Going to a craft beer festival in the border cities of Baja California is familiar in some ways and curious in others. The sea of hundreds of tents belonging to local breweries and eateries, the complimentary taster glasses, the taps from which IPAs, coffee stouts and saisons (aka cerveza artesanal) flows — all of that is the same as it is in the States.
But the competition and conference held during the days prior — and the energy of exploration and discovery — makes the Mexican state’s several annual beer fests way cooler.
The craft beer revolution may have started decades ago in California, but it’s being celebrated better in Baja. With L.A.’s beer festival season upon us (L.A. Beer Fest in a few weeks, Vegan Beer Fest and Firestone Walker Invitational in May, L.A. Brewers Beer Week Kickoff in June, Santa Anita Park’s endless stream of trackside fests), we drove down for last Saturday’s Ensenada Beer Fest to see what we could learn from Mexico.
First off, beer festivals in Mexico are looooong. Like 12 hours long in some cases. The Ensenada Beer Fest, held on the grounds of the Centro Cultural Rivera near the city’s waterfront, started at 2 p.m. and didn’t shut down until well after midnight. Tijuana Beer Fest, which is held every summer, runs for two days straight with hours listed as “all day.” And in Mexicali, the city’s brewers organize a more intimate festival — that still runs from 4 p.m. until midnight. A small entrance fee (around $7) gets you access to samples from 50-plus brands at each fest, and individual tasters and full glasses will set you back $1 to $2.50, payable to each brewery.
On this side of the border, beer festivals feature unlimited pours for one price and don’t run longer than four hours. However, imagine if there wasn’t so much of a rush to get through as many of the 100-plus beers as possible in just three hours. What if the point wasn’t to get your $50 worth by sucking down as much alcohol as possible before time runs out? What if your only concern was to casually wander from booth to booth, taste only the beers you felt like paying for, talk to the brewers and savor it all instead?
Mexican beer fest attendees are encouraged to pace themselves, sip slowly and chat with the brewers, who are often pouring the beers. There also isn’t the pressure to rush for samples from hyped-up breweries (like Ensenada’s Cerveceria Wendlandt) or constant winners from the certified competitions (like Mexicali’s Urbana), eliminating the massive lines that places like Russian River Brewing Company and The Bruery attract at festivals in the States.
Education is also a massive component built into each of the three Baja beer fests, both for attendees and brewers. Since most of the breweries sprang from homebrew operations (or in lax-law Mexico, are still homebrew operations), both groups can benefit from learning more about process, flavors and how to make beers with native ingredients.
Mexicali’s Beer Fest has an entire program of informal seminars hosted from a makeshift open-air classroom in the middle of the festival. From discussing women in craft beer to an ultra-scientific explanation of yeast control systems, brewers from Baja, SoCal and beyond give talks that attract notebook-wielders and passersby alike.
Ensenada’s conference on Friday included discussions on the history of beer in Tijuana and how to build your business on both sides of the border. American homebrew celebrity (and L.A. resident) John Palmer attends each year, this time giving a presentation on water treatment and quality.
All this is to say that where American beer festivals might succeed with access to well-known breweries and all-around prestige, Mexican ones are way less stress and make learning about beer much more fun. Baja is organically creating a small but sustainable market for craft beer in a country where fizzy yellow Tecate and Corona still reign supreme.