Craft Beer in Mexico
I had long been teased with the prospect of craft beer in Mexico by the likes of advertisements from Bohemia touting a Chocolate Stout. Nobody would accuse Bohemia of being craft, produced as it is by Cervecería Cuauhtémoc, the makers of Dos Equis, Tecate, Sol and the like, but it demonstrated that a major conglomerate could at least acknowledge there was a market beyond light and dark versions of the same European-style lager you find everywhere else. I was never able to find that chocolate stout on my many trips to Mexico, nor any other alternative styles, much less a definitively craft beer.
I thought surely there had to be some hipsters in Mexico City – the third largest metropolitan area in the world – sporting beards and skinny jeans while urban beekeeping and drinking craft beer, but they’re all apparently trapped on rooftops according to this Hello Seahorse! video, or you’ll have to find them on a map. While hipsters are just as likely to drink PBR out of frugality and sheer spite, they’re also passionate about locally sourced ingredients and artisanal products. It was actually in Venezuela, of all places, that I finally found some Latin American craft beer, but as with so many other endeavors, once the pressure was off, the task became easier. After a few more fruitless trips to Mexico, I found myself in Acapulco and discovered a branch of the Beer Box chain was nearby.
Like Venezuela, craft breweries in Mexico face tremendous legislative barriers such that it’s nearly impossible for them to gain footing. Many of the oft-maligned 3-tier distribution laws in the United States originally served a purpose: if Budweiser was allowed to own retail outlets, you’d find Budweiser bars serving nothing but AB-InBev products with no tap handles or shelf space available for any upstarts. This is what you find in Mexico though, with Corona stores and Modeloramas that sell only their titular products – the “tied houses” that are now illegal in the US. Basically, two major corporations control all of Mexico’s beer, Grupo Modelo (Modelo, Corona, etc) and FEMSA/Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma (Tecate, Sol, etc). They buy up nearly all the licenses in the country and give them to bars or sponsor new ventures, saving these businesses the costs but then restricting their sales. Which means that you can go to a bar like the one I visited in Monterrey called La Cervecería – literally the beer store, or even, the brewery – and the only beers available are the usual Corona lagers and the two, count ’em, two draft handles are Heineken and Stella. This in a town that counts Sierra Madre and Bocanegra breweries among their number, and a shop like el Lúpulo. Through various and sundry – nay, nefarious – means, the Big Two have amassed 98% market share.
There are glimmers of hope though, especially in Baja California. Its proximity to the US brewing hotbed of San Diego means that craft culture – and importantly, ingredients – flow easily across the border. But the Cucapá Brewery in Mexicali, for example, paid nearly 10 times what a brewpub would pay in the US for its licenses, and it gets none of the breaks that Modelo and FEMSA get from the massive tax burden that the government places on them. But President Enrique Peña Nieto and his PRI party have focused on breaking up monopolies in energy, telecommunciations, and, now, even beer. The sclerosed arteries of beer distribution are getting a much needed dose of Lipitor.
The Beer Box has one of those English names abroad that I normally avoid, and it becomes clear that they’re hoping to catch some reflected light from the US craft beer cynosure. The menu is grouped by country, but if you look under Belgium you’ll see Stella; under the Netherlands, Heineken; Ireland, Guinness. When I asked my waiter in Villahermosa if he could recommend a Mexican beer, he suggested Corona. So there’s still a long way to go, but the Beer Box is definitely a start, especially for those intrepid beer tourists looking for Mexican craft. Many of the beers in a nascent industry like Venezuela’s or Mexico’s come off like glorified homebrews – which they are. You’ll get some that are over-carbed, or slightly infected, or that simply aren’t very good examples of a style. Many of them seem to be malt-heavy – perhaps in response to the ubiquitous Mexican light lager – like the Tempus Doble Malta, or Double Malt, the meaning of which I’m not entirely sure.
Mexican craft brewers have a tough sell, regardless of all the legal hurdles. It’s hot in Mexico, and patrons aren’t always going to be keen to drink a malt bomb, nor are mouth-puckering IPA’s necessarily appealing, either. So even the IPA’s tend to be sweeter, breadier than their US counterparts. For more familiar body and bitterness, your best bet will be something from Cucapá, like their Chupacabra Pale Ale. English in style, but still hoppier than most Mexican ales, and properly balanced. I also enjoyed the Misterium from Espiga Local Brewing, a dry-hopped and unfiltered Imperial Black IPA that brought that sought-after amargura. Otherwise, go for the climate-appropriate lighter styles, just made with better ingredients by a craft brewer. One I was particularly fond of was the Popular Blonde Ale from Cervecería Hércules in Querétaro. Brewed as a SMaSH beer, the full malt sweetness is calibrated against mildly acerbic hops while maintaining a svelte figure that sashays across the palate.
Craft beer still has a long way to go in Mexico, and producers are fighting a much harder battle than those across the border. But there are now hundreds of craft breweries now, importers bringing in some of the best beer from abroad, a sizable beer festival in Guadalajara, restaurants that exclusively serve craft brews, and dozens of Beer Box locations across the country in most major cities: several in Mexico DF, Monterrey, Guadalajara, León, Ciudad del Carmen and even Cancún, Acapulco, Tlaxcala, and Coatzacoalcos. You won’t find every craft brewery available in each location, or even the ones mentioned above, given the logistical difficulties for the cerveceros to get their products to every corner of the map, but no matter where you are in Mexico, you’re not too far from craft beer if you know where to look, and the Beer Box is a good place to start.Share this: