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Mexican Beer 101: This Tap Bleeds History

September 21, 2010

I’m a beer lover from a part of the United States where I had a vast range of microbrews and imports at my fingertips. Even my neighborhood health-food store stocked more than a hundred regional brews. Upon moving to Merida, I of course devoted several blurry weeks to sampling (and re-sampling [and re-sampling]) every single brand and style of Mexican beer I could lay my hands on.

I soon found myself staggering into a mystery.

While Mexico offers less variety on the regional scale, its national market produces far more Pilsners, Viennas and ales than America’s lager-logged industry.

The refinement of Mexico’s mass-market beer hinted not only that someone in the country’s brewing history knew what they were doing, but that this devotion to craftsmanship and quality somehow transcended the common mercantile desire to court and maintain product loyalty. And as I made my way from beer to beer, from anecdote to fact, I discovered that the reasons why Mexico so readily offers affordable high-quality beer are as odd and surprising as every other aspect of Mexico’s supremely odd and surprising history. 

Before the Conquest, Maya and Aztec alike produced fermented beverages made from corn.  The Spanish arrived with limited barley-based brewing, as well as wine-making know-how, but the Crown heavily taxed these local tipples in order to encourage the import of Spanish beer.  Beer also had to compete with native pre-Hispanic booze, particularly pulque, the thick, frothy, milky drink made from fermented agave sap.

Pulque was originally sacramental.  The Conquest secularized it. Severed from its sacred context, pulque increasingly became a popular mundane pleasure among the native masses. The brilliance of this strategy is revealed in the fact that the word pulque itself is a Spanish vulgarization of the Nahuatl words octli poliuhqui, or “spoiled wine.”  The Aztecs themselves actually called it ixtac octli, or “white wine.” (The Aztecs associated the color white with Quetzalcoatl, the great Plumed Serpent who contributed to the creation of mankind.) And once “white” was firmly established in native minds as “spoiled,” there was no turning back.

Not only Spanish palates found pulque an un-acquirable taste. Among those who didn’t care for it was Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico, a member of the Imperial House of Habsburg-Lorraine who, during his three-year reign beginning in 1864, brought regular beer production (and quite possibly the Polka-like quality of Northern Mexican music.)  Word has it, Maximillian never traveled without his trusty brewmasters.

Like so many lonely expats here who beg their friends back home to visit, Maximillian encouraged Europeans to immigrate to Mexico.  Flocks of Germans and Austrians descended like so many frat boys, along with their accompanying thirst for beer.  Immigrant-owned breweries began popping up all over Mexico, but the trade was still stunted by limited access to ingredients and equipment (which often had to be brought from Europe) and the fact that pulque was by and large Central Mexico’s drink of choice.

Beer production continued after Maximillian’s reign came to a bloody end at the hands of Benito Juarez, whom the United States supported by “accidentally losing” weapons at the Mexican border.

The advent of the railroad proved a mixed blessing for Mexican beer.  On one hand, it was easier for beer producers to get supplies and to transport their product around the country.  On the other, Mexican brewers were met with sudden competition from the United States, which started selling beer south of the border.

The competition didn’t last long, because in 1920 the United States ratified the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, bringing prohibition to the United States and a spike in demand for Mexican beer.  Breweries seemed to spring up overnight in Baja California, where thirsty Americans could cross the border and get hammered in Tijuana.  Meanwhile, the demand for California grape juice skyrocketed in the United States, and many producers would print sly “warnings” on their labels cautioning buyers that if they stored the juice in the cupboard for a while it might become wine.  And we wouldn’t want that, would we?  Wink wink.

What an anti-pulque advertisement may have looked like.

During this time, Mexican beer brewers in the rest of the country turned their attentions to pulque.  In order for domestic beer consumption to really thrive, pulque had to be eliminated as a competitor.  Brewers started a campaign to tarnish its image, claiming that it was unsanitary and that it was made with fermented feces from animals (and sometimes humans.)  This claim wasn’t completely untrue—a minority of pulque producers did use a tiny amount of animal fecal material in their brews in the past, but the practice had ceased long before the 20th century.  The truth is, pulque was feces-free.

But we all know how easily a well-oiled propaganda machine can steamroll over the facts.  The Europeans’ campaign to slander pulque was largely successful, thanks to the help of President Lazaro Cardenas, who helped spread the poopy rumor as part of a larger campaign to curb alcohol consumption in Mexico.

The pro-pulque camp responds.

It was also around this time that some of the Europeans in Mexico City embraced fascism and the Nazi party, and it wasn’t long before they were blackbooting up and down Avenida Reforma, and collaborating with Stalin to assassinate Leon Trotsky with an ice axe at his home in Coyoacán.

With pulque out of the way, competition amongst beer producers flared, and the industry began to consolidate.  Many of your favorite Mexican beers began long ago as small operations which were bought out by larger ones, culminating in the current market, in which 90% of all Mexican beers are produced by two companies, Grupo Modelo and FEMSA.

Originally the Cuauhtémoc Brewery, founded in Monterrey in 1890, FEMSA is now the largest beverage producer in Mexico.  Its rise to power began when it purchased Cervecería Tecate and became Mexico’s first national brewer of beer.  Today it produces Sol, Tecate, Bohemia, and Dos Equis, among others.  FEMSA is also the Coca-Cola bottler for most of Mexico, and operates the largest chain of convenience stores in Latin America—Oxxo.  If you’ve ever wondered why your neighborhood Oxxo tends to carry only certain beers, and clearly favors Coke over Pepsi, now you know.

Cervecería Toluca became Cervecería Modelo in 1925 and quickly set out to acquire smaller competitors.  It is now the sixth largest beer producer in the world, pushing brands like Corona, Estrella, Victoria, Pacifico and, naturally, Modelo.  It also imports Anheuser-Busch products from the United States, including Budweiser.  Grupo Modelo now owns Cervecería Yucateca, which José Ponce Solis started in Merida in 1869 with the help of a German friend and imported equipment from Germany.  Its two most popular brews, Montejo and Léon, are now produced in Modelo’s plants and not at the brewery at the corner of Calle 70 and Calle 63.

It is in the face of this current beeropoly that microbrewing has slowly begun to gain steam in Mexico.  Some of the better-known microbrews include Pepe & Joe’s of Mazatlan, Tijuana Beers in Baja California, and Beer Lounge in Guadalajara, whose co-owner is Mexico’s first female brewer.  Just as beer snobbery has spread in the U.S. in the past thirty years, Mexico is becoming increasingly interested in alternatives to the usual mass-market fare, as varied and as refined as it may be.

As new microbreweries pop up all around the country, it is proving to be an exciting time for beer lovers in Mexico.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ye Olde Gringoe permalink
    September 21, 2010 10:17 pm

    This is delightful, Prof. Kinbote!

    Whenever I’m abroad, I’m always haunted by the fact that I’m deaf and blind to all the cultural information — history, customs, folklore, etc. — transmitted by even the most common items, such as beer, on supermarket shelves.

    It’s very humbling to realize that everything means something and that we have only a very limited time on this earth to learn what we can!

    As you must certainly know, American beer has its own “curious” history as is clearly outlined in the book to which you link Los Nazis en Mexico by Juan Alberto Cedillo.

    Paul and Gert Von Gontard, grandchildren of the famous Adolphus Busch, who were among the inheritors of the vast Anheuser-Busch fortune, played a singular role in the penetration of Nazis spies into the highest levels of American society! (The German actress Hilda Kruger, who seduced the Von Gontards, also played a starring role in the penetration of Nazis spies into the highest levels of Mexican society!)

    No wonder I prefer tequila!

    Keep up the good work of sharing Mexico’s fascinating history!


  1. Salud! (I’ll drink to that) | Blog | Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina

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