The Word on American-Brewed Mexican Lagers

With Rodrigo Lozano and Víctor Soto of Albur at a San Pedro, Mexico street fair

With Rodrigo Lozano and Víctor Soto of Albur at a San Pedro, Mexico street fair

For some innovative U.S. brewers always searching for the next style boundary to push, American-made Mexican lagers are proving to be a tasty hit. One of the earliest to jump into the game in 2001 was Durango, Colorado’s Ska Brewing with their aptly named Mexican Logger. Since then, small breweries from Michigan to Texas (Wolverine State Brewing’s Verano Mexican-style Amber Lager and Deep Ellum’s Neato Bandito Imperial Mexican-Style Lager) have stepped up with seasonal and year-round offerings.

But, what exactly makes a lager Mexican?

Mexican Lager isn’t an official style recognized by the Brewers Association’s Style Guidelines. Their closest category is Australasian, Latin American or Tropical-Style Light Lager. Descriptors include straw to gold color, no chill haze, very low hop aroma and bitterness, use of cereal adjuncts, light body.

Ironically, for decades, American craft brewers have turned up their noses at one of the key ingredients in Mexican and U.S. macro lagers: corn. Until 2014, the Brewers Association’s definition of “craft brewers” restricted their use of cereal adjuncts like corn and rice. This arose primarily from the cost-cutting use of corn as a partial substitute for barley by the large breweries. Small breweries that now use corn do so mainly to lighten a beer’s body which contributes to the crisp flavor characteristic of Mexican-style lagers that’s so refreshing in warm weather anywhere.

But what do Mexicans think about American-made Mexican-style lagers? I put three of these beers to the test in blind tastings with three Mexican experts. The samples were 1) 21st Amendment’s El Sully (California), 2) Ex Novo’s The Most Interesting Lager in the World (Portland, Oregon) and 3) Oskar Blues Beerito (Colorado).

Cueva Carvajal's Jose Manuel de Urquidi

Cueva Carvajal’s Jose Manuel de Urquidi

José Manuel de Urquidi is co-owner of Cueva Carvajal gastropubs, most in the Monterrey area. Siebel-trained Víctor Soto, is head brewer at the craft brewery Cervecería Albur in Guadalupe, Nuevo León.

In Sample #1 (El Sully), Soto picked up on the corn with the first sip. “It tastes a lot like an American light lager or maybe a Corona. There’s a little corn, no rice, at least I don’t think so.”

While tastings were done separately, De Urquidi noticed the corn even before he tasted #1. “Definite corn on the nose, but it looks paler than most beers made from corn.” He compared it to a Carta Blanca in taste, though not color, and said that overall, it was a well-made beer. Clarifying that he rarely drinks such beers these days, he found it too calm, lacking in flavor and aftertaste.

Interviewing Víctor Soto at Cervecería Albur

Interviewing Víctor Soto at Cervecería Albur

Both men immediately picked up on the hop aroma in Sample #2 (The Most Interesting Lager). After tasting it, Soto said, “Definitely better (than El Sully)—more body, more flavor. I don’t have anything against the big brewers, but for the style, I didn’t expect it to be so bitter. It’s an interesting light lager, although a Vienna should be a little more toasted with more caramel malt. It could compare to a Corona or maybe a Carta Blanca. I like it.”

De Urquidi still found this beer too calm for his taste. “If I had to say which Mexican beer it compares to, a light-colored Bohemia with extra hops. I get more out of it than #1, but it still doesn’t have anything special.”

Of Sample #3 (Beerito), Soto opined, “This one I can see more as a Vienna lager. I think it could be similar to an Indio (Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma), except that this has a little more body. Maybe a León (Modelo). I like this one.”

For De Urquidi, #3 was the most flavorful and his favorite, “although it seems more Dortmunder than Mexican lager.” He was quick to add, “but I’m not an expert in German beers.”

Cueva Carvajal, San Pedro, Mexico

Cueva Carvajal, San Pedro, Mexico

Soto concluded that The Most Interesting Lager was his favorite, but he thought typical Mexican drinkers used to macro beer would prefer Beerito.

De Urquidi’s said, “These are all beers meant for people who want to drink a lot. I’d rather have 2 good craft brews and enjoy them slowly.”

Due to a previous assault on his family, our third judge ask that we not use his name or his brewery’s. “Fernando Garza” whose tasting was described more in last week’s post (Sensory Analysis With a Pro) spent thirty-four years with one of Mexico’s largest breweries, most of that time as head brewer, overseeing brewing operations at all the companies’ plants. He has trained in brewing and tasting all over the world.

For nearly a half hour, Garza worked in silence, intensely focused and jotting copious notes. At the end, he declared all three beers relatively fresh and well-attenuated with a nice, light body. He launched into an in depth sensory analysis of each beer giving estimated SRMs, foam Sigma values, IBUs and Turbidity ºFTU.

Albur truck at brewery in Guadalupe, Nuevo León

Albur truck at brewery in Guadalupe, Nuevo León

He noted the aroma in #1 (El Sully) was free of any weakness that might have come from microbiological contamination. The taste was slightly sweet with a metallic aftertaste. #1’s global evaluation: regular.

Garza suggested the turbidity in #2 (The Most Interesting Lager), which he estimated at 100-150o FTU in haze, was due to either insufficient filtration or physical stability problems. He also noted light oxidation and found the taste too astringent. Global evaluation: poor.

In #3 (Beerito), Garza liked the very stable head and the brilliant color. He found the caramel malt and bitterness well-balanced. Global evaluation: very good.

End of a sensory analysis session

End of a sensory analysis session

American-brewed Mexican lagers certainly fit into the small but growing trend of more sessionable beers. What directions brewers will take them in the coming years and how consumers will respond is anybody’s guess.

So what is a Mexican lager? Perhaps Garza summed it up best speaking of macro products. “A lager is a lager. Mexican lagers aren’t that different from American lagers. The differences are mostly among brands. Here we tend to use larger amounts of adjuncts. But if a brewery calls its beer a Mexican lager and someone buys it and likes it, good for that brewery.”

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