I think I expected to be shot at or forced to be a drug mule as a minimum encounter in Tijuana. My prepare-for-the-worst expectations may go some way to explaining why I would now put Tijuana—and Baja California in general—on a must-visit list of beer destinations. And not just because I survived; it’s because Tijuana is developing its own beer culture in unique settings.
Having crossed the border from San Diego (way easier than my movie-life mind made it out to be—just ride the Trolley to San Ysidro and follow the signs), then navigated the no-man’s land between the border and downtown, a wasteland of cheap pharmacies and ramshackle taco joints (just get a US$5 cab at the station—it’s easier), we finally found ourselves walking down Avenida Revolución in search of Norte Brewing Co. (Calle 4TA, 22000 Tijuana, Baja California). “Search” being the right word, because you won’t see it—or any signs of it— from street level. Basically, turn right down Fourth Street, from Avenida Revolución, and, a little way along, on your right, is multistory car park. Just trust me when I say that you walk inside the car park and find the elevators on your left. Go up to the fifth floor and turn left as you come out and you’ll pretty much walk into the brewery. It’s worth the search because the beers are some of the best you’ll find— try the Session IPA and Amber Ale, which is a neat update of Mexico’s love of Viennaish Amber lagers. There are also huge windows that give you a view over the whole of downtown TJ. It’s an exceptional place.
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A block away—you can see its rear-side from Norte—is Mamut (Calle 3RA, 22000 Tijuana, Baja California). This is a large, second-floor brewing space with decent kit, plus a big restaurant and a nice terrace where you can sit and enjoy the beers and the view over the busy street below. Further down Avenida Revolución, between 6th and 7th, Teorema and Lúdica breweries have a co-tasting room (1332 Avenida Revolución, 22000 Tijuana, Baja California), with Teorema brewing in the back and Lúdica bringing their beers over from their nearby brewery. And this is all good enough reason to make the trip down from San Diego. But there’s something even better.
Plaza Fiesta (Calle Paseo de Los Héroes 10001, Zona Urbana Rio, 22010
Tijuana, Baja California) is an open-air “craft beer galleria,” although “colectivo” is also a good name. The Plaza opened in 1980 as a mall. It became a hot-spot for nightlife in the late 1990s, but things turned nasty and it earned the nickname of Plaza de Balazo—the Bullet Plaza. This saw the nightclubs move out, bars close and re-open, and then close again. It wasn’t until 2015 that things picked up, thanks to El Tigre Bar, who swapped hardcore punk bands for a tap list of Ludica brewery beers.
There’s a quirk in Mexican licensing that makes it expensive for a brewery to have its own bar or tasting room, but the breweries can all share the same license in the Plaza. So the owners of El Tigre spoke to other breweries and many moved in, opening their own taprooms, so turning Plaza Fiesta into Plaza Cerveza. Today the Plaza Fiesta is a maze of bars and restaurants over two levels. Each is around the size of a shipping container or two, stacked and packed inside a tight space, a little like a small mall or food court.
Each taproom is different and pours beers from the brewery that runs it. Fauna is a local favorite. It’s upstairs in a basic space with around 12 taps, including some guest beers. The house beers are very good. Next door is Paralelo 28 who brew their beers on a small kit out the back of the bar. Everything is good—clean, fresh, balanced. Border Psycho is opposite and their beers are more diverse and adventurous, with DIPAs, Imperial Stouts, Black Saisons, and more, although their Cream Ale is a good refresher if you want something simpler. Insurgente is on the corner and that’s a clean, bare, Nordic-like space, with a range of great beers. El Depa pours the Silenus brews. And there are many others, too. You can walk from taproom to taproom, with each offering something different. More than the beers and the spaces, the bar staff were all great and informative on my visit; there was a real energy from them.
There’s an obvious and expected link to San Diego, with a number of TJ brewers also working in SD. Yet, while there is that link, and there are plenty of IPAs, there are more Pale Ales and even dark beers in this area, a sign that Baja California is turning in its own direction.
Tijuana massively surpassed my expectations. It’s a new beer destination with cool breweries, good beers, fun taprooms, and the unique Plaza Fiesta (which opens every day, from 5pm), plus a scene that’s young and exciting, and creating a genuine local beer culture. Go!
Beer and tacos. Enough said.
Go to Ensenada Tijuana isn’t the only Baja California hot-spot and it’s worth heading farther south to Ensenada, where they hold an annual Craft Beer Festival (www.ensenadabeerfest.com) in March, which features around 100 Mexican breweries, mostly from Baja Mexico (where most of Mexico’s brewers are based). They also have a Colectivo of their own at Baja Brews—a beer garden with views over the ocean, a couple of restaurants, live music, and many Baja breweries pouring their own beers (see www.bajabrews.com for more details).