The following is the sixth in a six-part series about that adventure, which yielded some good beer and a good deal more. Mexicali - Part I is the previous stop on this tour of Baja’s craft brewing culture.
A second location can be ill-advised…especially in a strange, new city… especially in a foreign country… especially at midnight… especially when your transportation to said location is provided be people you just met… especially when your language is their second language… especially when you don’t have an international calling plan set up on your phone. All the same, taking a group of Mexicali craft brewers up on their gracious invite to a house party led to the most fun I had the three days I spent in Baja and the greatest insight into their world.
The owner of Amante Cerveza Artesanal drove us to a house on a dark street off the main drag. A small dog (that made me feel homesick for my puppy back home) yipped at us from behind a chain-link fence next door. It was the closest to a cold reception we would feel from that point on. Our somehow-still-thirsty group entered into a large, beautiful backyard with multiple sitting areas, a gazebo, and brick oven. It was downright luxurious and I thought it easily one of the nicest domestic entertaining areas I’d ever encountered, until I was made aware by the friendly partygoers that the house we were at (well, one of them, this gargantuan yard was on a shared lot for two domiciles) was home to Cerveza Urbana, one of Mexicali’s most well-known breweries. Take that with a grain of salt. The entire brewhouse and fermentation tanks fit into a gutted kitchen area revamped (with drainage and everything) into a production facility. The dining entry area abuts the brewery and has a branded bar setup with taps and a freezer unit that’s been converted into a cold box equipped with additional taps. According to someone who helped with the project, it was done on a weekend with a how-to YouTube video as the sole instructional guide.
The entire Baja brewing scene has elements of the makeshift and gumption to it. It’s a get-it-done spirit that further connects them to brewers on our side of the border, or anywhere really. Just as much as these people take pride in the finished product, they are justifiably proud of the steps that lead up to their beer, especially the trials and tribulations they traverse using imagination and elbow grease. Considering the balance and quality of the duo of Urbana beers I sampled — a low-alcohol blonde ale well suited for high-temp Mexicali, and a prototype of a roasty dark ale with intense yet balanced flavors and a drinkable texture — they’re deserving of a pat on the back. There are brewers in San Diego working with much more sophisticated equipment whose beers don’t rate as well as those from these McGyver-esque guys.
Throughout the night, the brewers in attendance kept saying, “Our brewing scene is like San Diego 25 years ago.” There is truth to that statement thanks to visible parallels. However, thanks to advances in brewing technology, greater availability of ingredients, proliferation of information on craft brewing in books and online resources, and assistance from Southern California brewers, the progress of Mexican craft breweries will likely go faster than ours as it developed near the turn of the century. It’s easy to see why U.S. brewers have taken their Baja counterparts under their wings — they are extremely respectful of our beer, using the ales of Alpine Beer Co., Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits, Societe Brewing Company, and more as inspiration and measuring sticks for their own product. Bottles and growlers from these and other companies were all over the party space.
Of course, house parties aren’t the only place to get a full pour of Mexicali’s brewing culture. There are three premier beer bars in the city — BC Gastro Bar, El Sume, and The Show. The latter sports a classic rock theme, features live music, and is leased and operated by Tres B, one of Mexicali’s more prestigious brewing operations. Translated to “three ‘b’s,” the name stands for Big Bad Brewery. It’s a misnomer as Tres B is anything but, and Tecate is the company generally referenced in that regard in these parts. Much like the U.S. and the U.K., macro-beer goes to great lengths and expense to control the market and keep craft beer from gaining prominence. Still, the demand is growing as more forward-thinking imbibers discover local artisanal product.
Now, I’m not saying everything we had in Baja was perfect, or even outstanding. Beers tended to be on the more pedestrian side, aiming to be to-style instead of outlandish or groundbreaking. Many would be easily overshadowed by the top tier breweries in San Diego County (just as the ales and lagers of numerous breweries in our region are). And a couple of the breweries in Mexicali exhibited serious problems with diacetyl, likely caused by trying to ferment beer on the surface of the fucking sun. But by and large, the beer is good and getting better at a rapid clip. Enough that it’s a scene I want to try to keep my eye on as it grows and expands.
On the ride back to the border, I found myself filled with a desire to help provide some sort of outlet, an event or festival perhaps, where the brewers from Baja could collaborate with the San Diego brewers they so remind me of. I’d really like for local beer fans to meet them. I guarantee, you’d like them a lot!