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
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.
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.
The Production of Pulque
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.
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.
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.
Check back Thursday, May 2nd, for Part II of The History of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican beer.