Ever since the San Diego microbrew scene started to develop in the mid-1990s, aspiring brewers south of the border have been quietly drinking, watching, and learning. After years of study, Tijuana’s craft beer movement has finally taken off—and shows no signs of slowing down. The local brewers are forthright about the fact that they learned from the best in neighboring San Diego (dubbed the craft beer capital of America), but it was only a matter of time before the infamous border city developed its own unique style. The hops and malts for Tijuana brews may come from the States, but it’s the local ingredients that really make them sing. (Think honey mandarin ales, coffee-and-cacao stouts, and piloncillo coconut porter.) In fact, the scene itself is a heady reflection of Tijuana: full of interesting quirks and contrasts and heavily influenced by food.
One of the biggest differences between the two cities’ brew cultures is in the attitude. Ivan Morales, head brewer of the wildly popular Cervecería Insurgente says, “Brewing projects in San Diego usually start with a higher budget, but here we focus on smaller brewers. Our taprooms are more like bars and have become the place to go out in Tijuana.” In these more-intimate operations, the line between bartender and brewer gets blurred, and many tasting rooms end up looking more like laboratories. Barrels emitting billowing steam and the strong malty odor of beer “cooking” can be a bit intimidating at first, but top-notch, friendly service takes the edge off quickly.
“We are really trying to make tourists feel welcome,” says Giovanni Brassea, a chef and owner of the food truck HUMO, who regularly collaborates with craft breweries. “Before, Tijuana had a bad reputation. It was a party town, and in some ways it still is, but now it’s also a foodie town. The types of tourists coming through lately are noticeably different.” And Tijuana’s service industry is giving the tourists what they want.
On the main drag of Avenida Revolución, Teorema/Lúdica Co-Tasting Room is a sleek, minimalist space with a white-tiled bar and plenty of beer taps. Here, a British tourist walks in, studies the list of super-sour IPAs, nitro coffee stouts, and other experimental brews before tentatively asking: Do you have any Mexican beers? The bartender smiles warmly and responds, these are all Mexican, my dear.
Down the street from Teorema/Lúdica, the tiny but trendy restaurant La Justina serves mostly organic food, including freshly cut greens, locally raised meat, and honey straight from the comb. They take their beer pairing seriously and have a constantly rotating roster of craft beers. “There are so many good beers now, we just have to keep switching it up,” says chef Marco Rodriguez. “Mexican food has a lot of strong spices and flavors, which usually go well with really hoppy beers, so we always have a few IPAs on the menu.”
He adds that Mexican food is typically eaten with pale ales, but many seafood dishes—such as ceviches or aguachiles—are increasingly being paired with coriander- or citrus–infused hefeweizens instead of the usual Corona. “A Oaxacan mole, with its chiles and burned vanilla, works well with a dark stout with hints of fig, raisins, and spices,” he says.
Around the corner is Norte Brewing Company, which was voted the best tasting room in Baja California two years in a row. It is raucous and full of people from both sides of the border, despite the fact that it is inconspicuously located on the fifth floor of a parking garage with no signs. “We like it this way,” says seasoned bartender/brewer Pedro Luis Polanco. “We don’t do any marketing because we want the right people to show up here.” The taproom, formerly a strip club, has a panoramic view of Tijuana and San Ysidro. They don’t serve food, but the beer is so good it should be savored on its own. If patrons get hungry enough, there is a stack of take-out menus from nearby restaurants that deliver.
A short taxi ride away is the aptly named Plaza Fiesta, a gritty, dark labyrinth of taprooms where the majority of craft brewers have set up shop—including a funky little newcomer called Vibra.
“Tijuana is full of people who have immigrated in search of new opportunities,” says co-owner and ex-engineer Ernesto Felix. “As a result, we have a lot of risk takers here, which makes the recipes we come up with unique.” The peanut butter cinnamon milk porter on Vibra’s menu attests to that.
A stroll around the plaza brings drinkers to the infamous Border Psycho, where the taps are modeled after dildos, the small-but-mighty Fauna, where plants pay homage to the name, and finally to the slick Insurgente where a handsome, hipster bartender serves up award-winning IPA and good conversation.
Sitting at the bar is Emiliano Hernandez, a 27-year-old Tijuana native enjoying a pint. “Because of the hot weather, Mexicans have traditionally drunk lagers, and added salt, lime, and tomato juice,” he says. “This idea of drinking beer just to drink beer is new, but it is catching on, and so are other trends.” Hernandez and his girlfriend, for example, recently started their own kombucha company, called Karla’s Kombucha. They were inspired to do so when the kombucha he brought back from San Diego did not suit his girlfriend Karla’s taste. “We make it sweeter than what you find in the States because you know, Mexicans love things sweet.” And this is exactly what Tijuana has been so successful at: learning from its neighbors north of the border and then tweaking to suit the Mexican palate. So far, it seems to be working out just fine.