Ask any Santa Ana breeze and she’ll tell you, Mexicali’s known for sweltering hot summers, a relaxed, rural demeanor, Chinese food and an abandoned underground Chinatown, carne asada, outlandish music, and beautiful women (some attribute it to the immense volume of water one drinks to survive). But more than anything, Mexicali has always been a beer town. Locals call it “la tierra de los huevos frios” — the land of the cold testicles — in reference to the ice-cold balls on the classic cachanilla, or Mexicali native, chillin’ with a crotch beer to keep cool under a persecuting midsummer sun.
Aztec Brewery and Cervecería Mexicali date back to the early ’20s, just two decades after the city was founded. The railroad line connecting Calexico to Mexico allowed them to import machinery and malt from the States to incorporate with local barley, rice from Mexico, and hops from Bohemia — then export their brew to Tijuana (which thrived under Prohibition-era America) and beyond. Aztec Brewery relocated to San Diego when the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933. In 1972, Cervecería Mexicali was forced to close in lieu of being bought out by duopoly giants Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma. These days, over 80 microbreweries exist throughout Baja, but more than anywhere, Mexicali is proving itself as a hot spot for innovative small-batch beers.
San Diego is already familiar with Cucapá, one of the few artisanal Baja brews imported steadily to the States. Among the oldest microbreweries in Baja, Cucapá opened 12 years ago. Only recently have home-brewers begun to spring up across the city, producing a few barrels at a time in makeshift garage setups.
“Craft beer is getting big in town, thanks to local brewers pouring beers for friends, selling small batches to a few bars willing to take some risks, having pints with friends and strangers alike, and remaining tireless,” says Rodrigo Hernández of Tres B, also known as Big Bad Brewing Co. — one of the more established micros in Mexicali.
In a windfall for craft brewers, exclusivity laws that enabled the duopoly breweries to dominate 98 percent of the Mexican market were overturned by the Comisión Federal de Competencia (the federal government’s fair-competition commission) last July. Responding to a 2010 antitrust action filed by the Asociación de Cerveza Artesanal de Baja California (analogous to the California Craft Brewer Association) and SABMiller (a multinational brewing company based in London), the commission ruled that the macros must reduce their exclusivity contracts to 20 percent of total establishments over the next five years.
“The legal climate in relation to the duopoly in Mexico has taken a turn for the better,” says Fredd Sanchez of Chula Vista–based distributors CeArMex. “Municipal governments in Baja have taken it upon themselves to facilitate permits in counties like Mexicali in order to fight the stronghold that the two macros have. With these new stipulations, the county can lease the permits on a monthly basis to breweries and brewpubs at very accessible costs as part of a program to incentivize the growth of downtown Mexicali.”
Just months after the commission ruling, the Mexicali Beer Fest: Artesanal debuted at the city’s renovated Centro Historico plaza with around 3400 in attendance. In April, organizers Héctor Corella (Cerveza Amante), Hernández, and Rafael González — the latter two from Tres B — hosted their second fest, this time at the more spacious Parque Vicente Guerrero.
It’s worth noting that the park is named after a national hero and revolutionary general in the Mexican War of Independence. Not only did he champion equal rights for the racially and economically oppressed, but he also liberated beer, which was previously subject to harsh restrictions and taxation imposed by Spanish rule. In fact, it wasn’t until the arrival of German immigrants and the brief reign of Austrian monarch Maximilian I (who had his own personal brewer of Vienna-style dark beers) in the latter half of the 19th Century that Mexico began to brew in earnest.
All of this leads up to a warm spring evening in Parque Vicente Guerrero, where an estimated 5000 suds hunters sample 16 local brewers along with 17 visitors from Ensenada, Rosarito, Tecate, Tijuana, Monterrey, Guadalajara, and San Diego (Green Flash and Coronado Brewing Co.)
At a titillating ten hours in duration, the fest costs just 150 pesos (about $11.50) and coincides with the Mexicali Craft Brewers Guild’s second Mexicali Beer Challenge — an opportunity for professional and home-brewers to have their flagship beverages evaluated by certified judges. Participants include brewers from San Diego and Imperial Valley, and as far away as Michoacán, Puebla, and Mexico City. November’s victor, the Crossover IPA from fledgling Mexicali brewers Cerveza Urbana, is easily one of the best beers at the spring festival, provided you enjoy being punched in the mouth with citrus and iso-alpha acids.
Tres B head brewer Rafa González recalls the evolution of beercraft in Mexicali: “Back in 2005, the only other home-brewer we knew was Pepe Martínez from Dos Pistones. We would have to buy our ingredients and hardware in San Diego (like everybody else in Baja) and at an online store. There were no home-brew shops in Mexico at that time. Now it’s crazy. There’s a home-brew shop, La Casa de la Cerveza, that has classes of 30 or 40 people.”
Of course, in Mexicali — whose official byline is “The City that Captured the Sun” — beer is just as much a lifestyle as it is a science.
“People drink beer for survival here,” González says. “In the summer, you know it’s going to hit [125 degrees] for at least a week. We in Mexicali are used to the heat. We know the damage it can do to you as a person, animals, plants, food, and beer. We have what you could call a ‘temperature culture.’ We have controlled fermentation temperatures on our beers, home-brewers have their AC’s on the whole time, and you can taste the result.”
A lazy stroll around the pop-up village of micropubs with my father reveals Mexicali’s mightiest huevo chillers: a sturdy IPA from Gato Gordo, an 8.8 percent strong ale from Tres B, and — countless pints and eats later — an IPA spiked with Japanese and Australian hops from González’s old brewing buddies, Dos Pistones. Invigorated by the arid desert night, we drink and laugh well past the official closing time of 2 a.m. with the folks at Dos Pistones, named for the twin cylinders on a Ducati. The rockabilly bunch of home-hopheads love Social Distortion and Johnny Cash and cheerfully feed us brews called Rocker IPA and A Beer Named Sue.
“I started around nine years ago with a kit from Home Brew Mart,” says Pepe Martínez, head brewer at Cerveceria Dos Pistones. “At the time, there weren’t many choices as far as craft beer goes in Mexicali. I felt the need to try different styles, so I bought a bigger system and that’s when the brewery started. My brother Daniel and a close friend joined in the effort. Now, we honestly believe that Mexicali has the best craft beer in Mexico. Mexicali has always been a beer town. We just need to make sure that we drink good beer.”
All other vendors long gone now and trash cans overflowing with cups, my father and I hobnob at Dos Pistones’ seemingly endless taps with Marcopolo Moraga of nascent home-brew crew Once Perros.
“I’ve always loved the farm-to-table movement because it’s all about supporting your community and the local economy,” he says. “‘Toma local, toma artesanal’ [drink local, drink artisanal] for me is basically the same principle. It’s about creating a bigger craft-beer culture. We want to change the paradigm in which people buy cheap beer and drink a lot of it to get drunk. Instead, drink unique, higher quality, locally produced beer while helping your economy. Mexicali’s craft-beer culture has been growing incredibly fast. Most nanobreweries are struggling to keep up with demand, and that is a very good sign that the craft-brewing industry is flourishing.”
Can’t wait for the next fest? Grab some shade at El Sume (845 Justo Sierra, Mexicali) for a one-stop panorama of the city’s latest flavors.