Opening this past spring, Midtown’s Cantina Alley, the al fresco, art-filled Mexican restaurant located between J and K and 23rd and 24th streets, earned early distinction for its delicious fish tacos, its playful cocktails (including the $23 La Sandia, served in a hollowed out watermelon) and its exuberant atmosphere.
Less known, but equally praiseworthy, however, is its meticulously curated craft beer program.
Cantina Alley is the only restaurant in Northern California with a tap list totally dedicated to Mexican craft beer. You won’t find handles for Track 7 or Stone there, only those for independent breweries based in Baja California, such as Border Psycho from Tijuana and Cerveceria Wendlandt from Ensenada.
Mexican craft beer isn’t exactly a new development – Beer Advocate ran an article about the burgeoning Baja California scene back in December 2013 – but it is probably new to many of Cantina Alley’s customers. To educate customers on the concept, the owners tapped Mason Starbird, an American craft beer veteran who most recently worked at Rubicon, to become their resident expert.
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“I knew that there were some very small craft breweries in Mexico, but I did not know what they were making, or how well they were making it,” Starbird said. “I was pleasantly surprised when I started trying these beers, and I was really impressed with what these breweries were doing in a relatively short amount of time.”
Proximity to the booming San Diego beer scene has contributed greatly to the industry’s ascension, he said, but still very few Mexican craft breweries export across the border.
Starbird currently has access to only four Mexican breweries through a small, San Diego-based distributor, a situation he hopes to improve later this year when he tours the Baja California beer scene in person. “I want to hit those four, but there are a couple of other breweries in those same cities that I also want to hit, and see if I can expand the amount of beer that we have available,” he said.
Since these beers receive a very limited export, they are largely crafted for an evolving Mexican palate, rather than the easily bored American palate. Therefore, it’s probably not a surprise that the beers I sampled were largely solid and enjoyable but likely unchallenging to the restless beer enthusiast.
The simple and refreshing Hann Zomer saison from Cerveceria Wendlandt smelled and tasted like a typical California saison, though heavier and less nuanced than the classic style. Meanwhile, Agua Mala’s Czech-style Sirena pilsner was juicier than expected, offering some unusual but not unpleasant citrus flavors.
Cerveceria Wendlandt’s Perro del Mar, a delicious hop candy IPA brewed in the West Coast style, was the obvious standout, but the La Perversa double IPA by Border Psycho tasted tepid by today’s standards.
Of course, Starbird chooses beers largely based on their ability to pair with the food at Cantina Alley, rather than their ability to impress jaded beer snobs. He samples every beer before it goes on tap, always considering how it will pair with the menu items, so he’s not trying to obliterate taste buds.
“That’s an extremely important part, because the food is so central at Cantina Alley,” he said. “The fact that a lot of these beers come from similar regions where these dishes originated, makes it that much easier.”
To go with the red snapper “Baja fish” taco, Starbird recommends a Veraniega from Cerveceria Wendlandt. “It’s a very light beer that has some lime characteristics and some salt characteristics that pair very well with that fish taco.”
Cantina Alley also offers Tecate and Corona and other mainstream staples, and those brand name beers continue to outsell the craft offerings by a wide margin.
“Because a lot of our customers are coming in looking for a Mexican beer, they’re mostly looking for a lager or a pilsner,” Starbird said. “The first step that I’ve been trying to teach my staff is to turn them on to something similar.”
Midtown’s Cantina Alley is located at 2320 Jazz Alley, Sacramento; 916-970-5588; cantinaalley.com
Glug, glug, pass?
Petaluma-based brewery Lagunitas has partnered with the cannabis company Absolute Xtracts to produce a beer infused with terpenes, the pungently sweet oils that produce the distinctive flavors and aromas of cannabis.
There are genetic similarities between cannabis flowers and hops, so Lagunitas elected to add the flavor-enhancing terpenes to SuperCritical Ale, a high-bitterness IPA.
Terpenes don’t carry any psychoactive properties, so you’ll only get the usual beer buzz after consuming SuperCritical. If you want a stonier buzz, Lagunitas and Absolute Xtracts also have produced a hop-flavored vape cartridge.
Beer of the week
With so many craft breweries starting to adopt the simpler and swifter process of “kettle souring,” the large volume of sour beers poured at the Summit Beer Festival in Sacramento on Sept. 9 hardly came as a shock.
However, classic barrel-aged sours from stalwarts such as Almanac and Sante Adairius still ruled the day, and the best of all was Hyper Paradise from Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel.
A golden sour aged in oak barrels along with mangoes and passion fruit, Hyper Paradise boasts the sun-kissed color of a bursting ripe mango, while the flavors balance beautifully between tart tropical fruits and refreshing nectar.
Daniel Barnes is a freelance writer, film critic, beer enthusiast and one half of the blog “His & Her Beer Notes.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org