South-of-the-Border Beers Work with Spicy Foods and Great Cigars
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94
In Mexican restaurants around the world, a natural order exists. The smells of chile peppers--jalapeño, habañero, poblano, serrano, chipotle--are unmistakable; the scorching spices give the food its character and punch. The sweet aromas of malt and hops intermingle with the heady spices, incontrovertible evidence that the beverage of choice is beer: good, solid Mexican beer that marries with the traditional native cuisine like red wine with pasta. If you're lucky, the air also will be filled with the lingering fragrance of a great cigar, ancient Aztec and Mayan traditions carried forward into modern times.
Together the beer and spices and cigars conjure up images of the tropics: of moist, dank lands steaming under the sun, of hot sweltering days where the only shade is found under palm trees and relief is determined by the distance to the nearest white sand beach. But those Jungle Book images also evoke tobacco. Mexico grows some of the world's great cigar tobaccos, produced in the hot lowlands north of Veracruz. And its beers, brewed to withstand the spice while providing relief from the heat, have as much affinity with cigars as any malt- and hop-based liquid produced anywhere in the world.
There's no Mayan mystery here. In fact, it may be nature's way of putting together flavors in a manner that makes sense to the palate. Americans have discovered the wisdom of nature in the past decade, becoming avid drinkers of some of the top Mexican beers and devotees of Mexican cuisine. Mexican beer, in fact, has become one of the top imported-beer categories, competing favorably against earlier imports from Europe and Japan. Yet the discovery took a few centuries.
The Spaniards started brewing beer not long after Hernán Cortés and his troops landed in what is now Mexico. Like other Europeans coming to the New World, brewing operations commenced shortly after primitive shelters were constructed, fresh water located and food sources found.
Spanish conquistadors are credited with establishing North America's first commercial brewery in Mexico sometime in the mid-1500s. Long before that the Aztecs and Mayans brewed alelike beverages called sendecho and tesguino that used maize in place of barley as a primary ingredient. Cortés undoubtedly sampled some of the native brew while posing as the ancient god Quetzalcoatl in his attempts to subjugate the Aztecs.
The popularity of Mexican beers in the United States today can be traced to four primary factors. (1) The lead products of modern Mexican breweries are German/Swiss-style pilsners and lagers, the beer styles most American drinkers are used to consuming. (2) The proximity of Mexico to major population centers in the Southwest, coupled with the success of Cancùn and other vacation destinations, means that Americans have ample sampling opportunities--which results in demand back home. (3) Mexican cuisine's popularity and the growing number of Mexican-theme restaurants across the country. (4) The clear, glass bottle of Corona with a lime wedged in its neck.
The lime? While there are probably dozens of bartenders from Southern Californian nightclubs who will each claim to have invented the idea of serving Corona with a lime, Victor Padilla, export director for Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma in the northern industrial city of Monterrey, says the tradition has its roots in Mexico. Tecate, a brand with loyalists in the northwest section of the country where the beer's namesake town is located, was the first brand to be garnished with a lime.
"It started with Tecate. But it was only with cans, you'll never see it with a bottle. They'd put the lime on top of the can with some salt. You cannot do it with a bottle," Padilla says. "But if people want to drink our beer that way, we are not going to argue with them."
Lime or no lime, the popularity of Mexican food has added to the success of Mexican beer in the United States. Just as many people try their first bottle of Tsingtao at a Chinese restaurant, many a first sip of Dos Equis was enjoyed with chiles rellenos or salsa and chips.
Ordering a Corona or Tecate to wash down a taco and refried beans has become an easy choice for many people. Mexican lager, or clara, also is well suited to take the edge off a hot and humid summer day. For most American palates Mexican lagers have the right balance, with a very slight hop bitterness that is dominated by a subtle sweetness from the barley malt.
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