He comes bearing gifts. In beer form. The best form there is. There’s a growler of Bohemian Summer Beer and a bottle of East India Porter. Both my recipes. Notice how many Lager recipes of mine have been popping up in San Diego. There’s a reason for that. Which I may tell you one day. When the scars have healed.
It doesn’t take long to get to the border. We’re quickly through. A border guard checks our passports and looks in the boot. A dog comes a sniffing. Then we’re in Mexico. Directly into the chaos of Tijuana.
We take to the motorway which runs right up against the border. It’s pretty eerie. The twin fences, no-man’s land a proximity of a built up area conjures up an image from the past. The Berlin Wall. Except this one is to keep people out rather than keep them in.
We’re headed south. To Ensenada where there are a couple of breweries where Grant knows the brewer. The landscape is much the same as the other side of the border. The buildings are very different. More random. Shacks and palaces intermingling like a cosmopolitan football crowd.
Part of the route is lined with shops selling ceramics a weird metal statues of dinosaurs. What exactly do you do with a 2-metre tall T. Rex? Is it meant for in- or outdoors? I'm weirdly tempted to buy one. Just as well it's 100% impractical.
I’ve been to a lot of breweries in the last few years. In all sorts of buildings. But never one assembled from containers. As Aquamala is.
It’s owned by a friendly couple, who show us around and feed us beer. It’s a fairly small operation. In the taproom on the first floor there’s a view of the Pacific and a cooling breeze. It’s cool in both senses of the word. The garden leading to the sea supplies various ingredients for their beers. I’m impressed by their blackberries. Already ripe.
Water can be a problem. They use the town supply and that’s pretty erratic. Which is why they have a large tank filled with water. So they can still brew when the mains water is cut off. I can see brewing this side of the border brings extra challenges. Though water is likely to a problem soon in California, too.
Next stop is Wendlandt, also in Ensenada. It’s a bigger affair in more conventional business premises. The brewer shows us around and pours us beer from the conicals. It’s pretty nice stuff. Even the one hopped with Mosaic. A hop I thought I didn’t like.
“Why is the brewery called Wendlandt?” I ask Eugenio, the owner and brewer. It doesn’t sound very Spanish. “It was my grandmother’s surname.” That’s fair enough.
Eugenio suggests we grab some lunch at a restaurant in the fish market, appropriately enough in the fishing harbour. A couple of his friends are drinking beer outside. The restaurant is popular. Too popular: we’ll have to wait more than an hour for a table. So instead we go to Boules, a restaurant owned by another of his friends.
The people we met outside tag along. More friends and family turn up. Including Eugenio's wife and cute baby son. Eventually we’re a party of nine, sitting in a garden restaurant. there's no menu crap. The waiters just bring out a series of dishes that we share. One of our party who own a vineyard pours wine from unlabelled bottles. Pretty nice stuff, deep red and powerful.
The meal is a combination of meat and seafood. Crab, oysters, steak, lamb shank, wonderful sausages wrapped in vegeables and a flour tortilla and suaces. Three sauces: hot, hell and Hiroshima.
It’s one of the best meals I’ve eaten in years.
This isn’t the Mexico you see on TV. It’s a much calmer, more relaxed place. When I ask the population of Ensenada I’m told: “It’s a small city. Just half a million people.” Odd how the perception of town size varies. Someone in North Carolina was shocked when I called Newark, with a population of 35,000, a small town. She considered that pretty big.
On the way back to Tijuana, Grant suggests we stop at a grocery store he knows. It has a huge selection of tequila and mescal. It sounds like the perfect place to pick up a present for Andrew. The shop is bizarre. From the outside it just looks like a little grocery store. But hidden at the back there’s another room. Crammed with every type of booze. Un smacking my gob takes a while.
After much hesitation, I grab a bottle of mescal. It’s not something you see much of in Amsterdam. I wonder about how I should pay for it, as I don’t have enough pesos. Then I notice that the Mexicans in front of me pay with a combination of pesos and dollars. Seems to be perfectly normal. I do the same.
We’re going to drop by a couple of places in Tijuana. Grant has no satnav, but a brewer has drawn a simple little map. We just need to find a roundabout with a statue of Moctezuma. From there it should be a doddle. As long as we can find Hot Water Boulevard. A plan which seems in a city that finds street signs optional hugely optimistic.
Tijuana is a big city, with a population of well over a million. Amazingly, it works. We find Moctezuma and from there it’s not too difficult. I can't believe it. Hours of hopeful, but ultimately futile, city circling was my expectation.
First off is beer bar BCB. Inside it’s dark, upmarket and with a crowd of staff filling up the space behind the bar. The selection of beer – mostly US and Mexican, but with stuff from all over the world – is impressive. And not too pricey. I’m slightly surprised at Grant’s choice of an Imperial Stout, given that he’s driving.
We only stay for a couple before crossing the road to Verde y Crema, a rather nice restaurant. We sit at the bar and chat with the owner and barman. It has a decent beer selection, mostly fairly local Mexican stuff. I’m rather surprised to see Tennent’s Scotch Ale in the fridge. I didn’t realise they still brewed that.
We don’t eat much. Lunch was too large and too recent for that. But the food is again excellent. It seems Baja California has reinvented itself. Now American tourists, on the hunt for cheap booze, don’t come in the same numbers, the region has concentrated on becoming a culinary destination. Better-off Mexicans from other parts of the country come here for it excellent food and wine. And beer. It’s an eye-opener. Mexico is very different in real life to its image in the media.
Finding the border is a challenge. The signs indicating where it is seem designed to make you drive around in circles. We pass the same roundabouts several times before we finally make it. The queue is like an outdoor market, with people selling everything from hats to hammers. It’s quite late and we don’t need to wait long. Thankfully. I’m feeling pretty tired.
Tomorrow I fly back to San Francisco. But not until the evening, leaving me several hours to full somehow. What could I possibly do?
Cervecería Artesanal Aguamala
22760 Ensenada, B.C.
Carretera Federal 1 248,
22870 Ensenada, B.C.,
BCB Tasting Room
22020 Tijuana, B.C.
Verde y Crema