I’m not saying I am tired of the Coachella Valley’s heat, but when my friend Jose asked if I’d like to attend the Ensenada Beer Fest, I almost didn’t let him complete his sentence before I said: “Yes!”
I had never been to Ensenada, but I’ve wanted to go for many years. That—combined with having tried and been impressed by beers from Cerveceria Wendlandt (thanks to Jose)—made it a very easy decision. I’ve been eyeing Mexico’s craft-beer scene from afar for a few years now; I’ve sampled as much of its output as I could, but not much makes it here. If you didn’t know, you’d think there wasn’t much to their craft-beer scene … and you would be deeply mistaken.
After a mind-blowing meal at chef Javier Plascencia’s Erizo Baja Fish House in Tijuana, we made it to Ensenada. After checking in at the hotel, we made the short drive back up the coast to the packing district—and the aforementioned Wendlandt. We sat on the patio facing the ocean; the beer and view were equally brilliant. I had the Vaquita Marina pale ale, which was light-bodied, easy-drinking and citrusy.
From there, it was back toward town to Cerveceria Aguamala. The taproom/restaurant was more like a local hangout, and I was greeted by a billboard showing that this had been the site of a Baja brewers’ conference earlier in the week, with talks about malt, fermentations, hops, and techniques involving everything in between. The beer was pretty good; out of the flight of four tasters I had, the single-hop IPAs (referred to as “Smash IPAs”) with Simcoe and Centennial, respectively, were both quite good.
We then made our way to Cerveceria Transpeninsular to meet up with some of Jose’s family. This is a two-story restaurant and brewery that seemed to be serving more American fare. The Rye IPA and West Coast IPA we tried were both somewhat old-school in that they had a malt balance and higher bitterness than is fashionable of late, but they were both appreciated by us.
We decided to stop at the festival after the sun had set—and this wasn’t an issue, as the fest went until midnight on both Friday and Saturday. To get in, we first had to show our IDs and our vaccination cards. (That’s right. Suck it, anti-vaxxers!) This is high on the list of things I was most impressed by on my visit: Everywhere we went, we went through at least a temperature check via infrared thermometers, and received a squirt of hand sanitizer. Organizers also took down everyone’s ID info, presumably to do contract tracing in case something somehow managed to get in the festival.
With my slight apprehension thusly put to rest, I entered and met my first obstacle: the language barrier. The festival had a system in which you could sample beers (as is normal at festivals), but you could also get full pours of anything on tap. This is how I accidentally got a full pour of a coffee porter from Cerveza Fauna. The episode prompted me to learn how to ask for a sample in Spanish—albeit while drinking a very tasty beer. The prices were not such that I felt too put out, regardless.
The other brewery I tried that stood out was Reino Alfa, from the state of Sonora, on the other side of the Gulf of California. I chatted with the brewer, Roman Viera, and was delighted to find out that he learned how to make beer from How to Brew by John Palmer. This book is close to my heart, as it served as my guide to making my first homebrews more than a decade ago. Every beer Viera proceeded to pour me a sample of was excellent.
After recovering early on day two (thanks to some restorative birria at a restaurant that specializes in it, as well as a siesta), it was back to the festival, where we joined up with Jose’s friends. On this day, we took a much deeper dive.
As I enjoyed music coming from the stages at the various ends of the park, I began to try to find the gems among the 100-plus breweries in attendance. The highlights included a Rocky Road stout from Sci-Hop Brewing that was nicely balanced while maintaining an alcohol by volume of just more than 5%. Sandunguera Brewing, out of Tijuana, produced a fantastic Jamaica kettle sour (pronounced ha*my*ka, it’s normally a non-alcoholic, sweeter drink with hibiscus), as well a cream ale with coffee that was anything but the boring beer I’ve found the cream ale style to present. I savored a crisp and clean IPA with Nelson hops from Canneria Cerveza, and a chocolate stout and various IPAs from Cerveza Cardera, two Ensenada breweries that had me wondering why we didn’t stop at their taprooms earlier. Finally, Bosiger Brewery from Tijuana offered two well-made and delicious beers on tap: a San Francisco lager and New Zealand lager, with the former being a tribute to Anchor Steam, and the latter being a dry-hopped pilsner with hops from (you guessed it) New Zealand.
Before I wrap up, I want to mention the thing that most impressed me about the festival: Numerous young women were in attendance. In Mexico, it would seem, beer is not primarily for large men with beards (This is not a call-out; I am one of said dudes.) This fact, along with the general quality of the beer I tasted, gives me immense confidence in the beer scene in Mexico.