With Cinco de Mayo coming up Sunday, May 5, a look at the state of affairs of Mexican craft beer is in order. Mexican beer has come a long way from the pale yellow fizzy lagers like Corona and Tecate. In today’s Mexico, craft brewers are setting up shop in and around major cities like Mexico City, Tijuana and Guadalajara. These pioneers have seen the craft beer craze sweep through the United States and seek to bring the great flavors of Mexico to artfully crafted ales.
In an article by Yahoo Food editor Rachel Tepper, John Holl, editor of All About Beer Magazine, explained, “We’re seeing stouts, Belgian-style ales, tripels, beers that have local ingredients in with the mash,” Holl explained. “I think local ingredients can really be everything. Beers are brewed with cactus. Beers are aged in tequila barrels, or with spices that might go into certain local dishes.”
One of the breweries that has already entered the U.S. craft beer market from south of the border is Cerveceria Mexican, makers of the Day of the Dead line of ales. Cerveceria Mexican is the third largest brewery in Mexico located in Tecate, Mexico. Best known for its flagship brand Mexicali, the brewery produces over forty labels of beer.
“We wanted to do this right so we took our time and developed every aspect of the brand with quality in mind and didn’t rush any part of it,” said Joe Belli, VP Sales for the brand on their website. “The brewmaster at Cerveceria Mexicana brewery and owner of the brand did an amazing job. We had over 40 recipes to choose from…”
But, breaking into the craft beer market in Mexico can be difficult. The Mexican beer market is dominated by just two major players — Grupo Modelo and FEMSA (Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma) owned by Heineken. These companies command 98 percent of the beer in the Mexican Market. The rest of the market is held by smaller craft breweries and imports.
In a report titled, The Mexican Craft Beer Market -A Market Assessment, prepared by Vanessa Salcido and Alicia Hernandez for the USDA, it is revealed the Mexican businesses are often obliged to sign exclusivity contracts s that prohibit vendors from selling products from more than one brewer. Meaning that bar owners can only sell beers produced by the company they have signed with. This practice of signing bars – known as “tied-houses” – to a single brewery ensures that beer money continues to flow into the major brand’s coffers and shuts out any upstart companies. Before Prohibition, a similar system was in place in the U.S., but is now outlawed in favor of the three-tier system in which breweries sell their beer to a middle man distributer that then sells the beer to both on- and off-site retailers such as bars and supermarkets.
Craft beer, however, is gaining ground in the metropolitan areas of the country. According to the USDA report, Mexico is the sixth largest consumer and producer of beer in the world. With a standing like that, it is likely that the trend towards fuller-flavored craft beers will continue. The report states, “Microbrewers do not have a defined target audience; they sell to people open to trying beer as a flavor experience rather than just a refreshment.”
Minerva Brewery in Jalisco began producing artisanal ales in 2003. The company began when founder Gomez Spain Jesus Briseno accompanied his father to Europe where he had the opportunity to try beer styles that could not be found in Mexico. Minerva Brewery produces its beers following the German Purity Law or Rheinheitsgebot. This law allows beer to made from just four ingredients; malt, water, hops and yeast. The brewery produces nine styles of beers including a stout, IPA, pale ale and a beer they call an ITA – Imperial Tequila Ale.
On the website, The People’s Guide to Mexico, a short history of beer south of the U.S. border is offered. “The original Mexican artisan brewers were the Huichole and Tarahumara Indians who brewed (and still brew) a corn beer called tesgüino.” Later, after Mexico was conquered by Spain, beer tended to be dark and malty. But, after the French invasion and the short-lived Austrian rule, Austrian, Swiss and German immigrants swarmed the country bringing the crisper beers of their countries.
Slowly Mexican craft beer is gaining ground. Holl, of All About Beer Magazine, likens the current state of Mexican craft beer as it was in the U.S. 10 years ago. As more and more consumers gain access to the tastier, less homogenize beer of these artisans, the market will open and the grip of the mass-producers will be loosened.
For U.S. beer-lovers this means more and more Mexican craft beers will begin to cross the border. But, for now, to get the best selection of these upstart brews, you will have to make the trip south.