Tijuana’s burgeoning craft beer scene is notoriously hard to access. The city's breweries — most of which have opened in the last three years — make their beer using small homebrew setups in backyards or clandestine spaces. Thanks to cost-prohibitive liquor licensing, tasting rooms are nonexistent and bars willing to pay specialty pricing for local cerveza artesanal are few and far between.
To sample craft beer in the border city, you traditionally had limited options: reservation-only walk-throughs of tiny urban production spaces or visits to taco trucks where brewers had dragged kegs of their latest batch.
This is all changing thanks to the swift reinvention of an open-air mall called Plaza Fiesta, where eight breweries (with more on the way) are now pouring in official and makeshift tasting rooms.
Plaza Fiesta is a maze of restaurants and nightclubs in the Zona Rio neighborhood, next to the Plaza del Zapato mall on Paseo de los Heroes. A year ago, most of the stalls in the block of two-story buildings either sat empty or housed divey clubs slinging cheap Tecate for those who dared venture inside. Once a popular place to dance to rock en Español and norteño music, Plaza Fiesta had its heyday long ago, before cartel violence swept the border city in the late 2000s.
Today, as residents begin to reclaim the city’s nightlife, signage for breweries and non-clubby bars outnumbers those of nightclubs, and the plaza is being touted as Mexico’s first open-air, craft beer galleria. Because of a loophole that allows several narrowly connected businesses to operate under a single liquor license, Tijuana’s breweries are moving into Plaza Fiesta’s empty retail spaces and setting up tasting rooms that are not unlike those you’d find in the states (aside from the thumping music that continues to pulsate through the corridors at night).
It all started with Bosiger Beer, a brewery founded by Demian Bosiger in 2013 in the back of his family’s decades-old European gastropub, Sótano Suizo, which occupies a massive two-story building in the center of the plaza. His beers — including a porter and a Kolsch — are available only for on-site consumption, and for several years Bosiger’s friends in the city’s tight-knit brewing scene have been found drinking his brews and wandering the plaza on weekends.
The plaza also had early craft beer supporters in the form of El Tigre, a punk bar, and El Depa (“the apartment”), a bar directly above El Tigre designed to look exactly like an ‘80s bachelor pad. They were the first in the mall to put local craft beer on tap, and with El Tigre hosting live punk shows — and serving beers from Silenus Cerveza Artesanal, Cerveceria Zesde and more — Plaza Fiesta began to lure partiers craving a different scene than the ones at La Sexta and Avenida Revolución.
Over the last year, five Tijuana breweries, one from Mexicali and one from Cabo San Lucas have moved into Plaza Fiesta, where alcohol is poured until 2 a.m. Some have been operating under the umbrella of pre-existing bars while others have their own branded space.
Silenus, whose brewer, Ivan Maldonado, has a day job at Belching Beaver Brewery in San Diego, is now on tap at El Depa; Lúdica Artesanal, founded by the former president of the Tijuana Homebrewers Club, is pouring up to nine house beers at a time (including Baja’s first cidre) in a newly remodeled El Tigre; Mamut has its second Tijuana tasting room (the first is off Revolución) in the plaza; Paralelo 28 pours out of second-floor La Plaza, where their small one-barrel brewhouse also resides; and Madueño Brewing Co. pours exclusively inside Bar 664 below.
And last month alone, two new tasting rooms opened the same weekend: Ramuri, a larger brewery that started in Tijuana but currently brews in Cabo, and Cerveceria Fauna, from Mexicali, which is pouring its stellar saisons, IPAs and stouts out of a bare-bones upstairs unit. Insurgente, one of the biggest and best craft breweries in the city, and Border Psycho, one of the oldest, are also planning to open tasting rooms at the plaza soon.
Several of the brewer’s wives have set up kitchens inside the taprooms, launching their own restaurants and catering services out of the plaza. (The best so far is Sinful Eats inside Lúdica/El Tigre, where chef Odette “Brewmistress” Castro serves waffles, pancakes and massive fried-egg and pork-belly croissants at her famous Sunday Fundays.) The plaza is also home to a taco stand, Sótano Suizo’s massive sausages and Pequeño Saigón, Tijuana’s first attempt at pho.
As if the all changes at Plaza Fiesta weren’t enough to make Baja beer more accessible, one of the city’s annual craft beer festivals, the Expo Cerveza Artesanal, will be held this year in the empty lot directly behind the galleria. On May 29 and 30, more than 40 breweries from Tijuana and Baja will be pouring, including Teorema Cerveceria, Muñeca Prieta and Benton Brewery, plus dozens more who lack tasting rooms like those at the plaza.
It’s one of the few chances to try all of Baja’s cervezas artesanales in one place. And with no Tijuana beers yet available in L.A., it’s one of the only ways to taste what’s brewing in Mexico.