16 July 2012
Bike ride to Baja Beer Fest
Seven in total turned out for Saturday’s cross-border ride to the Baja Beer Fest in downtown Tijuana; not surprisingly most were seasoned cyclists looking to offset the impending cerveza buffet. (True bike folk rarely need a reason to ride but when it involves crossing an international border, an excess of homebrew waiting on the other end is definitely an incentive.)
It’s not every day you embark upon a self-propelled journey from one urban extremity such as San Diego – one of the world’s most romanticized – to another that is arguably one of the world’s most misunderstood. Needless to say, the experience is as underrated as it is surreal.
The starting line: Bottlecraft beer boutique in Little Italy. At the finish line: more than 100 locally crafted brews from Tijuana, Ensenada and Mexicali. So much beer, so little time.
The 20-mile route took us from downtown San Diego along Harbor Drive over to Main Street, through National City and Chula Vista along the eastern stretch of the Bayshore Bikeway and into the sagebrush beyond Dairy Mart Road before finally arriving at the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing. There, the peloton dismounted and front tires aimed at the sky, awkwardly shuffled through the turnstiles and into Mexico. Minutes later and now officially in Latin America, we were chaining up our rides at the fest alongside, appropriately, a zonkey named Monica.
Just on the other side of the gates was Francisco Talamante, ACABC president and founder of Ensenada-based Cerveceria Canneria, a Spanglish reference to the port city’s many fish canneries. Who better to ask where to begin the sampling marathon? Aside from the cup of Canneria’s La Bombera red ale in his hand, that is. For hoppy, Virgilio and Insurgente. For malty, Ramuri and Kudos. But more important, he recommended sticking to the 2-3 oz. samplers that each brewer was offering for around 10 pesos (75 cents or so), saving full pours – priced at 35-50 pesos ($2.50-$4) – for personal favorites.
Aside from a one-off walk-up at Cerveceria Kili – makers of an oaky Irish red ale and a stout brewed with Turkish and Guerrero coffees – and a random IPA at the Baja Craft Beers stand, a tasting room set to open in La Cacho in late July, that’s exactly how the afternoon played out. The strategy of asking each brewer where to head next in a sea of options proved productive, maybe even elitely curated, at least for an open-ended pallet like mine.
The rotary kicked off with Insurgente, run by brothers Damian and Ivan Morales. Tijuana’s would-be craft brew poster boys, the pair seem to wind up with multiple ribbons whenever awards are being handed out. While their La Luposa IPA continues to win popularity contests among their five brews the mid-afternoon sun called for a full cup of Tiniebla, a witbier heavy on orange peel and coriander but the lightest of their roster. It’s intended for weaning people off Tecate, Ivan confessed.
From there it was on to Cerveceria Zesde. ACABC’s youngest members, Alan Castoreña and Enrique Seamanduras are a pair of Tijuanenses who are ironically barely old enough to purchase beer north of the border. Dutch for “six,” Zesde is a reference to Sixth Street, the epicenter of Tijuana’s recent nightlife renaissance that served as the birthplace for their brew. Their regular roster includes a vanilla stout, British and amber ales, the Das Falco IPA (named after one of the city's celebrity graphic designer DJs) and a strawberry lambic. But today they were serving a coffee stout and a honey blonde, both made specially for the fest.
Next up was Silenus’ Munich-style maibock, whose heavy caramel flavor hides its high-alcohol content (at 6.8 percent, slurring soon becomes unavoidable). This may have been the day’s overall champion. Two words: liquid flan. A side of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla was sadly nowhere to be found.
Ramuri was a name that kept popping up over the course of the day, recommended by several brewers. While their Diablo Blanco (White Devil) “premium Mexican lager” came off as a sort-of deluxe Corona and the saison for some reason had me thinking of bleu cheese (not necessarily a bad thing but neither necessarily intentional either, although saisons are known for getting rather funky), their Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears) oatmeal stout -- brewed with medium-roast Oaxacan coffee -- was definitely another personal favorite. Also on tap was a cider that I'd normally pass on because of its sweetness but it was probably the most memorable brew that I tasted, solely for the fact that it was made with green apples from Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana’s most iconic open-air market.
Onward to Bosiger, the house craft brew at Swiss-themed sports bar Sotano Suizo in Plaza Zapato and probably the closest any beer at this fest came to keeping with the Reinheitsgebot, to try what one of the Silenus guys called the best hefeweizen in the world. "And I hate hefeweizens," he said. Along with their porter, head brewer Demian Bosiger said it's the most popular of their whopping list of 20 brews, even though his extended family back in Switzerland thinks it's too much of a chore to drink. "Too complex," he said. "They apparently also think I'm an idiot for brewing with habanero."
I'll stop short of wishing every brew whose name I bothered to scribble down were more readily available in the U.S., at least for now. Tijuana deserves the chance to go from a tourist ghost town to every beer lover's Mexican Field of Dreams. And judging by the turnout at a fest like this, it very well could.
One thing's for sure, TJ. If you brew it, and brew it well, they will come.
A grand finale photo atop Monica and back to the border we went.