March of Lagers: Mexican Version has Origins a Long Way From the Americas

Photograph by Charlie Perez

What do you get when Austrians and Bavarians migrate to the Americas? If you said the accordion, you’d probably be correct. If you said beer, you are indeed correct. Mexican lagers have a unique past that most of us never consider. Welcome to this year’s March of Lagers! Put that lime down, and let’s discuss the origins of Mexican lager.

Mexico’s declaration of independence came on Sept. 16, 1810. Until the revolution began a century later in 1910, there was still a bit of turmoil. Along with other important historical events, the beer-related one is when an Austrian native declared himself emperor of Mexico.

Back to the beer. We begin where most lagers begin: in Germany. But we incorporate Austria since they were unified at this time. Upon returning form a research trip to England with a fellow brewer in 1833, Anton Dreher began experimenting with a revolutionary malt-roasting technique. A few years later, Dreher released a paler amber lager made with his own pale grain, dubbed Vienna malt. This beer is what ultimately became the Vienna lager. More on its evolution in Austria/Germany here!

While these beers lost popularity as quickly as it gained thanks to the emergence of the pale lager in 1842, German and Austrian immigrants were making their way to the Americas, specifically Mexico. In 1864, Maximillian I became emperor of Mexico, and he brought his love of Vienna lager with him. There was in influx of lager brewing, including brewers who produced lager in the Vienna style. Maximillian was executed in 1867, but the thirst for Vienna lager remained.

Santiago Graf, a brewer living in Mexico in the late 1800s, began to import the ingredients to make the Vienna-style lager. He also started using a local ingredient that was abundant and inexpensive: corn. Eventually, the pale lager would gain popularity in Mexico, too, and evolved to the popular golden beer we see in advertisements with a lime wedged into the neck of the bottle. You can still find the remanence of the Vienna lager, however.

Cervecería Cuauhtémoc, the first major Mexican lager brewery, was born in 1891. In the first half of the 1900s, there were about 35 independent breweries in Mexico. Hereafter, as with most businesses, there was a period of consolidation resulting in only two major Mexican brewery groups. The two groups are Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma and Grupo Modelo. Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma offers brands such as Bohemia, Carta Blanca, Indio, Noche Buena, Sol, Superior, Tecate, and XX/XX Amber. Grupo Modelo runs the brands Corona, Estrella, Modelo/Negra Modelo, Montejo, Pacifico, Victoria, and a few others. Thankfully, there is a bit of a craft beer boom happening in Mexico. There are plenty of small, independent breweries now making some delightful beers.

La Calleja at Backstreet Brewery. Photograph by Charlie Perez

The traditional Vienna lager is made by utilizing Vienna malt, sometimes 100 percent of the grains. You find a delicate bready note, often with light toasty notes, crisp cereal maltiness, and a dry finish. The lighter versions, typically labeled as Mexican lager, more resemble the American lager than its historically Germanic cousin. The use of flaked maize gives them an aroma of sweet corn along with a vitamin zing from the yeast. Still, quite the drinkable, refreshing beer.

Aimbot at GameCraft. Photograph by Charlie Perez

Here on this side of the border, we have some amazing examples of Vienna and Mexican lagers. A readily available and fantastic Vienna lager is Cheve from the well-decorated TAPS Brewery. Brewery X showed off its brewing skills once again with a beautiful example of a Vienna lager labeled I Know, Huh?, an amber Mexican lager. GameCraft has a higher-ABV version with Aimbot. On the pale lager side, Asylum has the amply named Scurveza, which adds lime into the brew kettle to add a slight zesty note to the beer. Lumino from Unsung is an award-winner and shows off the light corn-like sweetness and water crackers typical of the style. Backstreet’s La Calleja and Artifexican by Artifex are usually always available to take care of your thirst. Santa Ana River and others also offer wonderful and invigorating Mexican lagers. Keep an eye out for your local spot to release one as they most likely will if they haven’t already.

I have an affinity for this style. I spend many hours with my family, especially my father, and we waste hours chatting about absolutely nothing while enjoying a few Mexican lagers. We all have traditions. My Mexican heritage flows as freely as the Mexican beer style. Even though beers from Mexico have Germanic origins, the connections I build with my father have no borders. It’s because of him that I am who I am. And beer, lime or not, will always be what keeps us together.

¡Salud y Viva México!

Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.

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