Mexican beer has taken a bit of a beating over the last few months, around about the time that the coronavirus became a pandemic. I wonder what the connection is? But beer in Mexico is so much more than Corona. I wanted to find out what beer they drink in Mexico, and what Mexican beer culture is like.
The most popular beer in Mexico is Corona. Other well-known beers are Tecate, Modelo, Dos Equis, and Sol. Corona enjoys huge popularity outside Mexico as well. Mexico is the world’s largest beer exporter, with its beers particularly popular in the US and Europe. Mexico was quite late to the craft beer scene but now has over 1,400 craft breweries.
In this article, I will be taking a look at what beers they drink in Mexico, a history of beer drinking in Mexico, what the craft beer scene is like, and what the major beer festivals look like.
The most popular beer in Mexico is perhaps unsurprisingly Corona, it dominates the market. Then you’ve got Tecate and Dos Equis as the second and third most popular beers. While Mexico appears to have hundreds of different beer varieties, most of them are brewed by one of two major breweries:
Almost all of the beer in Mexico is pale lager, you’ve got some variety from Bohemia and Leon, and the craft beer market is beginning to turn the tide. But on the whole, you’ll mostly find pilsner style beers that are served ice-cold. There are many reasons for this. The climate in Mexico will doubtlessly contribute to beer preference, then there is homogeny of the breweries.
Until 2013 it was almost impossible for a craft brewery to sell its beer to a retailer because either Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery or Grupo Modelo Brewery had an exclusive contract with them. Grupo Modelo owns one of the largest convenience stores (Tiendas Extra) while Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery owns rival convenience chain OXXO. Check out Jeff Alworth’s article for more information about this.
Mexico’s beer scene is just beginning to break out, and it could take a few years to see what happens. For almost a century, the style of beer brewed here has been pale lager. This is not a bad thing, Corona is one of the most popular beers in the World! But nothing exciting has happened until the last few years.
To explain why I think it would be a good idea to take a brief look at Mexican history and see how it has shaped the beer culture to this day.
As I found in my article on Beer in Poland, it is difficult to talk about beer history without first talking about real history. However, I am not a historian. So I’ve found a nice and quick YouTube video that does it all for me.
If you want an even briefer version of that video that is under 4 minutes, then I salute you as one of the truly lazy! I’d organise an annual meet-up but … eh
Mayans dominated the land then died out, then Aztecs dominated the land. Then the Spanish turned up and killed all the Aztecs. Eventually, Mexico became a country after overthrowing Spanish rule. They then fought with America and lost. Then in 1970, they held a World Cup which was won by Brazil (thanks to Pele and Carlos Alberto).
As you can see, I am most certainly not a historian! Luckily, I do know quite a bit about beer. Because the history of beer in Mexico is pretty fascinating.
Before the arrival of Cortes and his Spanish soldiers, beer had not been brewed in the lands that now make up Mexico (well, technically there was a corn-based drink very similar to beer, but it was never massively popular). Instead, a brew known as Pulque was drunk. Pulque is made from fermented agave sap. The making of this drink was quite difficult, you had to grow a specific type of agave (known as maguey) for 12 years and then harvest it. Because of this, Pulque was not given out to just anyone. It was reserved for priests and sacrifice victims, but also given to the elderly and for some reason pregnant women.
When the Spanish arrived, they liberated pulque and heavily taxed it. Soon enough, everyone had access to it. Even people who weren’t pregnant or about to be sacrificed! Sadly, when you introduce unlimited alcohol supply to a culture that has almost no experience with it you are going to get some pretty shitfaced locals. Which is exactly what happened. The Spanish started to introduce measures to stop pulque consumption.
This sort-of prohibition was stopped quite abruptly after the Mexican War of Independence. Suddenly pulque was the patriotic drink of choice. This continued until the beginning of the 20th century when Mexico had a revolution. Pulque production was interrupted, and then Mexican beer companies managed to destroy the pulque industry.
So far I’ve not mentioned beer once, but you’ve got to understand that for a long time, beer was not particularly popular in Mexico. The first beer that was brewed with grains was made by Cortes’ soldiers after they landed (it was probably brewed around 1520). The first proper brewery was founded by Alfonso de Herrero in 1544.
Beer struggled at first because it was a lot more expensive than pulque, due to the need for the ingredients to be transported from Europe. The fact that the government in Spain purposefully kept prices of barley up to encourage the importation of beer and wine created resentment in Mexico. It wasn’t until Mexico gained independence in 1821 that beer production could properly start.
Beer production started almost immediately after Mexican independence, but it was the arrival of German immigrants after the Mexican-American war that kicked things off. They brought their brewing practices, and it at least partly explains the production of pale lagers in Mexico. This is a pilsner-style beer that is very popular in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. But Germans also introduced a dark lager (known as a Dunkel in Germany) that has influenced several Mexican beers.
Beer consumption in Mexico grew at a steady rate over the next century, but beer was still behind pulque when it came to popular alcoholic drinks. Then two events occurred. Prohibition in America led to a massive increase in breweries along the Mexican-American border. This allowed Americans to travel south of the border for a beer, or to transport it illegally back to America.
Secondly, the major brewers in Mexico joined up and created a smear campaign against pulque. They made it seem unsanitary and implied that it was a drink for poor people. Unsurprisingly, this two-fold attack worked. The Mexican revolution also affected it (as I mentioned earlier) and after centuries of dominance, beer overtook pulque as Mexico’s drink of choice.
(not including tequila).
At first, there were hundreds of smaller breweries that were all independent. But over the course of the 20th century, two large conglomerates formed. Now almost all Mexican beer is brewed by either one or the other. If you think that this is bad, then remember that almost all the beers you drink are either owned by Heineken, Anheuser-Busch, or Diageo.
However, Mexico is unique in that this has led to the majority of beers brewed there being almost identical. Sure, there are good pale lagers and bad pale lagers, but they’re all pale lagers! I wonder what a blind taste test would do?
See, most Mexican beer is quite low in hops. It creates that cool, crisp taste. I enjoy a Corona or a Sol. But I understand why many beer aficionados despair at Mexican beer. Luckily things are changing.
It would be crazy to write an entire guide to Mexican beer without mentioning the addition of lime to Corona. It’s so normalised that most people never think about it, you order a Corona in a bar and it comes with a wedge of lime mashed into the bottle. Then you push the lime into the bottle and watch as half your lager pours out over the rim. Fun!
Over the years I’ve heard several reasons for the lime. The first is that it adds flavour to an otherwise bland beer. The more popular belief is that Mexican beer drinkers did this to prevent flies from entering their beer. I enjoyed telling people this for years but recently realised that this could well be an Urban legend. Think about it, there are many different beers bought and sold in Mexico, yet only Corona (and occasionally Sol) adds the lime.
Could it be that flies are only attracted to certain lagers? Are flies put off by limes? How many flies are beer drinkers consuming?
I’ve also heard that the lime is used to disguise the taste of Corona. As you may know, clear glass bottles are without a doubt the worst. They don’t protect the beer from sunlight at all. Sunlight can lead to the hops in beer giving off a skunk-like taste. The theory is that the lime juice can hide it. My issue with this theory is that if Corona were that fussed, they’d stop selling their beer in glass bottles.
According to Snopes.com, there is no certain answer as to how this started. But the most likely answer is that it was a simple marketing ploy. A bit like how Guinness is always left to settle when 75% full, or how Blue Moon beer is served with an orange slice.
The gimmick is fun, it may improve the taste, it improves the presentation, and people remember it. If you serve someone a Corona without the lime and they’ll be disappointed. Serve someone a Guinness without pausing to let it settle, and they’ll think you’re an idiot. Or serve a Blue Moon without the orange slice and it’s just a regular wheat beer.
So there you have it. You add a lime to corona because it is a marketing gimmick that has become a ritual. Whether it improves the flavour or not is down to your personal tastes.
In this section, I am going to give a run-through of a few of the best beers in Mexico. I won’t include any craft beers, that’s a separate section. These are beers from established breweries. I’m going to include Corona, because even though most beer nerds will turn their noses up at it, it is still one of the most popular beers in the world. Also, I like it!
Corona is the Spanish word for Crown, it was first brewed in 1925 by the Modelo brewery. It is a pilsner that was brewed by German immigrants to Mexico. According to this article, the brewers came very close to using a brown bottle. But at the last minute decided to stick with clear glass. This helped Corona to stand out from other beers, and is one of the reasons why Corona soon became the number one beer in Mexico. While there is a draft version of corona, the most common way to drink it is in a bottle with a lemon or lime wedge placed in the neck.
While researching this topic, the beer that I saw mentioned more than any other was Noche Buena. It’s a Christmas beer that is only available between November and January. The beer is quite strong for Mexican beer. Most are around the 4-5% range, whereas this is 6%. It is mentioned in Micheal Jackson’s Great Beer Guide:
It has a deep, amber-brown colour, and is very smooth, with both malty sweetness and hoppy dryness in its long finish
Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide 1998
People think of globalisation as a modern phenomenon, but the history of beer really highlights just how interconnected the world was. Even in the 19th century. When you look at Mexican beer, you hear over and over that this beer or that beer was brewed in the style of Vienna lager.
I kind of assumed that Vienna lager is a type of lager that is really popular in Austria. But turns out that Vienna lager is something that is only really found in Mexico! Check out this article on the history of Vienna lager for more information.
Vienna lager appears to have been created around the same time that pale ale was kicking off in Britain. This new way of brewing revolutionised beer in Britain, but also inspired German and Austrian brewers. They took the idea back to their country and brewed their own beer.
Germany created the Munich Märzen, and Austria created Vienna style lager. This was taken over to Mexico by Austrian immigrants, and became very popular. At the same time WWI was causing havoc across Europe. At the end of the war, Vienna style lager had completely vanished. It never returned.
But you can still drink Vienna style lager in Mexico. Dos Equis amber lager is the perfect example of Vienna style lager. It has been brewed since 1900 and was created by Master Brewer Wilhelm Hasse. It was actually called Siglo XX, but became better known as Dos Equis which is Spanish for XX. It is described by Simon Gray
Deep amber with a thin white bubbly head. Traces of caramel and hops on the nose become clear on tasting
Simon Gray: 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die
Another German-style pilsner, but Mexicali stands out from the rest due to its more liberal use of hops. The beer is therefore more bitter (in a good way) and more characterful than any of the other pilsners in Mexico, and was popular in America for a long time. The fact that this beer is still around is kind of crazy, as the brewery was shut down in 1973 and wasn’t opened again until the 90s!
Brewed by the same brewery that brews Corona, Negra Modelo has been around since 1926. This is as close to a Munich Dunkel beer as you’re going to find outside of Germany, which I find really cool. It really is an excellent beer, and deserves more respect than it gets on Ratebeer.com
Another dark Vienna style lager, similar to Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Amber lager in that respect. Am I only adding it because it looks cool and is different to the 100+ pilsners that I’ve had to look at? Yes. Does that mean that it’s not a good beer? No. It’s great. Shut up!
I’ve covered why craft beer has only just appeared in Mexico in the last six or seven years. No need to go over it again. Since the government stepped in, the craft beer scene in Mexico has gone from strength to strength. To give you an idea of how much craft beer has grown since the monopoly of the two breweries was broken. In 2011 10,500 hectolitres of craft beer was brewed. In 2015 (two years after government intervention) that number was 65,000.
One thing that you should probably understand about Mexican craft beer though. A lot of the craft beer breweries are just microbreweries. In other words, while there are plenty of hoppy IPAs and beers with lots of flavour. There are also a lot of microbreweries that sell pilsner and little else. The two often get lumped into one category (craft), which can be confusing.
I really wish I spoke Spanish. I did learn some while at school, and once managed to successfully order pork chops from a Spanish butcher without embarrassing myself. But on the whole my Spanish is shite. This is a problem when trying to research the history of Mexican craft breweries. Because they have the nerve to write everything in Spanish! Tijuana Morena is a craft lager from Consorcio Cervecero De Baja California. The beer is an American Amber lager. A beer style that I had never heard of until today (apparently it’s pretty common).
Another Baja California craft beer, the area is something of a hotbed. This is historically due to its location, right next to San Diego. I could easily have picked any of the beers sold by Cucapá. But Green Card had the funniest name! This is actually a Barley wine, something I wouldn’t touch in England. But I absolutely love the balls it must have taken to bring one of the least likely beers to one of the least likely countries.
This IPA uses Belgian Abbey yeast, which is really cool. I absolutely love how all of the beers by the microbrewery Calavera have such cool names and backstories. They also do an English IPA called Mjölnir. I’m not sure why they’ve named an English IPA after the Norse God Thor’s hammer, but more power to them.
I’ll finish off with a really nice, Scottish-style ale from Mexican craft brewery Tempus. Their Reserva Especial won bronze in the Australian International Beer Awards in 2012. But they didn’t let that get to their head. Gorgeous amber beer with a strong, malty toffee flavour.
I was going to fill this section with the best craft beer bars in Mexico, but then I stumbled across this article by Northern Lauren (her choice of name, not mine) and was blown away. I kicked a chair over in fury, cried tears of impotent rage, and then gave up. Check out her article instead. It covers everything.