On craft beer's frontier

Camila del la Parra meets the Mexican brewery doing it right, in the face of the multinationals’ stranglehold


In the land of the axolotl salamander, in the swamps of southern Mexico City, there is a small piece of land brimming with barley. Surrounded by abandoned agricultural lands and the occasional vegetable patch, this field is tended to by a group of youngsters – all members of Cervecería OBNI, a local micro-brewery. Their goals? To make the Mexican craft beer market varied, competitive, and local. And brew phenomenal beer, of course.

We’re all too familiar with the image of an ice-cold corona with a quartered lime – a Mexican staple across all nations. Seeing as Mexico is the world's largest beer exporter, this comes as no surprise to anyone. What does come as a rather disheartening find, however, is that not much is different within the country. With two beer magnates – Heineken Mexico and Grupo Modelo – being responsible for almost 98% of the country’s beer production, there are many industrial brands, but very few craft ones.

This is where OBNI comes in. Rebellious at its core, this 100% Mexican, 20-people-strong team is made up of brewers, engineers, programmers and business people tucked away in a house-turned-office not even 20 minutes away from Frida Kahlo’s legendary Blue House. 

“We just wanted to make beer, but wow, has it been complicated” starts Aldo Curiel, the founder and CEO of OBNI. “The two beer transnationals consume so much that there simply isn’t enough to spare for others, so we and everyone else have to buy their supplies from abroad. Obviously, this means we can’t compete in the market, since we have to sell our products at twice or three times the price of industrial beer.”

The first challenge OBNI faced was sourcing the tanks, machines, and other essential bits and bobs. While Mexico is a steel powerhouse, there are not many processing plants or businesses catering to brewer’s interests. Frustrated, they had to turn to foreign markets, where they were able to get a tank made of – you guessed it – Mexican steel. “It’s good quality, but we’re not supporting the local economy and we want everybody to grow together,” said Aldo. “However, I am an engineer and these machines are not rockets – they’re quite simple. So I said, why not? And we began prototyping.”

OBNI made the machines they needed to make the beer they wanted. It began with a bottling machine, which took over four different tries and hundreds of exploding cans to get right. Now it sits on the counter, next to the tank, like an oversized Nespresso machine. Then came the chiller. For this one, they bought a big old fridge and added enough cooling mechanisms to keep over 100 gallons of beer at the right temperature and engineered a thermostat. But for the team, the best part of being almost 100% DIY is that they get to share everything they make with other craft breweries.

“The rule is that we always give the plans to everyone for free. We have created Mexican machines, using Mexican utensils, creating jobs within our community and helping us save thousands of pesos. We want everyone to benefit from our creations because the more other craft breweries grow, the more we can grow too.” says Santiago Kent, the business manager. 

Their struggles haven’t just been the machines – the barley and the hops have been challenging to find, too. “We approached farmers, but of all those already growing what we needed, nobody was interested in selling anything under a tonne” continues Aldo. These amounts are not only unaffordable, but also very difficult to keep if you don't have vast storage space. And so, their only option was, as for all other Mexican craft breweries, to buy their grains from their northern neighbours – famous for their transgenic grains and aggressive farming methods. Just as they did with the machinery, they took what they could at first, but began plotting a way around the issue for themselves and for everyone else stuck in the same position. Then came Josué, a recent biology graduate with extensive knowledge of ancestral agricultural techniques. 

“The only Mexican thing about craft beer in Mexico is that it’s brewed there – and that’s about it. I wanted to change that. We have good grains, great soil and all the knowledge we need to make it happen.” He said.

Soon after he joined, the whole team hopped on the train to the Xochimilco wetlands, on the southern edge of the capital. These used to be extensive canals of crystalline water, endemic flora and fauna and a thriving agricultural community. Now, because of highly exploitative practices and rampant urbanisation, there’s very little left. There are trajineras (punting boats extravagantly decorated with flowers) and snacks shops catering to tourists. If you look closely, there are some vegetable patches, but most of them are full of weeds, plastic debris and empty disposable cups. 

In Xochimilco, Josu began working his magic in the chinampa (commonly referred to as a floating garden). This is a Mesoamerican farming technique that consists of creating an artificial island with layers of vegetation, mud and dirt so the lake provides it with constant moisture and nutrients. Instead of using pots for the germination phase, they use chapines, which is highly fertile mud cut into small cubes into which they plant the seeds and cover with dry leaves. These agricultural practices were the norm before the Spanish conquest and, although their use has significantly declined since, they can yield incredibly nutritious crops. 

I am an engineer and these machines are not rockets – they’re quite simple. So I said, why not?

“Non-transgenic grains, being kind to our planet, preserving of our heritage – all of this matters to us. These agricultural techniques have been abandoned in favour of more industrialised ones, which damage the fragile eco-systems of the region. A lot of people have also been forced out of farming for economic reasons.” Josu tells me. “It’s very sad to see all these forgotten lands fill up with trash.”

Earlier this year, the team at OBNI planted barley and hops in their chapín. The hope, of course, is to produce enough for their brews, but also to encourage their neighbours to get back into farming with the simple promise that, if they grow it, they’ll buy it from them at an above-market price. 

A similar thing happened when Aldo and a few others went to visit the home of a coworker in the mountains of Oaxaca, the mountainous region that created tequila’s artisanal cousin Mezcal. Known for the richness of its cultures, the multilingualism of its peoples, and the ridiculously incredible food, they found all that. But they also found acres of neglected farmlands. “Apparently, a lot of people can’t sell their produce and it just rots. So a lot of them have migrated to the United States and left their fields wild.” Aldo told me. “Of course, we can’t stop them from leaving, but we can do our part to make staying more appealing.” First, they spoke to the family they were staying with. Then to their neighbours, who told their families, and so on. After a few weeks of back and forth, of learning how to grow barley, hops and other grains, they shook hands. The first harvest of the Oaxaca mountains will be ready this summer.

As with every obstacle they’ve found a way around, they are encouraging fellow craft brewers to do as they do by putting them in touch with farmers that are eager to embark on a new adventure. 

The next step in OBNI’s growth is not only to continue pushing for a truly 100% Mexican craft brew but to create a platform where people can buy it. Officially, only 1% of beer consumed in Mexico is artisanal, but in reality, it’s most likely around 10% or 15% when counting all the nano brewers and microbrewers that sell directly to the consumer. “The best, and often the only way to get craft beer in Mexico is to message the brewer on social media. It’s not uncommon to see one-person breweries delivering their beer to someone’s house in their family car.” 

The prohibitive prices (when compared to those offered by the beer magnates) and the endless admin that results from selling at independent shops, bars and restaurants create a bottleneck of craft beer. Once again, OBNI has experienced this first-hand and, instead of giving up, they have once again risen to the occasion. 

You might have wondered at the beginning of this article why there were programmers within OBNI. Well, here is your answer: they are building a craft beer delivery service for Mexico City to help small brewers get their beer out to the market. By hopping on the Covid-19 food and alcohol delivery boom, they hope to widen the reach of their and their peer’s creations.

“Our goal is to grow the market. To do that, we need to lift each other on every front and show everyone that, if we can do it, so can everyone else.” Aldo concludes. “We need to show our community that it is possible – despite Heineken Mexico and Grupo Modelo’s choking grip. We can do it, but we have to do it together.”

Share this article