What Is A Mexican-Style Lager?
Mexican macro lagers continue to surge in popularity with American beer drinkers. For the most part, these lagers are relatively clean, have practically zero bitterness, but also aren’t cloyingly sweet. Part of their magic is the addition of flaked maize, which is just corn that has been rolled through hot rollers to remove the germ, oil, and most of its protein. It can be added directly to the mash of the beer for a few reasons. First, it typically dries the beer out slightly and adds a subtle crispiness since flaked maize ferments out completely – converting its starches to sugars and then to alcohol. Second, since flaked maize carries hardly any protein compared to malted barley, protein-induced haziness is reduced and thus clarity is boosted. Last, it’s a cheap substitute for malted barley, though it can only take up around 40% of the grain bill.
In order to have a mental benchmark for this style, I went out and tried as many Mexican macro lagers as I could find. For “research” purposes, I tried Corona Extra, Modelo Especial, Pacífico Clara, Sol, Tecate, Dos Equis, Victoria, Modelo Negra, and Dos Equis Ambar. Clear bottles yielded some awfully skunky beer, so I sought out cans for the most part and had to reassess a couple. After much searching at gas station convenience stores and sad nights alone with half-empty 24oz cans, I came to a verdict. Pacífico Clara was my favorite of the pale lagers and Modelo Negra the best of the dark lagers. They exhibited significantly fewer brewing flaws than their rivals making them much more enjoyable. But on the whole, the commonalities between them that stood out as “Mexican” is that they tasted old, heat damaged, soapy, metallic, and had no bitterness to speak of.
Now, let’s pivot now to how American craft breweries have interpreted these Mexican lagers. For the past several years, American-made Mexican-style lagers have been creeping their way onto taplists and store shelves. However, there is no consensus on what constitutes a Mexican-style lager in the first place. From my experience, it seems brewers gravitate towards one of three groups: 1) pale lager with flaked maize such as our benchmark Pacífico Clara, 2) amber lager with flaked maize such as our benchmark Modelo Negra, and 3) the Americanized beer cocktail of adding salt and lime to Mexican pale lagers for which there is no official Mexican example. I’ll go into detail about Groups 1-3 and then throw in a few curveballs at the end.
1. Pale Lager with Flaked Maize
Mexican Examples: Modelo Especial, Dos Equis, Corona Extra, Pacífico Clara [personal favorite]
This approach to Mexican-style lager, which I’ll call Group 1, draws inspiration from Mexican macros like Modelo Especial and Pacífico Clara, which are brewed with some adjuncts – possibly flaked maize. The official websites for both Modelo Especial and Corona Extra simply say “non-malted cereals” in the recipe. Pacifico’s recipe was nowhere to be found. Dos Equis says it’s brewed with cornstarch and corn syrup. Moreover, all but Corona mention “pilsner-style” in their official descriptions.
My concern with the approach in Group 1 is that it isn’t readily apparent what makes these beers Mexican-style. Several American macros are brewed with corn as well. Brilliantly clear, relatively tasteless, yet “crisp” and “clean” pale lagers are the most ubiquitous beers in America. And corn flavors in beer are barely perceivable since, as I said, they ferment out completely. Consider these taste test results where few could tell the difference between beer made with flaked maize vs. ones that omitted the adjunct. And even for those who could tell the difference, no one was sure which samples had the corn in it nor did they have a preference between the two. In my own taste testing of Mexican macros for this piece, I failed to do a side-by-side blind comparison test with American macros. In my notes, however, not once did I write “corny” or “grainy” for any of the beers sampled. More often, I wrote “soapy” and “metallic” – two perfect words to describe almost any other imported macro lager.
Therefore, I highly doubt a casual beer drinker could grab a pale lager and say, “hmmm, some flaked maize in here…must be Mexican-style.” It’s a stretch in my opinion. Remember, flaked maize simply adds corn sugar to a beer’s wort. In fact, you can get similar results by just adding corn syrup directly to the wort to boost original gravity. I’d like to see craft breweries try to explain that one to their customers.
To be fair, the craft examples I’ve reviewed do taste significantly better than their Mexican macro counterparts. 21st Amendment’s El Sully, for instance, uses pilsner malt, Vienna malt, flaked unmalted barley, and acidulated malt in addition to the “required” flaked maize. But I can tell you that the malts and the unmalted barley all have significantly more impact on the flavor than the flaked maize. El Sully is delicious for those reasons and not because of any Mexican twist on the recipe.
Similarly, pFriem’s Mexican Lager is delicious because the recipe is essentially a hoppy German pilsner. It’s made with Perle, Saaz, and Tettnang hops as well as Gambrinus pilsner, carafoam, and acidulated malt. Flaked maize makes up 20% of the grist, which is about half of the possible maximum. The end result is snappy and crisp with hints of lemon-like acidity. Since the beer is firmly hoppy in both aroma and flavor, it’s in direct opposition to Mexican macro lagers’ zero IBU nature and complete lack of aroma hops.
Belching Beaver’s Buenos Tiempos is the final example from Group 1 I’ll go into detail about. This beer serves as the base beer for the brewery’s Dia de los Deftones, which I’ll discuss in Group 3. Buenos Tiempos is made with Mandarina Bavaria hops; two-row, six-row, and pilsner malts; as well as puffed jasmine rice and finally flaked maize. The end result is super clean and delicious. But again, the puffed jasmine rice yields a similar drying effect and gravity boost like its fellow adjunct flaked maize. In fact, rice is the main adjunct in Budweiser products such as their best-selling Bud Light. Like flaked maize, it doesn’t have a flavor as much as it has an effect on the beer’s final gravity and mouthfeel. There’s a lot going on with Buenos Tiempos that makes it delicious, but I posit that flaked maize plays a trivial role.
It’s my argument here that flaked maize isn’t enough to transform a pale lager suddenly into a Mexican-style beer. Flaked maize used to be in American macro pale lagers, now they have pivoted over to corn grits and rice. But the effect of these adjuncts is the same: hardly any perceivable flavor but they do boost fermentable sugars and ferment out completely, which creates a drier beer. But “dry” isn’t unique to Mexican macro lagers. The same is found in American and Japanese and even European macro pale lagers. For these reasons, I’m dubious about the long-term credibility of Group 1.
(Note: Sierra Nevada Sierraveza is omitted here because there’s no indication on the website that this beer is made with flaked maize. It’s actually made with wheat. It also doesn’t claim to be a Mexican-style lager.)
2. Amber Lager with Flaked Maize
Mexican Examples: Dos Equis Ambar, Victoria, León, Modelo Negra [personal favorite]
Mexican lager, if anything, sounds like a summer beach beer to me. So who wants an amber lager for a hot day at the beach? That’d be like opening up a cooler full of popsicles and yanking out the one salami for your beach day refreshment. I understand that nothing is less sexy than a Vienna lager or German Dunkel languishing on a store shelf. Wrap up the same beer with Mexican motifs, and maybe it sells. Drinkers unfamiliar with Mexican-style lager will see and taste something markedly different from a macro pale lager.
Lagers are making a comeback in craft beer with pilsners leading the way. But amber lagers like Vienna and Dunkel are still few and far between, though we do see a decent amount of seasonal Märzens (Oktoberfests). On the macro side of things, Modelo Negra (formerly Negra Modelo) may be the world’s most popular amber lager. But there’s nothing Mexican about the recipe. It even calls itself a Munich-style Dunkel on the official website. Like Modelo Especial and Corona Extra, flaked maize isn’t explicitly mentioned in the recipe, only “non-malted cereals.” Dos Equis Ambar is probably the second most popular Mexican amber lager, but according to the official website, it’s not brewed with flaked maize at all. Instead, they use cornstarch and corn syrup to boost gravity like regular Dos Equis. In addition, Dos Equis Ambar is officially marketed as a Vienna-style lager. No recipe could be found for Victoria or León.
So what about the American craft versions of Group 2? Oskar Blues no longer lists Beerito on their website – likely discontinued. And Great Lakes Brewing seems to have dumped their amber Grandes Lagos lager in favor of a pale lager with lime – pivoting over to Group 3. The only one that I see for sale in my region is AleSmith’s Sublime Mexican Lager, which did two things right. They partnered with the band Sublime and packaged the beer in snazzy, all-black cans. The combination looks good on the shelf and stands out in a positive way. And since the flavor profile is unique against the competition, it seems drinkers are coming back for more. However, there’s no official recipe posted for Sublime Mexican Lager, so I cannot even verify that it includes flaked maize.
You may be wondering, why include all of these beers in Group 2 if I can’t prove they include flaked maize? Well, let’s say that none of them actually do. That just helps my argument that there’s nothing at all that makes these amber lagers uniquely Mexican and thus they cannot be a Mexican style of beer. Plus, amber lagers with adjuncts are nothing new. The BJCP already has a category for beers like Group 2: International Amber Lager. Commercial examples given in the style guidelines include Brooklyn Lager, Yuengling, as well as Dos Equis Ambar. By contrast, the Vienna Lager and Munich Dunkel categories frown on adjunct additions. So for Group 2 to have some staying power, it would need to usurp the International Amber Lager category forcing American staples like Yuengling and Brooklyn Lager to enter competitions as Mexican-Style Lager. Ridiculous. It’s also impossible for Mexican-Style Lager to be simultaneously amber in color and golden. Group 1 would be tossed out the window in favor of the far rarer Group 2.
For these myriad reasons, I’m skeptical about the long-term credibility of Group 2.
3. Pale Lager with Salt & Lime
Mexican Examples: None. Comes from an American custom of doctoring clear bottles of Corona Extra or Modelo Especial with a lime wedge and sometimes salt.
American Craft Examples: Stone Brewing Buenaveza Lager, Belching Beaver Dia de los Deftones, Great Lakes Mexican Lager with Lime, Flying Dog Numero Uno Agave Cerveza, Epic Brewing Los Locos [personal favorite]
A non-tart base beer like adjunct pale lager coupled with lime juice is unlikely to ever be considered a great beer. The flavor combination is too disjointed in my opinion. We’ve already been graced with this unholy concoction for decades with homemade Corona and lime and then later an official testament to this American obsession with Bud Light Lime. It’s great for tailgating and beach day drinking. But should it spill over into craft beer? That is, should we pay a premium for craft versions of adjunct pale lager with pre-added lime? After having several versions from well-regarded craft breweries, my verdict is “no.”
Stone’s Buenaveza had just barely enough lime and salt flavors to be considered anything unique at all. My fear is that consumers will wonder what they just paid for. When I sampled Flying Dog Numero Uno Agave Cerveza, I found it to be a tad too sweet and macro-lager tasting again with that disjointed lime addition. Its agave nectar addition wasn’t distinguishable either as I’m sure it ferments out completely and has such a subtle flavor in the first place. Belching Beaver’s Dia de los Deftones used dehydrated lime juice, which ended up overpowering and one-note, which is precisely the way Corona plus lime and Bud Light Lime taste in my experience. It’s not about integration but rather expressly devised to fully drown out the inferior quality base beer underneath. (Or in the case of Dia de los Deftones, it drowns out the delicious base beer underneath.) It’s not a flavor profile anyone should strive to emulate. If you really like lime juice in your pale lager, then no one is stopping you. But to have the lime flavor pre-added without your consent seems gimmicky and likely to get real old, real fast.
I only recommend one beer from Group 3, and that’s because it tastes absolutely nothing like a pale lager and most certainly doesn’t taste like a pale lager with lime squeezed in. Epic Los Locos was one of the biggest surprise beers for me last year. I expected a disjointed mess like the others, but instead I got something closer to a crushable Gose. Los Locos is soft and buoyant with melon flavors. It tastes more like Gatorade than pale lager with lime juice squeezed in. Rather than disjointed and forced, Los Locos was fully cohesive.
Besides the oddity of Los Locos, I discount Group 3 because most of all, there’s nothing Mexican about adding lime to a pale lager. It’s an American custom.
4. Mexican Craft Lagers
Mexican Examples: Cervecería de Colima Colimota Cinco Vienna Lager, Cervecería de Colima Lahar Helles Lager, Cervecería de Colima Colimita Pale Lager, Cervecería de Colima Cayaco Tropical Lager [personal favorite]
Wait, I thought there were only three groups? The three main categories I described above all have critical flaws. Lew Bryson’s strongly-worded op-ed, which concludes that “A Mexican lager would be a lager made in Mexico,” spurred me to go find just that – well, besides Modelo. Take, for instance, the recipe of an actual Vienna lager brewed by a craft brewery in Mexico. Cerveceria de Colima’s Cinco is made with just Vienna, pilsner, and CaraAmber malts. There’s no attempt to “own” the Vienna style by any means. Plus, it doesn’t utilize flaked maize at all. Wait, isn’t that the key to making a beer Mexican-style in the first place? Their Helles and regular pale lager don’t utilize flaked maize either. In fact, the only adjunct I found is in their Cayaco Tropical Lager, which uses two types of heirloom rice. And the end result was spectacular. Cayaco Tropical Lager is one of the best lagers I’ve sampled period and simply stomps on all of the beers I’ve mentioned thus far.
However, there’s still not enough about these delicious beers that makes them uniquely Mexican. Even Cerveceria de Colima is aware these lager styles are German in origin and doesn’t attempt to “own” them. If Mexican craft brewers like those at Colima were consistently making a new beer style that had no historical precedent anywhere else but Mexico, that would be a Mexican-style beer. There are several traditional alcoholic beverages from Mexico such as pulque, which is fermented agave sap. But for now, there isn’t enough experimentation that I’ve seen in Mexican craft beer that isn’t emulating American or European beer styles. Hazy IPAs, Session IPA, fruited Berliner Weisses, and Goses were all on tap at the Mexican craft breweries I’ve visited. I’m sure that will change as Mexico’s craft beer culture continues to grow and mature.
Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in Mexican craft beer. What I know is from the limited number of exports that reach California and from a craft brewery tour I did in Tijuana last year. All of my examples in Group 4 are from Colima since they are exported to San Diego. In addition, practically every other Mexican craft brewery I’ve been to or researched has snubbed lager styles altogether opting instead for the same trendy styles we see in the U.S. For those who are more familiar with Mexican craft beer, I’d love to hear your comments below. However, it’s still my opinion that even if Mexican craft breweries have been holding out on us with some interesting new styles; American breweries are not cloning those in Groups 1-3. American breweries are making whatever they feel like and slapping a “Mexican-style” sticker on it because it’s the trendy thing to do.
Now, brace yourself for a truly bizarre twist.
American Craft Examples: Sierra Nevada Otra Vez Lime & Agave, Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale, New Belgium Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza, Cigar City Margarita Gose, Avery El Gose, Belching Beaver Horchata Imperial Milk Stout, Stone Xocoveza, Tired Hands TacoHands
Hey! How can you talk about non-lagers in a lager piece? Well, that’s because lager vs. ale just doesn’t cut it when it comes to real-world flavor profiles. Some beers sold as lagers are barely lagered at all and have so many things that overpower the whole purpose of lagering a beer – to clean it up and smooth it out. Hazy, murky lager…why even bother? Think back to Epic Los Locos in Group 3, which bills itself as a Mexican-style lager but tastes like a Gose. Pivoting over to hoppy stuff, can you tell the difference between an IPL and IPA? In the case of Stone’s Tropic of Thunder, I could not. Similarly, you can have a very clean, easy-drinking ale that exhibits the best parts of lager styles. And what about Kölsch and other hybrid styles? See, it’s not so simple.
Let’s get back to the core of this piece. It’s my opinion that the most successful Mexican-inspired beers in the American marketplace are those that capture the refreshing nature of Mexican drinks on the whole and don’t resort to a simplistic approach of equating adjunct lager with “Mexican-style.” There are several examples.
First, Sierra Nevada Otra Vez Lime & Agave. The base beer here is a Gose, which is fairly salty already and should have mild to moderate lactic acidity that solidifies it as a perfect summer quenching beer. Adding lime to it doesn’t create a disjointed profile as it does in Group 3. When done well, it can be magical. Otra Vez hints at Mexican influences all over the can, but the word “Mexican” is nowhere to be seen. That’s because Gose with lime isn’t a Mexican beer style – it simply approximates the flavor profile of a margarita. Funny enough, there’s far more Mexican influence in Otra Vez than with Sierra Nevada Sierraveza, which is made with wheat and only claims to be an “easy-drinking lager.” For a day at the beach, Otra Vez is a far better choice than anything in Groups 1-3.
Avery did something similar to Sierra Nevada with El Gose, only a year earlier. A quick look at the label shows you how Avery figured out to evoke Mexican culture without making up a fictitious beer style: “German-style sour ale with lime and sea salt added.” Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale also captures the aesthetic detailed above. It’s not marketed as Mexican-style, but it hits the margarita profile out of the park with its sea salt, black lime, and fresh lime juice. Its style is truly unique: a mix of Kölsch, Gose, and Berliner Weisse. I highly recommend you give it a try.
Pivoting away from margarita flavors, New Belgium hit it out of the park with Mural Agua Fresca Cerveza, which is a recipe collaboration with Primus Cerveceria in Mexico City. It’s completely unknown what the base beer is for Mural. For all we know, it’s a lager too. Mural is super light-bodied and ultra-refreshing. It tastes closer to watermelon and lime-infused seltzer than any beer I’ve tried before. It’s the first beer I’d recommend to someone who typically hates beer. New Belgium even expanded the Mural portfolio this year to include Orange Mango and Berry Guava versions.
Though the following aren’t refreshing summer beers, I think it’s worth mentioning that the most established Mexican flavor profiles in craft beer are horchata and Mexican hot chocolate inspired stouts. There are too many to list, so I’ll give one example of each. Belching Beaver Horchata Imperial Milk Stout uses vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, milk sugar, and rice malt. I thought the flavor was solid albeit too sweet with unnecessarily high alcohol. The Bruery and Cigar City make horchata blonde ales as well which taste similar to golden stouts.
Perhaps the most well known Mexican hot chocolate inspired beer is Stone Xocoveza. Ever since Chris Banker’s homebrew recipe won a competition at Stone in 2014, Xocoveza has taken off in popularity to eventually become Stone’s yearly winter seasonal. Brewed originally in collaboration with Cerveceria Insurgente in Tijuana, Xocoveza includes coffee, pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and chocolate. The end result is powerful, spicy, novel, and continues to be one of the best beers from Stone.
Last, check out the truly bizarre Tired Hands & Cellarmaker collaboration TacoHands, which is a dry-hopped IPA made with flaked maize, taco shells, cumin, coriander, black pepper, sea salt, pasilla chiles, cilantro, plus lime zest and lime juice. I have not had it, but I desperately want to.
In my opinion, Group 5 are fully successful Mexican-inspired beers from American craft breweries. Group 5 runs with the core ideas behind Mexican cuisine and beverages without trying to define something that isn’t theirs to define in the first place. Rather than adding to the confusion discussed in detail above, these beers offer something unique without putting “Mexican-style” on the label.
“Mexican-style lager” is a nebulous term that usually means an American craft brewery’s attempt to clone a Mexican macro lager. But it’s not that simple. Some are pale lagers, some are amber lagers, and some try to emulate the homemade Corona & lime concoction. All of these gloss over the fact that Mexican macro lagers are German-style by nature and simply add adjuncts – the exact same genesis as American macro pale lagers. Moreover, the flaked maize addition that transforms these magically into “Mexican-style” is barely perceivable since it ferments out completely. It’s not a strong enough flavor to warrant an entire sub-category in my opinion.
Group 1, I argue, is not different enough from the already well-defined American adjunct lager or American light lager category to warrant much credence. Group 2, again, isn’t different enough from International Amber Lager to warrant a new category. Group 3 is just a hodge-podge of experimental beers that for the most part are too gimmicky to see any longevity in the marketplace. That leaves Group 4, actual craft lagers from Mexico. They are rare to find in the U.S., but they do exist. That alone is reason enough for American breweries to refrain from insulting the industry and consumer base by appropriating the term “Mexican” as a synonym for “we added flaked maize at some point to the mash.” Not even Group 4 tries to pass their beers off as Mexican-style. They are billed as the German-style lagers even when taking creative liberties. And they are far better tasting than anything in Groups 1-3.
So did we get anything out of the Mexican-style lager craze? Yes. Except they aren’t lagers. Group 5 points to several American craft beers that have taken the idea of what makes Mexican food and beverages so delicious and unique, and expands on that inspiration. They don’t put “Mexican-style” anywhere on the label since there remains no well-defined beer style that hails from Mexico.
In the fluctuating world of Mexican-style beers, I have a few recommendations. Craft breweries should refrain from using the term “Mexican-style” in a beer description because at best it means the mash includes flaked maize, which doesn’t result in a noticeable enough flavor alteration to warrant an entire beer style. At worst, it misleads consumers into thinking there is indeed a whole world of Mexican-style beers that are unique, well-defined, and most importantly, have historical roots in Mexico. None of which are true.
Instead, craft breweries should focus on the bigger picture of what makes Mexican-style food and drink so appealing. The use of salt and lime is heading in the right direction I think, but the execution ranges wildly. Tequila barrel-aged beers are also coming into vogue, though I hope not with pale lagers. There’s also an entire untapped world of mezcal that dives deep into real agave flavors and layers of smokiness rather than just agave nectar syrup, which is indistinguishable from regular sugar or honey in beer. Unusual ingredients like guava, tamarind, hibiscus, guanabana, prickly pear cactus, chayote, sapote, dried chilies – these all have tons of potential in beer.
For now, if Mexican craft breweries start developing and/or marketing their own unique beer styles, those would be, in my opinion, Mexican-style beers. Until then, I don’t think the case is strong enough for the substyle as it currently stands.
So what is a Mexican-style lager? Currently, the answer is…nothing.
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