For decades, Mexican beer has been synonymous with a lime-garnished bottle of Corona or Pacifico. But stateside, there’s a new craft face to “Mexican beer”: agave wheats, Mexican cake stouts, habanero IPAs. The macro lagers are still huge sellers, of course. Big beer, for its part, mostly banks on Americans’ continuing thirst for Mexican-made lagers. Constellation Brands, which imports and sells Victoria, Modelo, Pacifico and Corona (the best-selling imported beer in the U.S.), plans to invest $2 billion in its Mexican breweries by 2017. Anheuser-Busch has skin in the game, too: Last year, it scooped up Montejo, a Oaxacan-brewed golden lager that was the company’s first Mexican import. And American brewers like Ska and Big Wood have found success replicating these warm-weather crowd-pleasers. But recently, more craft brewers have turned their attention to Mexico’s culinary flavors, pinching spices, peppers and sugars from dishes like molé, tres leches cake, and the milky horchata drink.
It’s the elevated flavors on Mexican tables that offer a new flavor arsenal: chipotle peppers, piloncillo sugar, hibiscus tea.
“In L.A., half the time we eat Mexican, so you’re always being exposed to that. That’s how our horchata stout and agave wheat got their start,” says Pacific Plate brewer Stephen Kooshian.
Pacific Plate is hardly the only craft brewery finding success with horchata stouts and porters; Elevation has brewed one, as have Almanac and Night Shift. Dark, roasted beers tend to easily soak up their Mexican additions, whether it’s horchata’s signature vanilla and cinnamon or other toasted spices and peppers, but there’s hardly a beer style that some brewer hasn’t given a Mexican twist.
“We’ve seen that these beers, which we thought would be specialty [one-offs], have become core beers,” says Kooshian. “There’s been a great reception for our mango IPA, and we’re currently working on a sour beer that’s going to be like a michelada with chile and lime.”
Andrew Bell, experimental brewer at The Bruery, has also successfully fiddled with Mexican ingredients like peppers, vanilla and molé spices. Consider Melange 10: a combination of Copper, the brewery’s bourbon barrel-aged old ale, and a barrel-aged English barleywine, flavored with ancho chiles, cocoa nibs and cinnamon. Bell selected ancho chiles for their earthiness and smoke rather than a pepper that would only add capsaicin heat.
“We draw from Californian Mexican food, or TexMex; the sort of freshness of having a lime influence or using cilantro and coriander,” Bell says.
That’s reason for brewers to consider the more delicate side of Mexican food, characterized by regional diversity and rich history. Sophisticated drinkers can pick apart the layers in beers brewed with light herbs and aromatic spices, such as Jester King’s Encendia wild ale brewed with the cilantro-like herb epazote, or Aztec’s hibiscus petal wheat ale (inspired by a Mexican hibiscus beverage called Jamaica), which are much more nuanced than the tongue-blistering ghost peppers brewers have played “dare ya” with previously.
Digging even deeper, the history and geography behind each ingredient can become part of the beer itself.
“You’re giving the beer a personality. If we were to go straightforward, we would have done a molé beer. Like, ‘Oh cool, we’ll try to make a beer that tastes like molé.’ That’s not what we were looking to do,” says Andrés Araya, founder of 5 Rabbit Brewery in Bedford Park, Ill., which produces Latin-inspired beers that draw, in part, from the partners’ Costa Rican and Mexican roots. He’s referring to 5 Vulture, the brewery’s Oaxacan-style dark ale brewed with piloncillo sugar and roasted ancho chile. “There was some influence from molé and central Oaxacan cuisine, but the beer needed to be a little brighter than molé is. It needed to be more than that. So we wanted to go with a lighter body, lots of complexity but not overpowering or in your face with the ingredients. Those are the kinds of discussions we have.”
Three to try
Coronado Señor Saison
In a nod to their neighbors in the emerging Baja beer scene, SoCal’s Coronado Brewing crafted this jalapeño saison with piloncillo, a crystalized brown cane sugar common to Mexican cooking. The farmhouse ale has a bright green jalapeño flavor; the saison’s white pepper and lemon are a natural complement to this just-shy-of-hot pepper addition.
The Lost Abbey Agave Maria
Agave syrup adds oomph to this 13.5% strong ale that’s aged for at least 10 months in tequila barrels; it marks The Lost Abbey’s first widely distributed tequila barrel-aged release. Oak and tequila dominate the aroma, while the strong ale’s dark raisin and consistent sweetness help cushion tequila’s assertive prickle. After the swallow, only a faint oaky echo remains on the tongue.
Copper Kettle Mexican Chocolate Stout
If you’ve heard of this small Denver brewery, it’s likely because of this beer, available only in Colorado. Inspired by ancient Mayans’ bitter, spiced cocoa drinks, Copper Kettle adds cassia cinnamon, raw cocoa nibs and three types of chiles to the base dry stout. The result are complex transitions from baking cinnamon to a building pepper heat, and from dusty chocolate to a rich dark malt roast.