Ska Brewing is responsible for introducing many of us to the idea of an American-brewed, Mexican-style lager (and for snapping up the genius woodchopping pun) with its popular Mexican Logger. It’s the brewery’s third-best selling beer, despite only being available during the summer. Its origin story is a logical one: Ska’s partners were “closeted” Pacifico, Modelo and Dos Equis fans, and wanted to create their own version of these thirst-quenching summertime beers. To get that crisp, snappy flavor, Ska’s brewers use a lager yeast strain from a brewery in Mexico City (which they decline to name).
Fast forward about 16 years, since Ska first brewed Mexican Logger, and there’s a fresh wave of American-brewed, Mexican-style lagers on shelves, including 21st Amendment’s El Sully, Deep Ellum’s Neato Bandito and the brand new Oskar Blues’ Beerito. They’re designed to replicate sunny beers like Tecate and Modelo, but the resulting brews vary widely in appearance, flavor and style—just look at the rainbow of brews above.
So what makes a lager “Mexican-style” and not just an American light lager? A very brief history lesson: In Mexico at the end of the 19th century, German expats began commercially brewing the Vienna-style lagers they were used to, which have now loosely become the Mexican lagers we see exported to U.S. shelves. It’s too easy to say, though, that contemporary American-made, Mexican-style lagers are Vienna lagers. No, brewers are interpreting this cultural inspiration in different ways.
21st Amendment’s El Sully, for instance, is brewed with a Mexican strain of a lager yeast, plus pilsner and Vienna malts and a bit of flaked maize. That’s pretty darn close to the ingredients a large Mexican brewery might use, and to us, it tastes the closest to what we expected: sweet corn and grainy flavors, a smooth mouthfeel and just a dab of bitterness at the swallow. Clean and chuggable, perfect with a lime slice. Easy.
Deep Ellum’s Neato Bandito achieves its Mexican inspiration differently, not with a Mexican lager yeast (Deep Ellum’s house lager yeast is Austrian in origin) but with a percentage of corn in the grain bill. Wait, isn’t that what the big brewers do to cheapen their beers? “>We’re not using corn as a cheap fermentable, we’re using it to dry out the body of the beer a bit and keep it crushable so it’s not sickeningly sweet,” says Deep Ellum brewer Jeremy Hunt. But Neato Bandito is sweeter than the other two lagers we tried, and has a higher alcohol content (6%, versus El Sully’s 4.8% and Beerito’s 4%). The flavor evokes orange blossom honey and light corn while maintaining its even-keeled drinkability.
And then there’s Oskar Blues’ Beerito, the newest brew of the bunch, and the darkest. Its Mexican leaning doesn’t come from its yeast strain or adjuncts, but from a sort of philosophical striving for a dry, clean brew. “Mexican lagers tend to be a little more clean of the fruity esters,” says Oskar Blues brewer Tim Matthews. “They’ve gotta be absolutely clean, with little to zero fruity esters. A lot of American lagers are actually pretty fruity overall.” Brewers worked with Fort Collins, Colorado-based Troubador Malting and Weyerman, the big malting house, to source dark Munich malt and an heirloom Vienna malt, respectively. That translates to lots of malt richness (and color), offering toasty brioche crust flavors and white breadiness, with a touch of peppery, spicy Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops. It reads overall as more German to us, but that makes sense given the Mexico-Vienna historical connection; plus, the beer’s delicious.
As with any beer style, American brewers are going to make Mexican lagers their own, ranging in color, ABV and flavor. What that means for drinkers, though, is that it might take some sampling to find the one that’s closest to the flavors you’re searching for; not every can of these is a Tecate in disguise.