Archive for Monday, June 9, 2008

Sublime sipping

Authentic or not, ‘Mexican’-style beers take off

The market for Mexican-style beers has increased in recent years, with domestic brewers like Miller and Budweiser putting new products in the market. Corona Extra, with its "vacation in a bottle" association, is the most popular import beer in the United States. Modelo, Tecate and Pacifico have made gains in American sales in the past five years as well.

The market for Mexican-style beers has increased in recent years, with domestic brewers like Miller and Budweiser putting new products in the market. Corona Extra, with its "vacation in a bottle" association, is the most popular import beer in the United States. Modelo, Tecate and Pacifico have made gains in American sales in the past five years as well.

June 9, 2008


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— No doubt there once existed a truly Mexican style of beer, brewed in a tradition that, through centuries of trial and error, fine-tuned indigenous ingredients and local conditions into perfect harmony.

Unfortunately, we'll never taste it.

Each and every invading force, from the Spanish conquistadors to Maximilian, apparently decided they could do better than what the locals were pouring. And perhaps as a result, we've been left with a grafting of someone else's beer preference onto climate, soil and water conditions that never quite suited it.

European-style pilseners. American-style lagers. All of it made in Mexico - none of it really "from" there, none of it really with a defining sense of place.

So what? Stick a lime in it and drink up, amigo. Your average beer snob is not shopping for a sixer south of the border, anyway.

"Corona, Modelo, Sol, Dos Equis - these aren't the world's great lagers ... they're more for what you associate them with," says Christina Perozzi, who is a beer sommelier at Rustic Canyon restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of the beer blog

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

"If you associate yourself hanging out on a beach and crossing your legs and relaxing," she says, "then you want to associate your beer with hanging out on a beach and crossing your legs and relaxing."

Well America, you are increasingly guilty by association.

The biggest-selling import beer in the United States, by far, is Corona Extra. Its far-trailing Mexican competitors - Modelo, Tecate, Pacifico - all have reported growth during the past five years. So has Dos Equis, which recently launched a massive new stateside marketing campaign.

Mexico's beers are moving so consistently well here that even domestic beer giants Miller and Anheuser Busch took a shot at the growing market this year with citrus-and-salt-flavored offerings Miller Chill and Bud Light Lime.

These may not be aromatic Oregon microbrews or German beer-law adherents, but they're consistent in one way, at least - each is light, low in alcohol and decidedly unserious, always agreeable on a summer's day.

And while each has built-in brand recognition among the Hispanic population, their target drinkers, for the most part, are American-born. For instance, only 20 to 25 percent of Corona's total sales go to Hispanic drinkers, says Brian Sudano, managing director of Beverage Marketing Corporation, an independent industry market research firm.

And as Modelo and Tecate chase more of the immigrant market with lower prices, Dos Equis is busy establishing itself alongside Corona as a premium brand.

"Dos Equis has a very good footprint in Mexico, but our advertising campaign here is not the same," says Dos Equis marketing vice president Kheri Holland Tillman. Their U.S. mark: Men, 21 to 34, who are "a little bit more affluent" than your average Joe Sixpack.

The brand's new spots, now in their second year, feature "The Most Interesting Man in the World," a wizened, vaguely Hispanic fellow whose physical, Hemingwayesque sense of adventure seems at ease with his sense of humor. "I don't always drink beer," goes his I'm-so-worldly tagline, "but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis."

That intensity is miles away from Corona's laid-back ad ethos, which has served the venerated brand well. At the equivalent of 117 million cases sold in the U.S., Corona imported more beer than the next five Mexican competitors combined, according to Beverage Marketing Corporation figures.

But even a vacation in a bottle can experience some rain: Corona's sales volume dipped last year from a 2006 peak of 121 million cases sold. Sudano says reports among some beer-market watchers of Corona's slide in the face of competition and market fragmentation have been greatly exaggerated.

"If you take a step back and look at how Corona is performing against Dos Equis, Tecate and the rest of the import market, the view that all these consumers are moving in droves is misleading," Sudano says, attributing the dip to a combination of recent distribution headaches coupled with a recent price increase.

One trend that Mexican brewers have left largely unplumbed: the previous decade's explosion of craft beer. A precious few microbrewers have sprang up in Mexico, and none has yet gained a significant foothold in the U.S.

Perozzi, whose mind is a virtual database of exotic beers from around the world, struggles to think of one.

After a moment's pause:

"I've had the Tijuana beer, and that's really good," she says. "They make something like an American amber. The Tijuana Morena, that's it."

She also cops to an affinity for Negro Modelo, the darker-hued cousin to the second-highest selling Mexican beer, Modelo Especiale.

"It's the only one that has some toastiness to it," she says. "It has a better balance than the lagers," which always seem to be overpowered by minerality.

Then it dawns: Is the problem that Mexico's imitations of other countries' light-bodied styles, wrought by centuries of foreign influences, simply don't work well with the water?

It's a theory befitting Perozzi's notion that hard water is best for dark beer like ale; and soft water is better for light lagers and pilseners.

"There really isn't a 'Mexican' style of beer," she muses. "Maybe that's just because these lagers can't mask those mineral qualities very well."

Maybe, maybe not. But here's guessing the Aztecs and Mayans made a mean stout.


TheEleventhStephanie 9 years, 11 months ago

Mexican beers bore me. I'll have a Copperhead.

Bill Lee 9 years, 11 months ago

I had a Corona about fifteen years ago and thought it was the worst beer I'd ever tasted. I've avoided Mexican beer ever since, and I see no need for one now.

beawolf 9 years, 11 months ago

There are very few beers I don't enjoy. For some reason, I find a good Mexican (Dos Equis) beer tastes great on a hot Summer day and a strong Irish Stout (Guiness) does it best on a cold, snowy day. Miller Lite after breaking a sweat and a pale ale (Sierra Nevada) with supper.Sam Adams has a nice variety that goes well just about any time. I like lagers when consuming quantity and ales for distinct flavors. And of course the occasional pilsner, porter, hefe-weizen and wheat beer.

Rob Martin 9 years, 11 months ago

beawolf - Nice points regarding beer styles to meals, occassions, etc.I had a friend from Bolivia while going to Iowa State. He told me about a beverage they made with corn mash. The yeast to start the fermentation came from chewing on some of the mash and spitting it into the fermentation pot. I found that very interesting. While it may seem gross to our hyper sensitive cleanliness regarding the food industry here in the US, most fermentation beverages were discovered by accidentally spoiling stuff.

terrapin2 9 years, 11 months ago

Corona sucks and every real beer drinker knows it! I believe it's really only for beer drinkers who don't really like beer (hence the lime) and those that think that drinking Corona will make them look cool. And somehow make them feel like they are on a sandy beach somewhere in Mexico.However, I will say she's right on the money regarding Negro Modelo. It is the only truly flavorful Mexican beer that I've ever tried, and I've tried quite a few (Dos Equis, Tecate, Modelo, Pacifico, etc.) And lately I'm finding that a lot of bars that don't have great microbrew selections are starting to offer Negro Modelo more often. Which is a blessing that saves me from suffering though any of those f'in rice beer-wannabes like Miller & Bud!

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