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Beer Xing

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We've got a story about border-hopping beer. Meet the brothers behind Cerveceria Insurgente in Tijuana, and cross the border with Stephen Walker, a craft-beer lover who's built a business by bringing Mexican craft beer to San Diego. Only here will you find a craft beer scene shaped by both sides of the wall.

Show transcript

Natsound: driving truck / turn signal

Stephen Walker loves craft beer. And he loves Mexico.

Distributor Clip 1
We are going to Insurgente, which is a Craft brewery in downtown Tijuana in Zona Rio and it’s probably one of the better known and better respected craft Brewers in the state of Baja if not all of Mexico.

Stephen is a 50-something dad with silver hair and a sunglass tan. He’s watched the craft beer scene in San Diego blow up over the last decade. It makes sense that this entrepreneur has carved out his own corner of the craft beer market by combining his love of beer with his love of Baja.

Distributor Clip 2
***and I didn't see anybody bringing in good craft beer from Mexico, but I saw that they were doing better and better as time went on especially with the crowd that was coming up here from Tijuana learning how to brew and taking some of the techniques from Stone and Ballast Point in Green Flash some of the early breweries in San Diego and taking their technique back down to South of the Border and really doing some very beautiful beers and I thought there would be a time when import or imported beers and craft beers and my love of Mexico all came together and so I started a little company to to see if it would work.

The time did come, and the company does work. ‘

Music bump

NAT SOUND OF PEOPLE DRINKING BEER

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere’s busiest border crossing.

Today, a story about border hopping beer.

Only here will you find a craft beer scene shaped by both sides of the wall.

We’ll be right back.

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Stephen is driving his old, beat-up Ford truck south on the interstate that leads to the port of entry. He’s headed to a meeting with the two young brothers who started Insurgente, one of the biggest craft breweries in TJ.

Stephen’s been crossing the border on a weekly basis for most of his adult life. For 12 years, he ran a shellfish farm south of Tijuana. And now, he’s working with Mexican breweries. His father was a Spanish teacher, so he says his fondness for Mexican culture was inevitable.

Today, Stephen slips from San Diego into Mexico in just minutes -- easy.

Distributor Clip 6
We just crossed the border. We didn't go to secondary which is a win-win. In fact, I'm not even sure I've ever gone to secondary going north to south and we're about a safe 7-minute drive to along the Zona Rio which is the. The river zone or the commercial Zone a lot of the banking's done downtown. We’re heading to insurgente's Brewery which just within the last six months actually opened up at brand-new tasting facility.

Stephen’s distribution business, Polaris Beverages, does one thing and one thing only: Crosses Mexican craft beer through the border from Tijuana and Mexicali to San Diego.

But that trip from Mexico to San Diego is just part of the beer’s cross-border adventure.

Music bump

It all starts with the ingredients.

Most of the malts, hops and yeast being used in Mexican craft beer originates in the U.S. or Europe.

Those beer ingredients are either crossed legally --- or sometimes smuggled illegally -- through the U.S.-Mexico border.

Because look: If you’re a little guy and you don’t have a ton of money, it’s just easier and basically free if you put the bags of hops and malts in your car, drive through the border and cross your fingers and hope you don’t get pulled into secondary inspection.

If a brewery’s doing it the legal way, there’s a ton of paperwork, permits and taxes involved.

Natsound: Mercado Hildalgo

And in terms of the ‘flair” -- the fruits, sugars, chocolate, coffee and other ingredients that often end up in craft beer -- most of those things do come from Mexico. Lots of brewers in Tijuana like to go to Mercado Hildalgo or other local markets where they can buy ingredients in bulk.

Natsound: Mercado Hildalgo

Mercado Hildalgo is a brewer’s dream. Dozens of tiny shops surround an open courtyard, each one packed with exotic things you just don’t see in the U.S.

Natsound: Mercado Hildalgo

The smells alone are worth a trip.

Once a brewer has all the ingredients they need, they brew and bottle their beer. And that’s where Stephen comes in.

Distributor Clip 3
….Obviously, there are also Logistics challenges and getting both the ingredients north to south as well as the beer from south to North…

For Stephen, the border-crossing process starts with empty kegs in San Diego. He hires a trucking company in San Diego to pick kegs up and take them to Tijuana.

Distribution Clip 7
So I actually do send the kegs. So we do stainless steel 15.5 gallon kegs for keg beer and I actually do send those south to the breweries because the tradition for exporting has always been using plastic kegs. Plastic kegs is not the most sane thing for the environment. And so we take on a little bit extra cost but we send stainless steel kegs down to Mexico, not for distribution in Mexico, explicitly to export back to the US for distribution in the US…..So i do do a little bit of the sending of the u.s. Into mexico, but that’s the only piece and that’s very not normal.

Then Stephen pays a trucking company in Tijuana to pick up the kegs and fill them with the beer he buys from Insurgente and Cucapa. He also picks up some of the brewery’s bottled beer, too.

The trucks are pricey because they’re refrigerated.

Distributor Clip 4
Craft beer in particular is. Particularly susceptible to changes in temperatures and light so to the extent you can keep it in dark areas and cool the longer the beer will last.

The refrigerated trucks then have to cross through the commercial crossing in Otay, a neighborhood a few miles east of downtown Tijuana.

But the border line is an unpredictable beast.

Natsound of cars waiting in the border, honking

The wait at the border has created an entire economy of vendors who wander through the mass of idling cars and trucks, offering their goods to people stuck in line.

Sometimes, the trucks make it through in just a few hours. But other times, it takes days.

Distributor Clip 5
it's quite frequent that I'll have a truck that gets delayed for a day or two somewhere. I also bring in some beers from farther south in Mexico from the state of Colima and the state of Jalisco and those are three-day transit times, which can get held up for any number of reasons again. Again, one of the reasons that we try to make sure that we do it and cold-chain especially from the central parts of Mexico. And yeah, you can get detained for two or three days and a three-day trip can turn into a five or six day trip or if you happen to hit it on a weekend or a holiday when things get particularly slammed then it can get delayed. But it doesn’t affect anything as long as you’re in a refrigerated truck.

Once the beer makes it through the bureaucracy and unpredictability of the border line, Stephen’s trucks take it to a warehouse in Miramar, a neighborhood north of downtown San Diego.
Natsound: warehouse loading dock
Then a different distribution company in San Diego buys the beer from Stephen, and eventually picks it up from the warehouse and delivers it to bars, markets and restaurants across Southern California.
And just like that, The cross-border beer adventure is finally over.
Natsound: cheers at the Mexican beer event
Our cross-border adventure with Stephen is nearly over, too.
Distributor Clip 10
We are just pulling up in front of the Insurgente brewery. I honked at Ivan Morales who is the owner or her co-founder of incidente and we are going to wait because they're delivering propane. And once the propane was delivered then I'm going to have a parking place.

Music bump

Stephen has to pay federal and state excise tax on the beer he’s importing from Mexico. Plus, the cost of all the logistics of getting cold beer through the border adds up.

And on top of that, breweries in Mexico have to pay hefty taxes to make and sell beer in the first place.
All of this means that by the time Tijuana craft beer ends up in San Diego, it’s expensive.
Insurgente Clip 36
Distributor:....by the time it gets across to the other side. I'm competing with you know, you go to Von’s or whatever and you see Stone and Ballast Point and green flash on at $9.99 A six-pack under the best of circumstances where $11.99 or $12.99 a six-pack just because the pricing that goes into it. So people have to actually want to drink our beer at two dollars more, three dollars more a six-pack.
So, Mexican craft beer is pricey if you buy it in the U.S.
But Stephen says some of the beer, especially an India Pale Ale brewed by Insurgente, is soooo good, the higher price point doesn’t kill its popularity.
Distributor clip 9
And I'll run out and have people screaming. Why did you run out already?

Stephen parks his truck and walks through Insurgente’s brewery, which is bustling with beer-making activity.

NAT SOUNDS OF BREWERY

Today, he wants to talk to the brothers behind Insurgente about expanding their beer business even more.

Time for a quick break.

When we come back, how the two young brothers behind Insurgente went from a tiny garage in Chula Vista to a sprawling brewery and tasting room in downtown Tijuana.

Stay tuned.
Midroll Ad

Trends in American craft beer become trends in Mexican craft beer, too.

And Hazy IPAs are hot right now.

Hazy montage (pulling clips from news reports about the hazy IPA trend?) https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=hazy+ipa+trend

Hazys are an unfiltered IPA-style beer purposely left murky with yeast and other ingredients normally filtered out during the brewing process. They’re the kind of thing you either totally love or totally hate.

Hazy montage (pulling clips from news reports about the hazy IPA trend?) https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=hazy+ipa+trend

When Stephen shows up to his meeting with Ivan and Damian Morales, the two brothers behind Insurgente, the first thing they do is offer him their new hazy.

Insurgente Nat Sounds of Clinging Glasses

We’re sitting on the rooftop patio of their tasting room, with views of downtown Tijuana’s skyline surrounding us.

Insurgente Clip 1
so this is our latest releases our first hazy IPA we've done we decided to do it because we just did a collaboration with a winery from valle de guadalupe called Vinos Plata. This is 25% Chardonnay in this beer, so we drove down the same morning we brewed it. It picked up about 500 liters of Chardonnay the fresh fresh pressed grape, I guess and that same day an hour and a half later, we were putting it into the tank along with the with the wert
Insurgente Clip 2
Distributor: I would love to try. It's got plenty of head.
Ivan: Yes. We haven't even tested yet actually.
Distributor: Mmm. They're just hanging up now. Oh, wow, that's funny. It's got a little bit of stringinsly to it. Yeah, that's crazy.

Music bump: momentum

Stephen and the brothers have been working together since 2015.

He’s the guy who introduced their Mexican craft beer to Southern California.

Insurgente Clip 4
Distributor: Yeah, when I first met the boys, they had moved to the facility here in Tijuana. It was very small, even though they had a 15 barrel system, it was not close to being I think not even a third of their capacity was being used. But they were being recognized for making some incredibly good beers.

Insurgente turned nine years old in October. If you ask people about craft beer in Tijuana, they’ll almost always bring up Insurgente and just a few other breweries, giving them most of the credit for kickstarting the craft beer scene in Tijuana.

Insurgente started small, literally brewing just a few kegs at a time, but the business has grown exponentially since they first launched.

Insurgente Clip 8
it's been a wild ride, too, we were not expecting, we didn't expect any of this at all. I guess we knew we were making good beer from the start. Because I guess I was always our thing like we never wanted a sacrifice quality. So

That’s Ivan Morales, the younger of the two brothers. Ivan has thick hair and a beard and is more outgoing, Damian is the more reserved of the two. Though they don’t look much alike, they do have the habit of finishing each other’s sentences, so you can tell they’re brothers who’ve spent a ton of time together.

They both grew up in Tijuana, but crossed the border every day for school from kindergarten through high school.

Damian got into craft beer first, then got his brother hooked, too.

It didn’t take long before the brothers decided to support their new habit by making the craft beer themselves.

They read up on the process, ordered the homebrewing supplies online and used the garage at their mom’s house in Chula Vista to brew their first batch.

Music bump

It’s not like the brothers were naturals from the start. They drank waaaaay too much beer while they brewed their first batch and — no surprise here -- it didn’t turn out very well.

But they kept doing it, in part, because their dad had just died. Making beer gave the brothers an excuse to spend time together. It became their way to grieve. Homebrewing was their therapy.

Eventually, the brothers made a belgian double and loved it. It was right then and there that the brothers decided to take a huge leap and start selling beer to their friends in Tijuana.

They were still brewing the beer in their mom’s garage in the U.S. at the time, then smuggling the beer into TJ to sell it.

Insurgente Clip 12
Damian: I don't know what the statute of limitations is on on Contraband on Contraband, but we used to. We used to bring the beer down here front or back is the into Mexico you would you would think it's usually the other way around here. People are scared of taking stuff from here Tijuana to San Diego, but we're doing the opposite way from San Diego to Tijuana. So we were brewing in the East Lake for the first maybe year and a half of into the Kenta and bringing the beer down. We were bottling labeling everything by hand. And then we started selling the. First beers and we sold resold at bars here in TJ and we just crossed to petia to Pretoria. Sorry. It was the first place we sold that it's on sexta that one of the first spots open during the whole hipster craze and then at blacks I think was the second place. Both of them are closed now.

Ivan and Damian launched Insurgente officially at an Oktoberfest event in Tijuana.

They started with a very different profile of beers than they have now -- hefeweizen, english brown and other lighter beers more like the Tecate and Modelo and other Mexican beer that have for so long dominated the market across Mexico.

****Insurgente Clip 13
Ivan: but then we really sort of assumed that people in Mexico. We're going to be averse to to bitterness and hoppiness and ipas in general. So we went with a sort of very kind of mellow sort of middle of the road english-style kind of execution in the beers and David and I had a little mini keg of a double IPA that we made at that Festival. Hat's just we were drinking that but in serving the other stuff and then somebody saw us pouring some stuff out of the keg and they asked us like hey, what are you drinking? Oh, we made a little double IPA that just just for us and that ended up being the beer that ran out first like the word spread and then people came up and they said oh I heard you guys have a double IPA and people kept come and kept coming back and asking for it and.

It turns out that Mexican craft beer fans, just like American craft beer fans, liked the hoppy stuff.

The brothers are hopheads themselves, so after that beer fest, they decided to go big and bold -- they hopped up their beers to the max.

And now they credit that one little decision with their big success. It’s what set them apart early on.

Remember, this was all happening almost a decade ago. Big commercial beer completely dominated the market in Mexico.

Even today, the two dominant breweries, Grupo Modelo and Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma, owned respectively by Anheuser-Busch in Belgium and Heineken in Holland, still control most of the Mexican market.

Insurgente Clip 15 new
Ivan: we have this duopoly that runs the market in Mexico that had been limiting the entire Market to just. Loggers and loggers and loggers for forever, right? And we wanted to see ipas. He wanted to see Stouts one of these sours shayzon's said it's stuff that we like to drink that did not exist over here. So that's why the name and we're like the ideas like where insurgents fighting against the tyranny of flavorless beer, but the reason I bring this up is because there really wasn't any offering at the time when we started the so there wasn't any craft beer scene to speak of. Which is why the name which is why we decided to start doing what we did and it's funny because it seems like a lot of people sort of were on that same trip when we started because shortly before and shortly after us a lot of Brewery started popping up these working. Yeah, so it wasn't like it wasn't thanks to us. It was it's just like I feel like the it was a right time and place for for people to sort. I want this and had access to this for so that it kind of became a state wide phenomenon. I think

Ivan and Damian started their first tasting room in Plaza Fiesta.

Plaza fiesta nat sound

Plaza Fiesta is an outdoor mall made up of a bunch of tiny shops connected by snaking alleyways.

That spot acted as a de-facto incubator in those early days of the emerging craft beer scene in Tijuana.

Insurgente Clip 18
Damian: I'm so nostalgic about those days, because it used to be. That's a face. That was like filled with craft craft. Beer tasting rooms. And you used to be able to walk out into the hallways with with the beer until little alleys that plaza has so you would walk into like border psycho by a beer walk down the the alley into another tasting room finish your border cycle beer their order another one then walk out going to insurgente and like just like kind of bar hop in this sort of enclosed safe area and the everything was packed all the time. It was just this huge party for the first maybe a year and a half and then I guess with with it had to happen the start of the authorities came and were like yeah, you guys can't just be walking around, you know, the alleys drinking so, all right.

The brothers recently opened a big new tasting room at their brewery in downtown Tijuana. They also finally closed that tasting room in Plaza Fiesta and are now preparing to open a new tasting room on Revolucion, the main thoroughfare in the heart of Tijuana.

In other words -- Insurgente is growing fast.

Music bump: Upbeat

Ivan and Damian credit the border with building their beer business.

They say Tijuana’s proximity to San Diego -- often called the craft beer capital of the world -- ignited and continues to drive the baja craft beer scene.

San Diego craft beer has long made its way to beer drinkers in Tijuana - bottles, cans and even kegs are often smuggled through the border in cars and backpacks then shared amongst friends.

****Insurgente Clip 26
Damian: initially we were exposed to the the craft beer scene in California, which is which is what sort of help to detonate all of this, but now our craft seen is excellent too. So we are constantly exposed to great beer both like locally in Tijuana and baja in General and right across the border. Right? So we are surrounded by great re all the time. So obviously that just kind of like compounds on itself to create better and better and better beer so that I think is what
Alan: so San Diego had a big caliber of beer in the beginning like had a lot to do with like that's a little bit an uptick on as I go. Whoa we can. To do
Steve: it had everything to do with it. A lot of the people that started beers down here were people that were drinking on the other side and then decided to start either on the other side and then bring it down here or start down here.

One of the most obvious cross-border connections is the dozens of craft-beer collaborations Insurgente has done with breweries across San Diego.

They’ve made beers with Stone, Green Flash, Modern Times and other big-name brands.

And they often get asked by San Diego brewers to take them to Mercado Hidalgo so they can try different Mexican fruits and other ingredients that might end up in their San Diego beers.

NAT SOUNDS OF MACHETE EVENT

Insurgente beers were on tap recently at “Beer Without Borders,” an annual tasting event in San Diego that only serves Mexican craft beer.
Dozens of people crowded into Machete, a beer bar in National City, a city south of downtown San Diego, for the event.

Some of the beers are recent award winners at Cerveza Mexico, the biggest professional craft beer competition held every year in Mexico City.

“Ludica, Which is from Tijuana, they just won the small brewery of the year in Mexico, and we also have Wendlandt, they’re from Ensenada and they won they best brewery in Mexico, like large brewery in Mexico, so we have some award winners on the board, and they’re all delicious”

“It’s a good festival, and it’s a good way to experience beer we don’t ordinarily get in San Diego,”

Thats Bill Snider, an Insurgente fan and owner of Ciao Travel, a tour company that takes fellow craft beer superfans on brew tours in Europe. He’s a big fan of Insurgente and Mexico’s growing craft beer scene.

“Beers from Mexico, have become you know, peers of San Diego, high quality beer, and Insurgente, beers from Tijuana, Mexicali, you know, Valle de Guadelupe, and all quite important beers that are quite comparable and equal, if not more, to San Diego beers. And also, the people who run this place make it a community for everyone”

Those people, the owners of Machete, are Eddie Trejo and Joannn Cornejo. Their family ties to Mexico and love of craft beer spurred them to open the beer bar, and also inspired the mural painted on one of the walls.

“The Machete is an instrument, its a tool in agriculture which obviously goes hand in hand with beer making, so like if you look at the mural and you see the woman holding the machete and they’re harvesting hops and grains. It’s kind of… goes full circle to kind of what we’re doing here, and serving beer and… where we come from, as well, being like, working class instrument of the people”

Eddie met Ivan and Damien in the early years of Insurgente. After he and Joann opened Machete in 2015, the first Insurgente beer on tap was Lupulosa.

It’s a IPA, it’s the same one they brew today, it’s their staple beer, yeah, it’s one of their flagships. It’s really good, super hoppy, west coasty…. There’s a perfect example, again, of like the d uality, cuz their like, much like me like, where they grew up on both sides of the border.

Eddie and Joann travel down to Mexico often, and have gotten to know many breweries over the years. Just like Steven and the Insurgente brothers, they share a lot of the same headaches when it comes to getting beer across the border… But they think it’s definitely worth it.

Sharing Mexico’s craft beer with San Diego… it’s awesome. And not only because it’s just more beer, for people to try, but because … it’s my home, you know?

Back at Insurgente in Tijuana, Ivan says the border hasn’t stunted the growth of craft beer... It’s strengthened it.

******Insurgente Clip 30
Ivan: …...beer kind of doesn't respect any border to speak of right? It's just it's we are influenced by San Diego Brewers. And now the fact that the Baja has a scene sort of helps return the favor and and some way maybe like I was saying, maybe not to the same. Scale of proportion that they influenced us in the beginning, but yeah, like these collaborations are happening. And and and now the sort of the loop is closed and it doesn't matter if that border is there not think know the the creativity I guess is Flowing both ways.

Music outro

Alan update : Hey, so, quick update here. We went back to Insurgente after this episode was mostly done to record more sound from the brewery, and we were shocked when we got there and saw it was closed. The doors were sealed with a notice from the state government, which says the brewery doesn’t have the right permits. Ivan and Damian say they do have the right permits they need…. They say they’re working with the government to get the brewery back up and running. We’ll stay in touch with the brothers and let y’all know what happens. In the meantime, they’re still contract brewing at other places.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast, we kick off a new series of episodes focused on border art.

Leading things off is Marcos Ramirez Erre, a Tijuana artists who’s been called the godfather of border art.

Show Clip

Only Here will you find artists making art about the border, art on the border, or sometimes both.

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Erik Anderson helped edit the script.

KPBS podcasts like ONly Here take a ton of work and time. Help us keep them coming by becoming a member today. Go to kpbs DOT org to make a donation or become a member today.

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Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.