Ensenada hops on the craft beer bandwagon

If you’re a craft beer fan who craves hops and you haven’t been down to Ensenada lately, you’re in for a delightful surprise. The days of leaving your beer palate at the border, settling for Tequila or wine, or convincing yourself that a Negra Modelo is actually a craft beer are finally over.

Ensenada may be about 20 years late to the party, but the craft beer revolution is in full swing in this rapidly growing port city of more than a half-million people. Heavily influenced by their hop-crazed neighbors to the north in San Diego, which is home to more than 150 breweries, Ensenada has more than a dozen craft breweries and several pubs dedicated to serving Baja-brewed craft beer.

“Everything that starts in California tends to make its way down to Mexico eventually,” said Glen Scherb, a 38-year-old Ensenada resident as he sipped a Shipyard IPA from Agua Mala, one of Ensenada’s oldest and most popular breweries. “We always seem to be about 10 or 20 years behind California.”

It was 14 years ago when Nathaniel Schmidt decided he could no longer live in a city without craft beer. Schmidt grew up in Mexico City but acquired a taste for hops while attending Humboldt State University.

“I had spent a month drinking wine at the Vendimia Wine Festival, and I realized I just wanted a good beer,” he said. “But there wasn’t any available. It was only Corona or Tecate around here, which is nice but doesn’t have much flavor.”

So Schmidt decided to start brewing his own beer, a hoppy West Coast IPA, in Ensenada’s shipyards, where he operated a tuna farm.

“I put a ridiculous amount of hops in that beer; it was perfect, just for me,” said Schmidt, who called his beer Shipyard IPA. “Funny thing was, I could never get my beer out of the shipyards. All of the workers loved it. That’s when I realized, even though the Mexican market may not know hops, they were ready for it.”

The marine biologist turned brewer is still having a hard time keeping his Shipyard IPA (7.2 percent ABV) in stock. On a chilly December day, Agua Mala’s two-story tasting room, built on reused cargo containers, is packed. Many of the customers are local hop heads, just like Schmidt.

“I know we’re famous for our lighter beers, our lagers like Corona, but I think the young people wanted something different,” said Andres Lopez, 36, who was visiting Ensenada from Mazatlan and drinking a Shipyard. “I love the IPAs. I like the strong flavor, the bitterness. That’s all I’ll drink.”

Not everyone at Lopez’s table was quite so ready to abandon Mexico’s most popular style of beer — the lighter, smoother and less bitter lagers.

“The lagers, we love them forever and ever because that’s what we’re used to,” said Sophia Tish, a 31-year-old from Ensenada between sips of a Siren Pilsner (5.2 percent), a fruity, hoppy lager. “But places in Ensenada like Agua Mala and Wendlandt, they brew beers that have more taste, more body and also higher alcohol content, so you don’t need to drink so many.”

Located along the coast a few miles north of downtown, Agua Mala and Wendlandt are two of Ensenada’s oldest, most popular and most successful breweries. Agua Mala recently outgrew its original location, moving some of its brewing operations to a second facility in town. Business is also booming at Wendlandt, which has added a kitchen and bar in its latest tasting room expansion.

Bruer and Cardera, two of the town’s newest breweries, are tucked inside a residential neighborhood, and they share a large industrial building, where they offer eccentric beers like Bourbon-Wood Chips Porter and Reese’s Peanut Butter Stout.

Another recent edition to the city’s beer scene is Doble C, owned by 27-year-old twins Omar and Alan Celis. Omar, a former law clerk in Tijuana, and Alan, a former accountant, opened their brewery in 2015, but their early customers weren’t too thrilled about the complex flavor of craft beer.

“People were a little afraid to try it,” said Omar Celis, who developed a sophisticated beer palate while visiting his uncle in North Park, one of San Diego’s craft beer hot spots. “They couldn’t handle the bitterness. We tried to convince people that our beers weren’t necessarily better than a Tecate, Corona or Pacifico, they were just a different style.”

Now, Omar Celis believes Ensenada has turned the corner.

“People are hooked,” he said. “They come in here craving a different style every week. I think that about one out of five beer drinkers in this town are drinking craft. I never would have believed that.”

Neither would have Leah Weyandt, a 51-year-old San Diego craft beer enthusiast who travels to Ensenada regularly and always visits her two favorite breweries, Wendlandt and Doble C.

“When San Diego foodies think of Ensenada these days, they usually think of the Guadalupe Valley wine country or some of the world’s best chefs. They don’t think craft beer,” she said. “But the perception is beginning to change. There is a really amazing, creative craft beer movement here, and it’s catching up to their San Diego neighbors.”

McKibben is a freelance travel writer.

Copyright © 2019, © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.
60°