The History of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Beer

by Bruce Kish | Last Updated: May 1, 2020

Mexican beers, more commonly marketed as exotic Cervezas, tend to get a bad rap within the craft beer community as poor-quality beverages with slick advertising.  

The power of marketing has been, well, so “interesting” of late that these are the only macrobrews in the United States to see increased market share while its mammoth competitors are witnessing declines.  

At the same time, it’s unfair to lump together all beers from South of the Border as “cheap” or “pissy.”  Just as the United States brewing scene since the turn of the 21st century has become a museum of rare or extinct styles from around the globe, Mexico’s traditions date to the mid-19th century from the techniques and recipes brought by German and Austrian immigrant brewers prior the rise of pilsners in Central Europe.  

The Vienna Lager

Mexican Beers

Today, one is more likely to find a Vienna lager in Guadalajara than in Austria, where the style became extinct.  In its description of beer style Vienna Lager (7A), the 2015 Beer Judge Certification Program BJCP Guidelines acknowledges the immigrant brewers in Mexico.

The original version was more “authentic” than many modern examples, which tended to run sweeter and less malty from adjuncts, and are closer to International Amber Lagers (2B) or International Dark Lagers (2C).

Nevertheless, Mexico has a long, distinguished history of making fermented beverages that predates the arrival of the Spaniards. Various Mesoamerican civilizations fermented corn and other plants for drink. 

The Aztecs learned to make pulque, a milky substance produced from the sap of the maguey plant.  Because this beverage was rare, it was considered sacred and its consumption was restricted to older male priests or members of the royal court.  Younger people or commoners caught drinking it were severely punished.

Mexican Beer
The god of pulque

This limitation on drinking was due to the myth of the 400 drunken rabbits: After the Goddess of Flower gave pulque to the King of Tula, the monarch became drunk and raped the goddess; it was declared afterward that drinking would be restricted to men who were older and experienced, and could control their urges.  

Afterward, she became the Goddess of Pulque.  With her husband, Petecatl, God of Fermentation, she bore 400 children, the Gods of Drunkenness (often depicted as rabbits), who were nursed by fermented milk from her 400 breasts.  The Aztec term for a drunken person was one who was “as drunk as 400 rabbits.”  One of the children, Five Rabbit, was considered the God of Hangovers.

Following the Spanish conquest in 1521 production of pulque was commercialized, secularized, and expanded throughout New Spain.  The first wave of settlers after the Conquistadors introduced barley and wheat. 

Production was limited due to the scarcity of grain and the high taxes imposed on production as the Spanish Crown sought to protect home industries and encourage dependence on imported beer and other alcoholic beverages.  

Alfonso de Herrero

Around 1544, Alfonso de Herrero, started the first true brewery in New Spain, somewhere in the southside of Mexico City or in the State of Mexico.  Herrero attempted to cut his production costs by growing his own barley and managed to compete against the pulque market, despite the tax and regulatory burdens.  

Herrero’s business ultimately succumbed to financial pressures, but he succeeded in raising the awareness of beer and helping to make it popular.  At the beginning of the 19th century, three rival groups vied for exclusive rights for beer production and distribution: the English firm Gillons & Mairet, Miguel Ramos Arizpe, and Justino Tuallion.  

By 1821, Tuallion’s “Hospice of the Poor” brand (named for a homeless shelter on the same street as the brewery) proved to be the most popular. The Empire of Mexico was established in 1821 after a revolutionary war overthrew Spanish rule.  The removal of the royal taxes and regulations enabled the Mexican beer scene to expand. 

In 1845, brewers Bernhard Boldgard of Switzerland and Bavarian Federico Herzog launched Pila Seca and La Candelaria, beers that were brewed with a raw cane sugar known as piloncillo.

Politics and Beer

Political turmoil had cultural impacts on Mexican beer.  Following a civil war between 1858-60, the Mexican government was forced to suspend foreign debt repayment, causing France, Spain, and Great Britain to deploy forces to Mexico to compel negotiation for repayment and reparations for harm to foreign nationals residing in country.  

The alliance ultimately fell apart and the British and Spanish withdrew when Emperor Napoleon III attempted to impose harsh terms upon the Mexicans to provoke a war. 

Cinco de Mayo

On May 5, 1862, French forces attacked Mexican Army units in the vicinity of Puebla, which held out in fortified positions despite a heavy artillery barrage and three major frontal assaults.  By the end of the day, the Mexicans still held their positions and the French retreated.  The triumph of Mexican arms shocked the world, which had anticipated an easy French victory. 

The State of Puebla immediately declared Cinco de Mayo a local holiday to commemorate Mexican nationalism over French imperialism.  Observance of the day in subsequent years was limited to Puebla and its neighboring states, and in a handful of Mexican communities north of the border among pro-Union immigrants during the American Civil War. 

Cinco de Mayo was not widely celebrated in the United States until the 1960s when Chicano activists used it to raise awareness of Mexican heritage.  Soon it was co-opted by commercial interests, primarily beer, and a political observance quickly evolved into a party celebrating Mexican culture.

The defeat at Puebla proved to be a minor setback as returning French forces won the Second Battle of Puebla on May 17, 1863, clearing the way for the occupation of Mexico City and exile of the national government.  Napoleon III declared the Second Mexican Empire and installed his nephew, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian, as emperor. 

Mexican Beer
Battle of Puebla

Although Maximillian’s reign lasted three bloody years and ended with his execution by victorious rebel forces in 1867, his most lasting impression on the country was the introduction of Vienna lagers and dark beers by the emperor’s personal brewer, which later influenced the creation of Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Ambar.

In 1865, Compañía Toluca y México brewed Victoria, one of the first Mexican Vienna-lager style beers.

Mexican Beers
Maximillia’s influence on beer was no short feat.

After Reconstruction following the American Civil War, railroad networks reached into Mexico, allowing brewers to import American-made brewing equipment and grain, but the railroad also proved to be a double-edged sword as the Mexican brewers also had to compete with American beers that were also being shipped into the country.  

Yet Mexico continued to have an appeal to German and Austrian immigrants who continued arriving in the last three decades of the 19th century, thanks to the liberal policies of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz.  

German communities sprang up in Mexico City, Veracruz, Yucatan, and Puebla and gradually assimilated.  Later waves of German immigrants arrived during and after the two World Wars.

Master brewer Wilhelm Hasse arrived from Germany in 1884 and started the Cerveceria Moctezuma in Veracruz in 1897, which led to a beer brewed later that year to celebrate the upcoming turn of the 20th century: Siglo XX, later renamed Dos Equis.  Hasse’s approach was to use Mexican-produced ingredients to brew German-style recipes.

In 1890, José A. Muguerza, Francisco G. Sada Muguerza, Alberto Sada Muguerza, Isaac Garza Garza, and Joseph M. Schnaider pooled their resources – 150,000 pesos – to found the Cuauhtémoc Brewery in Monterrey.  

Their first label, Carta Blanca, went public three years later and proved extremely popular, winning gold medals at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.  Success led to a second label, El Sol (modern Sol), named for the rays of light seen glittering in the mash tun.

The Beer of Choice for Surfers

In 1900, three German brewers settled in port town of Mazatlán on the Baja Peninsula and founded the Cervecería del Pacifico, whose flagship lager-style beer, Pacifico, gained a strong following in Mexico’s northwest region.  

It remained unknown in the United States until the 1970s, when surfers from California ventured south in search of breakwater and returned with several cases.  The popularity among the American surfing crowd eventually led to regular exports north of the border starting in 1985.

The Mexican beer industry reached it production zenith by 1918 with 36 breweries in production.  The advent of Prohibition in the United States in 1919 was a boon to Mexico and two breweries were built along the California border: Aztec Brewing Company, started by American businessmen Edward P. Baker, Herbert Jaffe, and brewer William H. Strousse in 1921, and Cerveceria Mexicali in 1923, a Mexican-owned brewery.

Meanwhile, in Mexico City, Braulio Iriarte, with the assistance of President Elias Calles, started Grupo Modelo in 1925.  While the new company had success with its first beers released that same year, Modelo Especial and Corona, it did not become a major player until it started buying other breweries, notably Victoria in 1935, and Estrella and Pacifico in 1954.  

Despite having a large market, competition among the existing breweries was cutthroat.  Bitter rivals Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc likewise squeezed out the competition in their quests for market dominance. 

This period of consolidation lasted for the remainder of the 20th century.  By 1956, Grupo Modelo surpassed Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc in production with 31.6 percent of all Mexican beer.    

Beer Wars in Mexico

Pulque became a casualty of the beer wars.  The traditional Mesoamerican beverage, with its milky color, syrupy texture, and sour yeast flavor, was touted by the breweries as being unsanitary – even going so far to suggest in advertising campaigns that linen bags of human or animal waste were used to speed fermentation.  

The tactics proved successful as the sale and consumption of pulque fell to less than 10 percent of all alcoholic beverages in Mexico.  In the State of Hidalgo, where most Maguey is found, farmers switched to growing barley.  In the 21st century, pulque survives in a niche market among young Mexican adults who identify with their ancient culture.

With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Aztec relocated to San Diego. Strousse briefly left to work for the rival San Diego Brewing Company before founding Tecate in Mexico in 1943, then returning to Aztec before his death a year later.

Aztec’s popularity declined following a buyout by Detroit’s Altes Brewing Company in 1948, and later takeover by the National Brewing Company of Baltimore, which folded it in 1953. Aztec would revive in 2008 when t-shirt designer John Webster discovered the old artwork while researching historic California brands, and recognized its commercial potential. Aztec’s former rival, Mexicali, continued to brew until closure in 1973, but its pilsner recipe was obtained by Cerveceria Mexicana, which still produces it today.

In 1973, Cuauhtémoc head, Eugenio Garza Sada, son of brewery founder Isaac Garza Garza, was assassinated in a botched kidnapping attempt by left-wing guerrillas, causing the corporation to break into separate holdings for banking and beer production.  A financial crisis caused by the fall of Mexican oil prices, the nation’s inability to borrow money, and billions of dollars of debt forced another wave of consolidation.

Mexican Beer

Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma.

In 1985, Cuauhtémoc merged with Moctezuma in 1985 to form Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, which folded in several other established brands, including: Bohemia, Dos Equis, and Tecate in addition to the Carte Blanca, Sol, and Moctezuma beers.  This latest series left only corporate giants: Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma and Grupo Modelo.

Beer Consolidation in Mexico

While Mexican breweries were merging and buying out smaller brands, the global beer market was going through a similar consolidation that would eventually subsume Mexico.  In 1994, Labatt bought a 22 percent share of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma and in 2010 Heineken acquired the Mexican asset after purchasing Labatt. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch obtained 49 percent of Grupo Modelo’s shares.

In the eyes of early 1980s American consumers, Mexican beers were viewed as low-brow workingman’s beverages; however, clever marketing campaigns would soon change the image of cerveza as instant beach escape beers.

Musicians Getting Into the Mix

In 1984, agent Howard Kaufman, representing both  The Eagles and Jimmy Buffett, was negotiating with Corona for sponsorship of an upcoming Eagles tour. When Buffett learned of it, he requested sponsorship as well, and a lucrative partnership that was to last 23 years was born.

Co-opting Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” album title, Corona trademarked the “Change your whole latitude” slogan in 1992, immediately changing the beer’s association with beach vacations and a laid-back lifestyle.

By 1998, Corona displaced Heineken as the top imported beer in the United States; a year later, it was the 10th best-selling brand in America.  By 2006, Buffett decided to produce his own light lager, he offered a deal to Corona to contract brew it, but Grupo Modelo declined since Corona’s popularity was continuing to soar.  At length, Buffett signed with Anheuser-Busch, which had longed for a beer to compete with Corona; in 2007, Landshark Lager hit the market.

Not to be outdone, rival Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma went in a different direction with its ad campaign for Dos Equis, eschewing beaches and frollicking young people for the older, sophisticated “Most Interesting Man in the World,” played by Jonathan Goldsmith, whose worldly adventurer’s exaggerated exploits charmed viewers for eight years.  By the time the campaign ended in 2016, export sales of Dos Equis rose by 34.8 percent.

Mexican Beer

The Most Interesting Man in the World.

While Mexico’s commercial beers are pilsner styles, a budding craft beer movement began around 2010, inspired by the American craft beer movement. These brewers typically produce about 0.85 barrels per batch but offer a variety of styles not otherwise available.

Notable brews include a pale ale by Cerveceria Minera in Guadalajara, Chupacabras pale ale (a cross between and American pale ale and barley wine) by Cerveceria de Baja California in Mexicali, and a traditional weissbier by Cerveceria BayernBrau in Puebla.  Since 2009, the American BJCP has certified an annual professional competition called the Copa Cerveza Mexico.

From the time of Spanish colonization in the 16th century, to the arrival of German and Austrian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the native-born craft brewers, the story of Mexican beer has paralleled political upheaval from taxation, foreign occupation, revolutions, and American Prohibition.

Despite economic turmoil that changed the brewery landscape through mergers, buyouts, and closures, these European-inspired pilsners and lagers have remained very popular outside Mexico’s borders with increasing market share.  At the same time, craft brewers are introducing new styles to the Mexican public. All good reasons to stay thirsty.

One of the most iconic beer pictures is that of a longneck bottle of cerveza with a lime inserted in the neck.  Even when served in a glass, it just seems incomplete without the wedge nestled on the rim or floating on the amber liquid.  The origin of this custom remains a mystery.

Several theories abound, including: a means of sanitizing the bottle neck, keeping flies out of the bottle, or masking the flavor of skunky beer (as Corona uses clear bottles).  What is generally accepted is that this was a marketing ploy that started in tourist areas and spread globally with Mexican exports. In Asian counties, like Japan, limes are rare, so a slice of lemon is substituted.

Interestingly, Mexicans typically do not drink cerveza with lime.  If not drinking it plain, the preferred method is making the beer cocktail known as the Michelada, a mixture of beer with a combination of lemon or lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, pepper sauce, salsa picante, or soy sauce.

The name, Michelada, is derived from Mexican slang meaning “my cold beer.” Travelers take note: by ordering a Michelada, one will merely receive a salt-rimmed glass and a wedge of lime with a bottle of beer.  To get the complete package with spicy sauces, one must order a Michelada Preparada.

Cultural Differences with Beer

Mexican beer culture differs from America’s. Cerveza is enjoyed as a social drink at gatherings of family or friends, at sporting events, and in bars.  It is not, at present, customarily drunk with meals or paired with food. With these limitations, the average Mexican drinks about 52 liters of beer per year, which pales in comparison with many European countries, where levels in excess of 100 liters per person are common.

Mexican Beer
Cinco de Mayo Parade

Yet as American craft beer influences have made inroads in Mexico since the 2010s, it is possible that Mexico’s variety of regional cuisines may eventually have locally produced beers to complement them.

TRES AMIGOS

Building a fermentation chamber last year enabled me to finally make a lager and expand my brewing horizons.  In developing my first recipe for this project, I went with a dark, Vienna lager-style, similar to Negra Modelo. The beer is light and balanced, with a slight caramel flavor playing off muted Galena hops. Two other inspirations for my recipe included the Paloma cocktail (grapefruit soda and tequila), and a Modela-rita I enjoyed at a local Mexican restaurant.

Thus, for the beer’s name – a blatant rip-off of the 1986 movie of a similar title – Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) are replaced by lager, grapefruit and tequila.

Scaling Up

I was recently honored by the Missing Links Brewery near Butler, PA, to have this recipe selected  to brew a limited edition two-barrel batch to raise money for the charity of my choice: the Butler County (PA) Humane Society.

It was brewed in mid-April and will be on tap in late June. Salud!

My Mexican Vienna Homebrew Recipe

5 lb Pale malt
5 lb Vienna malt
9 oz Crystal 60
2 oz Black (Patent) malt
.43 oz Galena hops @ 45
¼ tsp Irish moss @ 10
German lager yeast (WLP830)
Water profile: Munich
Adjuncts: 1 oz grapefruit peel, silver tequila (I used Margaritaville brand)

Mash at 148 for 90 minutes.  Ferment at recommended yeast temperatures. Meanwhile, soak the grapefruit peel in tequila for at least a week.  

After the diacetyl rest, rack into secondary over the drained grapefruit peel (reserve the used tequila for grapefruit margaritas).  Gradually cool to lagering temperatures and hold for a week before kegging.

Force carb or, alternatively, add 4.46 oz to the keg for natural carbonation and condition for 30 days.

OG: 1.049,  FG: 1.010, ABV: 5.1%
IBU: 19.1, SRM: 12.6

Related: The Full History of Beer