Monday, July 18, 2011

Mexican Craft Brew: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly*

A few weeks ago, a homebrewer and beer aficionado from DC came down to Mexico City. In the short time we had, we sampled as many craft brews as possible. I asked him if he would be willing to write up something for the blog summarizing his impressions.  What follows is his response. - bicyclepirate

American craft beer lovers can’t help but snub their noses at Mexican beer.  Back in May, published a guest post for Cinco de Mayo that summed up this sentiment nicely.  I may be butchering the article’s pithy-ness, but it goes more or less like this: Mexican macro-beer-water is bad, Brooklyn Lager is delicious with Tex-Mex food, celebrate this more-American-than-Mexican-holiday with American craft beer.  While all of this may be sound advice (I do recommend reading the whole article), I have a different suggestion for fighting the “evil corporate juggernaut” that is Corona and co., drink a Mexican micro-brew instead.

Mexico now has a young and very small, but potentially exciting craft beer movement – think American beer in the 1980s.  A lot of them go very well with Mexican food without the blandness of the macros.  Guided entirely by this blog, here are some highlights, organized by brewery, of the Mexican craft brews I was able to taste in a week’s time.

The Good
Only available in a few select spots throughout Mexico City, Cucapa Brewing Company offered by far the best beer I had in Mexico.  Of their beers, the Green Card Barley Wine, Runaway IPA, and Chupacabras Pale Ale were all phenomenal.  These were also probably the most similar to the American craft beers that I’m familiar with, as Mexico’s brewers seem to be more inspired by European-style brews.  There’s nothing here that extreme-beer lovers would get excited about, but these are solid, drinkable, and unique enough tasting beers that if I had access to them in the US, I’d probably make them regulars.  The Green Card is sweet and caramel-y and apparently aged in Tequila barrels, though there is no mention of this on the bottle.  The Runaway IPA is not as strongly hopped as most American IPAs, but is a good mix between an English and American IPA (think somewhere between a Brooklyn EIPA and a Dark Horse Crooked Tree).  By far, I drank more Chupacabras than any other beer, as it was more widely available – so to speak, it’s still hard to find – think of a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but decidedly more bitter and with a little more body.  If you’re in the mood for something a bit lighter, look for their Honey Ale, it’s quite good as well. 

Even harder to find than Cucapa, but always worth it, were the keg-only beers from Azteca.  Apparently a rogue brewer from Mexico City’s Beer Factory, Azteca had a Kolsch, an Imperial Stout, and an Agave Ale on tap at a couple bars while I was in the city.  The Kolsch poured a bit cloudy, but it was a decent representation of the style, light with a bready finish.  The Imperial Stout wasn’t as big as say, a Yeti, but it was chocolatey and roasty without being over-powering.  While a little too watery for my tastes (this was a common trend in many of the beers I had), this was almost certainly the best stout I tried in Mexico.  The Agave Ale was my favorite Azteca beer.  It’s a refreshing, lightly hopped, deep amber colored beer.  The kicker is the addition of agave cactus, which gives it an intriguing vegetable aroma and a bit of sourness.  While this might not sound appealing to some, it’s really a well-balanced beer with the touch of unique “Mexican” flare that I found lacking in most of the other craft beers I tried.  I hope to see Mexican brewers produce more beers like this in the future.  I also look forward to trying their Manzana Ale.

Cerveza San Vicente only makes one beer, but after Cucapa and Azteca, it was among the best I had.  Claiming to be a Belgian Wit, I’d consider it more of a mix between a Wit and a Saison.  It has a light spiciness from the yeast and is flavored with cilantro and orange.  I could be wrong, but it seems to also have a healthy addition of East Kent Goldings hops.  While a bit fizzy, this beer was very well done.

Two other breweries that belong on the ‘good’ list, but are perhaps less exciting, are Cerveceria Minerva and Cerveceria Primus, which produces a beer called Tempus.  Both offer a selection of very decent, well done lighter beers that may just be what convinces the unassuming Groupo Modelo drinking majority that there’s something better out there.  These were also the two most widely available Mexican craft beers throughout Mexico City.  I recommend the Minerva Imperial Tequila Ale and the Tempus Doble Malta, a double Alt beer.  Primus also just opened a small brewpub in the city called Graciela, with what I think is a small 15-gallon brewing contraption.

The Bad
While I want to focus on the good Mexican craft beer has to offer, there are a couple unfortunate duds that I think, with a little more time, could eventually turn into something quite good.  While I only sampled two of the 6 or 7 beers available from Cervecería Calavera, I was sorely disappointed.  Focusing primarily on Belgian-style beers, Calavera makes an American Pale Ale that leaves much to be desired.  It’s the right amount of bitter, but it has almost none of the “abundant” Cascade hop aroma it claims to contain on the bottle, and is entirely too carbonated and watery to be anything beyond just drinkable.  More disappointing was the Mexican Imperial Stout.  I was excited to read on the bottle that it contained chilies and goes great with molé dishes, however, it pours way too transparent and tastes way too watery and astringently bitter to go well with any food.  Nevertheless, I support the spirit behind the idea of this beer, and wish Calavera all the best.

Beer Jack was another disappointment.  Better classified as a homebrewer with a license, Beer Jack is only available in a couple of places in Mexico City.  He has a Brown and a Chocolate Stout, both pour sludgy and more resemble wort than a finished beer.  The Brown could have promise with a few more tries, but the Chocolate Stout – please, use more chocolate malt and less Hershey’s chocolate syrup!  Interestingly, the brewer is also apparently a teetotaler.   

The Ugly
Unfortunately, when a craft beer scene is so small, the really bad ones still make it to market.  Stay away from Cervecería Hacienda and Ocozol!  Both seem to have a propensity for making beer styles that aren’t supposed to taste sour taste like Sour Patch Kids.

Granted, unless you live in San Diego or probably one or two other places in the Southwest, you’re not going to find any of these beers outside of Mexico, at least for now.  Here’s to drinking a Cucapa for some future Cinco de Mayo, and, of course, any other day you feel like “fighting the forces of the moneyed aristocracy,” or just drinking good craft beer.

*Above text written by kereva. 

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