By Deborah Van Hoewyk for The Eye Magazine
Just waiting for a chance to sink your beach chair into the hot sand, peer out at the blue, blue ocean, and admire the green of the lime in the neck of your Corona Extra? And, at the holidays, don’t forget Modelo’s great bock beer Noche Buena, the label adorned by another Mexican native, the poinsettia.
Oh, oops, Mexican beer hasn’t been native for quite a while. The commercial beer brands we think of as Mexican are all produced by two major corporations – Grupo Modelo and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma. They effectively divide up Mexico’s beer market, 60% Modelo, 40% Cuauhtémoc; Cuauhtémoc is closing the gap. Together, they control 90% of the domestic market. Mexico is the largest beer exporter, and the fifth-largest beer producer, in the world. After gobbling up any number of other Mexican breweries to achieve their status, however, the two in turn have been consumed by European-owned Anheuser-Busch and Heineken, respectively.
Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Missouri? Teams of Clydesdales rescuing puppies in Super Bowl commercials? Not really, since 2008, Anheuser-Busch has been a division of AB InBev, or Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium. It is the largest beer brewer in the world, with a “product portfolio” of over 500 brands. When Anheuser-Busch became part of AB InBev, it already owned 50% of Grupo Modelo, and bought the rest in 2012. In 2020, AB InBev sales were valued at $52.3 billion USD.
Headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Heineken was founded in 1864. After acquiring smaller breweries around the world (it owns 164 in 70 countries), Heineken is the second-largest beer brewer in the world and the largest in Europe. It acquired Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, by then known as FEMSA (Fomento Económico Mexicano, SA), in 2010. In 2020, Heineken sales were valued at $26.8 billion USD.
The Beginning of Beer in Mexico
As noted elsewhere in this issue, fermented, i.e., alcoholic, beverages were around long before the Spanish took over. Tesgüino, or izquiate, was beer made from sprouted corn, in the eastern Sierra Madre; you can still find it in rural north and west Mexico. Some think it is the origin recipe for tepache, a lightly fermented pineapple beer (see “Pulque: Another Ancient Mexican Beverage” elsewhere in this issue for where to get tepache in Huatulco). Pozol, originally called pochotl in Nahuatl, was made from fermented corn mash rolled up into a dough and then dissolved in water along with unsweetened cacao beans; nowadays, it is made throughout Tabasco, Chiapas, and eastward into Belize, although it is sweetened with honey or sugar.
There was wine made from prickly pear, mesquite, or corn stalks in the altiplano and eastward towards Veracruz; pulque in south-central Mexico (see the “Pulque” article); bakbé, or fermented honey, favored by the Maya in the Yucatán and southeastern Mexico; and various other fermented fruit drinks, several made from the small native plums you can find in season at Huatulco’s fruit and vegetable stores.
With the Spanish arrival, however, beer became grain-based, using barley in the beginning. Barley was pretty scarce in Mexico at that point, although a man named Alfonso de Herrero received the first official concession to make European beer and started fields of wheat and barley somewhere south or east of Mexico City. The Spanish placed severe restrictions and taxes on anything involved with beer production, hoping on the one hand to keep what little there was for themselves, and on the other hand to restrict the privilege – and resulting inebriation – from the natives. They also wanted to make colonial beer so expensive it would not be exported to Europe, requiring the Spanish colonists to import their beer from the homeland.
The European Redesign of Mexican Beer
When the War of Independence (1810-21) freed Mexico from Spain, Mexico got rid of the regulations and “let beer be beer.” Herrero’s brewery had struggled and eventually collapsed, but at the beginning of the 19th century, European-style beer had gained a foothold. There are records of disputes over the rights to brew beer among an English firm (Gillons and Mairet) and two Mexican outfits run by Miguel Ramos Arizpe and Justino Tuallion. During the War of Independence, Tuallion’s beer brand Hospice of the Poor, named for the homeless shelter down the street from his brewery, was the most popular.
After the war, in 1845, Bernhard Bolgard from Switzerland set up the first Mexican lager brewery, La Pila Seca, in Mexico City. He also made a dark beer that included piloncillo (those brown-sugar cones you see in the market).
The real growth in Mexican brewing was actually kicked off by another effort at conquest. In the 1860s, while America was busy with its civil war, European powers (France, Spain, and Britain), to whom Mexico owed beaucoup bucks, invaded. Spain and England quickly realized that France actually wanted to reconquer and colonialize Mexico, so they dropped out; France established the short-lived (three years, 1864-67) Second Mexican Empire, putting Austrian arch-duke Maximilian in charge as Emperor.
Bad for Max, who was executed as Benito Juárez re-assumed leadership of the Republic of Mexico, but good for beer, as apparently Max never went anywhere without his two German brewmasters, who were particularly good at darker beers. And more Austrians and Germans who followed Maximilian brought their brewing skills – particularly in brewery construction – with them, and they stayed. In 1865, Agustín Marendaz, also from Switzerland, opened Cervecería Toluca y México; in 1869 (Emperor Max was dead and gone), Emil Dercher, from the Alsace region in France, set up Cervecería La Cruz Blanca and made lagers.
Juárez’s successor, Porfirio Díaz, infatuated with all things European, encouraged more German immigration. Under Díaz, the railroads came to Mexico, which was a mixed bag for Mexican brewing. Brewers could import heavy machinery and large supplies of malt, but on the same trains came cases full of competition – U.S. beer seeking to break into the Mexican market. Competition breeds competence, though, and the railroad may well be a key factor in the industrialization of beer-making in Mexico.
In Mérida, José Ponce Solis opened the Cervecería Yucateca in 1869, and José María Ponce opened the Gran Cervecería Yucateca in 1886; the latter eventually made Carta Clara, León, Cruz Roja, Estrella, and Mestiza beers. José M. Otahegui and Juan Fouillox opened the Gran Cervecería de San Luis in 1882; Fouilloux was a French brewer who had his equipment sent over from Paris. The first two large-scale, commercial/industrial breweries were Cervecería Cuauhtémoc (Monterrey, 1890) and Cervecería Moctezuma (Orizaba, 1891). Cervecería del Pacifico opened in Mazatlán in 1901, launching with the still-popular Pacifico pilsner.
At the close of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), Mexico had 36 breweries of substantial size, and the number continued to grow. In 1922, Braulio Iriarte Goyeneche came over from Spain and started Cervecería Modelo; by 1925, the brewery was making Modelo, Negra Modelo, and Corona. New breweries opened at the Baja border, e.g., Cervecería de Ensenada (1915), Cervecería Azteca (1921) and Mexícali (1923) as the U.S. imposed prohibition (1920-33), causing Americans to flock to the border to buy beer. The government started providing incentives and investments to the brewing industry, resulting in production of almost 50,000 liters (over 13,000 gallons, or 140,896 12-oz bottles) in 1925.
Still, the Mexicans themselves seemed to prefer pulque. Back in the old country, the techniques of immigrant German brewers had been governed by Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity regulations, since the 16th century, so they launched a propaganda campaign. Using the “purity card” and the idea of modern, sanitary breweries, they claimed beer was “rigorously hygienic and modern,” while pulque was made using poop to kick off fermentation. The reputation of pulque plummeted, and beer emerged triumphant.
Consolidating the Beer Industry
With breweries popping up right and left, the industry started slip-sliding towards the two giants left today. In 1954, Cuauhtémoc bought Tecate, founded in 1944 in Baja California, and turned it into a national brand. Cuauhtémoc also innovated by making Tecate the first beer to come in cans in Mexico (Tecate is now the #1 canned brand imported to the U.S.)
In 1985, the Cuauhtémoc and Moctezuma breweries merged, becoming Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, then FEMSA, by 1988. Their combined national brands were Tecate, Sol, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Superior, Indio, and Bohemia.
The Cervecería Cuauhtémoc had always had interests besides beer. They were the first to integrate vertically, i.e., to start other divisions that supplied the glass bottles, the packaging, etc.; in 1943, the three wealthy families behind Cuauhtémoc founded Monterrey Tec, “Mexico’s MIT” (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey) and in 1973 opened the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame on the grounds of company headquarters. Thus the story of Grupo Modelo gives a better picture of what happened to Mexico’s cervecerías on their path to becoming two huge multinational corporations.
In 1928, six years after the Cervecería Modelo broke ground and three years after it opened, it sold 8 million bottles of beer. In 1933, as prohibition ended, the cervecería sent off the first exports of Mexican beer. When it hit the ten-year mark, it bought Cervecería de Toluca y México, acquiring the brands Victoria and Pilsener. During World War II, Modelo concentrated its efforts on strengthening its national sales, following up with building new factories.
In 1954, Modelo bought Cervecería del Pacífico (Mazatlán) and Cervecería La Estrella (Guadalajara). In 1967, it liquidated Compañía Cervecera de la Laguna to form Cervecería Modelo de Torreón; in 1979, it bought Cervecería Yucateca in Mérida.
Using its own engineering designs, it opened new plants in Sonora (1961), Jalisco (1964), Oaxaca (1984), Zacatecas (1997). In 1982, Cervecería Modelo became Grupo Modelo, with the Corona, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, and Pacifico as export beers, and Victoria, Leon, and Montejo for the national market.
Becoming as large and as successful at exporting beer as they did, made FEMSA and Grupo Modelo very attractive targets for first cooperative partnerships, then stock exchanges and purchases, and eventually takeovers by the European beer giants. The two companies still make their beer in Mexico, they still exert major influence on Mexico’s economy, they are (despite some labor frictions) major employers, and their brands are essential to Mexico’s commercial identity, easily understood and much appreciated by foreigners. Nonetheless, Mexico’s commercial beers are a bit routinized for both locals and visitors who have developed “beer palates” that weary of the light lagers and pilsners, and don’t find the ambars and oscuros quite dark enough.
Microbreweries to the Rescue
While microbreweries and craft beers are not common in Mexico, they are starting to sprout up. Some recall the first microbrewery being Pepe’s y Joe’s in Mazatlán in the 1990s, but it seems long gone. Of perhaps more interest to beer aficionados are artisanal craft beers.
Let’s start with Minerva, because their products can even be bought at Super Che, at least before the pandemic. Headquartered in Zapopan, Jalisco, Minerva offers a variety of lagers, ales, and a stout. Colonial is a smooth, golden, wheat-malted beer with citrus notes and 5% alcohol. Viena is a red/ambar, with clean notes of nuts and caramel, low fermentation and a malty taste, again 5% alcohol. They also put out some seasonal brands. Founded in 2003, they have a 30% market share.
Baja California hosts half a dozen microbreweries. Baja Brewing, started by a young expat named Jordan Gardenhire, sells its beer in stores and in brew pubs (three in Los Cabos). Gardenhire left Colorado for Baja when he hadn’t decided what to do with his life. His dad came to visit. Ever since, they’ve been brewing craft beers. They offer Cabotella, a blonde ale; Peyote Pale Ale (called IPA Por Favor in the U.S.); Escorpion Negro, a black ale, and an oatmeal stout, among others. Founded in 2007, Baja Brewing has begun exporting to the U.S. You can watch Jordan explain how to start a craft brewery on YouTube
Also in Baja, in Ensenada, Agua Mala Cerveza Artesanal started up in 2009, and makes eco-environmental practices an essential part of the way it does business, always working on making each step in the process more sustainable, building their tasting room out of repurposed cargo containers, and serving fresh, local ingredients on the tasting room menu. Their brands include Sirena (a Pilsener), Vieja (amber lager), Mantis (a wheat beer), Mako (pale ale), Marea Roja (red IPA), Mantarraya (oatmeal stout), and Astillero (an imperial IPA). AguaMala has sent a few of its entries across the border to Arizona.
There are other craft breweries in Baja, Monterrey, Colima, Querétaro, México state, Mexico City, and Puebla – it won’t be long before you’ll have no trouble getting a handcrafted beer, ale, porter, or stout to suit your taste wherever you are in Mexico.