You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Friday, March 24, 2017

La Cerveza Artesanal de México, Part 1

My journey into cervezas artesanales--Mexican craft beer--began at Societe Brewing in San Diego. I'd just flown in from Portland, and Hector Ferreira thought it would be a shame to miss one of San Diego's bounty when so many were at hand. This turned out to be a better metaphor than I imagined; it's impossible to imagine the breweries of Baja California emerging in the numbers or form they have without this brewing mecca right on their border. Our next stop was just south in Tijuana ("TJ" to locals) at Norte Brewing--one of the country's best--which is owned by Carlos Macklis, who splits his time between the two cities. Later on I'd meet Ivan Maldonado, a brewer at Silenus, another Tijuana brewery; he also brewed across the border at Fall Brewing. This kind of cultural and human resource exchange is typical.

If you can't call to mind a Mexican craft brewery, don't feel too bad. It's a surprisingly recent phenomenon, dating back a little more than a decade. The first significant craft brewery was Minerva, from Jalisco, launched in 2003. That somewhat overstates things, however. One of the people most able to see the scope of the market is Tero Moliis, who founded an ambitious ratings app called Maltapp. "Two years ago--well, in 2014, let's say, there were fifty or as many as 75 breweries," he told me. "Today there are over 600." Over the past year, they've been opening at a rate of more than one a day.

Tijuana and San Diego have shared a boozy relationship dating back nearly a century. They are in many respects twin cities divided by an international border, and residents wash back and forth each day like the rising and falling tide (albeit one slowed considerably by border guards on the northbound side). You might therefore reasonably ask why craft brewing started so late in Baja. The reason--as is so often the case--is because of legal barriers. Mexico is dominated by a duopoly of giants--Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma and Grupo Modelo--who until 2013 had absolute control over the market. They held powerful exclusivity contracts with retailers that kept small breweries out, which made starting a brewery dicey in the extreme.

Then in 2013 that all changed:
The two companies do so by holding exclusivity agreements with a large number of restaurants and bars throughout Mexico, limiting the access of micro - brewed and other beers not distributed by the two companies. On July 11th, 2013, the CFC announced a decision that these two companies would have to limit their exclusivity contracts to 25 percent of their points of sale in small grocery stores, restaurants, and bars, effective immediately. This number is to reduce to 20 percent by 2018.
Breweries in Mexico now sell directly to the retailer. It's an arrangement that seems to work out for them; I found no brewers who thought access to market was a problem. (I found many who were mystified by our three-tier system.) Tax law is another fight they have yet to wage--the structure means that craft breweries end up paying twice as much to the government, with concomitant price hikes to the customer. This limits their reach to upper-end bars and restaurants, but for an industry that is still less than 1% of the market, is not yet hobbling growth. (Little breweries have a trade organization similar to the Brewers Association fighting for these changes.)

Back to Norte, which is on the fifth floor of what is mostly a parking lot, but inside it looks much like anything you’d find in Portland--or San Diego. Big chalkboard over the bar, a lineup of beers that includes three hoppy ales, a small kit Macklis designed himself behind glass to the side of the bar, and a sky view of downtown. Not only do brewers in Baja have access to ingredients and equipment just across the border, but they can learn from and collaborate with San Diegans. Right on cue, I bumped into Keith Shaw, lead brewer at Modern Times, who was down for a pint. After tacos, we made another pit stop at Plaza Fiesta, the "colectivo" I mentioned, and had a couple pints in pubs that took their style cues straight from north of the border. In Baja, as one brewery told me, "it all pours down" from San Diego.

That is not true everywhere. Despite the way Americans see their neighbor to the north, Mexico is not all just border cities. The further into the country you go, the less US craft brewing has a hold. I was in the country to speak at the Ensenada Beer Fest (full disclosure: the fest paid for my travel), which poured beer from breweries from all over Mexico. IPAs are popular in Baja, but the pull of hops grows weaker with every mile you move from San Diego. The two other central hubs of beer are Guadalajara (1400 miles south) and Mexico City (1800 miles). Walking around the beer fest, I saw a lot of stouts, amber, and pale ales from breweries in those parts, but few trendy hoppy styles Americans make. (The phrase "New England IPA" was never mentioned in the five days I was there.)

I’ve harped endlessly about the way beer culture is formed—the organic communication between the brewer and drinker that somehow produces a distinctive palate and way of brewing region to region. The Mexican market is still too young to know what they want, which means the brewers are experimenting pretty broadly. Nevertheless, that formative period the United States went through that lasted from the earliest breweries until the first shakeout took two decades. Here, they've compressed birth and adolescence into just a few.

Surprisingly—or perhaps not—dark ales do seem to have emerged as the early favorite among drinkers. I’ve heard that from nearly every brewer I’ve spoken to. It’s surprising because Mexico doesn’t have the climate I associate with these heavier ales. But as Enrique Aceves-Vincent Ramirez, the brewer at Guadalajara’s Loba Brewing pointed out, for drinkers excited by craft beer, it seems like the style as far from Corona as you can go. (That was exactly what happened in the US, too.) 

The learning curve for Mexican breweries is far, far shorter than it was for Americans. Most brewers haven’t been professionally trained, but there’s so much more information and communication out there now that they’re learning very fast. English-style ales seem to be the dominant category (again, much like the US in the 1980s), but brewers are already moving on. It seems to have occurred almost simultaneously around the country that fruit and culinary ingredients, particularly native Mexican ones, offer a deep vein to mine. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen fruit, spices, and in one case, squid ink, all deployed.

Albur's brown ale was a highlight at the fest.

I think the big transition will happen when brewers start to get access to locally-grown barley and hops, which they're keen to do. Significant barley crops have been grown in Mexico for centuries--and varieties bred for the climate have been introduced periodically since the 1960s. They grow six-row strains, and Hector Ferreira, who brews at Cerveceria 159, told me they're not particularly great barleys, so there's still work to do, but that's promising.

Hops are obviously a bigger challenge. At 32 degrees, Tijuana is south of the ideal hop-growing zone--and places like Mexico City, at 19 degrees, are far too far south. But a number of the brewers I spoke to are keenly interested in Neomexicanus hops, which flourish at southerly latitudes.

Beyond this, brewers are already embracing localness in their beers. Paco Talamante, at Canneria Cerveceria in Ensenada, made a wonderful saison with the hard, salty water that bubbles up from the rocky soil. Like Astoria, Oregon, Ensenada used to be a huge canning port, and like Astoria, the canneries all closed. Like Fort George, Talamante wanted to bring canning back to his home town, and he wants his beer to reflect the place as well. It's a sentiment I heard many times during my visit. In this way, Mexicans are way ahead of Americans, who didn't start talking like this for decades after craft beer got started.

There's more to say, but his post is running long so I'll leave it here for now. We'll pick up in future posts with some of the best breweries I found and a few thoughts on the mood and excitement of the Mexican beer scene (which was a balm to this beer fan increasingly tired of the cynicism and anxiety of ours). Until then--

The Ensenada Beer Fest


  1. Thanks Jeff! I always love your craft. It's Gold at the GABF in my book.

    I experienced Noche Buena long before Oregon craft in the early 90s. I've had one since (about 5 years ago) but it was nothing like the original I remember. Any comments on if Noche Buena was actually a good beer in the 70s or was it so different from everything else available that it just seemed so?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.