My journey to Copa Cervecera Del Pacifico, a major Mexican commercial beer competition, began on a whim. While attending the Advanced Cicerone Tasting Exam in San Diego, Jesus (whose performance surpassed mine) raved about the event. The three-day judging session followed by a renowned beer festival Ensenada Beer Fest sounded incredible.

Weeks later, both Rick (president of the Maltose Falcons) and Omar (owner of Hoppy Tap Ensenada) echoed Jesus’ enthusiasm. Though tempted, I remained hesitant. Finally, on a whim, I found myself joining Rick in his car on the competition week itself, heading south with a spirit of optimism.

Crossing the border, we were greeted by our homies Roxy and Luis in Tijuana. Their warm welcome and a delightful breakfast set the perfect tone for the trip. The drive down the Baja California coastline was breathtaking, reminiscent of Big Sur but adorned with picturesque resort towns – ideal retirement havens, I mused.

Left: Roxy, Luis, Rick and Me in TJ, Middle: Me along the coast, Right: Me and Rick at Cervecería Transpeninsular

Upon reaching the hotel, we discovered Rick’s room had two beds and no assigned roommate. Problem solved! The welcome party at Wendlandt Brew Pub followed by Hoppy Tap was a highlight. International judges from across the Americas gathered, and despite my limited Spanish, most everyone spoke fluent English, facilitating easy communication.

Left and middle: Wendlandt; Right: Hoppy Tap

The following day, I officially became a judge at the Copa Cervecera Del Pacifico! My table consisted entirely of Spanish speakers. While occasional Spanish discussions left me momentarily out of the loop, I wasn’t fazed. Having experienced the language barrier myself on numerous occasions, I understood their perspective. Additionally, a touch of (perhaps misplaced?) confidence led me to interject on occasion – and it worked out!

One unforeseen challenge arose: the judging transitioned from a paper-based system to the BAP app. While I had used it for National Homebrew Competitions, its Achilles’ heel became apparent – its reliance on internet connectivity. With nearly 100 judges straining the hotel Wi-Fi, the system became overwhelmed. Some judges offered their personal hotspots, others waited for a fix, and a few left the session altogether. It was a chaotic situation, leading to a loss of an hour or two on both Day 1 and 2. While frustrating, I recognized the inherent difficulties associated with such a significant change.

The actual judging spanned Tuesday afternoon, all of Wednesday and Thursday, with some overflow on Friday morning before the awards ceremony. It was an enriching experience! This was my first foray into commercial competition judging, and the sheer volume of entries compared to homebrew competitions necessitated a faster pace, especially considering the initial delays. Fortunately, my experienced tablemates shared valuable techniques to efficiently reach consensus on the top three beers. I learned two methods: moderate-fast and ultra-fast, each with its advantages and disadvantages – invaluable knowledge for the future.

Left to Right: Day 1 to Day 4

Evenings were spent at unofficial post-judging gatherings at local breweries – Cardera on Day 1, Hoppy Tap on Day 2, and Aguamala on Day 3. These gatherings provided an incredible opportunity to engage in conversation with industry legends like John Palmer (his 15th time judging!), Sandy Cockerham, Charles Porter, and many more – experiences unlikely to be replicated in the US. I also had the pleasure of meeting fantastic local brewers like Omar, Paco, and Cheche. The craft beer scene in Mexico is experiencing a boom, similar to the current state of affairs in Japan, and it reminded me of the early days of the US craft beer scene – exciting times, especially considering my own aspirations of opening a brewery.

Left: Day 2 at Hoppy Tap, Middle: Day 3 at Aguamala, Right: Day 3 at Hussong’s Cantina

My Personal Takes on the Beers and Festival

Hoppy Beers: Similar to my recent trip to Japan, West Coast and New England IPAs were a mixed bag. I believe this primarily stems from limited access to hop farms, unlike many established US breweries. Since most hops for IPAs are grown and priced in the US, the cost becomes a hurdle, especially considering currency exchange and inflation. While these brewers possess the scientific knowledge and brewing techniques, raw material accessibility dictates the price. In countries where people enjoy light beers with subtle malt and hop character, super expensive IPAs might not be the best sellers. However, I truly enjoyed the “session IPAs” – less hop-forward, avoiding excessive grassiness and astringency, showcasing classic grapefruit, citrus, and pine notes.

Fruit Sours: Judging fruited kettle sours, a personal favorite style of mine, was a delight. The gold medal-winning strawberry sour ale was phenomenal. Strawberries can be tricky; artificial flavors are common, while supermarket options are often more vegetal than fruity. However, high-quality, super-ripe strawberries burst with aroma and flavor. Passionfruit beers were a point of contention. Some entries were over-dosed, leading to funky, sulfurous notes and excessive sourness. Familiarity with the fruit character likely played a role here. I also encountered some fantastic guava, mango, and dragon fruit beers. While dragon fruit character is very subtle, it can work well in a beer, though perhaps not for the US market where they’re expensive.

Festival: Unlike typical US beer festivals, Ensenada Beer Fest offers a more affordable approach. For a $7 entry fee, attendees access booths with free tasters and pay for full pours. Three stages feature popular Central and South American bands, transforming the event into a serious music festival. This broader appeal attracts a wider audience beyond just beer geeks – a concept the US beer scene could learn from.

Food: The food was fantastic! Seafood lovers rejoice – the fish tacos, shrimp tacos, tostadas, and ceviches were incredible, bursting with the fresh flavors Ensenada is known for. But meat lovers won’t be disappointed either – the goat birria, a local specialty slow-cooked with a rich blend of spices, was insanely delicious.

Final Thoughts

A huge shoutout to the Copa Cervecera Del Pacifico organizers for an epic adventure! I learned tons, hung out with industry legends, and witnessed Mexico’s booming craft beer scene firsthand. This trip fueled my brewery dreams – one that’s both innovative and celebrates classic brewing techniques. With all the knowledge and connections I made, opening that brewery feels closer than ever. Cheers to that! Kanpai! ¡Salud!

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