Like everybody, the people of Nogales, Sonora, love their beer. What they love about it, however, isn’t exactly obvious. Besides being cold and wet, what’s so great—really—about a can of Tecate? In the summer it’s nice to hold one against your temple, and they certainly help wash down tacos. Cracking a can, clinking a cold one with your best bud—these rituals are not dependent on quality or taste, and as long as the beer is cold, as long as it chalks up an ABV of at least 3-point-something, and as long as there are no better-tasting alternatives, people are going to keep downing it.
In the last 10 years, craft breweries in Mexico—Cucapá in Tijuana, Tempus in Guadalajara, and Minerva in Mexico City, to name a few—have been playing catch-up to the hoppy popularity achieved by craft brewers in the United States. In the Mexican state of Baja California, Mexicali is home to over a dozen craft brewers, Ensenada has the delicious Agua Mala (Dirty Water), and Tijuana has Border Psycho Brewing. Sonora, however, has hardly dipped a toe into the craft brew kettle, and border boomtown Nogales boasted nary a single microbrewery—that is, until 2015, when two young brew maestros opened Nogales Brewing Company.
Andres Vega Romero and Rene Garayzar Chavez, 24 and 25 respectively, have been friends since high school. In July of 2015, they became business partners, opening the brew company in a small office space next to the venerable Trocadero restaurant in Nogales, Sonora. Despite their youth, they both have a concentrated calm to them, what I’ve come to recognize as a “brewer’s focus.” Vega is gym-chiseled, with paint-black hair and a strong jaw. He answers questions slowly, carefully, with an about-to-chuckle smile to his face, as if still surprised he’s actually making a living by brewing beer. Garayzar, preternaturally gray, with tufts of hair poking out of his fitted, backwards-facing, Nogales Brew baseball cap, has all the trappings of a diplomat: serious, amiable, and constantly turning the conversation back to the business at hand, which is beer. I caught them on a hot day this summer while they were washing out a brew tank with sudsy water, splashing about and sweating.
Though still a relatively tiny operation (they’re more nano than micro), Vega and Garayzar are Sonoran trailblazers hacking into the wilderness of large Mexican domestics. A year in, and they are already finding that they can’t make their beer fast enough to meet demand. There is a nascent foodie movement in Nogales (a host of hip restaurants are opening up on or around Avenida Hermosillo, including La Llorona and Taco Bar, as well as a coming-soon food truck park). These restaurants, and their more food-conscious patrons, are looking to drink something more interesting than Corona or Tecate. The young people of Nogales “want to try different things,” Faviola Flores, a server at La Llorona, told me.
But despite a growing desire for something besides the typical Sonoran flavors, Nogalenses simply aren’t used to drinking craft beer. Grupo Modelo (which brews Corona) and Grupo Moctezuma (which brews Tecate) have an effective duopoly on hangovers in Mexico.
I went into a Modelorama, a beer store on Calle International, to talk to Ana Laura (she declined to give her last name) who runs the shop along with her husband. Modeloramas are one of a number of brand-specific beer stores in Mexico owned by one of the major beer companies, which pay the rent and the bills while shop managers sell beer in return for a small cut of the profits, usually between 8 and 15 percent. The managers typically also sell abarrotes, or convenience store items and snacks. A young girl came in to buy a three-pack of diapers; on her heels were two young sisters trading in a liter Coca-Cola bottle. Ana Laura told me that about 80 percent of her beer sales are Bud Light, which actually operates a brewery in Mexico, which means that when thirsty Nogalenses go for the foreign label—Bud Light—many of them are drinking a Mexican domestic.
The next customers were two men who asked for “dos botes,” or two cans. Without hesitation, Ana Laura went straight to the fridge and grabbed two Bud Lights. The brief moment helped me grasp the challenges facing Nogales Brewing Company: when “a bote” is standardly, and safely, assumed to be a Bud Light, and you’re trying to sell a complex, zesty, 6.5 percent ABV pale ale, as Vega and Garayzar are trying to do, you have your work cut out for you.
But part of the problem is logistical as much as it is cultural: bars in Nogales aren’t built for keeping kegs cold—that is, for serving beer on tap. Vega pointed out the bar in La Llorona, where we were enjoying an array of delicious enchiladas and seafood cocteles: there was no “underbar”—the space below the top platform—to stash a keg. There was, however, a Tecate Light mini fridge in the corner. Though La Llorona also sells bottles of Nogales Brewing beers, a lot of bars in town have exclusive contracts with Tecate. In the United States, so-called tied-houses (bars which only sell one brand) are illegal.
Vega and Garayzar are realizing that they don’t only need to make and sell their beer; they also need to create the market for it. One of the best ways to do that is to brew consistently delicious beer. “We want to grow slow and grow small,” Garayzar told me. “And we want to grow with our community.”
In 1907, Jesús García, a railroad brakeman, saw that a car on the train he was riding had caught fire as it was passing through the small Sonora village of Nacozari. The car was full of dynamite. Instead of jumping off the train, García put the engine, nicknamed Máquina 501, in full-steam reverse and rode the train six miles out of town, where it exploded, blowing García to smithereens, but sparing the villagers. Nogales Brewing Company’s Máquina 501, named in honor of the celebrated Sonoran martyr, is a dark, coffee-and-chocolate laced porter. It is malt-heavy, has a touch of chocolate sweet, but is light on the mouthfeel. For a porter, it’s a surprisingly good summer beer. Faviola Flores of La Llorona told me it was her favorite of Nogales Brewing beers because it was “different.” This slightly ambivalent appreciation is a crucial first step. As brewers north of the border have often expressed, getting customers to try craft beer is the first crack in the light-lager ceiling. Most beer drinkers, after they’ve learned to love the complexities of stouts and IPAs, don’t turn back.
I asked Vega and Garayzar what first got them into craft beer. For Garayzar it was a growler of SanTan’s Hop Shock, which he first tried when he was 21, while an undergrad at Arizona State University. He told me it changed his outlook on what cerveza could be. For Vega it was a trip to Barcelona, where he studied for a semester (both Vega and Garayzar were engineering students). There he found brewpubs replicating the craft beer model that’s taken off in the United States. Garayzar later studied brewing at Central Washington University’s craft brew certification program.
Directly next to Nogales Brewing is a Six store, which, like the Modelorama model, is a tied-house owned by Grupo Cuauhtémoc and sells only their brands’ beers, including Tecate and Dos Equis, as well as gummy candy and Coca-Cola. A beer store next door could be seen as an overwhelming shadow of competition for Vega and Garayzar, but their business is not just about quenching thirst, or even educating Mexicans about beer, though that’s certainly at the heart of their project. “We want to invest in Nogales,” Garayzar told me.
Nogales, like many Mexican border towns, lived through years of calamitous turbulence, from 2008 to about 2012, when a wave of drug-related violence crashed into the city and people were scared to go outside, especially at night. Businesses closed and “people just shut down,” Vega told me. The Mexican state, urged with both dollars and a draconian antidrug ethos from the U.S. government, basically declared an open war against drug cartels, while the cartels themselves were infighting for control over trafficking routes, which included Nogales. Civilian life was caught in the crossfire and casualties reached more than 100,000 people. Though ongoing, the crisis is now more isolated in parts of northeastern and of southern Mexico, though other parts of the country remain vulnerable. Like other aspects of life, the violence primarily targeted the most marginalized members of society, and the city was (and remains) safe for American tourists.
The disorder and the fear during those years combined with the economic recession, and businesses in Nogales suffered tremendously. “A lot of shops and restaurants closed, especially in downtown,” Vega told me. Overt violence in Nogales has largely diminished since then, and stores have reopened, but the city is still undergoing major changes—rapid growth, continued poverty, and unemployment; Sonora is still one of Mexico’s states with the highest levels of unemployment. Vega told me that “the city is recuperating, but not at the pace most of us would like to see.”
Through Nogales Brewing Company, Vega and Garayzar want to help the city keep healing, and growing responsibly. They’re part of a team working to bring a farmers’ market to Nogales to offer healthier and fresher food, and are fiercely devoted to their hometown. I asked them if they were interested in exporting to the U.S., or to other parts of Mexico. “What I always say: first in Nogales,” Garayzar responded.
Their investment in their city is primarily liquid, which is how Vega and Garayzar hope to heal Nogales: by raising a glass to it.
My personal favorite was their Bellota Amber (bellota is Spanish for acorn; the label has an oakish Emerson quote: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”) It is perhaps their most interesting concoction: it’s a honey-colored, malty thing that does a few flips in your mouth and then ends in a wash of bitterness. It’s complex and terrific. Their Mamacitra India Pale Ale, their most popular beer, has an edge more than a bite, with a bit of sugar (coconut?) on the tongue. Garayzar called it “muy friendly.”
Find their suds at Hotel Fray Marcos, Berde Salade, La Llorona Cantina, Restaurant El Marcos, Pancho Villa Bar, Los Generales Bar, and Cafeteria Leo’s. You can also fill up your growler at their brewery. ✜
Nogales Brewing Company. Avenida Álvaro Obregón, San Carlos. Nogales, Sonora. Facebook.com/NogalesBrewing.
John Washington is a writer and translator. Visit jblackburnwashington.com or find him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.