Mexico’s Craft Beer Scene Is Exploding
Being a gypsy usually suggests that you’re nomadic. I, myself, am a gypsy brewer, traveling internationally in pursuit of making craft beers. I'm known as the Evil Twin.
Welcome to our brand new column, Nomadic Brews, from gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewery. Every month, we'll check in with dispatches from Jeppe's travels around the world, as he brews in places like Mexico, Taiwan, and Brazil.
Being a gypsy usually suggests that you're nomadic. In my case, that's how I'd describe my professional life: traveling around the world, creating craft beers in different environments. My home—at least in the technical sense—is a microbrewery called Evil Twin Brewing, a company that I started in 2010. It's a so-called "gypsy brewery" or "contract brewery" because I travel to collaborate with local beer producers in locations like Mexico, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Denmark, the UK, Norway, Holland, Finland, Spain, and the USA. The list continues to grow. I'm one of the first known gypsy brewers in the world, but in 2014, there are quite a few of us in the game. I do, in fact, contract-brew permanently at two breweries—one in Connecticut and the other in South Carolina. My main goal is a constant pursuit toward creating original brews. In order to pull it off, I often rent space from local craft beer makers and concoct brews for those markets—they rarely escape the borders of the countries that I make them in. It gives me a freedom I couldn't have if I only brewed in one location.
Next week, I'm going to Taiwan to create four different local Taiwanese beers that will never touch the soil of neighboring countries. The same goes for the beers I just created in Puebla, Mexico, where I collaborated with brewer Ernesto Mora of Central Cervecera. It opened my eyes to the burgeoning craft beer scene that's starting to take off in Mexico like wildfire.
I constantly change my formula and approach to brewing, or make a beer one time and never sell it again. If it works, it works; if it doesn't, I can just make something else. You've got to have awareness about the palate of the country that you're brewing in. I like the challenge of brewing at different systems with different people and varying water sources. My only constants are malt, hops, and yeast.
Every brewing system that I work on is always different, with an ever-changing set of challenges; some are manual, like the one I just visited in Mexico, where everything was done by hand. But at my permanent brewery in Connecticut, for example, the brewery is controlled by six computer screens where most of my beers aremade with the stroke of a computer key. The challenge of working in such different setups fascinates me.
Nowadays, every international collaboration I jump into starts with an email. The first step is figuring out what kind of beer we're going to make. Whenever you're walking into a novice craft beer scene, the two most popular beer styles are always stout and IPAs. At least that's what everybody starts drinking when they're getting their boozy toes wet because they're the most relatable types out there. In general, an IPA is light and bitter and a stout is big and sweet.
The current Mexican craft beer scene is experiencing what America went through 20 years ago, what Scandinavia dealt with ten years ago, what Spain had a couple of years ago, and what the rest of the world is going through right now. Last year, the US craft beer market was 9.6 percent of the total market, which sounds small, but it's pretty big. If Michael Jackson were around, he'd agree with me. In Mexico, it's less than 0.1 percent.
Mexico is known for its coffee, so I figured, OK, we should make something with coffee in it. Mexicans are into IPAs now, so I thought we should create a black IPA, a style that was invented about five years ago. Its a twist on the classic IPA: It tastes both hoppy and roasted at the same time.
While I was down in Mexico City—before brew day in Puebla—I attended the biggest beer festival in the country, which consisted of around 100 Mexican brewers. I didn't realize that Mexico had that many craft brewers right now. About 95 percent of them are brewing on less than ten-barrel systems, a common number often considered a "nano" brewery in the USA, or even a big home brewery. Almost all of them are making IPAs and imperial stouts. They're all chasing the mighty American craft beers by reading about them on the internet and then recreating them.
At the festival, I tasted a lot of infected beers—brews that are actually sick. There are many types of beer infections out there, but the most common is caused by an unclean brewing system. You spend many hours cleaning, and few hours actually brewing. Yeast is alive, so it can get sick like any other living being. If there's even a speck of dirt in the system or the bottle, it can ruin the entire beer. This is a common problem for many breweries in any young craft beer market, so this issue is not unique to Mexico. It's part of the process of growing and developing a craft beer market. An infection makes the beer sour, acidic, and overcarbonated. If you open the bottle and there's foam all over the place, you can be pretty sure it's off. I've had issues in a couple of my beers, and I've even had a couple of bottles explode on me.
The good news is that you can't get sick by drinking an infected beer—unless of course you drink too many beers and get a hangover. You can drink a beer that tastes like the worst thing you've ever put in your mouth and be totally fine. It won't give you a stomachache. It's a normal creature, but it can taste really bad. When you pasteurize a beer—which is what happens on the commercial market—you heat it up to about 70 degrees Celsius for 45 seconds, and the heat kills every living creature in the beer, including any sort of potential infection.
Since I didn't know the freshness of the hops that they had available in Puebla, we decided to choose them on brew day. It's much more fun for me to show up, smell the hops, see what they have, and then put them together right before brewing. It's like cooking—you have a big shelf of spices and you want to be able to improvise. I told them to get a light roast coffee because I'm from Scandinavia and thats what we drink there. That's how I like my coffee.
I was picked up in the dark, early morning hours of Mexico City by the four beer makers that I'd spend the rest of the day with. We drove two hours south to Puebla, a town known for their mole, and the brewery where we were going to make our black coffee IPA. We drove passed a fuming, active volcano while the guys told me stories about how they got into home brewing. I didn't see any lava, so I figured that we were in the clear. When we arrived to the brewery, it had a comforting, rustic appearance like a large home brewing system.
I had been talking about mole all day long and throughout the brewing process. The smell of steeping coffee towards the very end made me crave it. When we were finished, the brewers drove us into Puebla to take a break from our process to locate the best mole.
At Puebla's best-known mole restaurant, they served us roasted caterpillar and worm salt with mezcal. It's totally normal around here, because the insect lives on the plant that is used to make mezcal. Why not eat it, too? I wondered if this is one of the reasons why René Redzepi of noma is so fascinated with Mexican cuisine (since he shares such a love of cooking with insects). A chef friend of mine who is based in Mexico City but is originally from Copenhagen recommend taqueria El Califa, but the local guys told me to go to a more authentic place, El Faraon. As fate would have it, the owners of these two restaurants are brothers who got into a fight. One of them left the first establishment and opened up his own spot. Now they are competing against one another.
You could say I ate at the Evil Twin restaurant of Mexico. It was so good.