Baja California or Bust: Part 3

[This post is the fourth and final part in a series (Part 0, Part 1, Part 2) that chronicles my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.]

Soon after waving farewell in the rear view mirror to Hazy Jesus, Carlos pointed vaguely eastward and said “the wine is over there,” referring to the Valle de Guadalupe.  A wine aficionado I am not.   I know almost nothing useful about wine and rarely drink it.  Carlos made the (accurate) assumption that I wouldn’t care if we skipped the excursion to Mexican Wine Country.   I was, however, curious enough to ask Google to find me a $0.10 summary of Mexican wine.   “Wine blends are quite popular here, although they don’t always follow European traditions…Mexican wine is still very much a frontier of wine.”   The Valle de Guadalupe was featured in the New York Times Travel section last April, so the proverbial cat is out of the bag.  

Just north of Rosarito, Carlos spontaneously decided for the sake of variety to veer off to the right to Carretera Federal 1 (a.k.a., Mex 1 Libre), the alternate, toll-free, inland route into Tijuana.   We encountered several pickup trucks with entire families riding in the back, which appears to be socially acceptable in Mexico.  It is either not illegal or not enforced by traffic cops.   Who needs over-engineered car seats– or rear seats at all, for that matter– when you can just throw the kids in the cargo bed and hope for the best?  The Border Wall may have stopped helicopter parenting in its tracks.

We drove past many tire stores.   There were llanteras literally everywhere.    If your vehicle is ever in a need of a replacement tire in Tijuana, I can assure you that they’ve got you covered.

As we descended into Tijuana, we caught sight of a series of large manufacturing facilities, maquiladores, most of which had oversized “Esatamos Occupando” (We’re Hiring) balloons on the roof.   Approximately 150,000 people are employed  in manufacturing jobs in Tijuana.  The medical device workforce has more than doubled in the last six years and now numbers over 40,000.   Tijuana attracts many immigrants from the south of Mexico who come to the city in search of employment.   Tijuana has also established itself as a center of plasma and LCD television manufacturing.  American companies are increasingly taking advantage of the robust pool of skilled workers and labor costs that are up to a factor of five lower than in the US.   Tijuana’s location on the map presents compelling logistical advantages over Asian countries that produce goods for the US market.   As someone who frequently communicates with colleagues in Malaysia at 2 am, I can appreciate the convenience of being in the same time zone more than most.

As we approached the city center, we reviewed the plan for the evening– to explore Avenida Revolución, the tourist center of historic Tijuana in Zona Centro, sample some more Mexican craft beer, and eat again.   Avenida Revolución was the first paved road in Tijuana.  It flourished by harboring dens of iniquity that catered to Americans during Prohibition in the 1920s.  

I kept an eye out for a landmark in order to remember the intersection near where we parked.   A suitable candidate soon presented itself.  Don’t pay more.  Just don’t do it.

We encountered several posses of Spanish-speaking Asians, presumably descendants of Chinese laborers who constructed the Mexican railway system at the turn of the 20th century.   [A recent surge in immigration to Mexico from non-Latin American countries has garnered media attention.]  

Baja California authorities have gone to great lengths to encourage Americans and other English-speaking visitors to feel welcome in Tijuana and thus be more inclined to spend money there and inject it into the local economy.   We saw many of these signs advertising help in English for tourists in distress hanging from light posts:

Dialing 911 or 112 (the European equivalent) from any cell phone in Baja California connects to the Mexican emergency services.   All English-speaking callers are transferred to bilingual 078 operators.  Mexico switched its nationwide emergency number from 066 to 911 in January 2017, an event covered in this hilariously biased Fox News article: “The government apparently seeks to imitate the perceived reliability of the U.S. number.”   

As the sun started to set, we realized that we had gone for altogether too long without beer.   We walked past Hotel Caesars, an establishment that claims to have invented the eponymous salad in the 1920s.   The bar that Carlos had in mind was closed for a private event, so we continued down the street for a few more blocks, at which point we headed down an alley past a barber shop to Colectivo9 ,  a small enclave of upmarket street food establishments located here.  Since it was nearing closing time (8 pm), our attempt to secure empanadas met with epic failure.   

We did succeed in acquiring libations from a small bar nestled in the corner behind a sliding glass door, Barrica 9.  I ordered a bottle of Marabasco Hefeweizen from Colima on the Pacific Coast of Mexico brewed from local wheat (photo courtesy of a guy named Omar on Untappd who drank it 2 days ago).   

As it happens, Colima also produces about half of all limes grown in Mexico.    Fortunately for me, this middle-of-the-road hefeweizen had a low banana quotient, unlike some of its German counterparts.  During the fermentation process, Munich wheat beer yeast produces significant amounts of isoamyl acetate, the ester responsible for that hideous banana smell.    Carlos selected another Mexican IPA that he said was OK.   

The “Beer Marriage” poster on the wall, reproduced on the Barrica 9 Facebook page, caught my eye.  It provides sound advice on food/beer pairings:

The death metal emanating from the jukebox and a pathetic American guy in his 20s commiserating with the bartender about his troubles with women started to annoy us, so we took our brews out to a table near a waterless fountain.   Just as we were about to leave, the bartender popped out to give Carlos his jacket, which he had unconsciously abandoned on a bar stool.   

What better way to compensate for being denied hipster empanadas than to stop in for a Caeser salad at the bar of Hotel Caesers?  The place has retained its old-school character.  The walls were festooned with classic photographs and framed newspaper articles from bygone eras.  The bartenders no longer make use of the cash register.  Note the point-of-sale terminal partially obscured by the beer taps.  We snagged the only two remaining seats at the corner of the bar.

Sticking to my usual “when in Rome” philosophy, I ordered a paloma, a classic Mexican tequila cocktail tragically overshadowed by the margarita.   Substitute the triple sec and sweet and sour mix accompanying the tequila for Jarrito’s grapefruit soda and you have yourself a paloma.  Add copious amounts of lime juice and lime garnish and serve over ice in a highball glass with a salted rim.   All bartenders know that lime is tequila’s best friend.    

Carlos attempted once more to order pulpo, but the bartender regretfully informed him that it wasn’t happening for some reason that I didn’t quite catch.   I contentedly sipped down my paloma and did what I do best, refrain from talking to anyone.    Carlos, however, struck up conversations with our neighbors on either side of us at the bar, which resulted in two “I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried” moments in the space of ten minutes.

The couple to our right had ordered three Tuétano de res rostizado (roasted beef marrow) appetizers, one of the other house specialties (pictured here).   Carlos admired the presentation, which prompted the guy to pick one of them up by the fork stuck into it and place it on Carlos’s plate.   Carlos looked over towards the wife, who showed no signs of objecting, so he ate it, thanking them profusely.  Although never explicitly stated, I suspect that they may have pitied him after overhearing his tales of pulpo woe.  As he was finishing it off, the famous salad finally appeared.   In the main dining room, they make a big show of assembling it the table, but bar patrons get it unceremoniously plopped in front of them.  The recipe is not a closely guarded secret. It exceeded expectations.  

As we chomped away, a white American guy in his sixties and a Mexican woman who looked less than half his age took the seats to our left soon after the previous occupants vacated them.   The woman whispered something into his ear and then devoted her full attention to her phone.   Her male companion ordered two beers and then exclaimed to Carlos: “Man! I need a drink.  I almost got thrown in jail this afternoon.”  He then proceeded to regale us with a blow by blow.  “I was upstairs in one of the rooms getting some sweet action and smoking some weed.   Someone in the hallway must have smelled it and called the cops.  I flushed the evidence down the toilet and opened the window and managed to convince them not to arrest me.”  

My  thought bubble went something like this: “WTF?  That is an image that I could have lived without having in my head…TMI…What a lecherous old geezer…I cannot imagine any scenario where that situation would be even remotely appealing for her without a significant financial component…He probably didn’t abide by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act…Some men are pigs…Oink!”  I took one last sip of my paloma in silence and raised my left eyebrow slightly.   Carlos managed to change the subject and ended up getting a recommendation from the guy to spend a long weekend at the Bahia de Los Angeles.  Human beings are odd creatures.  

Caeser salad in our bellies, we bid our newfound friends adieu and walked back down the street to Don’t Pay More and the Mazda.  Night had fallen, but we both agreed that there was more beer to be had.   We headed south to Blvd. Agua Caliente and after driving around in a circle, managed to locate Baja Craft Beers on a side street.  

 I admired their beer plumbing system and commented to Carlos that we had outfitted the bar at Venture Cafe with a variety of Micromatic keg couplers.   In fact, I wrote about keg couplers in great detail on this very blog. The couple next to us interjected that they had been having a debate about the brand of the couplers, which struck me as odd because they all said “Micromatic” on them in large font.  But perhaps reading is overrated.   

Although predictably not on the menu, two empty Pliny the Elder bottles adorned the wall above the bar.   

But I didn’t come to Tijuana to drink beer from Russian River in Santa Rosa, so I again opted for a Mexican brew, La Bru Copper Ale from Morelia, the capital of Michoacán.  Morelia is located approximately 300 miles east of Manzanillo, the capital of Colima on the Pacific coast.  Manzanillo happens to be the only other place in Mexico that I’ve visited.   The most noteworthy aspect of that trip was the drug-dealing surf guide who drove the wrong way on a divided highway and got strip searched by the Mexican army.  But that is a story for another time.  The beer was decidedly mediocre.  It had a weird metallic, bitter aftertaste and was my least favorite beer of the day.   It wasn’t nearly as bad as Carlos’s selection, however.

He ordered a Zacas Pale Ale, brewed in Zona Norte of Tijuana, a.k.a. the red light district.  Although advertised as an English pale ale, it had a bizarre smoky flavor and was borderline undrinkable.   But BCB got an A for effort with the repurposed keg light fixtures.  My father, a retired lighting designer, applauded their creativity.  

Although the beer we ordered was not the best, it certainly didn’t set us back very much.  

As we contemplated heading back to America, I said to Carlos: “It is a categorical imperative that I eat a taco in Mexico.”  Immanuel Kant probably spun rapidly in his grave when I said that, but no matter.    Carlos consulted Google and we set off towards Tacos El Gordo (“The Fat One”).    The synthesized voice in Google Maps had a hilariously bad Spanish accent, but it got us there.   Although it was nearly 11 pm at this point, Tacos El Gordo is open until 4 am, even on Sundays.

Carlos ordered us two asada and two pastor tacos.  The pastor was probably the best taco I have ever tasted.   The asada had an interesting green sauce and, while extremely good, did not quite compare to its pork cousin. 

I captured Carlos deep in taco contemplation– an inadvertent Tindr photo for the ages.  

Carlos checked the wait times at the two border crossing zones.  We opted for the Otay Mesa crossing, about 5 miles east of the main San Ysidro point of entry.  I had brought my passport, but neglected to bring the credit card sized Global Entry ID card, so I was not eligible to cross back into the US in the auto express (SENTRI) lane.  Additional research suggests that even having the card in my possession might not have been sufficient.   As we set off towards the border, Carlos had to brake hard to avoid hitting a man who took it upon himself to run across a poorly lit section of a divided highway.  It did not strike me as the wisest decision if self-preservation was a priority for him.

Accessing the Otay Mesa SENTRI  lane is not for the faint of heart.  It involved a circuitous drive through the eastern outskirts of Tijuana and an abrupt turn back westward to access the border.   By the time Carlos dropped me off at the pedestrian crossing zone, it was close to midnight, so there was no line to speak of.  The Customs and Border Patrol officer checked my passport and asked “Are you bringing anything back?”  I replied: “No.”  He waved me along and I re-entered the United States of America on foot.   Not my first pedestrian border crossing– I walked between Israel and Jordan and back a few years ago– but surreal nevertheless.  I proceeded approximately 100 yards towards a 7-11, at which point Carlos pulled up in the Mazda.   The timing could not have been better.   A noteworthy ending to a memorable day.

On the drive back to San Diego, we marvelled at the parallel universe aspect of crossing the border.  It’s as if a switch gets thrown as soon as you go from one country to the other and separate partitions of your brain get activated.

Postscript: Last Saturday 29 July 2017, I was at AT&T Park, a stone’s throw from my apartment in San Francisco.   I decided to buy a hotdog, because that is what one does at baseball stadiums regardless of whether or not baseball is actually being played.  In this case, it was not.  James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt, staples of my non-New Wave musical lexicon in high school, were performing.  It was apparent that my presence was bringing down the average age of the crowd, a phenomenon that rarely occurs these days except at the symphony.   In any case, instead of the $20 bill that I was expecting, I pulled out a 500 peso note that I apparently did not spend in Tijuana.  It will buy about nine beers the next time I return to Mexico.     

Overpriced hotdog and bottle of water in hand (I refuse to drink Coors Lite under any circumstances) I returned to my nosebleed seat with a lovely view of the Bay.  Shortly thereafter,  James Taylor obliged with a fitting theme song for this series.


Baja California or Bust: Part 2

[This post is the third in a series of four that chronicles my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.  Previous installments: Part Zero and Part One.]

We returned to the car after acquiring some electrolyte beverages to combat dehydration from Oxxo, the 7-11 of Mexico.  Carlos asked if I would be up for one more stop in Tijuana before setting off towards Ensenada in search of beer and seafood.  Feeling adventurous after having just consumed a fried insect, I saw no reason to object.   We headed east on Avenida del Agua (yep, aptly named Water Street), which lead us up a steep hill to an entry/exit hut equipped with traffic barriers.   Spanish was spoken and Carlos convinced the attendant to open the gate by pushing down forcefully on a big white handle inside the booth.   We ascended a dirt road to Casa Manresa, a spiritual retreat and meditation center run by the Jesuits.   The center was consecrated in 2007 by Bishop Rafael Romo and named after the Spanish village in Catalonia near where St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, had profound mystical experiences while living in a cave for a year in the early 16th century.  [Sometimes I wish that I could live in a Catalonian cave and not talk to anyone, but perhaps not for an entire year.   Never mind.]  The place had a spectacular panoramic view of Tijuana and the Pacific Ocean.  We ambled along the brick path, nodded hola to the caretaker, and skulked away quietly when we saw a religious service in progress through the picture window facing the ocean.  

We went back from whence we came down the hill and merged onto Autopista Escenica Tijuana-Ensenada (a.k.a. Carretera Federal 1D), a toll road between Tijuana and Ensenada.   The three tolls totaled to approximately 6 USD each way.  It is possible to drive 100 km from Tijuana to Ensenada for the price of crossing the Bay Bridge.   

Carlos pointed out the Baja Convention Center, another flimflam of a public infrastructure project, on the outskirts of Rosarito.  The resorts and nightlife of Rosarito attract many Americans due to the beachy locale and proximity to the border.  High-rise condo developments are popping up in fits and starts, but Miami Beach it is not (at least not yet).  Delayed or possibly abandoned construction projects spotted the landscape on the ocean side of the roadway.   

After we passed Puerto Nuevo, known for its grilled Pacific spiny lobster, the landscape became more dramatic and started to bear more of a resemblance to the Big Sur area of Central California.  Because I fervently believe that Pacific spiny lobster is woefully inferior to the Maine equivalent, we opted to bypass Villa Ortega’s, one of the most popular grilled lobster destinations in Puerto Nuevo.  The Salsipuedes Bay remains largely free of development.   We stopped to take in the view from the southern edge:  

As we passed beneath this road sign, I wondered who made the decision only to translate the first half into English and tack on the “Have a Nice Trip” at the end.  Furthermore, I have never understood why anyone even bothers with half-assed fake palm tree cell towers.  Just screw the LTE microcells to the light poles and be done with it.

On the northern outskirts of Ensenada, Carlos pulled the Mazda off the road into a dirt parking lot and was directed to an obviously vacant parking space by the dude in the fluorescent yellow vest.   We had arrived at Aguamala Cerveceria in El Sauzal.  Beer!  Beer at Last!  The literal translation of Aguamala is “bad water” obviously, but it also means “jellyfish” in Latin America– an alternative to “medusa.”    Given that the brewery was founded by a marine biologist and is a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean, the place is aptly named.  The marketing collateral and labels all featured colorful line drawings of marine creatures.

The Mexican craft beer movement is in its infancy.   Difficulties acquiring brewing equipment and ingredients and a draconian tax code that favors beverage giants present structural challenges to small start-up breweries.   A Coloradan who started Baja Brewing Company in Cabo San Lucas in 2007 described some of the trials and tribulations of Fighting The Man with the help of a Vice ghostwriter.   Mexico is the 6th largest consumer of beer in the world, but its market is dominated by mass-produced light lagers (e.g., Corona, Pacifico, Dos Equis, and Modelo).   Although enjoying exponential growth in recent years, craft beer has a measly 1% market share in Mexico.  

The Aguamala taproom and brewery are built from six stacked shipping containers– a sombrero tip to the craft beer guzzling hipster demographic that makes up a significant fraction of their customer base.  Carlos and I are by definition too old to be hipsters and we heavily favor snark over narcissistic displays of irony.   As should be self-evident from the existence of, we are quite partial to craft beer.   At least craft beer that doesn’t taste disgusting.   But I digress.

 The friendly, green-haired bartender took our order.   Being creatures of habit, we did not deviate from our typical taste profiles.  Carlos opted as usual for the ridiculously hoppy Astillero Imperial IPA (7.1% ABV, >120 IBUs).   I don’t like beers that taste like Pine Sol, so I went for the  Marea Roja American Brown Ale (4% ABV, 43 IBUs).  The menu claimed the Marea Roja had 42.8 IBUs, a level of precision that strains credibility, so I rounded up to the nearest IBU. I’m not very good at long-winded, flowery descriptions of how beer tastes, so suffice it to say that my first sample of Mexican craft beer was not too hoppy and generally meh.

Carlos tried to convince me to split an order of sopes de pulpo con pipian (octopus sopas with mole).  Given that I feel quite strongly that octopus should not be food, I demurred.   We instead compromised on molletes de cabeza rez con chicarrron (molletes with beef cheek and pork rind).   Admittedly, that combination sounds questionable, but they were actually delicious.  Carlos took a photo of the mollettes, reproduced here so we never forget what we ate and you don’t either.

After quaffing down the last of our miniature servings of beer (everything in moderation etc.), we hit the road again and arrived in Ensenada about 20 minutes later.   We attempted to beach the Mazda in a sketchy parking lot behind the fish market.  The attendant at the entrance confidently assured us that there were plenty of spaces, which turned out to be a bald-faced lie.  A vindictive streak came across Carlos.  Just as he was gunning for the exit preparing to act indignant and refusing to pay, the parking gods shined mercy down upon us.   An old guy driving a beater Toyota pulled out of a space right in front of us.   

We quickly traversed the very fishy smelling seafood market, which did not bear much of  resemblance to Pike Place.   The beefcakes in rubber aprons hurling salmon were conspicuously absent.  At the time, I wondered what was up with the “mercado negro” on the sign and promptly forgot about it until I pasted this photo into this post.  Carlos trawled the Spanish language Internet (pun intended) and learned that from 1957-1967, only a select few fishing companies had authorization from the Mexican Government to sell of certain species of fish, but individual fisherman sold them illegally at markets such as this one.   The Black Market moniker stuck after these anti-competitive restrictions went by the wayside.   The Mercado de Mariscos in Ensenada was in fact established in 1958, so this explanation seems plausible.  

I have a soft spot for signs that state the obvious, although I must confess that the incongruity of the background being red and the hydrant being white bothers me more than it should.   Nevertheless, the fact that Carlos’s t-shirt purchased at the Wal-Mart mothership in Bentonville, AR matched both the sign and the hidrante itself enhanced the composition considerably, if I do say so myself.

After capturing this photographic wonder, we wended our way through the backlot of a Starbucks in search another brewery, Wendlandt Brewpub, on Blvd. Costero, one of the main drags in Ensenada.  No pithy comments on the quality of the beer are forthcoming because the place was closed.  Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to drink beer on a hot Sunday afternoon?   Alas, a lost opportunity to part us from our pesos.  So onwards we wandered.

The friendly ladies behind the counter at the SuperViagra pharmacy (Welcome Amigos!) directed us to the vaunted Mariscos El Guero food cart around the corner.   The pigeon perched on the roof did not immediately inspire confidence, nor did the “seafood supply truck” parked across the street.   

However,the glowing Yelp reviews and the teeming hordes of locals and Mexican tourists made me less incredulous.   We both opted for two medium classic shrimp cocktails, which came in one of four sizes. The woman taking orders worked with admirable efficiency, explaining all of the available options, shepherding people through the line, and collecting their money quickly.   Additional staff took orders on the opposite side of the truck for tostadas and oysters on the half-shell, which were dished out with much more expediency.  We had ample opportunity to watch the staff prepare the cocktails to order.  The liberal amounts of pico de gallo, avocado, and lime juice resulted in hands-down the tastiest shrimp cocktail I have ever consumed.   And being a seafood-loving native of New England, I have consumed many in my lifetime.   

Carlos was crushed when he learned that they were out of pulpo.  (To state the obvious, I was perfectly content with the shrimp status quo.)   But then word spread amongst the patrons waiting to be served that another batch of pulpo was on its way and that anyone could supplement their half-eaten cocktail with some chopped up tentacles once it arrived.  We loitered around the cart for what seemed to me an excessively long time.   As we snarfed down our cocktails, a guy drove by who has much cooler Volkswagens (of varying sizes) than I do or ever will.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Carlos finally gave up on the pulpo and begrudingly agreed to go somewhere else.

We soon encountered an abandoned Party Bus.  Perhaps it too was observing the Sabbath along with its friends at Wendlandt Brewpub.

Another discount pharmacy we happened upon had American flags plastered all over it.  I wonder why?  Lecherous old gringos with erectile dysfunction who don’t want to pay full price, that’s why!  The establishment sold acne medication and antibiotics for good measure.   A single dose of a potent antibiotic does eradicate most STDs, after all.   Imagining lecherous old gringos with pimpled complexions wasn’t that much of stretch either.   It all made perfect sense.


The same cannot be said for the scene we subsequently witnessed at one of Mariscos El Guero’s competitors around the corner.  I suppose mariachi bands need seafood to snack on too.  And chihuahua-owning riders of crotch rockets need to feed and water their beloved pooch (said beast was obscured by the crouching woman in the purple shirt).

Before returning to the sketchy parking lot and heading back north to Tijuana, we took one final stroll along the boardwalk adjacent to the ocean.   It was awash in Mexican families enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon along with a smattering of American tourists and had a carnival-like atmosphere, complete with a troupe of Mexican folk dancers and a random guy in a Woody costume.

I felt an overwhelming urge to capture an image of this quintessential example of Mexican beach food stall advertising.  It is perilously close to the absolute apex of tackiness.  After ODing on this explosion of kitsch, we decided to retreat back to Tijuana.  

As Carlos piloted the Mazda north, the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, a 75 foot tall steel and fiberglass statue that weighs 40 tons, came into view perched on a hill in El Morro, 6 miles south of Rosarito.   He has even secured the adoration of the Yelpers.  I spontaneously felt the need to photograph Him in his Hazy Splendor, perhaps subconsciously suspecting, for some inexplicable reason, that it might be somehow fitting for this post to both begin and end with Christian iconography.   

Coming up next in Baja California or Bust: Part Three (the final installment)– we return to Tijuana to eat and drink our way down Avenida Revolución and circuitously make our way back across the border to San Diego.

Baja California or Bust: Part 1

[This post is the second in a series that chronicles my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.  Baja California or Bust: Part Zero explains the motivation behind this expedition.]

Fast forward to June 2017…   As the 4th of July long weekend approached, it became abundantly clear that I needed a break from working way too much in the traffic-infested, dystopian wasteland of office parks, suburban tract homes, and strip malls that is Silicon Valley.   Sitting at home in San Francisco early one Saturday morning, I caught a glimpse of my surfboard, lurking dejectedly in the background during a FaceTime call with my brother in London.   The urge to go surfing prompted me to send a text to Carlos to inquire about the prospect of a return trip to San Diego. It did not take long before we resurrected our plan for a Tijuana adventure.  

Shortly after 8 am on Saturday 1 July 2017, I strapped the surfboard to the roof of my geriatric, unwashed, yet still fully operational 2005 Volkswagen Passat station wagon and began piloting it southward towards San Diego.  It was smooth sailing on I-5 until about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, at which point it became abundantly clear that many, many other people had similar ideas. I generally find long-distance car trips therapeutic, but it ended up taking 9.5 hours to drive 482 miles, which tested my patience considerably.   Upon arrival, a few whiskey cocktails at an establishment in Normal Heights called Sycamore Den took the edge off.  I did not, however, order this one, which is very, very wrong:

Since Mr. Volkswagen lacked the requisite Mexican auto insurance, Carlos and I set off, uncaffeinated and with empty stomachs, at 9:15 am on Sunday morning in his much more modern Mazda towards the San Ysidro border crossing, a mere 16 miles SSE of the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.

As we approached the border, the signage on I-5 began to more openly acknowledge our neighbors to south: translating “International Border” into Spanish, citing distances in kilometers, and alerting motorists that Exit 1A, Camino del la Plaza, is the “Last USA Exit.”   

However, the word “Mexico” did not appear on a green freeway sign until less than a mile from the border, at which point another strategically positioned ginormous Mexican flag came into view.  As it happens, ours is not the only country on Earth called the United States.  The official name of Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos, a factoid of which I was completely unaware until watching Ingobernable on Netflix a few months ago at Carlos’s behest.  

As anticipated, our Sunday morning drive was blissfully free of traffic.  We made it from La Jolla to the outskirts of Tijuana in approximately 20 minutes.  Crossing into Mexico was only slightly more eventful than driving through the toll plaza on the Golden Gate Bridge.   Motorists are forced to make a very sharp left turn past the blue “Nothing to Declare” lane markers above the roadway and then abruptly merge into two lanes, all the while periodically dodging randomly placed obstacles installed for the sake of security theater.  

All of the drivers comported themselves with remarkable civility, waiting their turn, which would never have happened in Boston.  Carlos commented that the US Government had compelled Mexico to install an expensive vehicle scanner that takes up an entire lane of traffic but essentially never gets used.   Several bored-looking Mexican aduanas were half-heartedly inspecting the interiors of a few randomly selected vehicles.  

As we entered the Zona Rio section of Tijuana, Carlos pointed out the inaugural segment of a massive rapid bus line upgrade that runs alongside the Tijuana River.  It had all of the trappings of an ill-conceived boondoggle of a public infrastructure project for which Mexico is somewhat legendary.  Our first stop was at a Banorte across from a megaplex movie theater to withdraw some pesos with which to purchase our breakfast, and snacks, and lunch, and beer, and cocktails, and dinner…  I found it disconcerting that Mexican currency is also denoted by the $ sign.  The peso took a nosedive after Trump got elected in November, but it has almost fully recovered.  (Some currency traders probably made a killing.) The USD/MXN exchange rate was hovering around 17:1 that day.  I withdrew 1500 pesos, or approximately 88 USD, from my Bank of America checking account entirely without incident.   Carlos, the actual Mexican, ran into some issues.  Two attempts at two different ATMs were met with epic failure.   Then Bank of America started texting him about suspicious charges.   He responded as instructed, attesting to his legitimacy.  Within seconds, the red flag on his entry in the Magic Database of Account Holders in Good Standing in the Sky had been removed and the previously recalcitrant cajero automático disgorged his pesos.

Flush with Mexican currency, we drove more or less around the corner to the Sánchez Taboada branch of Los Chilaquiles, a local chain in a nondescript strip mall.  The line snaked out the door.  

While Carlos went inside to inquire about the wait time, this man looming over the parking lot, a plastic surgeon also named Carlos, caught my attention.   That is quite a coup to secure the toll-free number 1-800-TIJUANA.  I was in awe.  (Dr. Carlos also advertised heavily next to the expressway directly adjacent to the San Ysidro border crossing.)  

With only a few exceptions, most parking lots and streets in popular shopping or tourist areas that we stopped at were manned by late-middle aged men acting as parking attendants sporting high-vis vests.  These guys seemed to self-organize and did not appear to have any official affiliation with the surrounding businesses.   It is customary to exchange pleasantries with the attendant after you get out of your car to establish an understanding that he will keep an eye on your vehicle.  When you’re ready to leave, you palm him 10-20 pesos if your car escaped unscathed, income that I’m guessing he does not report on his federal taxes.

The estimated wait time exceeded the limits our gurgling stomachs.   We opted instead to decamp to another outpost of Los Chilaquiles near TJI airport and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California.  Carlos commented that it was fortunate that I didn’t go inside the first place, because the tasty food smells would have done me in.   We were immediately seated and promptly ordered café de olla, coffee spiced with cinnamon and piloncillo (an unrefined Mexican sugar that dissolves quickly), a juice concoction called a Vampiro that had beets and carrots, tasted healthy, and turned my tongue purple, and Chilaquiles Benedicto, a riff on Eggs Benedict.  Even though the establishment was not particularly busy when we showed up around 10:30 am, it took what seemed like an eternity for our food to come out.  

The waiter pitied us after a while and comped some mollettes, open-faced sandwiches on bollilo, a local version of a baguette, slathered with beans, salsa, and cheese– the ultimate in Mexican comfort food.  The mollette, for something so simple, packed a flavor punch and temporarily quashed my increasing hangriness.   After more than 40 minutes, like a manna from heaven, our meal appeared.  Admittedly, I am a foodie.  However,  I am definitely not a peddler of Instagram food porn, so I will use my words instead.  Chilaquiles, if you have never experienced them, are a traditional Mexican breakfast dish that puts leftover tortillas and salsa to extremely good use. Judging from the waistlines of most of the patrons, los chilaquiles will quickly make you fat if you eat them in sufficient quantities.   La cuenta served as a stark reminder that I reside in one of the most expensive cities in the universe.  All of that food cost $19.54– for both of us.  

Blood sugar levels back to normal, we did a quick drive-by of the airport, which has boomed since the introduction of the Cross Border Express in December 2015, an enclosed pedestrian overpass that enables easy access to TJI from the US side.   Not many flights to Mexico depart from SAN, so Carlos often flies from and back to Tijuana to visit his family in Monterrey or travel to various destinations around Mexico, Central America, and South America for work.

We started to ascend one of the many hills within the city limits of Tijuana.   Carlos randomly pulled over to the side of the road.  

As we walked over to the edge of the sidewalk next to a small retaining wall, he said: “You’re probably wondering why I stopped here….” and then I saw Her.  La Mona, a five story, hollow concrete statue that doubles as a residence and workshop for her creator, Armando Muñoz Garcia, nestled in the midst of a collection of ramshackle dwellings.   Others have waxed poetic about La Mona to a greater extent than I ever could.  Her exterior varies at the whims on the artist.  She had recently been whitewashed when I clapped eyes on her, but Carlos had previously photographed her in a multi-colored bodysuit.  Garcia has a grand vision to line the border with a procession of giant nude Amazons.  It will likely not be actualized within his lifetime.  

We made one final stop before venturing south along the Baja Peninsula at Les Playas de Tijuana to experience The Wall from the Mexican side.  

As we strolled northward along Avenida del Pacifico, Carlos stopped to purchase a plastic baggy full of chapulines, which happen to be in season, from a street vendor.  They are, in fact, toasted grasshoppers from Oaxaca that are seasoned with garlic, lime juice and salt imbued with agave worm extract.   I did make an exception and captured a photo for posterity, primarily to remind myself how of revolting they looked.  Carlos gleefully consumed much of the bag, crunching away with abandon.  It took considerable willpower on my part to eat a bug. I survived and it didn’t taste bad per se, but biting down on the fried chitinous exoskelton was not an experience that I wish to repeat.   There are less disconcerting ways to incorporate protein into one’s diet.   Mexican restaurants in American cities have started to hawk chapulines tacos to hipsters.  Behold Exhibit A.

I couldn’t help but observe the stark contrast between this beach thoroughfare and, for instance, Manhattan Beach, CA, which has evolved into an overpriced, stylized, nouveau riche, yuppy hellhole.   Les Playas de Tijuana– down-at-the-heels, decrepit, odorific, but full of character– is just beginning to show the first signs of gentrification.  Real estate speculators will descend in droves before long.   It will be fascinating to return in ten years.  

And then there’s The Wall.  Unlike the windswept wasteland on the American side, the Mexican section runs adjacent to a long stretch of sandy beach that was full of families enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon.   Children were splashing in the surf, but stayed close enough to shore to avoid the obvious rip currents.

A section of the fence memorializes Mexican citizens who served in the U.S. Military.  An adjacent section was painted blue by a Mexican-American artist from San Diego, Ana Teresa Fernandez, creating an optical illusion from certain vantage points that the wall has disappeared into the sea and the sky.

The pinky-through-mesh scenario through the fence surrounding Friendship Park is no joke.

This obelisk marks the first established border following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.   The man in the blue shirt on the left of the photo is talking to one of his relatives through the wall.  The Japanese tourist is preparing to take a selfie.

The Plaza Monumental de Tijuana (“The Bullring by the Sea”) was built in 1960 and seats approximately 20,000 people.   As the popularity and social acceptability of bullfighting has waned, the venue hosts an increasing number of concerts, boxing matches, and other cultural events.

Our tax dollars at work, from a Mexican vantage point:

The last photo I took at Les Playas de Tijuana captures the persistent humanity on the Mexican side and the authoritarian sterility on the US side.

Coming up next in Baja California or Bust: Part Two– we head south on Carretera Federal 1D towards Ensenada and stop on the way to drink some Mexican craft beer.

Baja California or Bust: Part 0

[This post is the first in a series that chronicles the events leading up to and my experiences on a day trip to Baja California Norte on 2 July 2017.  The consumption of Mexican craft beer will be chronicled in subsequent installments.]

It never occurred to me to even consider visiting Tijuana until I clapped eyes on it from the US side of the border.   Like most Americans, I had no reason to doubt the stereotype that Tijuana was, well…not safe.   Gringos went to TJ to get cheap Viagra, for easy access to legal prostitution, or to witness unnatural acts of depravity involving donkeys, all the while risking getting randomly abducted or caught in the crossfire of warring drug cartels.  When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, some of my friends would periodically take road trips to Baja.  I never took them up on their invitations to venture south of the border, since these excursions invariably involved someone’s surfboard or wallet or Jeep getting stolen.  

San Diego, although blessed with some of the nicest weather and consistently good surfing in the Continental United States, has a disjointed blandness and a lack of progressiveness about it, not to mention an unusually high concentration of Republicans due to the Navy presence.  The city seems to be in categorical denial about its close proximity to Mexico.   Signs on I-5 South refer only to the “International Border.”  Until my friend Carlos, who hails from Monterrey, moved from Boston to San Diego in August 2016, I  never associated San Diego with Mexico either except to make note of the abundance of good, affordable Mexican food there.   

When I visited Carlos last October, two weeks before the debacle that was the 2016 Presidential Election, he took me to the oddly deserted (and sparsely visited) Border Field State Park, the southernmost point in California, to take in the jarring sight of the portion of The Wall that extends 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean.  It was significantly fortified after 9/11 to keep out all of those Mexican terrorists.  Mexico will not have to pay for it, because US taxpayers already have– the ocean extension project in 2012 cost $4.3M.  

Experiencing the border zone for the first time resulted in an unsettling degree of cognitive dissonance.   As we walked around the wall on the windswept, desolate stretch of Imperial Beach, Carlos pointed out a small open area between the section of the fence on the Mexican side and another one that runs parallel to it on the American side.  If it weren’t for the garden full of native plants at one end maintained by a team of dedicated volunteers, the so-called Friendship Park would look like No Man’s Land.   It is accessible only from the US side on Saturdays and Sundays between 10 am and 2 pm at the discretion of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.  Friendship Park is the sole section of the border zone between San Diego and Tijuana where people can stick their pinkies through the wire mesh of the fence and make physical contact with their family and friends on the Mexican side.  Though I am essentially the opposite of touchy-feely and sentimental, these restrictions struck me an unnecessarily dehumanizing.  Many well-meaning people are working on changing this policy[Some of the Trump-voting trolls who lurk on Facebook clearly do not approve, however.]

We then proceeded to Las Americas Premium Outlets to find a bathroom.  The fact that there is a large shopping mall on the American side of the San Ysidro border crossing should come as a surprise to precisely no one.  The mall parking lot directly abuts The Wall, which allowed me to catch an intriguing glimpse of the hilly sprawl of Tijuana and the prominently positioned and certifiably ginormous Mexican flag.  The photograph below does not do it justice.               


Carlos asked offhandedly if I had brought my passport (I hadn’t), so we had no choice but to remain within the confines of the outlet mall.  We made a plan then and there for a junket to his home country the next time I showed up in this neck of the woods.  On the drive back to San Diego, Carlos further piqued my curiosity by regaling me with tales of his initial visits to Tijuana and the colorful characters that he had encountered there.  

We ended up having dinner that evening at bar with a punny name on University Avenue in Hillcrest near his apartment that has a sign out front that was so amazing that I must include it here, even though it has nothing to do with Mexico whatsoever.  Advice for the Ages: Don’t be a Creepy McCreeperson.

Coming Up Next… Baja California or Bust: Part 1, in which we actually cross the border.



West Coast-East Coast IPA Throwdown: Pliny the Elder vs. Heady Topper

By Robin Coxe

After a nearly two year hiatus, Kegomatic is back!   Amy and I have by no means stopped drinking beer, but life got the better of us for a while.   Our stints as volunteer bartenders at Venture Café reached their logical conclusion in early 2015.   In September 2015, I succumbed to the Sirens’ song of Silicon Valley and decamped from Boston to San Francisco to take on the role of Pointy-Haired Boss of the R&D team at Ettus Research, a National Instruments Company in Santa Clara, CA.

 During the interview process, my new employer latched on to the mention of this blog on my resumé and enticed me with a description of Friday afternoon Ettus Research Beer; the tale of this longstanding tradition shall be the subject of a future post.   I soon discovered that beer aficionados abound at National Instruments and broke the ice with many new colleagues in Santa Rosa and at NI’s corporate headquarters in Austin with spirited discussions about our favorite brews.   After 16 months of buildup, this beer banter came to a head (bad pun intended) last Wednesday 18 January 2017 in Conference Room C at NI Santa Rosa.

I dutifully sent out an Outlook calendar invite several days in advance entitled Very Important Meeting: Pliny vs. Heady Topper Blind Taste Test.   Needless to say, all recipients RSVPed in the affirmative almost immediately.   [I should note for the record that I did have several legitimately work-related reasons to visit NI Santa Rosa that day.  Trust me.]

Although I am not typically a lover of IPAs– I often compare the experience of drinking most of them to consuming Pine-Sol— I had been talking up The Alchemist’s signature brew, Heady Topper, an 8% ABV double IPA brewed in Stowe, VT, for quite some time.   I eventually took the exhortations of my high school English teachers to “show, don’t tell” to heart.   Because The Alchemist does not distribute outside of Vermont, these deprived Californians had never experienced it.

Even though Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, is squarely in wine country, it also happens to be the home of Russian River Brewing Company, widely considered  to be one of the finest breweries in Northern California.   As it happens, Russian River also brews an 8% ABV double IPA with legendary status, Pliny the Elder, named after the Roman naturalist (23-79 AD) who discovered hops and perished in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.   As a recent transplant to the Bay Area, I had never had the opportunity to sample it, setting the stage for a head-to-head battle of epic proportions.

During my one previous visit to the Russian River brewpub to fête the release of a product aptly code-named Evil Twin, I focused my beer consumption on the world-class sour ales, Supplication and Consecration.   Allegedly, upon tasting one of these polarizing concoctions, one of the more unsubtle VPs visiting from Austin bellowed “this beer tastes like vomit!” within earshot of the entire establishment.   But I digress…

Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder have achieved cult followings in the craft beer community on their respective coasts, due in a large part to scarcity marketing.  The popular press has written strikingly similar articles about the great lengths that consumers obsessed with Pliny (Exhibit A) and Heady Topper (Exhibit B) go to acquire their limited allotments.   Anecdotal observation has revealed that a vast majority of the people who schlep to Stowe or Santa Rosa and stand in line for hours to buy these beers are white men in the 30-44 age demographic.   Craft beer makers take note: the Brewers Association has identified women and Hispanics as the principal growth markets for craft beer in America (and, not surprisingly, millennials).

Dan Wertz made good on the promise he had made the week prior while visiting my office and acquired the requisite Pliny the Elder from Russian River.  The difficulty of procuring Heady Topper from Vermont presented a more daunting logistical challenge.   I had a fortuitously scheduled a 48 hour visit to Boston the weekend before to visit family and friends, and I know People.  More specifically, Amy knows a Person, Mike Yeh, who not only owns a condo in Stowe down the street from The Alchemist, but also loves beer. [Mike and I randomly met up for a few drinks at the now-defunct, but allegedly re-opening Mikkeller Bar in Stockholm in the winter of 2014 when we both happened to be in Sweden on business.   Happily, there is also a Mikkeller outpost in San Francisco.  Yes, it’s in a dodgy neighborhood, but that has hardly prevented me from spending some quality time there.]   I was the lucky beneficiary of Mike and Amy’s inscrutably complicated beer trading scheme, ending up with six cans of Heady Topper, eight cans of Focal Banger, one of El Jefe, and a Double Down Gose IPA from Fort Collins, CO.  I’m saving that last one for the next time I order pad thai for delivery from my iPhone in SoMa instead of actually cooking.

The United Airlines website confirmed that passengers could transport unlimited quantities of alcoholic beverages in checked luggage on domestic flights.  I forked over $25 to The Worst Airline in America and hoped for the best.  My down parka and various articles of clothing served as padding for the precious cargo.   Zipping the bag shut proved somewhat difficult, but persistence paid off.    The transcontinental journey went off without a hitch for both human and beer.

In preparation for the tasting event, I assigned a homework assignment, Amy’s Kegomatic post from April 2015, IPA: Which is the Best Coast?  East Coast IPAs tend to have a stronger malt presence and make more use of European hops with spicier flavor profiles than their West Coast cousins, bombs of hoppiness cultivated in the Pacific Northwest.   Another older post of Amy’s full of IPA factoids also helps to set the stage.

Photo Credit: Justin Magers

At the appointed time, the two contestants prepared for battle and the eager tasters convened.   Justin Magers donned his Pliny the Elder t-shirt especially for the occasion.  Trang Nguyen, although not a beer drinker, found herself caught up in the significance of the moment and prepared to tabulate the results on the whiteboard.   Given that we had ten participants and only four cans of Heady Topper, we had to ignore the exhortation on the can to drink directly from it and had no choice but to ration out the beer in plastic cups.   Unfortunately, the office refrigerator was not up to the task of cooling the cans to the perfectly chilled temperature of the bottles of Pliny, handicapping the East Coast entrant from the get-go.   And the taste test did not end up being blind.  I lacked the time or opportunity to set it up properly, but never mind.

This crowd of beer connoisseurs took their responsibilities seriously and displayed their sophistication and discerning taste by evaluating the two samples properly.  A random guy on the Internet named Otto describes the process pretty decently: 1. See, 2. Swirl, 3. Smell, 4. Sip.   Ruan Lourens declared that Pliny “probably has the best nose of any beer out there,” an assessment that is difficult to dispute.

Then the double fisting started…

The beers were rated on a scale from 1-5. One is undrinkable. Five is the best beer in the universe. Behold the raw data:

Even an avowed non-hophead like myself could not deny the almost transcendent quality of both of these beers, warranting ratings ≥ 4.0.  These two specimens represent craft brewing of the highest order.  If I were rewriting the rules, I would insist that each individual must select a winner.  Go out on a limb and express a definitive opinion, I say!   

Now for the results.  Drumroll please…

Heady Topper [4.38 ± 0.39] edged out Pliny the Elder [4.27± 0.38] , but not by a statistically significant margin.

We made the tactical error of tasting The Alchemist Focal Banger last.  Although this beer garners a perfect score from Beer Advocate, all of us unanimously agreed that it was disgusting.  I offered to ship it back across America to Amy, who professes to like it and expressed dismay that we had spurned it.   Instead, she found a happy home for the remaining six cans with her friend Dan who lives in Noe Valley. I am holding the lone can of El Jefe black IPA hostage in my cubicle and intend to use it as bait to lure the Santa Rosa team south to Santa Clara.

Although the label on the can carrier chides drinkers not to be d-bags and to recycle, my sources report that Justin and Dan kept Heady Topper cans as souvenirs.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the impending arrival of Pliny the Younger, named after the Elder’s nephew and adopted son who lived from 61-c.113 AD and Russian River’s seasonal triple IPA [ABV 10.25%].  Pliny the Younger will only be available from 6-17 February 2017.   We agreed that in spite of a significant fraction of us being summoned to Austin for management meetings during that time period, we will do our utmost to ensure that sufficient quantities of Pliny the Younger will be acquired and savored.

In the end, Heady Topper successfully infiltrated enemy territory.  Although the upstart from Vermont did not emerge with an incontrovertible victory, it proved itself to be an extremely worthy opponent.   Mission accomplished!

Beer and Elections

On 4 November 2014, a.k.a. Midterm Election Day, I (Robin) made the grave error of driving to and from work. Stuck in a hellacious traffic jam on the way home, a snippet from the NPR evening economics program Marketplace by Kai Ryssdal caught my attention: We spend more on beer than elections. This story was inspired by post on the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire blog entitled Americans Spend 16 Times as Much on Beer as on 2014 Midterms.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates the Americans shelled out $59.9B on beer in 2013. The Brewers Association has a more optimistic view of the total addressable beer market in the United States, declaring it to be $100B in 2013. [Correction: this figure includes exports.]  Craft beer accounted for 14.3% of sales and 7.8% market share (15M bbls of a total 196M bbls). A beer barrel (bbl) equals 31 gallons.

Clearly intended to put the influence of money in politics in perspective, the beer vs. election spending trope compares apples to oranges, so to speak. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2014 midterm election cycle, $1.64B was spent on behalf of Democratic candidates and $1.75B was spent on behalf of Republicans ($300M of which can be attributed to the Koch Brothers, who, by means of their oil refinery fortune, founded Americans for Prosperity, Official Bank of the Tea Party).

Consider a more relevant beer factoid, annual spending on beer marketing, which happened to total $1.3B in 2012. In fact, the beer industry spent only half as much plying its products upon beleaguered American voters as those PAC people. Most of that election money went towards…well…marketing one candidate or another, often by means of such below-the-belt tactics as robo-calling peoples’ cell phones at dinnertime and bombarding the airwaves with ads that give new meaning to lying with statistics and taking random quotations woefully out of context.

Correlation does not imply causation, of course. I must confess that this infographic about what kind of beer you drink allegedly says about your political inclinations gave me a chuckle. (It was clearly made before Yuengling returned to Massachusetts.) Let’s face it, comparisons between spending on beer and elections are kind of ridiculous. That being said, exercising one’s democratic right to vote in the United States of America frequently involves holding one’s nose while doing so, selecting the lesser of two evils, and then going home and drinking lots of beer, perhaps in the course of playing an Election Drinking Game.


A British Beer Odyssey

By Robin Coxe

In which Robin, at long last, returns from beer blogging hibernation…

My engineering design team, with members based in Ireland, England, Spain, Poland, and the US, spends an inordinate amount of time huddled around Polycom Batphones at our various work sites on conference calls. Fortunately, our corporate overlords appreciate the benefits of periodic face-to-face collaboration, which tends to result in weeklong bursts of exceptional productivity about once per quarter, fueled in part by the beers of the region we happen to be visiting. I spent the first week of June at the company office in Bath, a city of 90,000 residents situated in Somerset in the southwest of England, approximately 100 miles west of London.

Our local hosts had a quintessentially British beer-themed adventure in store for us after our first full day at the office, Tuesday 3 June 2014. Shortly after lunch, once Queenie the tea cosy had been refilled with a fresh pot, Mark began poring over the early evening train schedule from Bath Spa to Freshford, returning about 4 hours later from Bradford-on-Avon. After the most economical type of tickets had been settled upon (First Great Western offers substantial group discounts, as it happens), we were instructed to convene at 18:30 in front the railroad station and to wear sensible shoes.


At the appointed time, we crammed into the train along with droves of commuters for the epic 9 minute journey to Freshford. After disembarking, we ascended Station Road, turned left, and headed down The Hill to our first destination, The Inn at Freshford, a 16th century building with original timber beams on the banks of the River Frome. Our group saw no signs of the sinkhole that was “big enough to swallow a double decker bus” that had mysteriously appeared next to the place in early April.


The Casque Marque seal mounted to the left of the doorway caught my attention. I later learned through the magic of the Internet that this organization accredits pubs in the UK and Ireland serving cask ale, also referred to as real ale, what Americans tend to associate with stereotypically warm (50-55 degrees F) British beer. The accreditation process involves unannounced quality inspections in which the temperature, taste, aroma, and appearance of the ale is assessed. Of course, there is a smartphone app called “Cask Finder” that enables the discerning cask ale drinker to identify the nearest Casque Marque certified pub. Cask beer has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, accounting for about 15% of beer sales in the UK. Woman are the fastest growing segment of cask ale drinkers, a largely untapped (pun intended) market of discerning beer consumers, if I do say so myself.


Upon entering The Inn, we were immediately greeted by the resident pub dog, a large, friendly beast. Health regulations in most states prohibit non-service animals inside any establishment serving food, so a dog in a bar is a rare sight indeed in the US. All of the taps featured beers from Box Steam Brewery.

Founded in 2004 in the nearby village of Holt, Box Steam brews their beers by hand in steam-heated copper vessels using floor-malted Maris Otter barley from Warminster Maltings, the oldest supplier of malt in the Britain. Built in 1855, operated by Guinness from 1950-1994, and privately owned since, Warminster Maltings caters to the increasing number of British microbrewers such as Box Steam who take advantage of the Progressive Beer Duty adopted in the UK in 2002, whereby smaller breweries pay less tax on their wares than larger producers. This tax incentive differs from the flat discount on each barrel enjoyed by microbreweries in the USA.

Box Steam’s first brewery was located near the Box Tunnel, a railway tunnel that bores through the eponyomous hill between Bath and Chippenham designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. The completion of the Box Tunnel in 1841 capped off the final link in the rail line connecting London with the southwest of England and Wales. The brewers at Box Steam have drawn inspiration from the legacy of Brunel and have embraced the train theme wholeheartedly.


For the first pint of the evening, I opted for the Tunnel Vision amber bitter, an easy drinking, cask-conditioned 4.2% ABV amber ale with traces of caramel and a slight hint of hops at the finish. English Bitter, unlike the West Coast hop-bomb IPAs, which, for whatever reason, are taking America by storm, does not taste particularly bitter. Nor should an English Bitter Ale be confused with bitters, the aromatic, botanical alcoholic concoction consumed after gluttonous meals as a digestif or used for flavoring cocktails.


After quaffing down our beverages in the outdoor beer garden, newly reconstructed over the aforementioned sinkhole, we set out on foot, over the river, through the woods, past some sheep, and alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal towards our next destination. This leg of our route covered the northern half of the so called Two Valleys Walk, documented in impressive detail here.


After a lovely 20 minute stroll through the Wiltshire countryside, we arrived in the hamlet of Avoncliff, the next stop along the Great Western Railway line. We traversed and subsequently walked underneath a bridge at the point where the canal, routed through an aqueduct, crosses the River Avon. We approached our second stop, the Cross Guns Free House, another almost ridiculously scenic 16th century relic complete with terraced garden and a vintage ice cream truck parked out front. Walking a mile seemed to accelerate the rate at which Pint #1 percolated from mouth to bladder, so before placing my order, I made a beeline for the loo located in an outbuilding.


Cross Guns also featured the brews of Box Steam on draught. The hopheads in our midst opted for the Derail Ale, an IPA that pays homage to Brunel’s flawed early steam locomotive designs unaptly named “Thunderer” and “Hurricane.” Another hoppy concoction, the Piston Broke golden ale, immortalizes another of Brunel’s engineering missteps, the “atmospheric” railway design for the South Devon Railway that relied on forced air pressure from a series of stationary air pumps to propel trains on the GWR extension between Exeter and Plymouth. Pistons attached to the trains ran through a continuous vacuum pipe laid down the center of the tracks.

The system required leather flaps to form vacuum seals in the pistons that failed repeatedly. The vacuum sucked out the natural oils from the leather, making it vulnerable to water and cold. Tallow applied to re-lubricate the leather proved irresistable to rodents. The atmospheric railway was shut down in 1848 after operating for less than a year, at which point the South Devon Railway converted back to conventional steam locomotives. Although “Brunel’s atmospheric caper” did not end well, the technology has withstood the test of time—an atmospheric airport train opened in Brazil just last year in advance of the World Cup.

The “Free House” in the name would suggest that the Cross Guns would not be encumbered by the so-called UK “beer tie”, an arrangement whereby a pub is obligated to buy its beer from a particular brewery or pub conglomerate. However, the Box Steam Brewery lists both The Inn at Freshford and The Cross Guns at Avoncliff in the “Our Pubs” section of their website, so the exact financial relationship between the brewery and the two pubs is unclear. The beer tie manifests itself in several different forms. In some instances, the brewery owns the pub outright and either rents it out to an operator/manager via a tenancy agreement or directly employs the publican. In an alternative arrangement, a brewery may extend a mortgage to the pub owner with an exclusivity clause. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has led lobbying efforts in recent years to reform and regulate the beer tie, citing price gouging and other anti-competitive practices.

Beer tie arrangements are not allowed in the US, as regulatory agencies have frowned upon vertical integration in the alcoholic beverage industry since the conclusion of Prohibition in 1933. Instead, all US states except Washington have instituted a variant of the three-tier distribution system (producers, distributors, and retailers), a subject of intense debate in American craft beer circles. [Coming soon on a discussion of proposed modifications to regulations governing the three-tier system in Massachusetts.]


Anyway, back to the Box Steam beer itself… Intent on sampling as much English Bitter as possible, I chose the more optimistically named Chuffin’ Ale, a 4.0% ABV brown best bitter that made its debut in 2010 on the 175th Anniversary of the Great Western Railway. The Chuffin’ Ale, brewed with English Fuggles hops and Maris Otter and Crystal malts with added wheat, has been described by beer snobs as having “hints of crème brûlée,” a characterization that I did not dispute as I leisurely sipped it down on at a picnic table by the river.


Our dinner reservation awaited, so we eventually brought ourselves to press onward towards Bradford-on-Avon. It did not escape my notice that as we strolled along the canal for the final mile of our journey, the guys nipped off one by one into the woods to relieve themselves.


By the time we arrived at our destination, I was cursing the anatomical disadvantages of being female. Fortunately, the Three Gables in Bradford-on-Avon had spotlessly clean toilets. I must confess to having no recollection whatsoever of what I ate (scallops were perhaps involved), although I do remember thinking that the establishment went a long way towards resurrecting the unfortunate reputation of British cuisine and customer service. This most memorable evening was punctuated by the return train that conveyed us back to Bath arriving exactly on schedule.


Grateful Harvest: A New England Beer Tradition

By Robin Coxe

Had I gotten my act together earlier, I would have written this post prior to Thanksgiving, but better late than never…


Since its inception in 2010, Grateful Harvest, a cranberry amber ale, has overtaken UFO Hefeweizen as my favorite beer from Boston’s own Harpoon Brewery. The fact that my family plays a small part in the Grateful Harvest story reinforces this opinion. Local cranberry grower A.D. Makepeace Company of Wareham, MA donates the cranberries for each batch.


As it happens, I was adopted by WASPs at the tender age of 4 months, which explains why my name is Robin Coxe and not Young-Mee Park. My family has been in Massachusetts since the dawn of time (well, 1630 or so). My paternal grandmother’s maiden name is Makepeace, a name subsequently bestowed on my father and brother as a middle name. My great uncle Russell was the CEO of A.D. Makepeace Company, the family cranberry business, from 1946-1983. A.D. Makepeace is the largest landowner in Eastern Massachusetts and is still the world’s largest cranberry grower in spite of fierce competition in recent years from cranberry concerns in Canada and Wisconsin. My brother currently serves on the Board of Directors. In addition to funny ads featuring cranberry farmers, the Ocean Spray cranberry cooperative has a conference room named in honor of Abel Makepeace, Russell’s grandfather, in its corporate headquarters in Lakeville, MA. I drank countless gallons of cranberry juice growing up and actively disliked orange juice until I was well into my 20s.


In the current age of wacky diet fads, cranberries get a bad rap for not being edible by humans without added sugar. Nevertheless, they happen to be rich in antioxidants and are thought to stave off heart disease. The cranberry was the key component of pemmican, referred to in a recent National Geographic piece as “the original energy bar, 400 years before anyone knew what a superfood was.” A staple of the Native Americans that populated New England prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims in the early 17th century, the cranberry has retained a prominent place on the Thanksgiving table, primarily in the form of a gelatinous sauce. To quote Martha Stewart: “Thanksgiving dinner would not be complete without the customary cranberry.” Harpoon Brewery agrees: “We brew Grateful Harvest because we love Thanksgiving here in New England and thought a cranberry ale would be a perfect beer for the occasion.”

This seasonal beer is available from mid-October through December. For every six-pack of Grateful Harvest sold, Harpoon donates $1 to the local food bank in the area in which the beer was purchased through the Harpoon Helps program, which has a most excellent motto: To Brew and To Serve. Unlike its overwrought watermelon and pumpkin-flavored cousins that rear their ugly heads earlier in the year, Grateful Harvest is a smooth, malty concoction with hints of fruitiness balanced nicely by the signature cranberry tartness and bitter notes from the hops. At 5.9% ABV and 30 IBUs, Grateful Harvest has garnered accolades for its drinkability and refreshing character. Many people to whom I’ve served Grateful Harvest comment that they were struck by the subtlety of the flavor profile; if they hadn’t seen the label or been told the backstory, they wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that it contained the essence of puréed cranberries.

So, if you live in New England, hurry down to your local packie and pick up a six-pack of Harpoon Grateful Harvest before it disappears from the shelves until next Thanksgiving.

Chronicles of an Accidental Bartender

By Robin Coxe


The Backstory

On Thursday evenings, I emerge from the electrical engineering nerd cave in which I spend most of my waking hours and moonlight as a volunteer bartender. Yes, such a thing actually exists. I dispense alcoholic beverages to those with an entrepreneurial bent gratis out of the goodness in my heart. Inspired by the eponymous 2002 book by Teresa Esser, the Venture Café is a networking event featuring free craft beer and wine for the Boston-area startup community that takes place every Thursday from 3-8 pm sponsored by Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, home to several hundred early-stage tech companies. The brainchild of Tim Rowe, CEO of CIC, and Carrie Stalder, a MIT Sloan graduate and former aerospace engineer, the Venture Café began operations in 2010.

I first heard about the Venture Café through the startup grapevine soon after moving back to Boston from Los Angeles. Although hobnobbing is hardly my strong suit, I somehow managed to secure several consulting contracts, one of which eventually morphed into my current job with a CIC client company, as a consequence of fortuitous conversations with people that I met at the Café. After I had gotten the lay of the land and established myself in the community, I felt impelled to do some small part to ensure that others could continue to benefit from the unique environment of Venture Café.

The first test of worthiness for all new Venture Café volunteers is to take some greeter shifts. A visitor to the Café enters his or her email address and a password or authenticates with a CIC keycard on a laptop at a kiosk set up in the hallway next to the 5th floor elevator bay. The sign-in app enables attendees to connect their LinkedIn profiles to their Venture Café accounts and to log on to the website and view the other guests at the Café on any given week. Greeters shepherd people through the sign-in process, check IDs and stamp hands of those of legal drinking age, explain the Venture Café concept to newbies, and give rundowns on the weekly schedule of the events. If the process proceeds according to plan, a label printer disgorges nametags with a number in parentheses indicating the number of times individuals have attended the Café.

When I informed my father that I was embarking on this endeavor, his response was, “I’m glad to hear it. That means that you’ll actually have to talk to people.” Basking in the warm glow of parental support, I did my time as a greeter for several months. Suffice it to say that it was a character-building experience and there is a damn good reason that I am not a hostess at a chain restaurant. At this point, I may well be the world expert at debugging the label printers. Ankle surgery necessitated a several month hiatus from volunteering at Venture Café in the winter and spring of 2012.

One day while I was still wearing The Boot on my left foot and clomping around on crutches with a thermos of Peet’s French roast strapped to my back, I learned that CIC was offering ServeSafe training for Café volunteers interested in becoming qualified as bartenders. On a whim, I signed up. Our instructor, a jocular off-duty cop from Quincy, ensured that we all passed the multiple-choice test with flying colors after watching unintentionally comedic video vignettes on one’s responsibilities and potential liabilities as a bartender. I’m convinced that the training videos featured the same C-list actors as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act webinar that the Legal Department made me watch exhorting me not to bribe foreign officials. The ServeSafe takeaway: bartenders can be held personally liable for mayhem wrought by patrons we have over-served. Consequently, we have the right to refuse service at our discretion, but drunk people can be volatile, so having large men around and 911 on speed dial has the potential to make our lives easier.

Several weeks later, certification in hand, I took the plunge and signed up for a bar shift. Amy, Greg, and Shahin showed me the ropes—how to avoid pouring a cup of foam, how to change an empty keg, how to strategically position kegs and white wine in the kegerator, etc. I soon discovered that I had joined what is undoubtedly the most overeducated bartending team in Greater Boston, or possibly the entire universe. Between the four of us, we have 3 Ph.D.s in science and engineering, a J.D., and a masters degree in neuroscience.

In spite of, or perhaps because of 3 degrees in physics, when I first stepped behind the bar, I knew next to nothing about beer other than I liked most of it. Nuggets of wisdom imparted by Venture Café Bar Manager and beer geek extraordinaire Amy, some strategic book purchases on Amazon, a subscription to Beer Advocate, and liberal sampling of the beer on offer soon rectified that situation. However, given that I have a vast preference for malt and hops over fermented grape juice, my general ignorance of wine persists. I have only the vaguest notion of how (or if) wankerish wine-speak translates into flavor sensations. I am of the general opinion that the wine we serve tastes like swill, which may or may not actually be true. I discovered at the Wine Expo earlier this year that I have a penchant for expensive wine. Budgetary constraints dictate that all of the wine at Venture Café must cost less than $10/bottle, which could explain a lot. When people ask me for wine recommendations, my magic formula involves picking randomly and endorsing emphatically. No one has ever complained.

Although hardly surprising in hindsight, the most revelatory aspect of this volunteer bartending gig has been the often snark-inducing and occasionally downright bizarre observations of human behavior under the influence of moderate amounts of alcohol.

Uncommon Courtesy

In my experience, rudeness to people in service professions tends to indicate a misplaced sense of entitlement and an excessive self-regard. But before stepping behind the bar at Venture Café, I had only infrequently been on the receiving end of blatant impoliteness of this nature. Although we have never taken an exact count, I estimate that less than 40% of people who come up to the bar for a beverage bother to say “please” and/or “thank you.” When someone fails Politeness 101, the first thought that pops into my head is: “Who are your parents?” followed by flashbacks to the late 1970’s of my mother’s withering stares when my brother and I failed to mind our manners.

To make a sweeping, yet accurate generalization, women are, on average, significantly more polite than men. (On a typical Thursday, approximately 70-80% of the visitors are male.) The rudest ones tend to be either between the ages of 21 and 28 or over 50. Every week, at least five of the most egregious offenders cannot even bring themselves to ask for a specific beer. They grunt incomprehensibly and point, often ambiguously, at one of the taps. It would be much more entertaining for yours truly if they could at least come out with: “Me caveman. Me want beer! Ooga wooga!” One day, after an unusually long string of verbally challenged patrons, I exclaimed, exasperated: “Use your words!”

Sometimes when the Café gets very crowded (around 6 pm on sunny days when venture capitalists are holding office hours or some organization is sponsoring food), the frenzied din of conversation makes it difficult to hear people when they actually do speak up and order a drink. I can provide one piece of helpful advice to Café patrons in such a situation: repeating the name of the wine you would like in a bad French accent at increasingly high volume will not help your cause.

The under-30 set seems to favor the direct, yet boorish method of ordering beer: “Give me a Slumbrew IPA.” Sometimes, I am tempted to answer: “No.” I restrain myself, but usually cannot fully suppress an incredulous look as I hand over the beer. The percentage of the recipients who say thank you is in the single digits after demanding a beer in this manner.

Some of our more recalcitrant visitors have been brainwashed by the marketing machines of the likes of Miller-Coors and Anheuser-Bush InBev into believing that mass-produced light lagers constitute good beer. One day about 3 months ago, a gentleman in his mid-50s walked up to the bar and declared: “None of the beer you serve satisfies me.” As it happened, it was his lucky day. A Dutch economic development organization had sponsored a portion of the beer that day. “I’m sorry to hear that. Here, have a Heine,” I said, working very hard to keep my eyebrows from spontaneously raising themselves. He beamed and responded: “That’s more like it!” Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.

At least twice a day, a younger guy asks for a porter or a stout without knowing that these dark brews tend to be full-bodied and have strong flavor profiles. He skulks back to the bar several minutes later with a disgusted look on his face, deposits his almost-full Vegware cup on the bar, and says something to the effect of: “This beer is undrinkable. Take it back and give me something else.” To which I reply, “Here, have our lightest beer… You’re welcome!”

Pro Tip: if you want a bartender to like you, don’t be a jackass.