Cerveza por favor, and hold the Mayo
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
Were it not for all the marketing dollars, Cinco de Mayo would be a non-event in American bars. The producers and importers of Corona, however, have succeeded in transforming this holiday commemorating the May 5, 1862 victory of the Mexicans over the invading French into a boozy mess.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. All we’re suggesting is, if you’re going to party Mexican-style, you might as well pick up one of several excellent, but less commercially visible, beers from south of the border.
The most recognizable Mexican beer is Corona, loved by spring breakers, loathed by beer geeks everywhere. Indeed, there’s something undeniably uric about Corona’s color which raises questions as to the beer’s production process.
During the eighties, it became something of a “status” beer. The microbrew movement hadn’t yet made its full impact, and image-conscious consumers latched on to everything perceived as boutique. Corona sales skyrocketed in the USA, and it seemed that every yuppie with a sleek suit and Miami Vice pastel tie was hoisting a clear bottle with a lime wedge jammed in the neck.
In fact, Corona is nothing special. It’s brewed with a high percentage of cheap cereal adjuncts, and its flavor is pretty much nonexistent. When you add a lime, the beer tastes like lime. The light taste and lack of almost all possible character makes it easy to drink fast. Fundamentally, it’s a sub-premium product at a super premium price, and even today, Americans buy it by the gigaliter.
Unfortunately, Corona has come to embody our perception of Mexican beer, when in fact, it is an anomaly. Thanks to the aforementioned French invasion, which, in true 19th-century empire-building style, installed an Austrian Hapsburg prince on the throne in Mexico, The country experienced a wave of settlement by Austrians and Germans.
These expatriates longed for the beers of their homeland, so pragmatically, they began brewing them in Mexico, and thus the lineage of many Mexican beers can be traced directly to the Vienna lagers and Helles beers of Austria and Bavaria.
Those styles still exist in Mexico today. Probably the best example of which is Negra Modelo. Dark copper in color, with a malty aroma and a sweet taste that bears as much resemblance to Corona as oranges do to the Crab Nebula, Modelo is a fine brew that maintains the style hallmarks of Vienna lager, while imparting unique flavor elements as well.
Negra Modello is pretty widely available in our region, certainly it can be found at Mex, on Alexander Street, and Selena’s, in Village Gate. We recommend pouring this beer into a glass, because you won’t get the full aroma and color when swilling it out of the bottle. Oh, and just say no to the lime in this one.
Hey, as long as you’re bellying up to the bar in that Mexican-themed entertainment establishment, try a Dos Equis dark. It’s similar to Negra Modelo in formulation, appearance, and overall flavor, but a little less sweet. Still the toasted malt flavor dominates, with very little bitterness in the finish. If you like beer with character, but aren’t crazy about hops, Dos Equis might be a good patio beer for you.
We’d definitely choose a Modelo over this beer, but Dos Equis has the benefit of greater distribution. You shouldn’t have problems finding it in any Mexican place without the word “Bell” in the name.
Slightly more difficult to find is Bohemia, from Monterrey, Mexico. Reminiscent of a southern German lager, it garners rave reviews from American consumers. It has a light flavor, but maintains plenty of character. Bohemia is balanced toward malt rather than hops, although you can pick out a bit of the floral hop aroma.
Finding Bohemia in bars may be a problem, so your best bet might be to call your favorite beer store and see what they can do. Oh, and don’t wreck the taste of this beer with citrus fruit. It’ll just obscure the character of a very good lager.
Probably the best thing that can come of the nightlife industry’s promotion of Cinco de Mayo is an awareness of the pleasant cultural aspects presented by our neighbors from the south. It’s a shame that something as consistently good as Mexican beer doesn’t really get a fair shake in many parts of the US. So let’s all give the lime growers fits and enjoy some REAL Mexican beer. Chances are you’ll find something enjoyable year-round and not just on this co-opted holiday.