Beer in Mexico

Columbus, Cortez and Coronado all showed up in Mexico looking for gold. What gold they did find, they traded for smallpox, syphilis and mercury poisoning. Thanks, guys. It wasn’t until the 20th century that a friendlier gold was discovered in Mexico, a lustrous liquid gold–cerveza!

Mexican beer in the United States costs a couple of bucks more than the stuff from Milwaukee or Golden. You’ll usually find it only in a bottle or can. But those things don’t matter when you drink it and are transported to a palm-lined beach on the very edge of civilization. Last year, 90 million cases of the number one brand, Corona, were sold here. Guess that beach was pretty crowded.

With Mexican beer, we want the feelings of escape. We are not obliged to contemplate the crisp taste, sweet aroma and golden clarity. No, with a beer from south of the border, we take a vacation from having to think about our beer. The beauty is in the simplicity.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that on nearly every block is a Mexican restaurant serving these beers. Or that in America we have embraced Cinco de Mayo and the Fiesta de los Muertos just as happily as St. Patrick’s Day or Fat Tuesday. You see, we like the festivities, even if we aren’t Hispanic or Irish or Catholic or pagan. If there’s good food, music, and cold beer, we’ll all get our groove on.

Mexico throws a pretty good party, too. Which you already know if you’ve spent a week in Cancun or Acapulco. In Mexico you can find endless miles of pretty coastline, subtropical jungles, ancient pyramids and, yes, about 60 million beer-drinking people.

Yet it wasn’t until the 1960s that Mexico began to achieve its current popularity as a destination for Americans. The tropical allure followed the 1963 filming of “Night of the Iguana” in Puerto Vallarta and the nearby village of Mismaloya. The film’s cast was a who’s who of Hollywood adulterous partiers, including Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. They attracted a lot of publicity.

It seems Ms. Gardner really enjoyed her beer, often staying up all night and into the next day’s filming after drinking her cabana boys under the table. Burton was said to have drunk a case of Mexican beer daily and required that his cooler be kept filled with the local brew at all times. As the gossip columnists began reporting on this lovely and isolated location, travelers began seeking out that sort of Mexico–the one with the beautiful people. The decades that followed saw the development of Acapulco, Cancun, Cozumel, Guymas and Mazatlán. Though our impressions might be a bit skewed, the pristine beach is how we think of Mexico and the golden lager is the cerveza de México.

Ancient Aphrodisiacs

But did you know that long before Europeans and then Americans first visited Mexico, the country had its own rustic, beer-like beverages? These were derived from native plants that grew in the hot, poor soil.

Perhaps you’ve heard of pulque, the fermented sap of the octopus-like maguey plant. The plant’s central core is tapped, yielding a liter or two of sap per day for several months before dying. The sap then ferments due to wild yeast. The resulting gluey drink is thought to have aphrodisiac effects. That’s no surprise, since traditional sexual stimulants are often slimy. Just think of oysters or sea urchins. In the Ukraine, a cocktail of sour cream and beer is supposed to stiffen one’s resolve. If you can imagine sour cream mixed with beer, you can appreciate what swallowing pulque is like.

When the Spanish arrived, they brought distillation technology with them. Good thing, too, since they didn’t like the viscous texture and lactic tartness of pulque. They figured out that they could roast the maguey cores, mash them under a stone wheel, ferment them, and then distill the resulting beer. In this way, they produced a smoky liquor called mezcal, the precursor of tequila. Like pulque, mezcal carries rumors of increasing one’s sexual appetite.

To get the most starch from the plant, the budding seed stalk, which resembles a giant asparagus, is circumcised (Really! The Spanish term is circuncide.) causing the so-called pineapple, or piña, to swell with stored starches. The piñas, sometimes weighing over 100 pounds, are then roasted to convert the starches to fermentable sugars. Historically, piñas were roasted in a shallow pit filled with hot rocks. The rocks were heated by very hot mesquite wood fires that imparted a smoky flavor to the resulting goop.

Small batch mezcals from the Oaxaca region can still be found today under the name Don del Maguey. Pricey, but divine. Sip one straight up like a fine bourbon.

From Cactus and Corn

There were other local brews, too. In the Sonoran desert, straddling the modern day Arizona-Mexico border, the crimson fruit of the gigantic saguaro cactus was made into a beery drink. The succulent pods impart a hibiscus flavor to the brew after boiling for an hour or so. Tiswin, as it was known, was fermented in special clay pots that were buried in the floor of the brewmaster’s hut.

The drink played an important role in summertime rain-making and fertility celebrations where tribal dancers “sung down the rain.” Only during this ceremony would the men and women dance together holding hands in a circle. Later they could pair off with each other, even if not with their spouse. (Reminds me of a lot of those hot tub parties down the street.)

Corn was another indigenous crop. When fermented, the native people called it chicha. Up north, the plains Indians called it choc. Corn has enjoyed long-running success as a symbol of fertility. It’s no surprise that chicha was a sacramental drink.

European brewers who relocated to the Americas in the mid to late 19th century adopted the use of corn. Savvy beer drinkers are often heard knocking Mexican beer for having corn in it, but cerveza can be thought of as a natural evolution from earlier forms of native homebrew.

It was the immigrant brewers and beer drinkers who came to Mexico from Austria, Germany and France who really changed the landscape of Mexican beer. Using early forms of refrigeration or conditioning rooms buried beneath hillsides, pilsner-styled lagers were possible.

Even though the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Mexico lasted just four short years, the beers caught on. The defeat of Napoleon’s French army on May 5, 1862, by a poorly armed Mexican militia gave rise to the celebration known as Cinco de Mayo. For Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who had been installed by the French as Emperor, it spelled the end. The beer and brewers remained. The accordion remained, too, in case you were wondering how that instrument ever got into traditional Mexican music.

It shouldn’t surprise you then that there are some other beer styles from the Old World available in Mexico. Have you enjoyed a light brown, malty smooth Negra Modelo in the Vienna lager style? How about a hoppy pilsner from the south, called Victoria, or a microbrewed wheat beer with traces of Belgian wildness from Casta?

Next time you are planning to imbibe a few cervezas, you might try a less common one. You’ll have to look harder, but surprising yourself and your friends with a great new beer is half the fun.

What’s in a Lime?

To enjoy Mexican beer properly, you’ll need to know a bit more about the lime. More specifically, the tiny lime from Mexico called a limón agrios. The name suggests a lemon to English speakers, but since a lemon is sweeter than these limes, it’s usually called limón dulce. The bigger, common limes found in the local grocery can be used if you can’t find the limónes.

Here in the States, and at resorts in Mexico, the beer is almost always served with a lime. We expect it. Then again, some locals say they won’t have it, that it’s a gimmick for los turistas. Can’t you imagine that scene from “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”? “Limónes, we don’t need no stinking limónes!”

One story has it that in the not-so-distant past, a beer marketer came up with the idea for the lime. So far, due to myth or shame, that individual has never come forward. Another says the lime’s acidity helps cut the slightly sweet corn flavor of the beers.

Another says that the cans of beer would be stored in dusty conditions. People naturally wanted to clean up the mouth of the can and they found a wedge of lime to be the perfect solution. This explanation makes some sense, as limes may have already been on the table for serving with shots of tequila.

Still another account says the wedge of lime could be laid on top of the opening to keep flies from getting into the beer. Then again, the most plausible story might be that early bottles of Mexican beer were reportedly sealed with linerless caps, resulting in a ring of rust on the bottle rim. A swipe of the lime and the bottle came clean.

Lately, beer purists have been seen wearing shirts with the slogan “NFL,” which apparently means “No Freakin’ Lime” or something close to that. Perhaps the best evidence that the lime tradition is a hoax is that in Mexico over 80 percent of beer bottles are returned for cleaning and refilling. Getting the limes out of the bottle must be about as easy as putting spaghetti through a straw.

When serving Mexican beer to your friends, it’s probably best not to presume one way or the other. Ask if they want a lime, or place some wedges in a small dish on the table. If you want to look most authentic, seek out the tiny limónes in a Hispanic grocery, and simply quarter them.

For pale lagers like Sol, Corona, or Tecate, pack the bottles in a bucket of ice. These beers are best served muy frío. Good traditional accompaniments include chips with salsa or guacamole, saliditos (salty dried plums), or chicharrones (fried pork rinds). If you want the ultimate in macho side dishes, you might consider the way the little old men in a dimly lit lonchería drink their beer–while nibbling on a roasted habanero chili.

Becoming a Conquistador de Cerveza

The brighter yellow lagers of Mexico are named with two things in mind: the tranquil sun and the tradition. Corona and Sol are obvious, but consider, too, Pacífico, Simpático, and Brisa (“breeze”). More often than not, these beers capture our attention by the “vacation in a bottle” motif. When you find one of these, you will already know what to expect.

In Mexico itself, most beers are marketed on tradition and quality with names like Superior, Bohemia, Dos Equis (“Two X’s”), and Liston Azul (“Blue Ribbon”). You might be surprised to know that many of today’s most popular cervezas are brewed from century-old recipes. Another thing going for Mexican beers is their reliability. They are made with great consistency in large, modern brewing plants.

Arguably the best tasting Mexican pilsners are those we don’t get see in the States. Regional brews such as Victoria, Superior and Indio simply aren’t exported. As you might imagine, they taste fresher and crisper closer to the source, and better in bottles than cans.

Mexico still produces one great dark beer rarely seen north of the border. It is called Noche Buena (“Good Night”) and could be described as a traditional German bockbier. Available only from September to December each year, Noche Buena is reason number one why you should embark to Mexico on a beer holiday.

A Fledgling Industry

Though other distinctive beers have been lost over the years–Tres Equis and Yucateca Negra come to mind–Mexico is beginning to return to its brewing roots with the emergence of local breweries. A fledging industry of brewpubs and microbreweries has just begun to develop since the late 1990s. They are reason number two for heading to Mexico. (Reason three is to find out who you might meet on the beach.)

Currently only about a dozen craft brewers serve the nation. Two established microbreweries are located close to the US-Mexico border and are worth a visit.

South from San Diego, you can find Cerveza Tijuana, also known as TJ Beer, just past the city’s historic district. The company’s Czech brewer is producing three lagers. Dorada is a golden, malty brew offered as an alternative to the lighter Lager. The Morena (“dark”) is more of a Vienna style with a malty flavor finishing on the sweet side. Beers are bottled, kegged and served on tap in a very classy retro bar.

Across the Texas border, in the large industrial city of Monterrey, the Casta beers are brewed by Especialidades Cerveceras. Casta, which can be translated as “pure” or “virginal,” is perhaps the most adventurous of all Mexican craft breweries. This company brews ales instead of lagers, it volleys for shelf space in major retail outlets, and it exports to the United States.

Casta is an outgrowth of the bi-national experiences of co-founder, Manuel Zambrano. He began his beer career by working in a Mexican brewery, obtained a taste for imported beers while attending school in the States, and then became a homebrewer where he was nurtured by Scott Birdwell of DeFalco’s in Houston. His co-founder, Mauricio Fernandez is a descendant of the family that established the Cuauhtémoc brewery in 1890.

The beers they have created include Triguera (“wheat”), Dorada, Morena, Bruna, and the World Beer Cup winning Milenia. The wheat is fascinating, with a slight touch of Belgian funkiness. The Bruna comes across as more or less an English pale ale, while the Dorada is a hoppy golden ale. Milenia is a cork-finished abbey ale. All of the Casta beers are bottled in slender, embossed brown bottles with commissioned artwork on the labels.

Also in Monterrey is the burgeoning Sierra Madre Brewing Co. In what could be described as Mexico’s first brewpub chain, the owners have grown their business to four locations around the city in just as many years. Las Cumbres (“The Peaks”) Dunkel foretells the other brews, typically named for montane features, such as Cañon Del Huajuco Bock and Matacanes Brown. The bottled Casta beers are also available in the United States.

To the south, in Mexico City, Cervecería San Angel brews on a little three-barrel DME system in one of the earliest craft beer installations dating from 1997. Also in Mexico City is Santa Fe Beer Co., which just launched its first ever Festival de la Cerveza. Santa Fe beers are available around the city in bottles, as well as on tap at the pub.

Pepe’s & Joe is an earlier brewpub in the coastal resort town of Mazatlán. One of the few ale producers in Mexico, Pepe’s offers a pale ale called Maria Bonita (“Pretty Maria”), Olé, which is described as a red ale, and a brown ale dubbed Toña la Negra (“Dark Tonya”–as near as we can tell).

If you head south of the border, you must look up the local beers, be they regional pilsners, microbrews, or the latest from the brewpubs. As with any visit to another country, it is courteous to arrange brewery visits in advance.

But above all, remember it’s Mexico, it’s your vacation, and you are there to enjoy the moment. Find your new favorite cerveza, sink your feet into the sand, and throw away your pager. Let the surf gently crash onto your feet as the sun sets over the horizon. Only then will you know the truth about the aphrodisiacs, the lime, and that dark-skinned chiquita walking toward you. Hasta luego. ¡Salúd!