On site at a mezcal palenque in Oaxaca, Mexico. From left to right: Frijolotes co-founder Fred Baptista; Pedro Martínez Jimenez (Celso's middle child) and his son, Pedro; mezcalero Celso Martínez López; Guilermo Martínez Jimenez (Celso's oldest son). (Courtesy of Young Jung)
Known as “hop bombs” by “hop heads,” IPAs are impossible to escape in this era of craft microbreweries and taprooms. If you’re a beer drinker who grew up on the West Coast, you’ve undoubtedly had a taste of a hops-heavy ale at some point. Often plastered with aggressive labels like “Pernicious,” “Head Hunter,” “Workhorse” and “Palate Wrecker,” a truly “dank” West Coast IPA is unmistakable with its distinct aromas of bitter citrus, pine cone and, sometimes, a little splash of marijuana.
The hops lifestyle isn’t for everyone—especially drinkers who prefer lighter beers or spirit-based cocktails. But in the Bay Area there are many alternatives to the norm, and finding a way to make unexpected blends for a diverse audience often happens organically.
Triple-distilled with Centennial hops (a common IPA ingredient known for its earthy, floral characteristics), Hop Mez attempts to balance hoppy West Coast traditions with the heat of mezcal from Mexico’s southernmost region. The offbeat process uses agave mash for two distillations and introduces hops—an ingredient historically unaffiliated with mezcal—during the third.
“I wanted to connect California with Oaxaca,” says Baptista, who is the co-founder of a regional liquor import business, Frijolotes, which distributes Hop Mez. “I’m a beer geek. I like beers that are native to California, like the [Anchor Steam] California Common, so I took that knowledge down to Oaxaca to brew with Don Celso [Martínez López] at his palenque.”
Frijolotes unofficially began in 1997, when Baptista and his eventual business partner, Young Jung, were students at San Francisco State University. The two friends took a road trip down to El Salvador, where Baptista's family had immigrated from. While passing through Mexico, Baptista and Jung fell in love with the range of spirits that they encountered there. Back then, Baptista tells me, mezcal wasn’t as popular in the U.S. and even Mexico, but he enjoyed finding “very off-the-radar stuff” at pulquerias, where he would taste whatever mezcals and other spirits were available.
In 2017, Baptista and Jung (who went on to own a wine shop) finally teamed up to combine their skills and interests by opening Frijolotes, a liquor import company. Their first objective? To identify a small-batch mezcalero who could provide a distinctive mezcal for them to introduce to Bay Area customers.
That’s when they revisited Mexico with an emphasis on Oaxaca, the mezcal capital of the world. Eventually, they met Celso Martínez López, a fourth-generation mezcalero from Santiago Matatlán.
“[López] has customers [in Oaxaca], but he wanted a wider audience. He proposed working together to bring his brand to the U.S.,” says Baptista. “He’s been making it for almost 20 years. This isn’t industrial. It’s a celebratory spirit, and it has an element of tradition with the Zapotecs. There’s a spiritual ritual to making it. And there’s a very attached ritual to even drinking mezcal.”
López specializes in a rare espadín-based mezcal known as “pechuga,” which involves a raw turkey hanging above a copper pot during the second distillation phase.
It’s not a type of mezcal I’d ever heard of, but having seen first-hand the complex process of a mezcal palenque in Oaxaca, I can only imagine the amount of careful craft and precision it requires. Even when there isn’t a turkey involved, the agave plants used to make mezcal must be grown for as long as 20 years. They are then cut down and baked in the earth using pits that employ charcoal, wood and clay. Unlike many jimadores (tequila makers) who have largely adopted modern technology in order to mass-produce their liquors, most mezcaleros still use old-world, small-batch methods. That level of extreme attention and expertise is what drew the interest of Baptista and Jung and inspired them to start Frijolotes with a mission to provide unique, eclectic flavor profiles to U.S. consumers, particularly here in the Bay Area.
“I put hops in a coffee cone and poured mezcal through it,” says Baptista. “It seemed like a natural stage with my interest in beer and mezcal, having been around all of it and how they’re both made.”
Having already developed a palate for mezcal throughout his life and through his relationship with el maestro López, Baptista was inspired to mix the two worlds, each with their own specific origins, profiles and traditions. He drove his California homebrewing kit and a variety of hops down to Oaxaca and began to brew at López’s palenque.
The result is Hop Mez. Though the fiery bite of the mezcal is a bit tamed and the powerful punch of the hops doesn’t hit as fully as it would in a full-bodied IPA, there are subtle traces of both in each sip. One reviewer on the mezcal-focused blog Mezcalistas writes, “The obvious question is whether this smells or tastes like hops—strangely it doesn’t.” He notes the mezcal’s scents as “pippin apple, hibiscus and pickled capers”—an oddly accurate description.
Born from experimentation and free-mindedness, the spirit embodies what Frijolotes’ founders say is part of their mission as immigrant-raised liquor importers and spirit makers in the Bay Area.
“I immigrated from Korea when I was 8 years old,” says Jung. “If you or your parents are immigrants, something is percolating inside of us that we want to share with our surrounding communities. There’s a pride about sharing something you grew up with.”
For Jung, that sense of cultural connection is expressed through another new Frijolotes spirit: Bok Gin. The Korean-inspired gin incorporates ingredients such as sesame seeds, kelp, Korean perilla leaves, gochujang and ginger.
Together, the duo—along with the indispensable partnership they’ve developed with López in Oaxaca—hope to combine their variety of original ideas, mixed backgrounds, diverse skill sets and selective ingredients to bring Frijolotes to the Bay Area and beyond.
“It’s not completely Oaxacan, it’s not completely Mexican,” Baptista says of Hop Mez. “It’s something new.”
It’s that pioneering mentality that has made the Bay Area, and California at large, who we are—a spirited, eclectic people worth celebrating. And that’s something I’ll always drink to.