Beer History South of the Border

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Victoria, a beer with German-accented origins, has long been part of the scenery in Mexico. [Photograph: saguayo on Flickr]

While the Mexican craft beer market is a few years behind its US counterpart in terms of variety and availability, the country's beer roots are much deeper and more cosmopolitan than many assume.

Long before the Spanish conquest, fermented beverages made from corn, agave and cocoa beans were common; some descendants of these beverages are still made today. But the first recognizable ancestor of modern beer in the Americas was brewed in Mexico in the 1540s—quite a long time before anything similar took place in what is now the US or Canada. Alfonso de Herrero's brewery did not last terribly long, but it is still notable for potentially being able to claim the title of 'first brewery in the Americas.'

Mexico's brewing history is one of stops and starts, and, unlike its neighbor to the north, there was no continuous tradition of European-style brewing for much of the colonial period, but it kicked off in earnest in the 19th century, after the small matter of the Mexican War of Independence concluded in 1822.

German-speaking immigrants from what are now Switzerland, Germany, and Austria began settling in (what would eventually be) Texas and Mexico, but it was no direct line from those settlers to Corona; the first widely-produced beers in Mexico were closer to Vienna lagers than to the light, fizzy beer many associate with the country today, and indeed, for many years, it was easier to find the style in Mexico than in its native land.

Originally developed by Anton Dreher in Vienna in the 1840s (we've met him before in our Oktoberfest discussion), the malty, dark-to-coppery beer style began to fall out of favor in Europe as pale lagers took off, but not before brewers trained in the 'Wiener Art,' or Vienna style, made their way to the Americas. Their influence grew when Maximilian I was proclaimed Emperor of Mexico in 1864. The Vienna-born member of the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine was the younger brother of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria (among his many other titles), and he and his entourage brought a love of Vienna lager.

Not coincidentally, one of Mexico's most prominent beer brands was born in the year following Maximilian's accession—Cervecería Toluca began producing Victoria, still one of the country's most popular beers (and one that is currently gaining ground in the US and Canada), in that year. Although Maximilian did not last long as Emperor—he was executed in 1867—a taste for Vienna lagers continued unabated.

Mexico's first large-scale brewer, Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc, opened in 1891, and they began producing their Czech-style Bohemian pilsner early in the 20th century; Bohemia is still widely recognized throughout Mexico and the US, though Cuauhtémoc's most popular product—at least abroad—is likely their Corona-esque Sol, also developed in this period .

While Bohemia and its Vienna lager counterpart, Bohemia Dark, have, for the most part, remained close to the original products (although they have undergone some modernization, for good or ill, depending on your viewpoint), Sol has morphed entirely into a typical mass-market lager.

A few years later after Cuauhtémoc's founding, German-born Wilhelm Hasse founded the Moctezuma Brewery. Its Siglo XX, brewed to welcome in the 20th century, became known best for its two Xs, and was soon renamed Dos Equis. The familiar Dos Equis XX Ambar (the version closest to the original recipe) also began life as a Vienna lager.

Although Mexico did not experience Prohibition, considerable consolidation of the brewing industry took place in the 1920s and 1930s, even as breweries near the US border thrived. Cervecería Cuauhtémoc (now linked with Moctezuma) purchased the Tecate brewery (already popular for its lager), and Cervecería Toluca was bought by Grupo Modelo in 1935.

Ten years earlier, Cervecería Modelo had begun making their own popular lager, Modelo. Modelo and its counterpart, the lighter Corona, were selling as many as 8 million bottles for the brewery annually, when a darker, Vienna-lager-inspired version of their eponymous brand was launched in 1930. Only a few years later, Negra Modelo, Victoria and Bohemia were all under their control, with Pacifica and Estrella joining the fold in the 1950s. That consolidation continued apace until the present day—now, almost all major Mexican beer brands are produced either by Cervecería Modelo/Grupo Modelo (partially owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) or Heineken Mexico (the name that replaced Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma/FEMSA upon its purchase.)

But the German and Austrian origins of some of those flagship brands is still discoverable, if not always readily apparent, and there are some signs that the small-but-growing wave of microbreweries in Mexico is beginning to draw on that tradition. Although many Mexican craft brewers are following the lead of their American neighbors in making ales, the German lager tradition is getting a new look from small brewers like Cervecería Primus. With a little time and room to grow, perhaps other neglected central European styles will re-emerge from the other side of the Rio Grande.

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