, but really they reflect the evolution of Mexican beer culture. While 99% of the beer brewed in Mexico is in the style of simple lager, most of them will be seasoned with salt, chili, lime, or even clam juice before being consumed.
Mexican beer tradition might be best defined by Micheladas: the most famous type of “cerveza preparada”, or seasoned beer. The classic Michelada is spiced with with chili, lime and salt. They are popular throughout the country, as well as in the United States. These seasoned beers, come in many forms. They can be as simple as adding a splash of lemonade to a beer, or they can be as ornate as any Bloody Mary, with garnishes like shrimp and candied mango. Mexico has an ingrained culture of bedazzled beer. A fully dressed Mexican beer might be sprinkled with chamoy (a chili-lime paste) and served in a hollowed-out fruit with candy and shrimp floating decoratively on top. Tijuana’s craft brewers flavor their beer in more subtle ways.
One of the most charming places to drink in Zona Centro is Azteca Brewing. It’s the opposite of what most people think of when they imagine a tiny Tijuana beer den: It’s bright, welcoming, and they play long mixtapes of afrobeat jazz. The brewery is one of the smallest commercial operations we’ve seen, with just a flame-powered one-barrel system sitting in a loft above the bar. The beer at Azteca reflects the feminine touch of the brewers, sisters Ximena and Karla Lopez. Their four-handle tap list features soft beers with strawberry and chocolate infusions.
The brewery that best celebrates the spirit of Mexican beer tinkering is SouthNorte. The brewery was founded by Ryan Brooks with the intention of bringing more authentically Mexican flavors to beer. Instead of the standard “negra” and “clara” lager that has defined Mexican beer, SouthNorte is changing the script by brewing Agavemente, a lager with agave and hibiscus. These unmistakably Mexican flavors blend well into beer and take the idea of flavorful Mexican brew well beyond the michelada.
Brooks began brewing SouthNorte beers at North of the Border at Coronado Brewing Company, his ex-employer’s facility. Now he has a pilot brewery in Tijuana at the Telefonica Gastropark. At this facility, new beers can be tested out on diners that might be coming by to try the excellent food trucks out front. It is the first and, so far, only American craft brewery to set up shop in Mexico. His fusion of American craft and Mexican flavors is probably best typified with the No Güey IPA, a West Coast IPA brewed with hints of mango, lime, chili, and salt.
Tijuana craft brewers are finding ways to craft brews that are as refreshing or spicy as a chelada, but that remain balanced and subtle enough for serious beer drinkers. This is especially important now that more macro breweries, like Modelo, are attacking the market with pre-mixed, canned Micheladas and Clamato-flavored beer. Changing beer tastes might shift preferences to more traditional American craft over time. For now, no one is turning their IPA into Michelada. At worst, some might take a shot of mezcal with chili-salted oranges alongside their beer.
Cerveceria Insurgente was started by the brothers Morales, Ivan and Damian. They’d split their time living between Southern California and Mexico and developed a taste for craft beer along the way. With their palates honed by Southern California craft beer, they began to impress judges at brewing competitions right away (and we recommend NY International Beer Competition next winter!). It’s become one of the first Mexican craft beers to gain ground in the competitive U.S. scene. Their La Lupulosa IPA is already getting buzz among hop hunters eager to find it at American bottle shops.
Southern California drinkers might have been tasting beers brewed by Insurgente for years without realizing it. Back in 2014, they collaborated with craft beer icons Stone Brewing Company to brew Xocoveza, a milk stout with Mexican hot chocolate flavors. Then there was the Tres Cabras, a Brettanomyces fermented saison that Insurgentes brewed with two small Dutch craft brewers. Since then, the collaborations with American brewers have continued sporadically. We were pleasantly surprised to see an Insurgente brewery collaboration at a local brewery in Los Angeles last time we stopped by.
Benefits of Border Beer
Baja has long been considered the Mexican wine producing capital. Like Alta California, Baja California produces around 90% of their nation’s wine. Now Baja is emerging as the craft beer capital as well. Tijuana breweries benefit from a cultural familiarity with the United States’ craft brew scene, but they also benefit from physical proximity. Most of Mexico has to brew with whatever ingredients they can get. Tijuana is one of the few places in Mexico where a craft brewer can run over to a city, like San Diego, that has an abundance of Cascadian hops, imported European malts, and yeasts from laboratories (like the industry standard, White Labs).
Border cities like Tijuana have been gateways for Americans to learn about the flavorful cuisine of Mexico and to provide some insights into different, might we say, better, ways of thinking about food. Now with the rise of U.S. influenced Mexican craft beer, we are happy to say that the favor is being returned. California craft doesn’t stop at the border.