Photos by Bill Veale Graphics
Think Mexico, think beer and the names are easy to recall, Corona, Pacifico, Tecate with a number of darker brews. But Baja California is poised right on the edge of being well known for its micro brewers and they are springing up all over the city of Ensenada. Not fifteen years ago, wine production began to make itself known in the Guadalupe Valley, like Napa Valley did in the 70s. Now passionate brewmasters have opened the door of opportunity and caught the attention of Carnival Cruises, who have launched a new Mexican Craft Beer and Brewery Tour into Ensenada. The brewmasters are pushing the envelope as they incorporate el sabor de México, the flavor of Mexico, into golden liquid. New brewers are opening for the summer tourist season and several well established breweries are in full operation.
To create a truly fine artisanal beer, it is much more than just the grains. It is much more than the fermenting time. It is much more than ending up with a cold beer on a hot summer day. It has everything to do with being an artist, driven by the same passion as a painter or musician. The grains are the media for the craftsman, but it is the play of hops that creates a signature for the brewery. For the hop lovers there is an amazing array of varieties to be experience that will not disappoint. The artisanal brews far surpass what the industrial beer producers can ever accomplish.
How great it is that the two featured breweries here are easy to find. Both are just minutes past the Ensenada toll booth going south. So, with a designated driver, it is a simple one day trip from San Diego. The first stop, Wendlandt Cerveceria. Watch for the sign for Ruta del Vino (Mexico Highway 3) which will take you off to the right. Coming to a stop, turn towards the ocean. This is going to take you into some unfamiliar territory and don’t be dismayed by the pungent fish smell. You will pass by the processing plant and soon catch a crisp Pacific breeze. It will also be worth the drive as Wendlandt is an award winner, having claimed, “the best Brewery in Mexico.” The honor was given to them in 2015 by the Copa Cerveza competition in Mexico City.
You pull into a wide open court yard and find the structure itself impressive, but it isn’t until you step inside that you realize this is a very serious brewery. Monstrous stainless steel tanks stand like guardians around two walls. In the center there are wooden tables for large groups of visitors to linger over a draft or two. Here again you will find that Mexican flare for humor in the labeling. Try a Perro Del Mar, (Sea Dog), an “aggressively hopped” India Pale Ale; its label, a one eyed dog wearing a sailor’s hat. Too cute.
The owner and brewmaster, Eugenio Romero-Wendlandt, started his thriving business with a 20-gallon home-brewing operation. He made beer for him and his friends. They began to demand more of what he called “hoppy, West Coast style beers.” In 2011, there were few microbreweries in Baja and they were not very popular. But he took a risk and opened a small place. He was quoted as saying, “I was scared, so I carried a lot of commercial Mexican beers, some imported and my beers. But I realized from the beginning that most of my sales were craft beers.” The production rapidly expanded and was moved to the present warehouse on the Pacific. OC Weekly said, “This is a brewery that's producing beers that can compete in the international market and has put together a smart pub menu that ranges from Baja cuisine to classic American fare under Rosarito's own, Chef Krista Velasco. The pub is located in Ensenada next to Starbucks. Wendlandt is now producing 150 gallons of beer a week, “and even that isn’t enough to satiate his growing fan base.”
Just minutes further south is the award winning craft brewer AguaMala, literally translated “bad water,” but it is also a jellyfish that floats off shore in the Pacific. This sea theme is carried into naming the beers. What is so unique about AguaMala is its construction. Founder and brewmaster, Nathaniel Schmidt, used large metal shipping containers, one stacked on top of the other to house his brewery. There is no signage on the road. Look on the ocean side for a mural of the Our Lady of Guadalupe, just two blocks south the Solarius Hotel. You will walk through the fence into the courtyard and a colorful mural on an inner wall carries out the theme of undersea life. You are instantly inside the production area. Palates of empty bottles are waiting to be filled and the stainless steel fermenting tanks are housed in the lower containers. A staircase leads to an open patio and the beer tasting bar has a spacious quality allowing a little of the out of doors in. A breeze is fresh off the Pacific view.
The fun starts. The colorful boards have the selection of beers available. Imaginative names like, Sirena Pilsner with the spicy scent of hops and the Chubasco (Summer Storm) is bright, clear and golden with lively carbonation and very refreshing. While savoring one of the brews you can munch on gourmet sandwiches, tacos and other tasty offerings.
The locals love this hang out and it is a blend of cultures. You’ll find the surfers mingling with professionals from Ensenada, as well as Mexican locals and the travelers that are just “discovering” it. AguaMala was recently awarded a Silver Medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup for its Astillero (Shipyard), an IPA. One report says, “AguaMala is a craft brewery on the move and is helping redefine the craft beer industry in Mexico with an emphasis on high quality ingredients and environmental sustainability.”