“Tequila, it makes me happy” as the record by Terrorvison once argued, although for me it’s Mexican beer that makes me happy.
Mexican beers have seen a surprising resurgence in popularity during the last couple of decades and we’re not just talking about the mass-produced exported beers of Mexico, but also the many smaller artisanal beers from Mexico now making their way across our borders.
For the first time ever we even have a Mexican beer, Corona Extra, in the top 5 best-selling beers in America.
Beer has been an important part of both Mexican and American cultures for centuries. In Mexico, beer has been a popular beverage since the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
However, the brewing industry didn’t truly develop until the latter half of the 19th and an influx of German-Austrian immigrants who brought their brewing techniques and expertise with them. Over time, the Mexican beer industry developed its own unique styles and brewing methods, which have become an important part of Mexican culture.
In America, beer has been a popular beverage since the colonial era, with many of the founding fathers being avid beer drinkers. In fact, many of the early American breweries were founded by German immigrants, who brought with them their own brewing traditions and techniques. Over time, the American beer industry has evolved to become one of the most innovative beer industries in the world.
With the rise of craft beer and microbreweries, the beer industry has become more diverse than ever. Among the many different types of beer, Mexican beer and American beer are now two of the most popular beers worldwide.
While both types of beer have their own unique characteristics, there are some key differences between the two that set them apart.
A Brief History of Beer in Mexico
Fermented drinks including beer have been drunk in Mexico for many centuries before America was even a twinkle in our forefather’s eyes. The tradition of brewing fermented drinks can be traced back to the Mayans.
As early as 900 B.C to 500 B.C fermented beverages were being brewed by the Mayans in Mexico, although they would normally be chocolate-flavored drinks, and for over a thousand years the Mexicans have been brewing Pulque, a drink very similar to beer made with the fermented sap of certain agave plants, often getting to an ABV of 6% or more.
Pulque was a notoriously difficult drink to make as the specific type of agave plant (known as maguey) had to be grown for 12 years before it could be harvested and then fermented. Because of this, the consumption of pulque would be reserved for priests and sacrificial victims, but it was also given to the elderly and, for some reason, to pregnant women.
Beer During the Spanish Era and After Independence
Although the Spanish conquest liberated the Pulque industry, they also brought with them the knowledge of brewing full-bodied beer with grains. However, beer needed to use imported ingredients which the Spanish would tax highly to protect their own beer and wine imports to the country.
It wasn’t until Mexico gained independence in 1821 that the brewing of beer could properly start. Beer production commenced almost immediately after the end of the Mexican Independence War, but it was the arrival of the Austro-German immigrants after the American-Mexican war that really kicked things off.
The recipes that these Austro-German settlers brought with them were closer to Vienna-style dark beers than the Clara style closely associated with Mexico in later years. Vienna lager beers brewed with corn or flaked maize were produced by most commercial Mexican breweries. Towards the end of the 19th Century Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (of German/Austrian origin) led the country and even had his own brewer who brewed Vienna-style lagers and darker beers.
It wasn’t until 1890 that a larger brewery opened. It utilized the wide-reaching rail system to take advantage of American malts and brewing equipment and thus enabled Czech Pilsner-style lagers and German-style beers to be brewed. The first of these beers was known as Siglo XX which was later renamed Dos Equis (two x’s).
Prohibition and Mexican Beer in the 20th Century
The Prohibition era of the early 20th Century in America was perhaps the biggest boost to the Mexican brewing industry that ever happened. A number of smaller breweries popped up to provide alcoholic beverages, including beer, around the borders and the Baja region. Many US beer lovers would visit Mexico City to partake in a beer or two and maybe smuggle some beers back.
Soon the competition became too fierce and the major brewers of the time took control of the market. Two macro-conglomerates Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (later renamed Femsa and now owned by Heineken) and Grupo Modelo (Modelo is now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) dominated the market and continued to grow.
Today these two groups own 90% of the brewing industry in Mexico and dominate the export market. Mexico is the largest beer exporter in the world with worth over $4 billion in beer sales annually. If you are ever drinking a lager that has been brewed in Mexico and exported there’s a good chance it was made by a brewery owned by AB InBev or Heineken International.
How Does The History of American Beers Compare?
Although the German immigrants had a major impact on brewing in America, much the same way as they did in Mexico, the first style of beer was produced by the early colonialists of the Dutch and the English. Back in 1632, the first commercial brewery was set up by the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam (later to become New York).
For much of the colonial era of the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and British beer styles dominated American breweries. Up until 1840, there were very few or no lagers being brewed in America.
The specific yeast strain, the bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus, was not known to travel too well on the long sea-faring voyages across the Atlantic. As ocean travel became faster, the immigrants from Germany found it was possible to bring their strains of yeast to America and set up their own breweries, in particular in St Louis.
Here, one of the major breweries of the US was formed by the German-born immigrant Eberhard Anheuser, which was to become the giant we all know today – Budweiser.
Rather than brewing Vienna-style light and dark beers, American beer producers would make lighter Pilsner-style beers. Adjuncts such as rice or corn would be added to keep the costs down and the American adjunct-style lager was born.
Although most early American beers can fall into the pale lager category, the melting pot of cultures that comprises America led to more innovation and influences from around the world, especially Europe. Until the early 1970s, nearly all the beer sold in America was lager, but the amendment to home brew laws in 1977, along with a few pioneering craft brewers who had visited Europe, led to a boom in the craft beer market.
Craft breweries such as Anchor Brewing Company, the New Albion Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head beers, Samuel Adams, and too many others to name, mean the US now has the most diverse range of beers you will find anywhere in the world.
Although Mexico is still mainly known for its lager, there is a craft beer scene growing in Mexico which has seen smaller brewers producing many varieties of craft beers such as IPAs, Bock-style beer, stout beer, and many other Mexican microbrews.
Hops play an important part in US craft beers with American hops known for their big and bold flavors. American beer is known for its bold, hoppy flavor, and is often brewed with a higher alcohol content than other types of beer. American beers are typically brewed with a combination of malted barley, hops, and yeast, but can also include other ingredients such as fruit, spices, and even chocolate.
American beer is also known for its wide variety of styles. From the crisp, clean taste of a Pilsner to the rich, malty flavor of a stout, American beer has something for everyone. Some of the most popular American beers include Budweiser, Coors Light, and Miller Lite.
Although not recognized by the official BJCP style guidelines, many of the craft breweries of the US produce a “Mexican-style lager”, and there are even yeasts such as White Labs WLP940 Mexican lager yeast available which gives lagers a crisp flavor as found in most Mexican beers.
So how does a Mexican beer differ from an American beer?
What Makes a Beer Mexican?
Mexico is most well known for its lagers, which are brewed by the macro breweries in the country.
The Mexican lager style can be a controversial one as it encompasses so many different styles of lagers. Generally, it will refer to a clean lager with a low level of bitterness and a high level of clarity, hence it is known as a Clara. “Clara” basically means “clear, bright, and light beer” in Spanish, and it is used in the branding of Mexican beers, such as Pacifico Clara.
The opposite term to Clara is Cerveza Obscura, which is commonly used to describe the darker beers and lagers of Mexico.
Claras are similar to a European Pilsner but use adjuncts like flaked maize.
Be careful though, in some regions of Mexico Clara is used to describe a Radler-style beer or shandy, where lemonade or soda is added to a Pilsner style of beer.
The other mainstream style of lager in Mexican beer production is the Vienna-style lager. Vienna lager is an amber Austrian (hence the name Vienna) lager style which resembles the golden-amber Märzen style of Munich.
Mexican Vienna-style lagers tend to be sweeter and darker than most traditional Austrian examples, but again the Mexicans will add flaked corn (maize) to the Munich and Crystal malts to lighten the body of the beer. The traditional malt would be a Vienna malt.
Mexican beers tend to be best known for their adjunct style. The addition of corn or flaked maize to their beers makes them lighter and easier to drink, creating the perfect refreshing beer for those ever-so-hot Mexican summers.
While many of the American mainstream lagers such as Budweiser or Coors will use adjuncts in their brewing, normally as a cost-cutting exercise, the use of adjuncts in the flavor profiles of American beers is much less common.
Basically, maize or flaked corn is what makes a Mexican beer Mexican. It gives the beer that light golden color and a crisp refreshing finish which is unmistakably Mexican.
Craft Beer in Mexico
Craft beer options are still a relatively new part of the Mexican beer landscape. It can be hard to find a beer in Mexico that wasn’t brewed by either the FEMSA or the Modelo Group but brewpubs and microbreweries are now beginning to thrive in the 21st Century.
Cerveceria de Cilma in Puerta Valley, Mexico produces a German Pilsner, American Pale Ale, Tropical IPA and a Session IPA, for example. Another Mexican craft brewer in Jalisco specializes in Belgian Ales and the occasional IPA. One great brewpub in Cancun, Los Muertos Brewing, makes a West Coast IPA and an Agave Maria Amber Ale which uses Victory Malt and agave plant extracts for a light taste.
Pretty much like the Mexican-style lagers, Mexican craft ales will use local plants as ingredients because hops are not native to Mexico (meaning they need to be imported at higher prices). A Gose-style beer that is brewed in Mexico, for example, will use both the agave plant and the nectar from maguey (agave) worms for that salty taste and aroma notes which are needed.
Mexican Beers Brewed in Mexico
Without a doubt, Corona is the most well-known of the beers which are exported from Mexico and is also the top-selling domestic beer in Mexico. Corona sales account for about 10% of the Mexican beer economy.
A bright-golden beer with a refreshing taste, Corona Extra is more akin to a Clara style than the Vienna lagers which were originally brewed in Mexico. Corona Light has been launched in recent years too, inspired by the success of the American light beers market.
Corona was created in 1925 to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Cerveceria Modelo brewery and is now distributed in over 150 countries around the world. It’s famous as the beer you drink with a slice of lime, but this was probably started in America rather than Mexico. Rumour has it that the clear glass beer bottles meant Mexican beers tasted funky when hit with the sunlight, so American consumers would add lime wedges or fresh lime juice to mask the funkiness.
Negra Modelo and Modelo Especial are the other two largest beer brands brewed by the same Modelo group, with Negra being a Vienna lager while Especial is closer to the Clara/Pilsner style of Corona. In recent years AB InBev the owners of the Modelo Group have reclassified Negra as a Munich-style dark beer due to the fading popularity of the Vienna lagers.
Modelo Negra is the best-selling dark beer in Mexico and uses a combination of Galena hops, caramel, and black malts for a beer that has an intense flavor yet is not too heavy, despite the dark color.
Modelo Especial is a Pilsner-style beer that has a rich flavor yet a crisp finish and balanced taste. The smooth flavor has a touch of light hop, citrus notes, and an aroma of orange blossom honey.
Bohemia is a brewery that uses Styrian hops to produce a range of European-style beers. Bohemia’s Cerveza Oscura is a bock-style beer which, at 5.3%, is slightly higher than the alcohol by volume percentage of a traditional Mexican lager, but on a par with most American lagers. They also make a Vienna-style lager, a wheat beer (Weizen), and a Dark.
Dos Equis has a lager and Dark amber which are popular examples of the Clara and Vienna style respectively, and two of the oldest lagers brewed in Mexico.
Sol was also one of the early lagers introduced in the 1890s but was off the market for much of the later part of the 20th Century. The brand was reintroduced in 1993 and is now exported to many countries in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
A light-colored easy-drinking beer made with Pilsner malts and flaked maize, it has very little hops flavor and is considered to be a trendy beer for younger drinkers. Sol always has sexy advertising and comes in a variety of flavors. Sol 2 is a stronger flavored beer while Sol Limòn is a beer with lime juice and salt flavors already added.
Tecate is a fiercely marketed brand with sponsorships of sporting teams and events in both America and Mexico. Tecate Light is one of the biggest-selling Mexican light beers due to its aggressive sponsorship. In Mexico, they even brew a seasonal Christmas brew, Noche Buena, which is a premium beer only available between the months of October and December. A strong-flavored dark beer, it is named after the poinsettia plant, or niche buena, which decorates the beer’s bottles.
Mexican Lagers Brewed in the US
Mexican lagers have proved so successful as a style that many American microbreweries are now brewing their own versions. Most craft brewers tend to use White Labs or Wyeast’s Mexican Lager Yeast for these beers, along with other high-quality Mexican lager yeast strains.
Silver Bluff makes one of the best-known American/Mexican Lagers, which is a smooth, amber-colored beer that doesn’t use any adjuncts and only adds the highest quality ingredients. There are slightly more hints of biscuit and caramel from the malt than you would normally expect from a Mexican lager, but the gentle layering process and crisp finish keep the beer light enough to fit into this category.
Oskar Blues make a Vienna-style American Mexican lager, Oskar Blues Beerito, which is both nutty and toasty but still has the crisp finish of a Mexican lager.
Pale Clara-style lagers are being brewed in both USA and Mexico which have lime juice, salt, or other adjuncts added to them just so they can be labeled as Mexican lagers. The citrus flavor of these “Mexican” beers makes them the perfect beer for summer or enjoying as a complement to the spicy flavors of Mexican food.
There are even pre-mixed Mexican beer cocktails, such as the Michelada, now being pioneered by Mexican beer producers and US craft brewers alike. A traditional cocktail in Mexico, a Micheleda combines a light beer, with salt, chilli powder, Worcestershire sauce, and tomato juice. In Mexico, this would normally be served in a salt-rimmed glass similar to a Margarita.
Mexican Beer vs American Beer
So, which is better: Mexican beer or American beer? The answer to this question depends on your personal preferences. If you prefer a light, refreshing beer with a crisp, clean taste, then Mexican beer is probably your best bet. Mexican beer is perfect for a hot summer day or a casual backyard barbecue.
If you prefer a bold, hoppy beer with higher alcohol content, then American beer is probably more your style. American beer is perfect for a night out with friends or a cold winter evening by the fire.
One of the most significant cultural aspects of Mexican beer is its association with Mexican cuisine. Mexican beer is often enjoyed alongside traditional Mexican dishes such as tacos, enchiladas, and guacamole.
In fact, many Mexican restaurants and bars offer a wide selection of Mexican beers to accompany their dishes. This cultural association has helped to make Mexican beer a popular choice among beer drinkers around the world.
American beer, on the other hand, is often associated with sports and entertainment. Many American breweries sponsor sports teams and events, and American beer is often a staple beverage at sporting events and concerts.