Craft beer from Baja California can be elusive — even when you're in Baja. Only a handful of the Mexican state's nearly 100 breweries have their own restaurants or tasting rooms, and local liquor stores are still slinging mostly Modelo and Corona, not the dark ales and bitter IPAs inspired by the American craft beer revolution. Your best options are to hit up one of the region's annual beer fests (which are way better than American ones), find a local craft beer bar or hang out at Plaza Fiesta in Tijuana, where a dozen or so breweries have set up their own makeshift taprooms.
Stateside, finding real Mexican craft beer is even harder. In late 2013, two breweries — Cucapá and Old Mission Brewing — made a push into the L.A. market, but distribution issues with Old Mission (which branded itself Ensenada Brewing Company for the United States) and the closure of Cucapá's Mexicali plant cut the availability short. Last year, Baja Brewing Company, a brewpub in Cabo owned by beer-loving Colorado expats, launched bottles of a blonde ale called Cabotella in California. From the recipe to the packaging, however, the beer is designed for the American market.
Despite these false starts, demand for cerveza artesanal continues to grow on both sides of the border, and since the beginning of the year, a handful of Baja's larger and more popular craft breweries have been streamlining their production and plodding through the legal process so they can export their beers to the United States, mostly to San Diego (whose own historic beer scene first introduced craft beer to Baja). Since June, Mexican-brewed beers have been appearing at restaurants and bottle shops in L.A.
"Hopefully we are at the tipping point when bars, restaurants and bottle shops hear customers asking for craft beer from Mexico," says Jay McDonald, owner of the one-man beer distributing company Grdloc, which is responsible for multiple Baja brands being available in Southern California. "The more noise the Baja craft beer fans make, the faster they will start carrying cerveza artesanal."
Right now, the largest selection of Baja beer in L.A. is at the Heights, a deli and bottle shop in Lincoln Heights, down the street from where Baja beer selections were once offered at Mexican-tinged craft beer bar La Chuperia. Here, you can take home bottles of dry saisons, West Coast–style IPAs, coffee brown ales and more from four great Baja breweries: Ensenada's award-winning Cerveceria Wendlandt and Agua Mala, Tijuana's Border Psycho Brewing and Mexicali's Cerveceria Fauna. On Monday night, the Heights is hosting its first tasting event featuring four Agua Mala beers, plus a slice of pizza and a souvenir glass, for $15. (To buy tickets, give them a call or stop by — they're closed on Mondays and you must have a ticket to get in.)
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Outside of the Heights, you can find beers from Agua Mala and Wendlandt in bottles and on draught at progressive Mexican restaurants across Los Angeles County, including Corazón y Miel, Petty Cash Taqueria, Maradentro, Cacao Mexicatessen and Aqui Es Texcoco.
McDonald says he brings beer into the United States at least once a week, though the majority of that goes to San Diego, where dozens of restaurants and retailers consistently offer beer from not only Wendlandt, Agua Mala, Fauna and Border Psycho, but also from Tijuana's top brewery, Cerveceria Insurgente, which last year won multiple awards (including Best Brewery and Best Beer titles) at the country's largest beer competition.
Insurgente says it will be launching in L.A. soon, and McDonald also has a few other breweries he's talking to about exporting opportunities. But ensuring consistent availability of Baja beer in Southern California is a struggle for rapidly growing, small-batch brewers, many of which are torn between sending their extra beer deeper into the Mexican market or trying to vie for crowded shelf space in the American one.
"They have demand in Mexico, but they're trying to find a balance," he says. "It's a matter of them asking themselves, 'How do I best grow my business?'"