Bottom Shelf Beer: Which Is The Best Mexican Lager?
Remember a month or so ago when every Serious Eats employee got a promotion except for me? Now Kenji's called some grand, Oprahesque thing, the maniacal Jones woman is newly empowered to yell at me, and even Hambone got kicked up to Senior Office Dog. As happy as I was for my friends—which was barely happy at all, because what do I care about their good fortune if it doesn't put any extra mustard in my fridge?—I was still a bit disappointed to have been passed over. What's the harm in letting me call myself the Executive Director of Cheap Booze and Long Wind, say? Or Chief Operating Blowhard?
But just before I stormed the office to demand justice I remembered that, given my lack of food pedigree, I'm lucky Serious Eats lets me come around at all. You know the Meet the Intern posts that you click on just to see if the cute ones are single? My favorite part is when they're asked for their foodie origin stories. I love reading how they first expressed their passion for food by crawling out the daycare window in protest of inferior jarred applesauce or firing a middle school girlfriend over lackluster Valentine's Day chocolates.
I, on the stupider hand, didn't have my first food-related epiphany until I was 19. I still remember it vividly lo these thousands of days later: A carful of high school friends and I were ne'er-do-welling our way through southern New Hampshire in search of a kindly and corrupt beer merchant who would work with us on the day when our preferred Massachusetts corrupt beer merchant had decided to finally follow a law and close for the Fourth of July holiday.
We didn't have any luck at the convenience stores just over the border, so we had to venture way up into the part of New Hampshire that is actually Canada. To pass the time once we got tired of counting moose and potholes, we began to argue over what kind of beer we should get in the unlikely event that fortune ever leered our way in the form of a forgiving or better yet greedy sales clerk (in those days we were accustomed to paying whatever straight-to-the-pocket surcharge we could negotiate).
Most of us advocated for the cold and cheap kind of beer but my fancy friend Jake wanted to get Corona and lime, which he must have encountered during a semester abroad or at a rich girl's party. The coolest head among us, wise 20-year-old Benji, vetoed the idea on the grounds that Corona and lime would surely taste just like Schaeffer and lime. That really struck me, as it was the first time I ever seriously considered the way that different ingredients can interact in a recipe or a can of beer.
If you like lime in your beer, that's your weird prerogative that I won't quibble with as long as you don't pay a premium for beer that's just going to get overwhelmed by fruit. So that means Corona, which costs a couple bucks more than the cheapest 6-packs at most stores, needs to earn its keep naked and limeless. I was skeptical, but I haven't had any in a while, so with Cinco de Mayo approaching I grabbed a Corona and oh what the hell 10 other Mexican beers to see just what our southern brothers are brewing for export these days.
I tried Corona Extra, Trader José Premium, Trader José Dark, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, Bohemia, Sol, Pacifico, Tecate, Dos Equis Special Lager, and Dos Equis Ambar.
No limes were harmed in this experiment, but my taste buds came away somewhat scarred. With a couple of exceptions at both the top and bottom of the scale, these beers were fairly similar and fairly bad. It's mostly pale yellow adjunct lager (and a couple of uninspired brown lagers). Oh, and marketing. Plenty of corn and marketing in Mexican beer.
Corona was the worst by a wide margin. The predominant flavor of skunk juice was joined by a sharp, metallic sugar edge that makes it taste much boozier than 4.6% ABV. Trader José Premium is clearly modeled on Corona but it misses the mark by sucking slightly less, with the trademark skunkiness undercut by light malt and even a tiny hint of hops.
Sol and Pacifico are after the Corona market; they're both straw-colored duds that want lime, and though neither is good, both are leagues better than the market leader. I have a slight preference for Pacifico, which smells a bit like grape candy but tastes like nothing at all; Sol has a slight woodiness that I might praise in a better beer but which seems suspicious here.
Modelo Especial came highly recommended by some Twitter strangers and was therefore a mild disappointment. It taste like skunky corn with a pleasant but strange hint of cream. It was in middle of the pack overall. Tecate isn't any good. It smells like Pert Plus and tastes like bitterness and boredom. It was the second worst beer of the day after Corona. Dos Equis Special isn't terrible but is marred by that stale, wet cardboard Budweiser effect.
Bohemia Pilsner was hands down the best Mexican beer I tried, even though it sells for a few cents less than most of the others (the majority of these beers are around $8 per six-pack, with the Trader José going for $6). It had a distinctive lemony smell and a complex, peppery taste featuring hops and grass. I will buy much more Bohemia before the summer is over.
Dos Equis Ambar was my favorite among the dark beers, with good sweet grain, light fruit, and caramel up front and a surprising astringency at the end. Negra Modelo has a slightly burnt and bestial tang reminiscent of roasted dog fur, and Trader José Dark tastes simple and nutty and chocolatey, as microwaved peanut M&Ms might.