A Tale of Two DIY Brewers in a Mexican Tropical Paradise

February 20, 2019

By Javier Cabral, February 20, 2019

Brewing craft beer and running a business of it is one of the boldest acts of rebellion you can do in Mexico.

You will pay 16 times more taxes than the big beer legacy brands like Grupo Modelo (now owned by Constellation Brands and which make produces Corona, Modelo, and Pacifico) and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery (now owned by Heineken and which produces Bohemia and Tecate). You will have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to import your grains, malts, and hops from the US, Australia, Canada, or Europe because these monster brands own most of on these ingredients in Mexico. You will become an engineer overnight because you will have to MacGyver together most of your brewing equipment and facilities.

“I brewed my first batch of beer on pozole pots,” Aarón Montes Meza tells me in Spanish, completely unashamed. He was living in Montreal, Canada at the time and got into homebrewing as a way to entertain himself during the city’s harsh winters. It was his first time living away from his perpetually hot and humid hometown paradise of Puerto Vallarta, and video games couldn’t ease his boredom. So, he got into beer.

“That first batch did not turn out so good, but I was amazed because I actually made beer!” he says.

The next day, Meza gathered his friends and asked them all for $20 in return for their own private stash of fresh beer when he was done. He collected $300 in total, cobbled together brewing equipment from items at Home Depot, and lost himself in the trials and tribulations of home brewing. That love for fresh beer led him to take a working vacation to Mexico’s booming epicenter for cerveza artesanal—Tijuana and Ensenada—to learn more about Mexican interpretations of American craft beer. It was 2014 and Baja breweries like Wendlandt, Aguamala, and Border Psycho were starting to pop up on for the first time and win local awards. San Diego beer nerds were crossing the border to brewery-hop and smuggle bottles back to the U.S. One brewery, Cerveceria Insurgentes, even broke boundaries and collaborated with Stone on what would be one of the most sought-after dark beers in its repertoire to this day, Xocoveza.

Meza knew then that it was only a matter of time until this cerveza artesanal craze reached Puerto Vallarta and that it was time for him to return home and get a head start on it all. It was already happening in Puerto Vallarta’s neighboring capital city of Guadalajara with Cervecería Minerva, the biggest independently owned craft brewery in Mexico. By 2015, an American immigrant from Colorado had opened Los Muertos Brewing in a mixed part of the city’s touristy Centro neighborhood popular with longstanding Puerto Vallarta families and the new wave of Canadian and American immigrants. Their beers were a good start but the consensus among both locals, beer snob tourists, and myself—as someone who has visited PV twice a year for the last seven years—is that there was plenty of room for more players.

A selection of El Terrible's beers and cider. Photo by the author.

Cue the rollout of El Terrible Brewing in 2015 and its beer bottled in those 11.2-ounce, chubby, Belgian-style bottles made famous by iconic beers like Piraat.  

I first had Meza’s stout, which hovers around 5 % ABV, at El Solar, a hidden beach bar in a corner of Centro. It’s owned by a local and mostly frequented by locals because it doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for food and drink. It was 35 pesos, about $2 USD at the time, or about 75 cents more than a Pacifico. I never knew that a stout, usually thick and made for cold weather back in the States, could be so light and refreshing. Turns out, that’s the key to winning over Mexican beer lovers: According to Meza, all your beer has to be is light enough to be enjoyed on the beach. Since then, I’ve had the same beer every year and have tasted his progress. Most impressive of all? El Terrible's consistency, the bane of all homebrewers when they make the leap to commercial brewing.

“The biggest problem when brewing beer in a tropical, hot climate is storing your grains,” Meza tells me at his brewery in Puerto Vallarta’s Coapinole neighborhood. It’s a bonafide barrio about 25 minutes northeast from downtown. His street is still unpaved and it’s the kind of neighborhood where my in-laws warn me not to walk around at night alone—a very far cry from the rest of Puerto Vallarta, which is considered to be one of the safest cities to live and vacation in Mexico. His tiny brewery is built in his childhood home and he now lives next door.  

It’s the middle of December, Vallarta’s peak season, and he’s just ramped up his production to 500 liters a week to keep up with demand. I’m sipping a chilled mug of his Los Chiltes Capomo, my favorite of the nine styles he offers. It is an easy drinking classic English style that he made his by adding roasted maya nuts (capomo), which are abundant and sourced from the nearby Sierra Occidental mountains, and raicilla, a local mezcal made from 100-percent wild agave to give it a deeper, leather-like flavor. It’s the kind of flavor and texture in a beer that demands you to pick up the bottle to inspect the label closely—especially if you somewhat follow the Mexican craft beer world, which is known for producing textbook-perfect but ultimately generic beers.

“The second biggest issue we have is proper insulation of things to counter the extreme levels of humidity,” Meza tells me as he sips a tall glass of his IPA. (A humidity level in the high 90s is average for Puerto Vallarta.) He’s just finished showing me the DIY walk-in refrigerator he built by installing a CoolBot his family brought him from the U.S.—a level of transparency in brewing that’s also evident on his Instagram account.

Meza’s brewery isn’t open to the public but he plans to build out a modern cantina taproom where he’ll hire local moms and tias (aunts) to cook botanas (Mexican drinking food) to eat with all the beer. Proudly from the barrio, he has no plans of trying to relocate to the more touristy parts of his hometown—that’s not the Puerto Vallarta with which he identifies. That explains the gangster rap aesthetic in some of his branding, like a logo that says “Straight Outta Coapi” and his 2Pac ringtone. “I grew up in the hood and I can’t remember the last time I went to the beach. That’s not my life—this is my Vallarta.”

Aarón Montes Meza of El Terrible. Photo by the author.

Back in the center of town, Monzón Brewing (meaning “monsoon” in Spanish) has a similar philosophy as El Terrible, just expressed differently. Founded by “two Seattle natives looking for a vacation spot to enjoy some tequila and sand,” as it says on the brewery website, Monzón showcases its beers at an inviting taproom located on one of the lush, tropical tree-laced streets of the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood of El Centro.

Co-founders Miranda and Reid Mortimer opened Mónzon in August 2017 after running into Pacifico, Corona, and Dos Equis fatigue during their transition to life to Puerto Vallarta. I wander in on a Friday afternoon for a pint, unannounced with my dog, f and catch Reid in brewing boots tending to the seven-barrel system, a pile of spent grain next to him. As “Amber” by 311 blasts through the speakers, I scan the brewpub food menu features farelike “totchos” (tater tot nachos) and salmon tostadas. It’s perhaps the polar opposite of El Terrible Brewing’s vibe.

Before Reid even greets me, he fetches my dog a bowl of water—he couldn’t hide his Pacific Northwest hospitality even if he tried. After we make introductions, he pours me a glass of a thick, refreshing IPA brewed with dried hibiscus blossoms and pours himself a pint of his Cálmate Kolsch. His wife and partner Miranda joins us at a table with some coffee.

“We saw that most of the travelers coming down to Vallarta were the from the West Coast of either the U.S. or Canada, so we thought, Why not bring some of that beer down here?” Reid tells me.

A quick look at the chalkboard tap list tells me there’s no shortage of hops innovation in the couple’s ales. There are two dry-hopped pilsners, a session IPA, a hoppy American amber, and even a collaboration kettle sour New England IPA brewed with Onda Brewing in Chacala, Nayarit, a tiny beachtown about two hours away. To me—an Angeleno who witnessed the boom of L.A.’s craft beer scene and visited Portland once a year just to taste its pioneering styles—Monzón feels like a home away from home

Mexico already identifies as a beer-drinking culture, and people are really excited about these new styles.”

Miranda and Reid have not only brought the bone-dry, hoppy, experimental styles of the West Coast to Puerto Vallarta (which is also on Mexico’s West Coast) but also the culture of American-style tasting rooms, replete with a tall pile of board games and weekly trivia nights in both English and Spanish. And, as boosters of the local craft community, they even carried El Terrible cider when they first opened and had space on their taps.

So, with all of that West Coast spirit coursing through their veins, why found their brewery here and not Seattle? Because they could build all of this for less than a quarter of what it would have cost in their hometown.

“We cashed out our 401Ks, ROTH IRAS, maxed out all of our credit cards, got investment from our family members, and managed to start everything for less than $500,000,” Reid tells me getting to the bottom of his glass. “I wouldn’t recommend doing it on such a shoestring budget but we were prepared to move back and gets jobs at McDonald’s if it didn’t work.”

The couple landed in Puerto Vallarta after living in Mumbai, India for a couple of years, where Miranda worked as a teacher. But for a guy raised on fresh Pacific Northwest beer and as someone with an abiding love of homebrewing, he had hard time drinking India’s typically malty, low-quality beers. “I went crazy,” he says with a laugh. “The beer there was awful and I stopped drinking altogether, which was sad because it was something I was really passionate about.”

After India, they landed in Mexico when Miranda got a teaching job in the coastal city of Tampico, Matamoros, but the northern, more Americanized Mexican city didn’t feel like right. Reid remembers that people wanted to meet at the Applebees in town and just drink Coronas.

Miranda and Reid Mortimer of Monzón Brewing, and one of their brews. Left photo by the author; right photo courtesy of Monzón Brewing on Facebook.

As Americans here, Miranda and Reid know that they have to go the extra mile to endear themselves and their brewery to Puerto Vallarta natives. “We’re very aware that we are foreigners in Mexico so we do everything we can to give back to the community,” Reid continues. “We don’t want to be an American hangout—we just want to be a hangout.” At the moment, their customers are largely expat Canadians and Americans, but they try to do everything possible to appeal to hardworking pata salada natives locals. The brewery’s entire staff is Mexican, a hiring decision the couple made consciously. “We only hire Mexicans because we are in Mexico,” Reid says without thinking twice. Monzón also stays open during Puerto Vallarta’s extreme low season in September, nicknamed Septihambre (“hungry September”) because all the businesses temporarily shut down and lay off all their staff. Most of the brewery’s staff have been there since the start.

“Craft beer in Puerto Vallarta in 2019 is like how it was in the late 90s in the U.S.,” Reid says. “Mexico already identifies as a beer-drinking culture, and people are really excited about these new styles.”

Top photo courtesy of Monzón Brewing on Facebook.

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