Many know Ryan Brooks for his work as brewmaster at Coronado Brewing Company. During his tenure, that interest has won numerous awards, including Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company at the 2014 World Beer Cup. That’s dream-come-true territory, but Brooks isn’t finished dreaming. He’s about to realize another long-held aspiration—opening his own brewery. The name of that business will be SouthNorte Beer Company, and it’s scheduled to debut this summer.
Brooks will get by with a little help from his friends, most ostensibly his family at Coronado Brewing. That company’s founders, brothers Ron and Rick Chapman, are key investors and that’s where the initial brewing of SouthNorte’s beers will be done (the search is on for a separate facility to house the business). But he’ll also garner inspiration from friends he’s made spending a great deal of time exploring the craft-brewing culture south of the border. As the name implies, SouthNorte will combine elements of Mexico’s burgeoning beer scene with the craft culture here in San Diego. A press release describes the business as “an American brewery that blends the rustic flair of Mexico with the art of San Diego craft brewing.” Brooks sees pulling from two cultures as a way to extract the best from both and end up with the finest end-result.
In the course of my reporting on the San Diego brewing industry, I have met a number of brewers from Baja locales including Tijuana, Ensenada and Mexicali. Nearly all of them have mentioned receiving assistance, tutelage or encouragement from Brooks. He is something of a cult figure down there who has forged many legitimate friendships during innumerable cross-border visits. Few would be better suited to bring this intercultural vision to life and it should be exciting to watch…and taste.
We were relaxing on the second story patio of El Torito, a restaurant by day, disco by night situated on Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana. As beats pumped through the aging speakers and drowned out the table-hopping mariachis, young kids were either riding the precarious mechanical bull or playing with multi-colored balloons. The parents, like us, looked on while sipping $1 Coronas and enjoying cheap carne asada tacos on the mild Sunday afternoon.
From this vantage point, we could just barely make out the entrance to the TJ Beer Fest. When we arrived at 11:30 a.m., half an hour after the scheduled start-time, a worker told us the proverbial doors would open in una horita or ‘a little hour.’ Having lived in Spain and become accustomed to affectionate, diminutive understatements like this, we should’ve known better.
At 2:15 p.m. we finally paid our bill, thanked our waiter Jose and strolled in the direction of the twenty-foot tall inflatable Tijuana Cerveza beer bottle that we presumed had been erected to signal the start of the festivities. “The three amigos,” a nickname with which we were oft-solicited throughout the day, were nearly persuaded along the way to buy an infamous Tijuana souvenir with the line “Come check out my store guys, buy something you don’t need.”
Resisting the temptation, our memorabilia itch was soon scratched in the form of a TJ Beer Fest shaker glass, 4oz. taster line marked and all. Our $8 entrance fee also awarded us orange entregado-stamped wristbands and three taster tickets each. A staff member greeted me with Bienvenidos a Tijuana – we felt welcomed indeed.
Inside, first up was the BeerBox, a chain of boutique beer stores expanding throughout Mexico, and one of the most popular tents of the day. Their own Pale Ale was not bad, and they offered a decent international selection as well. Next was the brewery Zona Norte, whose company and beer names were derived from the bars and brothels of Tijuana. Their Molino Rojo ‘Red Mill’ Red Ale was quite tasty, yet the Indian Pale Ale had much to learn from its San Diego brother.
Broken, rusty Spanish got us through the three small tasters relatively quickly, but thankfully a pint of most selections was only $2-3 thereafter. Some were hit or miss, but the Lowrider Rye Ale from Cucapá really quenched my thirst on a hot afternoon – we couldn’t imagine how Jeff Hammett, fellow West Coaster and San Diego Beer Blog author, and his crew, rode the fifteen miles from North Park to the border in the heat. Select Cucapá brews are available in San Diego and found through their website.
With Presidente Felipe Calderón in town for the two-week Tijuana Innovadora conference, police presence was high. At the opening day speech, Calderón proclaimed “Tijuana is a city that works, studies and innovates; it’s a community where everyone works for the common good.” The breweries are doing the same – this wasn’t the Tijuana your mother warned you about. The diversity offered from Mexico’s craft brewers was surprising, and more important, refreshing. No longer should San Diegans believe their Mexican beer selection is limited to Corona, Pacífico, XX or the like. A quick jaunt back across the river, a two-hour pedestrian wait at the border and a sleepy trolley ride back to downtown not only made us hungry for even more Mexican cuisine, but thankful we don’t have to endure that commute every day to support our families. ¡Viva México!