Cinco de Mayo was a hectic weekend for many beer lovers in the Los Angeles area. Eagle Rock Brewery had their annual Session Beer event, Angel City had their grand opening in downtown LA, 38 Degrees had their monthly bottle share, and Dog Fish Head was in town at Blue Palms. And on top of that The Southern California Home Brewers Fest went on the whole weekend in Ojai. The same weekend, a seemingly insignificant event, but maybe a sign of what is to come happened at Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach. MOLAA had a Cinco de Mayo beer tasting with local craft breweries from Baja California in Mexico. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the event if I hadn’t heard a segment on Southern California Public Radio (KPCC) a few days earlier about an emerging beer revolution in Baja.
Only Modelo and Corona
For most Americans, Mexican beer is Corona, Modelo or Dos Equis. The Mexican beer market is totally dominated by two major conglomerates, Grupo Modelo, which is the largest, and Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V or FEMSA, which is number two. These two sell about 98% of all beer sold in Mexico. Mexico used to have a vibrant brewery scene influenced by German and Austrian immigrants with 36 breweries in the early 20th century, which, in reference to population size at that time, is a fare amount. Merging and consolidation of breweries ended up with two players practically owning the whole Mexican beer market that has been haunting it for years like a two-headed dragon. Does this sound familiar? It should. Much of what happened here in the U.S. is happening in Mexico.
The San Diego influence
The craft beer movement in Mexico is just taking off with its cradle in Baja California. But it doesn’t seem like it’s the Mexican equivalent of Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman or Jimmy Carter that in different ways spearheaded the American craft beer movement. It seems like it’s Tommy Arthur, Greg Koch and the many craft brewers in San Diego that are influencing the Mexican movement. Many Mexicans that live along the border, specifically in Tijuana, defy what Gerardo Mapula, owner of 22 Cerveza Artesanal brewery, calls “the living hell” of crossing the border to go to San Diego to shop and dine for beer. It’s no surprise that they have brought some of the great craft beer tradition back with them.
How do they do it?
Gerardo started 22 Cerveza Artesanal less than a year ago. It’s a nano brewery that for now is distributing to bars in Mexicali with plans to expand with beer boutiques in both Mexicali and Tijuana. 22 is growing faster than projected and so is the whole Baja California craft beer scene. Association of Baja California Craft Brewers (ACABC) was formed in 2010 and has double every year since then. As an American you can’t but think, “How do they do it?” The Two Headed Dragon controls practically everything, and I mean everything, in the beer industry, from raw materials to bars, restaurants and politicians. “22 only buys from American suppliers. It is the fastest and the safest way, due to the hop monopoly and the shipping prices”, says Gerardo. Only The Two Headed Dragon produces malted grains. The licensing is a nightmare. About the licensing process Gerardo says it’s “really hard, starting by going to the SAT (IRS), notary fees, local, state , federal paper work, it takes time, money and a lot of energy, and then there is the health paperwork. They make it hard for everything.” And then there are taxes. The Dragon gets tax breaks for recycling bottles that a small brewery just can’t do. Craft breweries pay several hundred percent more in tax for their beer than The Dragon. Reaching the consumer is another obstacle to overcome. The Two Headed Dragon buys almost all liquor licenses, and then they hand them out to bars and restaurants for “free.” If you get one of these licenses you can only sell their beer. The government has priced the licenses so that it’s almost impossible for a small independent bar to afford one. At the same time The Dragon pays for the draught system, glassware, bar furniture and helps with low interest or no interest loans.
Can’t keep up
Despite all of these obstacles, 22 Cerveza Artesanal and their fellow Baja breweries can’t keep up with demand. Gerardo says that Baja is infested with IPA but focusing more on the flavors from the grain than the hops. American Ambers and Russian Imperial Stouts are also high on the Baja beer lovers’ list. The interest in craft beer can also be seen from all the beer events that are happening in Baja. Baja Beer Festival forged by ACABC is held at multiple locations throughout the year. Recently Baja Craft Beer, a beer distributor, and one of Tijuana’s premier craft gastro pubs, together with ACABC and other Baja breweries, put on The Tijuana Beer Expo.
The future of craft beer in Baja is bright or dark. Modelo and FEMSA “are acting fast as soon as they see a brewery that is making noise or growing. They buy your brand and they shut it down or, more commonly, they make government work and they will take care of it.” Says Gerardo. He also says that people are tired of the same beer that The Dragon has been shoving down their throat for so many years. They want something new. And that is something craft brewers can give them.
It’s not only the beer scene that is changing. Many people have to re-evaluate their view of Tijuana. Hand in hand with the craft beer revolution, there is a food revolution going on. The Latin Food Festival in San Diego will feature a Baja Craft Beer Pavilion on September 12-15. We will hopefully see a lot more of Baja craft beer here in Southern California.