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.
It's not suprising that this flavor profile is popular with Americans. Major breweries were started in both nations in the late 1800s by families with roots going back to central Europe. The Mexicans even replace some of the barley malt with corn grits and rice--common adjuncts used by American brewers. This tends to soften the flavor of pale pilsners even further.
The New World influence on the pilsner style creates a very accessible, drinkable beer. All ingredients used by Mexican brewers, with the exception of hops imported from the Czech Republic and Washington state, are grown domestically. The ingredients blended and brewed result in delicate beers that, if they're left too long or are stored in direct sun or close to heat, will readily show defects. However, fresh Mexican lagers can refresh like perhaps no other beers in the world.
Corona features a light, floral nose and a mellow, Chardonnay-like color. Tecate picks up a slight, fresh-cut-grass scent with a creamy flavor. Pacifico has a medium-hop nose with a light, sweet, yet refreshing taste. Carta Blanca, the second-best-selling brand in Mexico, has a flowery nose and a dry aftertaste. Bohemia offers up the same fresh-grass scents and a floral taste.
While the claras are the most commonly enjoyed Mexican beers both north and south of the border, both Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma and Modelo make some more colorful beers. (These two large manufacturers of beer in Mexico make Bohemia, Carta Blanca, Dos Equis, Nochebuena, Sol, Superior, Tecate, Chihuahua and Corona, Victoria, Pacifico, Estrella, Negra Modelo, Carta Clara Leon Negra, respectively.) Dos Equis Amber is a smooth beer with more color and flavor than most lagers. It was one of the few surviving Vienna-style lagers in the world before the revival of small breweries caused a resurgence in classic brewing styles. Dos Equis Amber has a firm head with nutty and apricot tones in its complex flavor. We can all be thankful that German émigré Wilhelm Haase brought the recipe with him to Mexico when he established the Moctezuma Brewing Company in 1884. First brewed just prior to 1900, Dos Equis, or Two XXs, is named to mark the turn of the twentieth century.
The third-leading Mexican import, it has been joined in the United States by Dos Equis Special Lager. In Mexico, the clara actually outsells the amber by a considerable margin. Guinness Import Company, which has the U.S. rights to Dos Equis, also introduced the Special Lager on draft in a number of markets during this year. The company has discontinued importing Superior, another popular lager in Mexico, to concentrate on Dos Equis. Some isolated stores still have some old Superior on the shelf. Unlike wine, this style of beer does not age well in the bottle. Old beer should be avoided.
Another full-bodied Mexican beer is Negra Modelo, a Münchener-style beer that gives off a radiant, mahogany tone. The tight, small-bead head gives way to hints of the chocolate mocha flavor of the malt. Like Dos Equis Amber, the complexity of Negra Modelo actually serves to enhance the flavors of Mexican cuisine. Its dark, malty flavors assimilate well with the same qualities that can be found in better, more full-flavored cigars.
Two other dark Mexican beers that have been sold in the United States are seasonal offerings for the holidays. Those who have enjoyed Nochebuena or Commemorativa Navidad are fortunate to know firsthand that Mexican brewers can go well beyond light lagers. Unfortunately, availability of these brands will be spotty or non-existent for this year, and they were not available for our tasting.
There are more than a dozen Mexican brands on the market in the United States, but Modelo and Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma reserve several for domestic consumption: Victoria, Estrella, Negra Leon, Ballena, Montejo, Indio Oscura and Superior are all brands that do not make it across the border.
For the record, Mexican beer that does make it to the United States outstrips other imported brands. Corona is the No. 2 import behind Heineken and for the past several years has been slowly increasing its sales after a meteoric rise in the 1980s. And it commands about 29 percent of the Mexican market--giving the Modelo brewery more than half the market share.
While the lime in the top of a clear, glass Corona bottle might be what caught the fancy of so many U.S. beer drinkers in the mid-1980s, Mexican beers also have the advantage of a made-to-order, annual holiday to spur sales. Just as Irish beers and whiskeys have St. Patrick's Day to call their own, Mexican beers and Tequila make barrels of cash on Cinco de Mayo.
"It's our Christmas," says John Lennon, vice president of marketing at Wisdom Import Sales Company, which is the U.S. agent for Tecate, Tecate Light, Carta Blanca, Bohemia, Chihuahua and Sol.
Cinco de Mayo honors the Mexican victory on May 5, 1867, at Puebla over troops sent by Napoleon III to try to save the throne for Maximilian, a European installed in 1864 as emperor of Mexico.
"We've really seen it grow over the years," says Raul Davis, owner/manager of Tiaquepaque, the Placentia, California, restaurant that has been in his family since 1964. "It's just a custom here. Cinco de Mayo is the biggest party day of the year. We get a couple thousand people over the course of the day."
A couple thousand there, a couple thousand here, and you have a phenomenon. Whether you are in Mexico or at your local Mexican joint, there is a sense of adventure in experiencing the local culture, food, drink and cigars. No real or imagined trip to Mexico would be complete without ordering a few tacos, a plate of môle poblano (chicken in a chocolate-based spice sauce), sipping a Mexican brew and when you're finished, lighting up a great cigar.
It's the natural thing to do.
Rick Lyke is a free-lance writer based in upstate New York.
These beers were tasted blind by a panel that included Cigar Aficionado Managing Editor Gordon Mott, writer Rick Lyke and Designated Beer Judge Willi Loob of the Wine Spectator. The beers were properly chilled. They were supplied by the importer to avoid any inconsistency due to improper storage.
A yellow hue with a finely beaded head. Aromas of fresh hay and fine floral/perfumy flavors.
A roasted aroma with a foamy head. There is a long, toasty finish in a Dutch lager style. Good balance.
This beer showed a good head with some mild fruitiness on the palate but otherwise had a simple malt character and a dull finish.
A pale yellow-green brew with solid, floral, hop aromas. It has pleasant bouquet flavors that flatten out to a smooth finish.
Classic light-beer profile with a thin head and a bit tart on the finish.
Dos Equis Amber
A creamy head over an attractive amber color. There is a nuttiness on the palate with some ripe apricot tones. Good balance. Taster's Choice.
Dos Equis Special Lager
A yellow-gold color with a decent head and herbal aromas. On the palate, this is a sweetish brew with some zesty malt flavors that come through the fairly heavy carbonation.
A pale malt brew with a light, fruity nose. It has a short finish with sharp flavors.
An attractive mahogany color with a complex, flowery nose. Round and robust flavors derive from the dark-roasted-style malt with hints of roasted apples. A slightly sharp finish highlights this dark lager. Taster's Choice.
A solid gold color with an active, foamy head. It has pleasing hop flavors and is relatively sweet. Good, clean lager. Taster's Choice.
This yellow-greenish beer has good carbonation yet produces a thin head. Hops dominate the flavors, and it has a slightly flinty finish.
There is a medium toasty malt aroma. On the palate, the malt is well balanced with a slight hop bitterness, but this brew has a short finish.
A good head with some vegetal aromas. This quality carries though and blends with a mild hoppiness in the palate, but the finish fades out quickly.