South of the border there is more craft beer than ever before.
Most American beer drinkers have a very specific idea of what it means for something to be a “Mexican” beer. And that specific idea involves a light and not always flavorful lager. In fact, as my colleague Mike Pomranz pointed out, American breweries are labeling some of their light lagers “Mexican” style. This perception is likely for a few reasons. First and foremost, light lagers from a small handful of industrial beer companies completely dominate the Mexican beer scene. In 2015, according to the Brewer’s Association, the American trade group focused on promoting craft beer, the craft beer market in Mexico was only one percent of all the beer sold in the country. For comparison that number was more than 12 percent in the U.S. And the 99 percent of macrobrews that swamp the Mexican beer landscape are also almost the entirety of the country’s export market, so they are all many Americans are exposed to. But the stylistic diversity embraced by the American craft beer movement has taken root in Mexico in recent years. And while the beer is still mostly available only within Mexican borders, that is starting to change. At the bleeding edge of that change is Jordan Gardenhire, a Colorado transplant who moved to Baja California Sur more than a decade ago, and in 2007 opened the doors to the Baja Brewing Company. With his beer available in eight states now, (California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and as far east as Illinois) it may be one of the most widely distributed Mexican craft beers in the U.S.
Gardenhire’s story is not all that dissimilar from those of many new American craft brewers. He began homebrewing in college, with some admittedly mixed results. And after a move to Mexico, he saw a need for a brewpub—the area simply didn’t have one. Even as the United States craft beer boom exploded not far away in Southern California, in Mexico growth was much slower. A representative from the Craft Brewers Association of Mexico noted that as recently as 2008, shortly after Gardenhire opened his doors, there were only 20 craft breweries in the entire country.
But even though there didn’t seem much appetite for craft beer in Mexico, Gardenhire, trained up at the American Brewer’s Guild, was able to find some success. He was buoyed, at least in part, by Baja’s status as tourist destination. He says that early on, the customer split was about 50/50 locals and tourists. But even with an influx of visitors from abroad who might be considered more adventurous beer drinkers than the Corona-sipping locals, the beer that was flying out of the tap for Gardenhire was the one that most resembled “Mexican” beer, his blond ale. And even that seemed to be pushing the palates of his customers. “[It’s] our easiest drinking beer,” he says. “But they would have horrific bitter faces. They said it was the strongest beer they’d ever had.”
With those sorts of early reactions, finding a place for some of the more aggressive styles—hoppy IPAs, or rich stouts—that helped define the craft beer movement in the United States has been a bit of slow burn. But Gardenhire says things have been changing. “About three years ago I noticed a major shift in pace…Suddenly our pale ale jumped up and so did our black ale.” And he’s not the only one who seems to be seeing the change. When I asked him to talk about other Mexican breweries he pointed me towards Cerveceria Insurgente in Tijuana. Insurgente is perhaps best known for its Xocoveza, a chocolaty imperial milk stout, and La Lupulosa, an IPA that comes in at more than 7 percent ABV and is dosed with lots of American hops. This evidence of shifting tastes is likely contributing to the relatively recent explosion in the number of breweries. While you could count all of Mexico’s breweries on your fingers and toes a decade ago, today, according to a craft beer census done by the site Beerectorio, there are now close to 650. And for those new breweries, Gardenhire thinks the future is bright. “I think as long as the craft beers in Mexico dedicate themselves to quality like they’re trying to do they’ll have great success in other countries.” And as they do, hopefully more and more of their beers will come north of the border.