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What is a Mexican Lager? A Guide to the Misunderstood Beer Style

28 Feb

What is a Mexican Lager? A Guide to the Misunderstood Beer Style

In this Guide:

  • Note from our Head Brewer, Brodie Pierce
  • Intro to the Mexican Lager Style
  • Mexican Brewing Traditions and a Quick History of Mexican Lager
  • Mexican Beer Production
  • Best Mexican Lagers brewed by Microbreweries and Brewpubs in Mexico
  • Clara Lager
  • Vienna Lager
  • Mexican Lagers Brewed in Mexico
  • Mexican Lagers Brewed in the United States
  • Mexican Lager Overview
  • Opinion: Mexican Lager in Beer Competitions

 

Note from our Head Brewer, Brodie Pierce

“When I first got to Silver Bluff Brewing Company and we were going over what the first beers would be, I was given one note about the Mexican Lager: “More Modelo than Pacifico”.

Kevin and Jeff had a recipe that they had been brewing on their respective homebrew systems for years, so that was where I started. After scaling it up we had a baseline for adjustments. We really bridge the gap between traditional European lagers by using some Pilsner, Vienna malt, and German noble hops; and more American style craft beer by using the US, 2-row barley, and Mexican Lager yeast.

This blending gives us a beer that has a floral, bready aroma with a complex flavor and a clean finish. Mexican Lagers are a style of beer that can be interpreted in various ways with some brewers using different ingredients and methods to put their own spin on them.

However, the key to Mexican Lager will always be drinkability, which is what I feel makes our’s stand out as something refreshing on a hot day. It’s more flavorful than a normal macro Mexican Lager.”

Intro to the Mexican Lager Style

Mexican Lagers brewed by macro breweries in Mexico are extremely popular in the United States and Worldwide.

The Mexican Lager style is controversial because it can refer to many different beers, but generally, the reference is to a clean lager with low bitterness and high clarity that we commonly reference as a Clara. Vienna Lager is also a key style in the Mexican Lager group and the flavor profile of Vienna Lager has inspired many Mexican Lagers that are amber in color and include adjuncts like corn/maize, but the Vienna Lager style does not traditionally include this adjunct.

The use of corn in common macro brewery Mexican Lagers in the form of flaked maize to enhance crispness and decrease the cost of the malt bill is also quite controversial and many American brewers have aimed to improve on the style by using other adjuncts or by substituting technique to create the same drinking experience. Flaked maize, for reference, is corn with proteins, oils and other components removed that can be added to a mash during the brewing process.

Pilsner malt is typically the base malt of a Pale Lager or Clara, and Mexican Lagers with more of an amber color will commonly also use Vienna, Munich, Victory, and other similar malts to impart their respective characteristics.

Mexican Brewing Traditions and a Quick History of Mexican Lager

As early as 900 B.C. – 500 B.C. Mayans in Mexico were brewing complex flavored fermented chocolate drinks and for over 1,000 years Mexicans have been brewing and drinking Pulque, a drink similar to beer brewed with the fermented sap of certain maguey (agave) plants that could get over 6% ABV.

Also in that time period, fermented corn and honey beverages were common in Mexico, and tesgüino (alcoholic corn drink) and tepache (fermented honey beverage) is still brewed by historic brewers in Mexico.

However, the origin of most common references to Mexican Lager is in the 19th century when Austrian and German immigrants settled in Texas and Mexico. The beer recipes they brought with them were closer to Vienna Lager than Clara and for years, Vienna and Vienna Lagers brewed with maize were the standard in popular commercial Mexican beer brewing.

In the last decades of the 1800s, these immigrants were led by Maximilian I of Mexico (German/Austrian Origin), and he, notably, had a brewer who brewed Vienna and darker lagers.

Many smaller breweries in these decades were opened and focused on Vienna and similar lagers.

In 1890, Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc opened and brewed a Czech Pilsner and was the first larger brewery making a beer at scale utilizing the wider-reaching rail system that allowed access to United States malt and brewing equipment. These beers, originally called Siglo XX were later renamed Dos Equis (Two X’s) Lager and Amber.

Mexican Beer Production

Growth in 20th Century Mexican beer production was helped by United States prohibition. During that time, a number of smaller breweries sprouted aiming to provide alcoholic beverages around the borders and in Baja. But, as competition put pressure on the businesses and the spike leveled out, the major breweries of the day took control of the market focused on beer drinkers traveling to Mexico leaving these prohibition-fueled smaller breweries behind.

Today, these macro-conglomerates, FEMSA (Now a Heineken-owned group) and Modelo (Now an AB InBev-owned group,) own the gross majority of the popular export brands. FEMSA’s major brands include Tecate and Sol while Modelo manages Corona, Modelo (Negra and Especial,) Pacifico, and dozens more.

These two groups own 90% of brewing in Mexico and nearly all of the export market. Mexico is the world’s largest beer exporter with over $4 billion in sales annually. Alcoholic beverages make up an even larger export group for Mexican businesses in liquor and malt beverages.
When you have a Mexican Lager brewed in Mexico, it is probably made by a brewery owned by Heineken or AB InBev.

Beer drinkers often think they are buying a new brand when they select from a portfolio which is key to the macro brewing marketing strategy.

When we travel to Mexico, getting a beer that isn’t brewed by FEMSA and Modelo (although, they make some of our favorites) is a common sport. Brewpubs and local microbrews are thriving in the 21st century and here’s a list of our favorite microbreweries and brewpubs in Mexico.

 

Best Mexican Lagers brewed by Microbreweries and Brewpubs in Mexico

As you’ll see below, Mexican micros and brewpubs are making amazing beers of all styles, but, typically have examples of the popular styles as their flagships. The breweries below are doing both and macros are taking notice. Craft beer is growing in Mexico and it is not confined to Mexican-Style Lager.

 

List of Microbreweries that we love in Mexico

 

Cervecería de Colima – On our last trip to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, this was the beer bottle that filled our coolers. Across their five main beers, they have a German Pilsner, American Pale Ale, Porter, Tropical IPA (yes, in Mexico,) and a Session IPA. When in Jalisco and Colima, find it. Amazing branding and very cool bottles, too.

Baja Brewing – We snagged a few of these in California a bit back and are partial to the Por Favor Mexican IPA and the Pelirroja Amber Ale. Go find a cantina if you are close by.

Cerveza Minerva – From Jalisco, they are making beers of all styles including IPAs and Belgians. If you see a Dorado de Guadalajara, grab one. We were lucky enough to have a friend bring us a Renee, Belgian Blonde special release that opened our eyes on Minerva.

List of brewpubs that we love in Mexico

Quick disclaimer: Our Mexican travels are biased to Jalisco and Quintana Roo, so these brewpubs are in those areas. Craft brewers are all over Mexico. Support them when you travel.

Monzón Brewing Co – Magical place in Puerta Vallarta with a great taproom. Make sure to try the White Noise Hefeweizen.

Los Muertos Brewing – We had more fun here than we probably should have. The West Coast IPA, Revenge, was a major surprise and we had our share of the Agave Maria Amber Ale which uses Victory Malt (a malt Silver Bluff uses religiously). Awesome food and atmosphere and cannot wait to get back.

Puerto Juárez Brewery – This is the nano-brewery jewel of the Cancun area. Tasting menus, hazy IPAs, brown ales, and amazing people. Fermin Lopez Flores is doing great things. Don’t skip this one if you are heading down to the beach destination.

Clara Lager

Clara Lager means “clear, bright, and light beer” in Spanish and is a branded term used in Mexican beer marketing for beers like Pacifico Clara.

The opposite of Clara is Obscura, and a common term used for dark beers.

Claras are often very similar to European Pilsners but with adjuncts like flaked maize added to the malt bill.

In local regions of Mexico, a Clara can sometimes reference a Radler or shandy beer which is typically a Pilsner-style beer mixed with lemonade or soda.

Vienna Lager

Vienna Lager is an amber Austrian (hence, Vienna) beer style that resembles the golden-amber Märzen style of Munich. Both styles were first sold in the 1800’s.

Märzen beer is still quite popular, while the Vienna lager is now rare even in Austria.

There are some amazing examples of Vienna Lager brewed in the United States, with Devil’s Backbone’s Vienna Lager leading the charge. Devil’s Backbone’s brew has won multiple Great American Beer Festival Gold Medals for the Vienna-Style Lager category.

Hop choices for Vienna Lagers are typically Noble Hops with German varieties like Tettnang, Spalt, Saaz, and Hallertauer leading the list.

Mexican Lager traditions have kept this declining style thriving. Mexican Vienna Lagers tend to be a little darker and sweeter than a traditional Austrian example. In many cases, Mexican brewers are adding Munich and Crystal malt and flaked corn to noticeably lighten the body. Using Vienna malt is the traditional approach.

Silver Bluff plans to make both a Clara and Vienna in the next year and everyone is looking forward to tasters having the opportunity to taste that flight in a blind tasting!

Mexican Lagers Brewed in Mexico

Silver Bluff loves Mexican Lagers, and here are some notes about the ones that you’ll most likely find at your local store.

Corona Extra is the most well-known of the Mexican Lagers and closer to a Clara in style, with Corona Light an even more clear example. A fun fact is that Corona Light is rarely actually found in Mexico! It is the best-selling Mexican beer and top 5 beer drank by volume. If you want a Corona, we recommend a can or draft, and avoid the lime.

Most people don’t find Corona Familiar, the big brother to Extra, on the shelf, but if you do it is worth a try to compare the slightly fuller body and sweetness of this brew with Extra.

Negra Modelo and Modelo Especial are also brewed by the same Modelo Group and Negra is a Vienna Lager, while Especial is closer to a Clara/Pilsner style. Making more evidence for the decline of the Vienna style, the AB InBev conglomerate has recently chosen to sometimes classify Negra as a Munich dark beer! Skip Modelo Light, it is a marketing-driven brew created in the 90s.

Carta Blanca is a favorite when visiting Mexico and lives up to the classification as a premium beer. An amazing example of the style, it wins when awards are given out.

Bohemia is a Mexican-style beer that uses Styrian hops and they make a full range of styles, which is a rare case for Mexican macrobrews. They make a Vienna-style lager, a wheat beer (Weizen) and a Dark.

Dos Equis has a Lager and Ambar that are popular examples of the light and Vienna-styles respectively.

Sol has been around since the 1800’s and is an extra light beer that we recommend only in a can.

Tecate is a fiercely marketed brand with a huge following with athletic sponsorships throughout Mexico and the United States. Tecate Light is one of the largest in the US because of this aggressive marketing.

Estrella is a great beer from Guadalajara that is not well known due to brand confusion with the Spanish brewery best known for gluten-free options.

Pacífico Clara is our favorite example of the style has a special malt and differentiated hop profile.

Victoria is lighter-than-most Vienna-style beer that is one of the few major beers that rides the line between the two popular styles (Clara and Vienna) like Silver Bluff’s Mexican Lager.

Mexican Lagers Brewed in the United States

Most American microbreweries are using White Labs or Wyeast’s Mexican Lager Yeast for these or other Mexican Lager yeasts that have their roots at the conglomerates, but the products are extremely high quality and the yeast strains are useful for all kinds of lagering in the brewhouse.

Silver Bluff Mexican Lager – We’re partial on this one. The Silver Bluff Mexican Lager is a smooth, amber-colored beer that omits the adjuncts and uses high-quality ingredients. There are notable hints of biscuit and caramel from the malt, but the gentle lagering process keeps this beer light enough to be recognized into the style. As its name suggests, the Silver Bluff Mexican Lager pairs well with Mexican cuisine, but it’s also a perfect staple at cookouts and tailgates. Winner of the Silver Medal in the International-style Pilsner category at the 2020 US Open Beer Championship.

Oskar Blues Beerito – Toasty, Nutty and the prototype for Vienna-style American Mexican Lagers.

Monday Night Brewing Taco Tuesday – Lucky enough to try this small batch in Atlanta. Sweet and smooth with noticeable Munich Malt and Saaz. Check If they have any when you hit the ATL.

Anchor Los Gigantes – Brewed with their marketing partnership with the MLB San Francisco Giants and a Pale Lager with Flaked Maize. Noble hops and a solid outdoor beer for Americanized Mexican cuisine.

21st Amendment El Sully – The lightest of our recommendations. High-quality light Pilsner with spicy notes for proper Mexican food.

Mexican Lager Overview – What is Mexican Lager?

To summarize, Mexican Lager can mean a lot of things but often describes a Pale Lager with Flaked Maize we reference as a Clara or an Amber Lager with Flaked Maize that is a Vienna-Style or Vienna Lager variant.

We at Silver Bluff had the goal of bringing a high-quality Mexican Lager experience without flaked maize and we’re happy that we were able to do that with our flagship brew. Being awarded the 2020 US Open Beer Championship Silver Medal for International-Style Pilsner was a cherry on top of that goal.

But, that isn’t all that is being brewed in Mexico or in the US and labeled Mexican-style.

Pale, Clara Lagers are being brewed with salt, lime, lime juice, and other ingredients to cater to the US audience’s tradition of putting limes in Corona Extra. Among them, Stone’s Buenaveza is one worth checking out.

Big note on this, though. Americans created this. Americans were the people who first put limes in their Mexican beer. Some think it started when beer in clear bottles got hit by light strike and others think it was a beach bartender’s habit gone wrong. Here’s a fun rant about this ubiquitous custom.

Silver Bluff’s sentiment? Save the fruit for the salad, but, it is your beer when it is in your hands and always use a fresh lime wedge! We’ve seen some ugly, rotten fruit go in beautiful beers in our day. Stop the madness.

Opinion: Mexican Lager in Beer Competitions

Our last note on this.

Mexican Lagers deserve at least three dedicated categories in competitions.

Mexico is the #1 exporter of beer. The market drinks $4 billion of it annually. Frequently, the most prestigious competitions like the GABF, US Open, and World Beer Cup will have Mexican-style beers entered all over the board, in various styles. To get a true competition in place, a category for lighter, Clara-style Lagers and a category for darker, Vienna-style Lagers would be a great start.

Adding a third category for all of the rest would keep the fidelity of the competition intact. We don’t want a Beer Judge having a palate wrecking, lime-flavored salt bomb in between a Silver Bluff Mexican Lager and a 21st Amendment El Sully at next year’s GABF.

Blind tasting competitions should be more than just a luck of the draw.

Support your local microbrewery. Ask for a glass. We love you.

— The Team at Silver Bluff