I’ve attended the Ensenada Beer Fest for the last few years, it’s a very fun festival with craft beer, food, live music, DJ’s , dancing, I have met so many cool folks including Charlie Carrillo of Zombie Brewing. He’s agreed to answer a few questions, we’re just scratching the surface here, if you have any other questions feel free to message me. The craft beer scene is huge in Baja California, breweries are opening in Tijuana, Mexicali and Ensenada, along with the culinary offerings and wine tasting in the Valle de Guadelupe, visiting Baja is a blast so wear your stretchy pants! Salud!
How long have you been brewing? Did you start on your own or with friends?
We started homebrewing around 2009, it was amongst childhood friends that are in the industry today, Mauricio Peralta(Zombie), Jose “Cheche” Arce(Bruer), Daniel Lugo(Zombie), Minoru Nomura(Distrito Barra Publica). It all started because we heard Ballast Point had the Home Brew shop in SD and some people were brewing for some time now, it wasn’t that “hard” and we could brew our own craft beer that was practically impossible to get in Mexico around that time.
What was the specific reason that got you interested in brewing? Was it a certain beer?
We always liked beer and were tired of not having good craft beer available, we could clone our own Stone IPA, Pliny the Elder, Green Flash Barley Wine, Nelson, etc. At least that’s what we thought back then, and after we got good at doing these clones, maybe do our own stuff with a Mexican twist.
What was your first craft beer?
My first craft beers that I remember are Sam Adams, Fat Tire, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but the one that really shocked me (in a good way) was Stone IPA. I try to go to as many concerts as I can in San Diego (cause we don’t get most of those shows down in Baja) even as far as LA or Phoenix, and while attending a concert at the Casbah ( I think the band was Pinback) I made a brave choice when the bartender asked me what I wanted, I thought to myself “that IPA with the gargoyle looks pretty cool, let’s give it a try”, when I first took a whiff of this beer I found myself in the middle of a forest, then I took a sip and was rewarded with a never before sweet/bitter liquid that would change my beer preferences forever. After that I really got into the independent beer scene and never looked back.
Is it difficult to get brewing ingredients or supplies in Mexico?
It’s not so difficult anymore, well you can’t go into any brew shop and get Nelson Hops or Vic Secret, or whatever, but there are some guys with home brew shops locally and the internet has made it pretty easy for anyone to order online. Some people sell in bulk and cross it over the border for you (legally) there are some local ingredients that can be purchased as well. We have a friend, Miguel Loza, who started to grow hops in El Valle de Guadalupe at Rancho Loza, was the owner of the first home brew shop in Ensenada but had to quit because his daughter got diagnosed with cancer and had to fight that battle with her, I am glad to say that she is doing great now. It’s easier to get supplies now but not yet a great experience. I do know some breweries with hop contracts that get a steady supply from the states, there are some local yeast suppliers and there are plans to further develop the supply chain for craft brewing.
What about water? While there is no shortage or rationing I know water is an issue in Baja, is it a concern with the breweries?
I don’t think there is a shortage of water in Baja, Constellation is trying to tap into that source in Mexicali, because Mexicali has a great amount of untreated water that can be a great source for local breweries. Constellation’s coming into Mexicali has been a big issue in the past few years. It’s a political issue but not sure what’s the status on that.
Please tell me about your brewery. What’s currently on tap?
The brewery is our hobby, we have fun going to the local festivals in Baja and selling some of our beers at the tasting room (which is no longer managed by us) and in cans on special occasions. It is by far our main means to get by but we are hopeful that someday it will be. I do love putting in long hours into the brewery that doesn’t even seem like work. As of today the brewery is in Ensenada, Mauricio our head brewer and co-founder is working in Alabama and I am living in Mexicali, we are both Industrial Engineers and work as such, we might one day quit our day jobs and do the brew thing full time, who knows. On tap we have 2 beers, our Bronze Medal Zombie Gold and a NEIPA called Alien Gangster that was a collaboration with Cerveza Cardera. Our long time friend and owner of Cerveza Bruer is helping us brew our Zombie Brews, we kinda work together and apart, it has been like this for quite some time, he just won Gold at Cerveza Mexico for this Porter that he brewed for Cerveza Hussong. So as you can see he has his own brewery and is also a brewer for hire, pretty versatile.
How many breweries are open in Ensenada?
Around 20 with constant production, not all have permits to sell alcohol from the city yet but most are working on it. There are a lot of small breweries that are trying to start up and would be considered more of Home Brewers at this point.
What’s the big issue right now in Baja concerning breweries?
It’s always Big Beer vs Us Small Guys, and that is done via the Alcohol permits, we are better off now than a couple of years ago, a new Craft Beer permit was created for us small guys, but there is still a ton of red tape to get that permit approved and we guess it’s all that pressure from Big Beer on the government. Taxes are a big deal because as you may know there is a 30% tax called a Luxury tax on beer (IEPS). On the bright side Baja took home more medals than any state in Mexico at the Cerveza Mexico (40), Mexicali was the city with more Gold (9) and in total Baja took 19 Gold. Fauna won Best Brewery for a second year.
How many awards have you won at the Ensenada Beer Fest? Do you see the Fest becoming even bigger than it already is?
We have won a total of 6 medals, in our first Ensenada Beer Fest in 2012 we won Honorable Mention for our English IPA, in later editions of the festival we won Gold for our ESB, Gold for our Double IPA and Silver for Best in Show, Gold for Saison de Valle, Bronze for our Gold Ale (ironic) and Gold for the Imperial Stout.
The Ensenada Beer Fest could definitely be more than it is, it could very well be bigger than Cerveza Mexico, but we lack the infrastructure to hold this type of event in Ensenada. For starters there is no commercial airport in Ensenada, the closest one is in Tijuana, I have spoken to many people that have attended Beer Festivals in many parts of the world and think that the Ensenada Beer Fest is one of the Top 10, it might not be the same in terms of quality of beers yet, but we think we are getting there. But the weather, the vibe, the music, the people make it all worthwhile. I think that this is a big part of why it’s such a great beer festival, you still feel important when approaching all the breweries, it’s not as fun when you are waiting in line to be served by somebody who doesn’t really love the beer as the brewers. Also, once done with the beer fest you can go to the wine country (Valle de Guadalupe) experience the amazing culinary scene and enjoy the beach, what more can you want.
Can you predict the future of craft beer in Baja California?
Since we started we have been at the forefront of the craft beer movement, Cerveza Cucapa, Cerveza Tijuana and some others paved the way for us, sad to see most of them sold out to Big Beer, but I guess that’s the dream of some of these craft brewers, build a successful brewery and sell it to retire or do something else. Also those breweries didn’t have the backing most of the craft beer has today, they had to fight tooth and nail to sell those beers and I guess they got out at the most “optimal” moment for them. I expect for Baja to keep on this path, make exceptional beers, distribute them farther and farther into Mexico so people can enjoy drinking what we enjoy brewing. I love how in California you can go into any supermarket and see craft beer everywhere, even at Walmart you will see a six pack of Stone or some other Big Craft beer breweries. You can go into some super markets here in Baja and see something like that already happening, not just Tecate and Modelo all over the place, that puts a smile on my face. The next step I think Baja needs to move towards is Barrel Aged beers, stouts, sours, etc. We are pretty good at IPA’s, Pale Ales, and many other common styles. I think it’s time to move into bolder flavors, I think that the customers are more than ready for these types of beers. We do have breweries doing 1 or 2 a year but I mean doing something like Lost Abbey, Firestone Walker, a whole barrel aged program, a whole line of sour beers.
Charlie mentioned Cerveza Mexico a few times, it is to Mexico what Great American Beer Festival is to the U.S. Baja has ruled that competition for years, Mexicali is the San Diego of Mexico as far as winning medals, they kick ass! This is the first of many interviews I will have with folks that brew craft beer in Mexico, I hope to talk some more with Charlie and some other hoppy people I have met in Baja. Feel free to message me with any questions, we just scratched the surface of what’s going on in Baja, there is so much more and I am happy to answer any questions or we can ask Charlie. Viva Mexico! Cheers! BobbyKnowsBeer!