Carlos Macklis on the fifth floor of Norte Brew
  • Carlos Macklis on the fifth floor of Norte Brew
  • Image by Andy Boyd
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More than 20 tap rooms opened in Tijuana last year, many of them in the same Plaza, giving the area a feel of a daily beer fest. Partially thanks to San Diego, the Baja region now produces the largest volume of craft beer in Mexico and is home to the country’s most awarded breweries. Baja’s government is aware of the gigantic boost to the economy beer provides and has facilitated permits for new breweries to develop.

Tijuana craft

The culture of beer in Baja still has a long way to go, though it is enjoying a steady growth. A lot of information, equipment, and ingredients cross the border on a constant basis. For years homebrewers have snuck across the border hops, yeast, and gear from suppliers such as White Labs. Stone Brewing Co. and Coronado Brewing Co. linked up with Baja breweries to create limited-edition beers — Andrómeda by Coronado/Fauna and Xocoveza by Stone/Insurgente. You’ll find a lot of Baja’s beer in two locations near the border: Plaza Fiesta and downtown.

Plaza del Balazo to Plaza Craft Beer

Plaza Fiesta was built in 1980 next to Plaza del Zapato, kitty-corner from the Centro Cultural de Tijuana (which everyone calls by its acronym CECUT, pronounced say-coot) museum on Zona Rio, a mile away from the border. Plaza Fiesta started as a mall for restaurants, dentist offices, farmacías, and more. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the nightlife took over and the plaza became the place to be for locals and tourists.

In the mid-2000s, Plaza Fiesta fell victim to increasing gun violence and was dubbed Plaza del Balazo — Bullet Plaza. In response, popular nightclubs such as Porky’s and Chez moved to Calle Sexta in downtown Tijuana, where the new party scene was emerging, thanks to hipster hangout La Mezcalera and the time-honored cantina, named Dandy del Sur.

Tijuana’s Plaza Fiesta

For several years, Plaza Fiesta had no true identity as bars opened and closed. Many bars with different themes opened only to close a few months later. A few examples are: 8-Bit (a video-game bar), La Condenada Mezcaleria (a copy of Sexta’s Mezcalera), La Prisión bar (a metal and hardcore venue), Underbar (cheap sushi and drugs), and many other short-lived bars. Most of them only sold caguamas (32-ounce bottles) of Tecate and Indio as well as cheap mixed drinks.

It wasn’t until El Tigre Bar revamped its image at the beginning of 2015 that the plaza began to assume its current role as a beer hub. El Tigre stopped hosting punk and hardcore bands and turned itself into a modern tap room for Lúdica Artesanal. El Sotano Suizo, a bar established in the plaza in 1989, started serving beer a few months before El Tigre, but El Tigre spurred a domino effect of bars turning into tap rooms.

Juan Carlos Bucio in front of El Tigre Bar

“If I wasn’t going to sell craft beer, I wasn’t going to open a bar,” Juan Carlos Bucio, one of the owners of El Tigre Bar says. “The idea, five years ago, was that I was going to have a space inside a new Chez bar, but Fernando Valladolid [owner of Chez] decided not to continue with the project. Fernando offered me the space where El Tigre is now. I knew that the craft beer movement was going to take over. A lot of my friends were already brewing.”

Since its inception, El Tigre sold mostly cheap mixed drinks and caguamas, but Bucio slowly introduced craft beer. “Once I had the bar, friends started hitting me up. The bar first sold Silenus, Ley Seca, and other homebrews that ended up not creating a brand. I was the sole owner of El Tigre for a few years, but I decided to partner up because I knew I needed a larger investment and there was going to be many more responsibilities. I was already partners with my brother and two other friends for 1994 Bar, so we joined forces to transform the plaza....

“We started by opening Paralelo 28 and we talked to Lúdica to open in El Tigre because they are one of our favorites in the region,” continues Bucio. Like playing a game of chess, Bucio and his partners moved the right pieces to turn Plaza Fiesta to Plaza Cerveza. “After that, we invited Fauna from Mexicali and partnered up with their brewer, Alejandro Larios. We then worked by inviting others, like Juan José [Quezada] of Mamut, same with Border Psycho and Insurgente. We had already visualized what the plaza could be. We believe that if we all work together, it would give longevity to the business.”

The plaza now has 13 tap rooms: Lúdica Artesanal (inside El Tigre), Paralelo 28, Fauna, Madueño, Ramuri, Legion, Insurgente, Mamut, Tres B (Big Bad Brew), Silenus (inside El Depa), Donkey Punch, Bosiger (inside Sotano Suizo), and Border Psycho.

Bucio tells me that in the following months the plaza plans to open four more tap rooms: Cerveceria Calafia (sharing space with a pizzeria that Bucio intends to run), Puerco Salvaje (Mexicali), Cervecería el Sauzal (Ensenada), and Los Reyes (Rosarito).

I have visited all of them and spoken to many of the owners or partners.

“I only care that people enjoy my beer,” said Silenus brewmaster Ivan Maldonado.

I had started a drunken argument about El Depa, which is dominated by college students, contending that it does not feel like your usual tap room. Maldonado dismissed my notion of taproom standards. “What does a tap room look like to you?” he asked rhetortically. “Taste my beer, it doesn’t matter where you drink it, as long as it is good and people enjoy it.”

I tried Silenus’ Xanthos IPA, which was one of the best beers I’ve had south of the border. Maldonado is part of the brewing team for Fall Brewing Company in San Diego, and before that he worked with Belching Beaver.

“This is our third tap room and our first in Tijuana,” said Daniel Corral of Tres B, who recently moved to Tijuana from Mexicali. “It’s six of us that run Tres B. I’ve been wanting to live in Tijuana for a while, so I offered to be the one in charge of the bar here.” Daniel Corral not only runs the bar, he basically lives in it, as his apartment is directly above.

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