war on the rocks

When Good Beer Goes Bad – Mexican Lager

May 10, 2016

In most industries and the arts, freedom to do what you want is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you are unbound by the strictures of tradition and can fully explore creativity as it strikes you. On the other, you may be prone to make some pretty bad decisions that conventional wisdom would help you avoid. The American craft beer industry illustrates this dichotomy well. American brewers have been free to explore and recreate styles from across the world, use exotic ingredients (or use traditional ingredients differently), throw tradition to the wind when it suits them, and focus on making beer that people want to drink rather than what marketing executives want to sell. Over two decades, this has lead to exceptionally flavorful IPAs, the resurrection of nearly extinct styles, and ultimately an overall improvement in quality and diversity of beers available at your local bar or grocery store shelf.

Freedom to innovate has undoubtedly been good for breweries and beer drinkers, but it’s not without a downside. Sometimes looking for the next big thing leads to embracing easy trends rather than genuine creativity. This summer we’re unfortunately feeling the other side of freedom’s sword in one of the more disappointing craft beer trends in recent memory, the recreation of Mexican-style lagers by U.S. craft breweries.

First things first: I love Mexican lager. Objectively, it is not good beer (and not all that different from US mass-marketed lagers) but it is beer that in the right situation is absolutely perfect. A bit of salt and a squeeze of lime elevates humble brews such as Modelo, Tecate, Pacifico, and Corona to near-blissful levels. Under the right conditions, these beers are the pinnacle of refreshment, pair extremely well with food of all types (not just Mexican), and are the ideal tipple for sweltering summer nights. Of course it needs to be served ice-cold (and I mean, literally a few degrees above freezing) and, ideally speaking, wth the aforementioned citrus and salt, but I think of it as more of a base ingredient in a beer cocktail (which I’ll discuss below) rather than something great on its own.

To the issue at hand: Mexican lager is a wonderful and genuine thing that many people love. However, the “craft-brew-ification” of this style betrays not only the Mexican beers it claims to represent, but artisanal virtues of craft beer as well.

First off, the names: Even as a lover of puns I can’t get over the corny labels slapped on these brews. From Flying Dog’s Numero Uno, to 21st Amendment’s El Sully to Oskar Blue’s…wait for it…Beerito, it seems like brewers have gone whole hog on the jokey Spanish nomenclature.

Second, these beers just aren’t very good. Sure, they’re relatively clean-tasting and well-made, but canning with lime and agave nectar (can anyone actually tell me what agave nectar tastes like, by the way?) or using flaked maize does not a Mexican-style lager make. In trying to emulate straightforward and simple beer these craft brews come off as rather dull and forgettable.

Finally, they deliver less enjoyment than the real deal at (in some cases) nearly double the price. Why would I spring for a sixer of Numero Uno at $10.99 when I can snag an equivalent amount of Tecate for $6.99? At the lower price point, I don’t mind shoving copious amounts of lime and salt into the can. If something is branded as craft beer and sold at craft beer prices I don’t quite feel as comfortable amending it with extra ingredients.

So this summer I would urge beer drinkers who may be enticed by fancy labels and clever names to steer clear of these imposter brews and go for genuine Mexican lager. While at the grocery store grab a few more ingredients and you’re on your way to perhaps one of the greatest and most refreshing cocktails out there…the Michelada.

Michelada Recipe:

Ingredients

  • 6 Oz. Mexican lager
  • 6 Oz. Clamato Juice (yes, Clamato)
  • 1 Lime
  • ¼ Cup Kosher Salt
  • 1 Tsp. Chili Powder

Cut the lime in half. Juice onto a small plate. Combine chili powder and salt on another small plate. Take a pint glass and dip the rim into the lime juice and then into the chili powder/salt mixture. Fill your glass with ice; fill about halfway with beer and then to the top with Clamato. Squeeze in the other half of the lime. Gently stir to combine and enjoy.

Some add Worcestershire or even chicken bouillon (Maggi powder to be precise) but I like to keep mine simple and on the fresher side of things.

But remember, there are no hard rules, use whatever you like as long as you have real, Mexican lager.

James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London.

Image: Bernt Rostad, CC