When I was in my twenties, I considered Mexico to be beer heaven. At the time I was an avowed drinker of cheap light beer and Mexican beer was basically a better, slightly cheaper version of the beer I was drinking at home (Olympia and Rainier). Then I turned 30 and something terrible happened: I developed a taste for craft beer.
This was bad news on a number of levels. For one thing, it fit into a distinct and unfortunate pattern in my life wherein my tastes grow more refined as my wallet grows thinner. (Here in Oregon a six pack of my favorite beer costs nine dollars, as opposed to, say, 4.99.) Furthermore, as my taste for more complex beer developed, mass-produced beer began to taste bland and overly sweet. A winter in Mexico was still awesome, but after a few weeks of swampy Pacifico, my mind would drift toward the Deschutes.
I partially solved this problem by switching to Victoria, which in my opinion is the best of the major Mexican beers. These days, Victoria, Mexico’s oldest existing beer, is brewed by the mammoth Grupo Modelo (now part of AB InBev). The Vienna-style lager is darker and crisper than its sister beer Pacifico, less malty than Dos Equis Ambar, and certainly less skunky than Corona. (I realize that I am treading on dangerous ground here…) But even an ice cold Victoria could not save me from wishing that you could find craft beer in Mexico. But sometimes wishes come true…
Gina, Rich, and I were wandering down a dark street in Mexico City’s Centro Historico when I spotted a glowing neon skull above an inauspicious looking door. I peered through the stone doorway into a labyrinth of fluorescent-lit shops: not surprisingly, this single hallway seemed to house an untold number of small businesses, most now closed for the night. A small sign read “Tattoos and Cafe, ” with an arrow. Naturally, we had to investigate.
We walked past a gold exchange and several shuttered shops and followed arrows up a creaking stairway to find a small bar/cafe next to a brightly-lit tattoo parlor where a big dready guy striped with geometrical tattoos was tattooing a small woman with fuchsia hair. The nearby cafe featured a glass case with pastries, a small kitchen, tall tables and stools, and random arty decor, including a headless manikin. Our host, a guy with long curly hair, a square Indian face, and cheek piercings, looked surprised to see us. We had the impression he’d been about to close (it was around 7) and that he wasn’t used to gringo customers, but he was more than welcoming.
“Algo para tomar?” he asked, gesturing at an espresso machine and an impressively large wall of fancy-looking beer. Based on the glossy, exotic labels, I assumed he was a collector of Belgian beer, but most of the brands didn’t look familiar to me.
“What would you recommend?” I asked.
“Would you prefer imported or something Mexican?” he asked. Perhaps my face betrayed my surprise because he brought over several selections: Hidalgo Stout, brewed outside of Pachuca; Malverde, brewed in Jalisco; and a Chupacabras pale ale, brewed in Baja.
I chose the Malverde, a pilsner (6 percent AVB) named after the bandit Jesús Malverde, a folk saint who is known as “the patron saint of narcotraficantes.” The beer, brewed by Minerva, was almost as interesting as Malverde himself: light with complex, spicy flavor. Rich’s Hidalgo stout (7 AVB) was solid and smooth, and the pale ale was reminiscent of Mirror Pond.
As it turns out, rather to my embarrassment (as a fan of Mexico and beer I feel I should probably know these things sooner rather than later!), Mexico is experiencing what some are terming a “craft beer revolution” and it’s been going on for quite some time. After our host brought us a complimentary plate of nachos, he enthusiastically showed us at least fifteen other Mexican microbrews. We learned there are 17 craft breweries in Baja alone.
A little cerveza history…
Although brewing may have suffered during the twentieth century, Mexico, like most countries, has a long history of “craft brewing.” The original Mexican artisan brewers were the Huichole and Tarahumara Indians who brewed (and still brew) a corn beer called tesgüino. As Henry J. Bruman writes in Alcohol in Ancient Mexico,
“In the culture of both groups, its use is a ritual necessity at practically all festivals and, among the Tarahumar, it has a powerful economic function as well.”
“The tesgüinada system is the social device which ties individual settlements (ranchos) together in a cooperative framework for performing all kinds of agricultural tasks. The person requiring assistance with a particular task will invite his neighbors and friends to a ‘tesgüinada.’ He takes responsibility for providing the tesgüino, other refreshments and food. In return, the persons who attend will help plow. sow, reap or weed..”
Tesgüinadas make sense for more than one reason: tesgüino doesn’t keep long, so if you’re going to brew a batch, you might as well share. In Alcohol in Ancient Mexico, Bruman describes the Huichol brewing process: “The corn is sprouted in a low sand pile, covered with grass and sticks and watered regularly. After six days, when the sprouts have formed, the corn is ground, and boiled for thirty-six hours with water, which must be replenished often. The mass is then diluted and strained into gourds. In twelve hours, the tesgüino is ready to drink, in spite of the fact that no ferments of any kinds are added.”
Early post-conquest beers were also fairly simple, and tended to be dark and malty due to the use of top fermenting yeasts. That changed with the French invasion and the subsequent (short-lived) rule of the Austrian emperor Maximilian. Austrian, Swiss, and German immigrants flocked to Mexico, bringing polka, waltz, pilsner and lager to the attention of the Mexican people.
Mexico’s new generation of brewers used bottom fermenting yeasts and cold rooms (dug into hills) to create lighter, crisper beers that were better suited to hot weather drinking. Cervecería Toluca began producing Victoria around this time. Mexico’s first truly large-scale brewery, Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc, did not open until 1891. A few years later, Wilhelm Hasse started the Moctezuma Brewery and brewed a beer he called Siglo XX to welcome the 20th century; later the popular beer was was renamed Dos Equis.
The twentieth century saw the rise of Modelo and massive consolidation. Cervecería Cuauhtémoc merged with Moctezuma, and the beer giant acquired Tecate. From the fifties to the end of the twentieth century, Grupo Modelo and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma (now Heineken Mexico) reigned supreme and were able to stifle competition. Actually, if we’re looking at volume, they still do. But now the “craft beer revolution” brings hope to vagabond beer lovers. No offense to Villa and Zapata, but this is my type of revolution. Andale!
editor’s note: Special thanks to a PG reader for the inspiration and for research assistance. Thanks to Gina Dilello for beer photos.