After returning from Zacatecas, I briefly considered telling my editor that the city was drab and that we should kill this piece—not because that’s true but because maybe, I thought, Zacatecas could remain my little secret. This is not to say that Zacatecas is undiscovered. The historical center of the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and its tourist infrastructure is accordingly robust with many hotels, a vertiginous teleférico that ascends to the highest point in the city, and sightseeing buses disguised as old-timey trolleys. But for the most part, it’s Mexicans who visit Zacatecas; I could count the number of international tourists I spotted on one hand.
It’s not entirely clear to me why this is, although certainly the state of Zacatecas, which is in north-central Mexico, has seen some cartel-related violence in recent years. But Zacatecas City, the state capital, felt exceedingly safe, walkable, and vibrant. The UNESCO’d section of the city is charming as hell, and much care has gone into preserving its pink cantera stone buildings, including the show-stopping cathedral whose florid façade is one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque architecture. The names of the businesses in this historical core are carefully hand-painted in black above their doors. This is true not just for the bookstores and antique shops, but also the iPhone repair joints and chain convenience stores.
Zacatecas is a beer town. For one, it is famous for its brujas, or witches, the original beer brewers. But more to the point, on the outskirts of the city Grupo Modelo operates the largest brewery in the world, turning out nearly 20 million bottles of Corona, Pacifico, Modelo, and Victoria every day. While it’s no surprise that Grupo Modelo beers dominate the market, in the last five years a small but mighty craft beer scene has hatched in Zacatecas. The city just hosted its fifth annual Expo Cerveza Zacatecana featuring 13 brewers from three different municipalities across the state. The festival is held the weekend before Easter each year, so mark your calendar for 2020 and be sure to hit the following breweries and bars.
Jorge Alberto Martinez Avila didn’t set out to operate a brewery. When his father-in-law, a hobbyist homebrewer, found it difficult to find the supplies he needed in Mexico, Avila saw a hole in the market. He opened a brewing supply business, traveling to Texas to purchase inventory. During one drive back through Northern Mexico, his truck was hijacked. “I lost everything,” says Avila, who was left with few options. “When I arrived back in Zacatecas,” he explains, “I had kettles, I had mills, I had malts, hops, and yeast, so I began to brew. I didn’t have a choice.”
Chacuaco Cervecera may have been borne out of necessity, but today it is thriving, a cornerstone of the local craft beer industry. Many of its beers pay homage to Zacatecas’ history as a silver mining boom town. (A chacuaco is the exhaust stack of a furnace used in silver production.) The best-selling Piedra Negra porter references a legend involving two miners and a cursed black stone, which can be seen in the wall of the cathedral’s bell tower.
Another mining myth lends its name to the blonde ale, Mala Noche (which is also the name of a TV show from the 80s starring Verónica Castro, the Joan Collins of Mexico). Avila’s lineup also includes a classic New England IPA, a pink “agua fresca” ale made with hibiscus and mandarin, and a 3.4% ABV cucumber wheat beer that tastes like spa water for adults.
Avila, one of the organizers of the Expo Cerveza Zacatecana, is a cheerleader for the Mexican craft beer industry—and he notes that the big brewers are paying attention to the growth in the sector. Last month, Dos Equis introduced a pale ale, and Bohemia now has a chocolate stout. But with Grupo Modelo owned by Anheuser-Busch and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma by Heineken, Avila insists, “There are no true Mexican beers anymore except for the artisan beers.”
Seven years ago, Karlo Salas was a talented home cook who prided himself on making everything from scratch. “If I wanted to make pasta, I picked up eggs and flour,” Salas says. But he didn’t realize that he could make his own beer at home until he watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother. “Ted mentions that his dad brews his own beer, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s possible?’ I thought you needed a big factory.” Four years later he turned his hobby into a business, and Sierra de Alica was born.
Sierra de Alica’s year-round offerings are a blonde ale, a red ale, a porter, and a pale ale. The blonde and the red are gateway beers meant to appeal to customers whose familiarity with beer begins and ends with clara (light) or oscura (dark). “If you give someone who has never had a craft beer an imperial stout, they might freak out,” says Salas, “so I’m working with flavors that are similar to what they are used to drinking.” But at Salas’ bar, L’Artisana, those who are ready to level up can find that imperial stout along with a rotating selection of his other specialty beers.
A nuclear and a theoretical physicist walk into a bar. In this case the bar is Coyote Escondido, and the physicists own it. Maria Calderon Cabral and César Palacios are the overachieving couple behind Coyote Escondido as well as Caldera, a new brewpub. Seven years ago, Cabral explains, there was no craft beer scene in Zacatecas. She and Palacios started home brewing, and their experiments flourished into the label Brigada Mutante, or “Mutant Brigade,” a name they chose to celebrate weird and outsider beers. But they didn’t stop there. “We wanted to bring beer culture here,” says Cabral, and so they opened bars where people could gather and try beers beyond the commercial Mexican standards.
A pale ale, porter, red ale, and hefeweizen are available year-round, but Brigada Mutante celebrates local ingredients in their limited releases. They won awards for the “enmolada” version of their Bearded Lady Porter, which was brewed with chocolate, chile, tortilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mezcal. Their Gose el Xoconostle features the sour fruit of the nopal cactus, which is traditionally eaten with salt. “The idea of this beer is that it’s like a chelada—beer, salt, and lime,” explains Palacios. At 3% ABV, this is the beer I wish I could drink all summer.
Just opened last month, Caldera BrewPub serves a menu of beer-centric food like beer-battered shrimp tacos. It’s part of an entire Zacatecan craft beer wing in the Plaza Tacuba, a historic building that houses local artisans, designers, and food purveyors. Visitors will be able to sample beers from Chacuaco, Sierra de Alica, and others at a soon-to-be-opened bar called El Bebedero.
Malts & Hops is a beer bar and microbrewery that operates out of the collective food hall Lxs de Abajo. The multi-story space, which aims to be inclusive with its gender-neutral name, also houses a coffee shop, a vegan restaurant, and a pizza place, all with a focus on local ingredients.
The menu curated by Isaac Chávez and Dulce Sosa—PhD students by day and bar owners by night—exclusively features Zacatecan beers in addition to a tight selection of their own brews, which might include an amber ale with ginger or a porter with chile. Since they don’t serve commercial beers like Tecate or Corona, Chávez and Sosa embrace their role as educators and matchmakers for perplexed customers. Says Sosa, “I ask them, ‘What flavors do you like? Chocolate? Citrus?’ and we go from there.”
Fifteen minutes outside of Zacatecas City, Vetagrande is a quaint town whose name, “Big Vein,” nods to its silver mining past. Today, Vetagrande would be like any number of the small towns that dot Mexico—brightly painted houses, tidy stone streets, winsome dogs—except for the preponderance of murals. Vetagrande punches above its weight when it comes to art, largely thanks to Alberto Ordaz and Karina Lozano. Eleven years ago, they founded Veta-Gráfica, a printmaking studio that hosts artist residencies as well as workshops for children and the incarcerated.
Veta-Gráfica is also home to Ordaz’s latest project—craft beer. With his girlfriend Nidia Saucedo Flores, Ordaz is brewing a porter, a blonde and a brown ale on a “muy artesanal” scale; they produce, he explains, only enough for the studio and Vetagrande’s cantina and pool hall, Billares Cabrera. (The lemon yellow walls of the cantina are covered with a delightful mix of Catholic iconography, snapshots of local families, and extremely legit contemporary art curated by Ordaz.) The labels for the beers are all designed and printed at Veta-Gráfica.