“What’s your favorite beer on the menu?” I asked.
She began to answer, then stopped herself. Clearly she expected me to ask her favorite dish at Mi Tocaya Antojeria, the Logan Square restaurant that Davila opened in March as a love letter to her time living and traveling in Mexico.
The beer list was built of six Mexican imports — Corona, Modelo Especial, Modelo Negra, Pacifico, Sol and Victoria — and one local craft beer on draft. In the spirit of a menu that seemed to be pushing me toward an imported Mexican beer, I chose Victoria, mostly because I couldn’t remember how it tasted.
In a happy coincidence, Davila replied, “Victoria is my favorite Mexican drinking beer.”
The label on my beer bottle faced away from her so she spun it around and brightened.
“Perfect!” she said.
That cold 12-ounce bottle of Victoria had arrived at our small table with a thud — a handsome bottle with a white-and-yellow painted label featuring “Victoria” written in elegant cursive with long sloping lines curling off the “V” and the “A.” A sliver of lime poked out from the rim. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been served a beer in a bottle. Or the last time I’d resisted the urge to ask for a glass.
To see exactly what I was dealing with, I cast aside the lime and took a swig.
Victoria was bright, dry and refreshing with just the faintest malt body to make it interesting. It was simple and clean, with no cloying grain notes weighing it down. It worked especially well in the context of Davila’s menu, providing a tidy counterpoint to the weight and complexity of the meaty taco, the tender ahi tuna atop rich mole verde and lightly gamy lamb meatballs coated in a fiery red ranchero sauce.
Halfway through the meal, I tried my luck with a second beer: Modelo Especial, which has overtaken Corona as the biggest-selling imported beer in some markets (including Chicago).
Not the worst but a bit too much of that cloying grain flavor not present in Victoria. Unlike Victoria, it was better with lime.
I spent the next couple of weeks drinking 15 imported Mexican beers, weighing what works, what doesn’t and why the style has been a rocket in the American beer market for the past 20 years, since Corona overtook Heineken as the nation’s biggest-selling import.
According to Chicago-based market research firm IRI, Mexican beer has accounted for nearly 70 percent of imported beer sales during the past year — and growing. Nine of the nation’s top 54 brands are Mexican imports, including two of the top seven (Corona Extra and Modelo Especial).
The old faithful top four brands — Bud Light, Coors Light, Budweiser and Miller Lite — are all down or flat from a year ago while their Mexican competitors are up: Corona nearly 9 percent, Modelo Especial 24 percent and Modelo Negra (recently rechristened from Negra Modelo), Pacifico and Modelo Especial Chelada all in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 percent.
So what’s going on with Mexican beer? Though the best Mexican imports are legitimately tasty, it’s not just quality at work; if it were, three of the biggest sellers — Corona Extra, Modelo Especial and Sol — wouldn’t be packaged in clear glass, which allows light to degrade beer in literal seconds. (The result is a taste most often referred to as “skunky.”)
The answer is a complex mix of demographics, marketing, history and nostalgia. Mexico is the sun-dappled place where we are from. Or it is where our family is from. Or it is where we vacation. We adore its food. And its impact on our culture is growing.
Mexico’s brewing history dates to the arrival of German and Austrian immigrants in the mid-1800s, who made the Vienna lager — a clean lager with faint malt-forward heft (Samuel Adams Boston Lager is a modern example) — a common staple. However, like its American neighbor, body- and taste-lightening adjuncts slowly worked their way into recipes, and consolidation pushed the industry toward a lowest common denominator. Most major Mexican brands are currently in the hands of two dominant players: Grupo Modelo (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) and Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma (a subsidiary of Heineken International.)
For Davila, the appeal of Mexican beer lies in both personal history and the quality among the top tier. She is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from San Luis Potosi, 250 miles north of Mexico City. She spent summers there from the ages of 6 to 18. Davila grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but Mexican beer reminds her of home.
“Victoria reminds me of the times we’d take an hour trip to the beach,” she said.
It’s also what she wants to drink alongside her food. Davila thought hard about assembling a lengthy list of craft beers for her restaurant — it’s just what new restaurants do in 2017 — but she decided she’d rather do what’s best for her food.
“When you think about Mexican food, and how complex and big and bold the flavors are, Mexican beer goes perfect,” she said. “I feel like food and beer pairings have gone off the wall. They can be fun, but when you’re eating something, I like contrast. Mexican lagers are the perfect contrast. Why would I want to eat something with all these things going on in it and then a beer with all these things going on? They cross each other out and confuse the palate.”
As a nod to craft beer, she opened with one tap reserved for Huitzi, a fairly complex strong golden ale brewed with hibiscus flowers, ginger, Thai palm sugar and honey made by local Latin brewery 5 Rabbit Cerveceria. She’s planning to add two more taps: one for 5 Rabbit golden ale and a low-alcohol, fruit-forward beer called Paletas.
But her biggest seller has been Modelo Especial, followed by Victoria (“the majority of staff is Mexican and they love it”) and Sol. In a neighborhood rooted somewhat in counterculture — at least as compared to, say, Lincoln Park — her customers tend to shun Corona as a mainstream option. She wondered if those same customers would be aghast at a beer list lacking, as she called it, “bougie beer.” Especially IPA.
“No one has said anything,” she said.
But here’s the funny little secret about Mexican imports: Many are barely imports.
All Corona, Modelo, Pacifico and Victoria beer in the U.S. is brewed just outside the city of Piedras Negras, a mere 12 miles from the border with Texas. Anheuser-Busch InBev and Grupo Modelo were forced to divest the brewery and the U.S. rights to those brands by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of those companies merging in 2013.
The brands and the Piedras Negras brewery went to Constellation Brands, which had been importing and marketing the beers for 30 years. Suddenly it was also in the business of production, which it plans to augment with a new brewery in Mexicali, along the California border, in late 2019.
The loss of the Modelo portfolio was a blow for Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose bedrock domestic brands are mostly losing share. The company tried to compensate by importing Montejo (popular in the Yucatan) in 2014 and Estrella Jalisco (from the state of Jalisco) last year. Distributed in 12 states, including Illinois, Estrella Jalisco has performed reasonably well but lags far behind the Modelo brands. Montejo, which is available in Texas and California, has failed to make much of a dent.
Though Heineken International has several strong brands via Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma — Dos Equis, Sol and Tecate among them — Constellation is the clear leader.
“Mexican beer is popular, but it’s not just about developing a Mexican imported brand and throwing it out there because that doesn’t necessarily work,” Constellation spokesman Mike McGrew said. “Brands still matter. We are in a very, very fortunate position because we have been building our brands for more than 30 years.”
Corona, for instance, has thrived when sold to Americans as beach, fun, sun and relaxation in a bottle. There may be no beer industry campaign in recent memory more effective than “Find Your Beach,” accompanied by spare, alluring images of beach and ocean.
But growth for Modelo Especial has been in double digits for 30 years, McGrew said. Hispanic consumers drove the growth until about three years ago, when a more multicultural audience kicked in. Next, the company has similar plans for Pacifico (framed as “embodying the spirit of Baja … the adventure-seeker consumer,” McGrew said) and ultimately, Victoria, which so far only gets Spanish-language advertising and retail support in the U.S.
Riding the coattails of Modelo Especial is Modelo Negra, a darker, malt-forward, food-friendly beer. Constellation is also using its portfolio to take a stab at innovation: low-calorie Corona Premier is being test-marketed in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Texas as a potential challenger to one of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s strongest brands: Michelob Ultra.
Even American craft beer is taking notice.
Flying Dog, Oskar Blues, Ska and 21st Amendment breweries have all released Mexican-style lagers, joined in recent months by Sun King in Indianapolis (called Pachanga), Cleveland’s Great Lakes (Grandes Lagos, a lager brewed with hibiscus) and Uinta in Salt Lake City, which introduced Lime Pilsner in early spring.
Isaac Winter, Uinta’s head brewer of research and development, drank endless amounts of Tecate, Dos Equis and Pacifico while figuring out what Lime Pilsner should taste like.
“I’m not bashful about saying this — I really like Modelo and Tecate,” Winter said, adding that his favorite is Pacifico. “I tend to think of a lot of Mexican imports as drinkable and refreshing and not too heavy.”
Winter points out that the best ones also boast slightly fruity esters from the yeast used, whereas “a lot of domestic beers use boring yeasts.”
Winter’s gripe against some Mexican imports is the same one I developed from drinking through those 15 beers over the course of a couple of weeks: Several are too sweet.
“Sometimes breweries add too many crystal malts — sweet malts — that make the beer too cloying,” Winter said. “That does not lend itself to drinkability. There were a few beers that I felt on my teeth afterward.”
He declined to name the beers too cloying for his taste, but I have no such issues: I’ll always take a Tecate with a squeeze or two of fresh lime over a Corona for precisely this reason. Or even a Corona Light over a Corona. Corona Light might taste like carbonated carpet, but at least it dries out. And with an ample infusion of fresh lime, it’s passable.
Uinta’s Lime Pilsner is what a lot of these beers should be; it’s lean, dry and effervescent up front, followed by a long citrus finish. It was initially intended as a summer-only release, but interest from distributors was so fierce that it quickly became a year-round offering. In a sense, American craft’s embrace of Mexican imports is the biggest compliment imaginable. Who knows — a couple might even make it onto Davila’s beer list.
©2017 Chicago Tribune
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