How Four Brewers Are Bringing Craft Beer to Baja California Sur

January 10, 2019

By Sarah Freeman, January 10, 2019

When you land in Los Cabos, the first thing you see—even before you get off the airplane—is a royal blue warehouse. It’s almost the size of the airport itself, a looming welcome that has the word “Corona” painted across the side in golden letters. It’s a glaring metaphor about the state of beer in Baja California Sur, where craft is nothing more than a novelty. This is the land of the $1 cerveza after all.

The abundance and accessibility of cheap beer in Mexico is not just a perk for thirsty vacationers. It’s the result of two companies—Grupo Modelo, which owns Corona, and Cuauhtèmoc Moctezuma, which owns Tecate—dominating not only the beer market but every step in the brewing process, from barley fields to distribution trucks. By doing so they have conditioned an entire country to reach for one thing and one thing only when they want a beer: light, crisp, pale lagers.

Lately, however, that’s begun to change thanks to a small but determined group of craft brewers hoping to level the playing field and help make Baja Sur more than just a beach destination, but also, maybe, someday, a craft beer destination.

Sarah FreemanBaja Brewing Company

Baja Brewing Company

Brewer Jordan Gardenhire set his sights on the peninsula more than a decade ago. After visiting Los Cabos in 2004 to learn how to surf, he turned vacation plans into a business plan and decided to open the region’s first brewery. “In the whole country there were less than ten craft breweries,” Gardenhire says about the state of beer in Mexico in the mid-aughts. Because of this, he had to lay the groundwork for an entire industry. “From the day we decided to do it, it took about two years to get our doors open. Nothing was available in Mexico. All of the equipment came from the U.S. We had to truck it down to Baja, which is 1,000 miles, on a little two-lane road. All of our ingredients had to be sourced from other countries. When we want to get permits to start brewing beer, we had to create a new permit category with the local government and explain to them what we were doing. It took them a while to understand that we were going to actually make beer and not just mix beer with lime and michelada.”

Baja Brewing Company opened in San Jose del Cabo in 2007. The brewpub has all the makings of a corner pub that you’d come back to again and again, combined with all the charm of a coastal escape. Guests enter through a patio that is surrounded by stone walls on one side and a fence made out of barrels on the other. It has an outdoor kitchen, complete with a pizza oven, while inside a long, wooden bar overlooks the glass-encased brew deck. The space’s dual nature is by design. “It’s a tightrope we’ve always had to walk. About half of our clients are locals and the other half are tourists. We have to have them both to keep the doors open. We’ve always tried to listen to both groups,” Gardenhire says. The beer list also must appeal to both groups. This means the draft lists spans the beer spectrum, from oatmeal stouts and black ales to IPAs and a seasonal wheat beer brewed with mangoes. “The locals are definitely, now, finally, very interested in craft beer and the whole experience of coming into our establishments.”

Since opening the flagship brewpub, Gardenhire has opened two more cantinas in Los Cabos and a production brewery in Tijuana. He’s ramping up production to bring Baja Brewing’s core beers—Por Favor Mexican IPA and Cabotella blonde ale—to drinkers throughout Mexico and the United States. Despite his success, Gardenhire faces many of the same challenges he faced on day one, along with some new ones. In Mexico, macro beer is not only a way of life, but the only option for a several reasons. First, macro brewing companies own the liquor licenses, with about 90 percent held by the two major beer companies and optioned out to bars in exchange for exclusivity rights. (This is slowly changing thanks to some recent regulations.) These two companies also own the two major distributors, which leaves Gardenhire self-distributing out of a Baja Brewing van. Then there are taxes. “The big companies pay about four pesos per liter in tax and we pay about 12 to 15 pesos per liter in tax,” Gardenhire says. “Our beers end up being about three to four times as expensive in the market.” Basically, the deck is constantly and overwhelmingly stacked against him and the country’s other craft brewers, but the tides are slowly turning.

Sarah FreemanEl Beer Shop

El Beer Shop

“My first approach with craft beer was here,” Eduardo Aguilar says from the patio of Baja Brewing. “I used to live in a small studio apartment down the street. It was several years ago in 2011—this was my closest bar. Before this place, I used to know one place in Mexico City, the only place back then that made its own beer.” Aguilar and his partner Pilar Baeza are a case study in locals embracing craft beer in Baja Sur. Aguilar is a Renaissance man of sorts. The former mezcal bar owner became a brewer when one of his regulars, Alan Bojorquez, opened a brewery and asked Aguilar to be his assistant. After a year, Aguilar took a job at Baja Brewing, where he launched the Baja Brewing Experience. Part tour and part tasting panel, the excursion mostly caters to tourists who want a taste of one of Los Cabos’ only craft breweries. Locals are a harder sell, because the experience, which includes lunch, comes with a $99 price tag.

“Locals haven’t moved to cross this line of beer and craft beer,” Aguilar says. “It’s hard to make the locals pay for learning something new. This is something that Mexicans have, we think we know everything. We don’t want to pay for courses, we don’t want to pay for anything. Even if your car is broke, you don’t want to pay for a mechanic, a professional—you think you can fix it. It’s the same here: ‘I know how to drink it and that’s enough.’” The attitude hasn’t hindered their excitement—Aguilar and Baeza both speak passionately about beer and their burgeoning businesses—or their plans to educate whoever calls Los Cabos home, no matter how temporary, about craft beer.

Recently, the Baja Brewing Experience evolved into a food and beer tour company called Chido Cabo and beer shop in El Merkado, a trendy and modern food hall that sits on on the coastal highway connecting Cabo San Lucas with San Jose del Cabo. All the while, Aguilar and Baeza were also dabbling with homebrewing. Chido Cabo offers private taco and craft beer crawls, while El Beer Shop acts as its home base. The minimalist storefront features a single set of shelves covered in bottles from across the country and the occasional rubber chicken. There’s a large table in the middle, where Aguilar and Baeza host classes about the basics of beer and brewing, which include a moment where Aguilar breaks out a mini mill and grinds barley in front of customers for them to taste and smell what beer is made of. They also encouraging purchasing beer from the shop to pair with different offerings throughout the market, from oysters to burgers. “We are selling beer culture,” Aguilar says.

Sarah FreemanLa Micro Brewery

La Micro Brewery

Do you believe in magic, or heaven, or dying and being reincarnated as a goddamn mango tree and bring totally OK with that? After setting foot on Flora Farms, a 25-acre organic farm in the foothills of Sierra de la Laguna mountains, you will believe in one or all of those things. Getting there involves driving up a winding, gravel road on the side of a hill. It’s a nerve-wracking drive, especially if you are in a rental car, but worth it once you enter this manicured oasis. In addition to the farm, which grows everything from kale to mangoes, there’s a full-service spa, restaurant, bakery, cottages, and a brewery. La Micro Brewery, set inside a stucco shed flanked by palm trees, might be the least impressive part of Flora Farms’ footprint, but what’s happening inside is truly noteworthy.

Here, brewmaster Alan Bojorquez—the former patron of El Beer Shop’s Aguilar—creates a line of organic, GMO-free beers the reflect the ethos of the surrounding property. He is one of the only organic brewers in the country. “For 20 years I was a civil engineer and a craft beer drinker,” Bojorquez says from inside the brewery, which is not much larger than a New York city studio apartment. “I started as a home brewer. I brewed my own beer for ten years.” He made his way down to Los Cabos from Tijuana after seeing the craft beer movement plant roots in his hometown and nearby San Diego. Los Cabos was different, with few craft beer drinkers and even fewer craft brewers.

Bojorquez met with the owner of Flora Farms, told him about his passion for organic beer, and La Micro Brewery was born. The brewery produces three core beers—a Mexican-style lager, pale ale, and brown ale—along with seasonal variants for the restaurant and cottages on the property as well as a recently opened tap deck. (Only the restaurant is open to the public.) The small production is a result of both the brewery’s small scale and Bojorquez’s commitment to staying organic.

“I think people are surprised we are doing it organically,” Bojorquez says. “Even in the States it’s hard to do it. Here in Mexico, it’s harder.” Sourcing non-organic brewing ingredients is already a challenge Mexico, since many of the local barely owners have exclusive partnerships with the  two macro brewers. The import channels laid by Gardenhire have made the process easier for brewers in Baja Sur, but things change when it comes to sourcing organic ingredients, especially with hops. “We tried to grow our own hops and grains—the grain does fine, but we don’t have good weather for hops,” Bojorquez says. That’s why he formed a partnership with a grower in California that dedicates part of its annual harvest to La Micro Brewery. For Bojorquez, all of this effort is not only worth it, it’s the only way. “Maybe it’s not the best beer in the world, but it’s the best beer for the world.”

Sarah FreemanTodos Santos Brewery

Todos Santos Brewing

Gardenhire’s influence has stretched beyond Los Cabos, to the region’s burgeoning tourist destination of Todos Santos. Compared to Cabo San Lucas’ swath of nightclubs and San Jose del Cabo’s abundance of art galleries, Todos Santos is a grittier escape for the more bohemian set. It’s a 45-minute drive north of Cabo San Lucas along a coastal highway. Upon my arrival, I’m warned by Ted and Liz Mitchell to leave before dark or risk a run-in with the cows that wander onto the highway at night. The Australian expats opened Todos Santos Brewing almost two years ago. It’s a humble operation: a repurposed mercado with a few tables, a bar guarded by a friendly neighborhood brewery cat, and a courtyard patio that regularly hosts live music. It’s idyllic in its simplicity, yet the beers are anything but.

Through the courtyard is Ted’s brewhouse, which you could easily mistake for a hobbyist homebrew setup if it weren’t for the walk-in cooler immaculately lined with plastic tubs slowly fermenting two-dozen different beers. “We wanted to bring craft beer to Todos Santos and we wanted to give people the opportunity to try different things,” he says about serving a community that is, at best, passingly familiar with craft beer. “Some people, they go into a craft beer bar, someone shoves a 90-IBU IPA in front of them, and they drink it and they go, ‘I don’t like craft beer.’” To combat this, he has offered a diverse beer list from the start, designed to appeal to a wide range of beer drinkers. “The local Mexican palate tends to be more malt-driven than hop-driven, hence the brown ale.” The brewery also offers a double IPA, pineapple sour, alcoholic ginger beer, and gose brewed with Pacific salt water, among others.

It’s a delicate balance to appease both locals and tourists, and one that Todos Santos has perfected with help from Gardenhire. “While we’re growing the local, Mexican consumer, you have this plethora of expats that come down here. We couldn't survive without either group. But if you didn’t have the American, Canadian consumer here to help underwrite the profitability of your business, none of us could survive,” Ted says, noting that he and Liz met with Gardenhire before opening Todos Santos Brewing. Baja Brewing Company has become a safe haven of sorts ever since the couple’s first visit to Baja Sur seven years ago. Gardenhire walked them through the convoluted licensing process in Mexico and shared his trusted list of suppliers, just as he did with Bojorquez. “It’s quite a good situation to be in, where we can keep the doors open and grow the local market. Will [craft beer] ever get to 16 percent like the States? I do not know. But I think 5 is in our not-too-distant future.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
Related Articles

Hamburg Is Germany's Most Underrated Beer City

“We really have developed a little capital, a northern lighthouse when it comes to craft beer.”

No Roads Lead to Canada’s Northernmost Brewery

A remote location and complex alcohol laws were just the beginning of Nunavut Brewing Company’s struggle to open.

Collective Arts Puts Its Commitment to Diversity on Every Can

Its next design project, Amplified Voices, will feature BIPOC and LGBTQ artists on every beer that the brewery produces for three months.