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.
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.
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.
“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.
“It’s because of our Belgian beer, Belga Psicótica,” Roberto Albarran of Border Psycho brewery tells me when I inquire about their phallic tap pulls. “We thought [they] went perfectly with La Belga.”
The joke here is that belga (Belgian) sounds really similar to verga (slang for penis).
“I don’t think I will be opening my tap room in Plaza Fiesta,” Juan Bojorquez of Ley Seca Brewing tells me. “I think all the good spots are already taken. I don’t want to be in the back. Plaza Fiesta might also just be going through a trend. I will be opening a tap room sometime in the future, I’m just not sure where.” Bojorquez has been upgrading his homebrewing space in the past few months and plans to sell his beer through other tap rooms, including El Tigre, Paralelo 28, and La Embajada.
Other bars that don’t cater to the beer crowd still persevere in Plaza Fiesta, as well as some dentists’ offices, a sex shop, and restaurants (including a Vietnamese joint named Pequeño Saigon). Pancho Villa, a bar that blasts norteño music every night, remains mostly empty. There is a corner bar that exclusively serves Clamatos, and behind it, several bars that look similar to one another. Mods Bar took over La Prisión and hosts punk, metal, and hardcore shows. Zenzontle serves their own version of pulque, a traditional agave wine. Fresco and Wherehouse offer electronic rave-like ambiance. The latter recently hosted Tijuana’s first installment of the roving international electronic music conclave known as Boiler Room.
Downtown Tijuana — more than Calle Sexta
Plaza Fiesta is not the only area in Tijuana to offer beer. Mamut Brewery started in 2013 and quickly grew to become downtown Tijuana’s most recognized craft brewer. Four other breweries have opened around their perimeter. Cerveza Rio opened behind Pasaje Rodriguez (Mamut’s original location), next to where Peanut’s strip club used to be. Unfortunately, they closed down, as the dark alley proved too tough for beer enthusiasts to find.
On the fifth floor of a parking structure on 4th street and Revolución, you’ll find Norte Brewing Company. They opened their doors in September of 2015 and quickly became a popular spot.
“Plaza Fiesta already had too many bars being used as tap rooms,” says Carlos Macklis of Norte Brewing. “The spaces left for rent were small and often times expensive. I asked my father-in-law to help me find a place. The next day he put me in contact with Eugenio Ocaranza, who happened to be an old friend of my dad’s. He offered me the second or the fifth floor of the parking structure. Obviously I went for the fifth for the views and for its history as a strip club.”
Norte’s beers are named in tribute to the location’s history: the Blonde Ale is named Escort, the Amber Ale is Cougar, the Pale Ale is 5to piso (fifth floor), and the IPA is dubbed Penthouse.
Across the street from the Caliente casino (between 3rd and 4th streets on Avenida Revolución) there is a small alleyway that leads to Plaza Revolución, which has the feel of a dark basement. When you enter you can smell hops brewing as you come upon three breweries: Azteca Brew, Comuna Artesanal, and Baja Brew Labs.
“On April of 2015 we started taking classes with the brewer from Azteca [Joel López],” Mario Delgadillo of Comuna Artesanal says. “I had little knowledge of biochemistry. The first batch came out great, so did the second, and we thought, Let’s do this. Right now is the best time.” Delgadillo started Comuna with friends who later dropped out of the project.
“The first kegs we would share between friends, but people started showing up to our spot and we started selling it for cheap,” continues Delgadillo. Comuna is the most recent addition to downtown Tijuana’s brewers, barely brewing one keg a week.
“We asked Joel López if he didn’t mind if we opened as a tap room right next to him. He gave us his blessing and told us that competition is good for everyone.”
“I worked with Cerveceria Mexicali from 1992 to 2007,” Joel López of Azteca Brewing says. Next door to Comuna, López brews Azteca’s beer, and his daughters Ximena and Karla manage the tap room. “The brewery was originally called Rio Bravo. In 1999 it got bought by Coors Company. In 2007 Coors merged with Molson and they stopped their Latin American brews. I was left without a job, but because I don’t know how to do anything but brew beer, I continued brewing. I started Azteca Brew in 2011 and started selling to the public three years after that.”
“We didn’t take classes — YouTube and internet forums,” Adrian Echavarria says. Deeper in the basement, you’ll find Baja Brew Labs, the “kids” of the brewery world. Baja Brew Labs took advantage of a government loan called Crédito Joven, targeted to young entrepreneurs. It provided the brewers with nearly $10,000.
“We partnered with Javier [Alvarado] to design and try out the equipment while he built it.” Unlike other brewers, Baja Brew Labs built their equipment from scratch. Echavarria is partners with Elio Avendaño (both have degrees in mechatronics) and with his brother Luis Echavarria, who studied gastronomy.
Two more breweries have opened in downtown but are only available for private tours: Cerveceria Teorema, between 6th and 7th streets on Revolución; and Mecanica, on 1st street by the arch. Luis Durazo of Cerveceria Teorema plans to open a tap room this May, in front of his brewery in the space that used to belong to the art gallery TJ-China.
Through the city and beyond
Cerveza Tijuana has been around since 2000 and is the oldest and biggest brewery in town. But, as their generic name might suggest, they brew generic beers, offering six styles, including a lager, a pilsner, and a bock. They also brew a beer named after Tijuana’s soccer team, Cerveza Xolos. They are located a mile south of downtown in Boulevard de los Fundadores. Cerveza Tijuana also has “secret brews” that are exclusively for certain restaurants that do not announce where their “house beer” comes from. These beers are better than their usual product.
You can find more beer spread around the city in bars such as BCB (Baja Craft Beer) and across the street at Verde y Crema restaurant, located on Calle Orizaba near Campestre golf course. A couple blocks away, 1994 Bar is located on Avenida Sonora.
Beer & Wine Hobby Store sells supplies and ingredients as well as local and international craft beers. The store opened two years ago on 11th street, but due to its expanding business, they moved around the corner to a larger space that holds more products and now hosts Funes’ tap room.
You can also find beer online and order through beerhouse.mx to get a shipment of the latest beer from the region.
Other tap rooms have opened further from the border, such as Baja Artesanal in Plaza Galerias Hipodromo (a mall near the Xolos soccer stadium).
I ventured into the mall after I failed scalping for tickets for a Xolos match. “Come in, try our beers,” the hostess of Baja Artesanal entreated, convincing me to give it a try. The logo for the tap room read “Baja Artesanal — Gastro Chelería” (chela, slang for beer, was already a bad sign). The hostess gave me samplers of the house beer and talked to me about what she thought craft culture was, but the house beers were barely drinkable, and what she was saying was completely wrong. Fortunately they served other Baja beers and their food was decent and cheap.
Despite the major improvement, the fact is that Tijuana is still primarily a city that drinks Tecate and other commercial beers. You won’t find craft beer in most convenience stores, but some supermarkets and liquor stores are finally offering the product.
“Let’s go to Madueño; they have Indio over there,” I once overheard someone say in Fauna’s tap room, showing how craft-beer culture is still relatively small. This stranger’s was basically saying: “Let’s go to this other brewery but not drink their beer.” More often than not, I see people in tap rooms drinking Heineken or other commercial beers. Regardless, the future of Tijuana promises to see the opening of even more breweries.
Tap rooms, for the most part, only have one type of glassware and beers are all the same price no matter what style: 16-ounce pints go for between 50 to 60 pesos ($3 to $3.50), and half-pints go for 30 to 40 pesos ($2 to 2.50). Each tap room has a different happy hour or daily special, but most of them have agreed on Tap Tuesday, which is a discount of at least 10 pesos off every beer all day and night.
At this rate, the beer scene in Tijuana can only get better. There is still a lot to learn and many newcomers to teach. But it’s nice to see a ranchero (Mexican cowboy) trying a craft beer for the first time, his taste buds for the first time discovering real beer flavor.