How Mexican Lagers Captured The Craft Beer World’s Imagination
And here are nine of our favorites.
Defining the Mexican lager as a category is surprisingly difficult. Even The Brewers Association, the industry’s leading authority on style guidelines, doesn’t officially differentiate Mexican-style lagers from other lagers of the same general build. Neither does the Oxford Companion to Beer, another respected source.
But ask the average drinker and they’re quick to name any of the numerous macro brands dominating the import market -- Corona, Tecate, Modelo, Dos Equis, Sol, Pacífico, the list goes on. And while these big boys still dictate the basic rules of play, more and more craft brewers are trying their hand at perfecting, perhaps even reshaping, this timeless and undeniably crowd-pleasing style.
“If I make meatloaf, I can say it’s Mexican meatloaf, right?” jokes Mexican-American brewer Javier Perez, one half of the husband-wife team behind Aurora, Colorado’s award-winning Cheluna Brewery. “In Mexico, you could make a Vienna lager, a Marzen, a Helles, an Altbier, and it would be a Mexican lager. A German-style lager made in Mexico -- that, to me, defines Mexican lager.”
Craft brewed Mexican lagers reflect this fluid identity. At Cheluna, Perez supplies thirsty Coloradans with a whole slew of them from their best-selling Lowrider, an easy drinking refresher often served with a squeeze of lime and a sidecar of housemade michelada mix, to maltier options like the Carmelita, a Vienna lager imbued with a toasty caramel notes and crisp finish. “It’s like liquid bread without the sugar -- nice and dry,” Perez says, describing the golden-hued Lowrider. “The hops should be pretty mild, just enough to cut through the sweetness of the pale malts.”
Over in South El Monte, a predominantly Latinx city in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, Progress Brewing’s Diego Benitez has won over scores of macro and export devotees with a top-shelf, beefed up Mexican-style lager he calls Emiliano.
“It's extremely popular -- we literally can’t keep it on tap,” Benitez says. A pioneer in the community, the Mexico City native’s stateside craft venture was the area’s first microbrewery when it opened in 2013. “People here look for flavors and styles they’re familiar with, so we use the same ingredients but of a very high quality. We use German malt and top quality American corn. A little more flavor intensity, a little more hops, a maltier profile, a little sweetness from corn, and that bit of extra kick gets the job done better.”
As a wise man once said, “There is no such thing as a new idea.” The same principle applies to beer. These modern craft riffs had to start somewhere and that place, as so often is the case, is inextricably tied to politics. During the mid-1800s, Mexico was ruled by Maximilian I, an Austrian so, in addition to Spanish breweries, Austrian breweries came to the continent, too.
“I believe [the Austrians] harvested yeast strains out of their beer barrels when they brought ships across,” Perez says. “And once they started reproducing their beer, the yeast that stayed behind was basically German and Austrian yeast. Mexican breweries just kept propagating the same yeast, making beer on the continent, and calling it Mexican lager.”
Colorado Springs-based Atrevida Beer Company’s Mexican-style lager takes that same border-defying history and brings it into the 21st century with a distinctly revolutionary spin. The brainchild of head brewer and owner Jess Fierro, season one winner of VICE TV’s brewing competition show Beerland, her intoxicatingly smooth Dolores Huerta Mexican Lager is a proud homage to its namesake agricultural rabble-rouser.
“My Mexican lager was a part of a six-beer series all inspired and named after bold, fearless women,” Fierro explains. As Colorado’s first Latina brewery owner, the fight for gender and racial equity has always been central to Atrevida’s mission. “Dolores Huerta is the Mexican-American activist who created the Agricultural Workers Association and co-founded the United Farm Workers of America. This beer is brewed with flaked corn harvested in its original form. It only seemed fitting to name it after the woman who advocates for our famers.”
A constantly evolving narrative, it’s clear to see why so many craft brewers are keen to take on this fascinating style. Or may be it’s just that the Mexican lager is approachable, timeless, and make for an exceptional introduction to craft brewing, especially for folks uninterested in the hops race and ooey-gooey pastry stouts. Quite simply, it’s beer anyone would want to drink.
“Mexican lagers are inherently popular to the craft beer connoisseur and non-craft beer drinker alike,” notes Fierro. “The light body, crisp flavor, and easy drinkability makes the style cravable.”
Delectable as the style is, its tangled colonial history combined with this recent stateside resurgence calls the question of appropriation square into view. While Perez, Benitez, and Fierro all share a Latin heritage, America’s craft beer industry is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men and a growing number of them are also hopping aboard the Mexican lager train.
“I feel about that the way I feel about gringos opening up taco restaurants,” says Perez. “They love the food, they know how to make it, and they try to replicate it for their community -- I think that’s an honor. We're about love and kindness and we like to think that they’re celebrating our culture and enjoying our flavors. I mean, there's only a certain amount of candy cereal you can pour into an IPA, right?”
“Though, I will say,” he concludes with a wry smile. “I look forward to the day that our people are loved as much as our beer.”
Raise a pint to Mexico -- the culture, the history, the booze, and, most importantly, the people -- by picking up one of these excellent craft brewed Mexican-style lagers.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Deceptively light and effervescent, Fierro’s lauded 6% ABV lager slices through summer heat with the swift accuracy of a sharpened chef’s knife and finishes with a fleeting sweetness that leaves you begging for another swig.
Perez’s medium-bodied porch pounder hovers somewhere between a light and amber lager, with a honeyed liveliness, earthy hop character, and satisfyingly balanced finish. Drink this one cold and add a juicy lime wedge for a citrusy zing.
South El Monte, California
Noble Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops give this palate-pleaser a bright, floral aroma, like skipping past fresh-cut hay on a warm afternoon. The American corn and German malt follow brilliantly, forming a subtle yet unwaveringly sturdy platform for the hops’s herb-laced freshness.
Lone Tree, Colorado
Another Colorado crusher, this canned wonder pours a sundrenched pale yellow, emits a faint hint of corn flakes on the nose, and drinks cleaner than a whistle. It also took home the gold at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, no big deal.
Hood River, Oregon
Oregon craft darlings Pfriem put their all into this warm-weather sipper, a full flavored lager clevely cloaked in a session beer’s body. Freshly-harvested corn and waxy white petals dominate the nose thanks to a hearty dose of flaked maize while a pinch of Portland’s own Jacobsen sea salt calmly keeps the malted barley sugars in check. You’ll want to pour this one into a pint glass first -- the head, lushly fluffy and cloud white, truly sets the seaside scene.
This orange elixir from standout Texas brewery Oasis explodes with soft bready goodness, soothing caramel malt, and aromatic citrus rind. An ideal, medium-bodied go-to suitable for any season.
San Diego, California
San Diego sweethearts St. Archer stuck to tradition when conjuring up this sessionable dream. Pilsner and Vienna malts give rounded structure to sweet flaked corn, countered by a drying but still delicate hop bill. It’ll make you say, “Ahhhhh.”
Salt Lake City, Utah
An invigorating hit of lime juice and sea salt work to balance out this Utah-born beach bomber’s evenkeel maltiness while perfectly complementing the Amarillo hops’s signature orange blossom scent.
This much-anticipated newcomer is headed by a pair of Mexican-American brothers born and raised in the Windy City. The majority of their budding fleet draws on classic Mexican flavor profiles and this easy-breezy patio beer, brewed with just a smidge of corn, is case and point.