Utter the words Amber Lager and you'll get my attention. You have your Vienna, Marzen, Oktoberfest lagers, you might envision something along the lines of a Sam Adams Boston Lager along with many other examples. From a brewing perspective, Amber Lager seems like a wide open category where there is a lot of flexibility in all areas... grains, hops and yeast. But if you utter the words Mexican Amber Lager, I might actually drool on you. Maybe it's the setting: a beach, an open-air cantina near the water with palm trees and warm, humid air, etc. I can't really explain it, but beers like Victoria, Leon, Indio, Dos Equis Amber Lager, Negra Modelo and even beers like Gila Monster Amber Lager (a Trader Joe's product), Abita Amber and Shiner Bock have a certain something that really gets my attention. Some of this may have to do with the beers being moderately hopped (probably only at the beginning of the boil) so the beers end up being very balanced as opposed to being overly hoppy... which falls in line with my tastebuds. I just got back from Mexico where I stayed away from the standard Corona, Tecate, Sol, etc. and concentrated on Victoria Lager (one of my all-time favorites) and Indio. If I do find myself looking for something in the Cerveza Clara style, I'll usually take a Pacifico or Modelo Especial. It doesn't help that some of these beers are not sold in the US... it makes them a sort of forbidden fruit. My Hacienda Lager recipe (found on the recipe page) is meant to produce a beer that is similar to Victoria Lager, especially when made with White Labs 940, Mexican Lager yeast. The bottle of Victoria says Cerveza Tipo Viena and it also shows 4.0% ABV. There aren't a lot of other clues, but my recipe does come very close and it produces a beer that is at least in the spirit of Victoria, even if it's not exact. Are Mexican beers ultra hoppy? No. Are they strong? Not necessarily. Do beer geeks and homebrewers fall all over themselves when talking about beers from Mexico? No, they don't. Occasionally you will find the beer enthusiast that says that they appreciate a Negra Modelo or something along those lines. But I consider this a lonely passion of mine because many people who are interested in beer consider beer products from Mexico to be boring and subpar. But...
I recently heard about Del Norte Brewery in Denver and spoke with one of their main guys, Jack Sosebee. This small brewery only brews Mexican-style beers. They make a Cerveza Clara (light beer) called Orale along with a Mexican Amber Lager called Mañana. They also make a higher-ABV bock beer. As I looked at their site and as I looked through these other Mexican beers that I enjoy, I started thinking... What makes a Mexican beer Mexican? With beers from other countries, you have specific characteristics and ingredients that define the beers... Belgian beers are varied and complex and they have many yeast strains to choose from. English Ales are made with harder water (in some cases) and have quite a few style-specific ingredients like British Crystal and British Black malt along with Kent and Fuggle hops, among others. You also have English ale yeasts which help to define the style. The same could be said for German styles with their Noble hops, various strains of lager yeast and centuries of brewing tradition. So when looking at Mexican beers, how are they best defined? I have read that there has been German influence in the Mexican brewing industry for over a hundred years. After all, the lighter beers like Tecate, Sol, Dos Equis, Pacifico and Corona are a local interpretation of a German Lager (just as almost every country on the globe can say the same thing). But beers like Dos Equis Amber, Victoria Lager, Leon, Negra Modelo and Indio may be considered the Mexican equivalent of a Festbier. They probably employ the use of more adjuncts than a German brewery might and they also produce beers that are lower in alcohol than a European brewery. It appears that many of these beers are made with mild European hops like Hallertau, Tettnanger, Hersbrucker or Spalt and in a conversation I once had with Chris White of White Labs yeast, he suggested that if making a Mexican beer, White Labs 830 German lager yeast would be a great yeast to use if the 940 Mexican lager strain was not available. Could a Mexican beer just be a lighter version of various German and Austrian styles? I can understand the idea of making the beer a little lighter and more refreshing due to the tropical climate in Mexico. In talking with Jack Sosebee of Del Norte Brewing in Denver, he mentioned the following things about what really makes a Mexican beer Mexican:
1. They are lagers. This is a reflection of the German and Austrian influence and of the hot climate.
2. They have low hopping rates. When the early brewers in Mexico (almost all German or Austrian) started brewing, they brewed the beers they knew, and the light lagers seem to have been mostly pilsners. But pilsners have are often somewhat highly hopped. My guess is that they quickly found out that hoppy beers clash with the spicy cuisines in Mexico, and they especially clash with chiles (hops accentuate the chile flavor rather than moderating it). I think this is the primary reason why almost all Mexican beers are lightly hopped. And you are right about the hops - a German or Czech noble hop is usual, producing beers with little or no hop aroma.
3. Corn is almost always used in the light lagers. Not only is it cheap and locally available, but I think it contributes a small amount of sweetness which, again, moderates the heat of chiles.
4. The yeast strains are clean, with little diacetyl production. The White Labs yeast strain 940 is a good one.
5. The amber lagers are still pretty much traditional Viennas, reflecting the German and Austrian brewing heritage.
Big ups to Jack Sosebee for that great information. It answers a lot of questions and it makes perfect sense all the way around. Cheers to Jack.
The two big Mexican breweries are Grupo Modelo (brewers of Modelo Especial, Negra Modelo, Corona, Pacifico, Victoria, Leon, Montejo, Estrella and a number of others) and Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma who make Dos Equis Especial and Amber, Sol, Tecate, Indio, Superior, Bohemia, Buena Noche, and Carta Blanca among others. These breweries gobbled up a number of smaller breweries that were located throughout Mexico. Victoria was first brewed in 1865 by Compañia Cervecera Toluca y Mexico and was eventually bought by Grupo Modelo in 1935. One strange thing about these breweries is that they have giant marketing blitzes for brands like Corona (the largest-selling import beer in the US) and Dos Equis (Stay thirsty my friends...) to the point that you could find almost anything you wanted with these logos on them... t-shirts, umbrellas, pens, stickers, surfboards, home pregnancy tests, you name it. On the other extreme, some brands like Victoria are not sold in the US and have very little information available about them. When I was in Mexico, I had absolutely no trouble finding Victoria, but I couldn't find as much as a t-shirt with a Victoria logo on it. I have also emailed the brewery many times and they refuse to indulge my inquiries about what goes into making Victoria beer.
What about the other stuff? Lime. Salt. Chelada. Michelada. What is the story with all this stuff? To be honest, I did some web research and found out that nobody really knows where all of this stuff came from. Why do beer drinkers in Mexico put a lime in their beer? It seems that the best answer to that question is that they like the flavor of it and that's that. Lime is a common flavor in Mexico (which is why it's in corn chips and potato chips and on peanuts and a bunch of stuff you'll find there) and it's a very common thing to see. Some people say that it started with Tecate beer that was sold in cans. One story says that Tecate had a bunch of old, stale beer and suggested that people use a lime to improve the taste. Another story suggests that the lime was meant to be squeezed and spread over the top of cans (not bottles) so flies wouldn't land on your beer. Others suggest that they do not appreciate a stable head of foam in Mexico and limes help the foam to dissipate. One thing that I have heard on a number of occasions is that limes in Mexico are usually key limes and the variety we normally see in the US are persian limes. Apparently there is a big difference. The salt part is just as murky as the lime part. One story suggests that adding salt to a beer reduces the carbonation which makes it easier to drink and cuts down on gas bubbles in your stomach. There are a lot of stories about why people put salt in beer, but it seems logical that the bottom line is that people who do it like the way it tastes. I will say this... each time I ordered a beer in Mexico (whether at the pool, in a bar or restaurant, etc.), they brought a cup of sliced limes and packets of salt.
The origin of the chelada and michelada is also hard to pin down, evidentally. From what I can tell, a chelada is lime juice placed into a glass with a salted rim and beer is poured into the glass. Sounds like a beer with lime and salt as was just mentioned in the last paragraph. A Michelada adds some additional things such as tomato juice, possibly Tabasco or other hot sauce, worchestshire sauce along with lime and salt. Sometimes the tomato juice is subbed out with Clamato. This drink has roots all over the place including Canada and the US. When I was little, my Dad would pour a glass quarter full with tomato juice, bloody mary mix, V8 or whatever and then pour the beer the rest of the way up. In Canada, they call it a Red Eye and it's made in a similar fashion. I have been on planes where someone will ask for a beer and a can of tomato juice. My Dad didn't have a name for it, but he said he first saw it done in taverns in Wisconsin when he would go on fishing trips. In various places in Mexico, you will see different variations of this drink. Apparently there is a bar in Mexico City where they refuse to serve it. They will put the ingredients for one out on the bar and tell you that you can mix it yourself, but the beertenders will have no part in making one for you.
I have a couple of good Mexican-style lagers on the recipe page and I have a few more coming down the line. My plan is to eventually have a cerveza clara (Cabana), a Mexican-Vienna (Hacienda), a Mexican Amber Lager (coming up) and a Mexican Dark Lager which I have called Cantina and it was first brewed on January 25, 2010. I also have some good recipes on the OTHER STUFF page for things like homemade salsa, tortilla soup and a great avacado and black bean dip to be served with tortilla chips.
When you envision all of Mexico's characteristics, it's simple to see why someone might fall in love with their beer. Consider the warm and friendly people, the sunny, tropical climate, the miles of beautiful coastline, the infectious music, the wonderful food and the idea of a relaxed lifestyle. Does that mean that if you were drinking a Mexican beer while standing in 2 feet of snow in the middle of a Chicago January that it wouldn't taste good? I think that depends. A Corona may taste better while standing on a Mexican beach or swinging in a hammock strung up between two palm trees in 85°. But I think that some of these Mexican Amber Lagers would stand up on their own regardless of the setting. Are they better when you're sitting in a straw-canopied cantina on the beach? Of course. But I think they would be good anyplace.