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I know what you're thinking. "Here's how to pair beer with Mexican food: insert lime into Pacifico. Drink."
I get it. Pale Mexican lagers sometimes just feel right with Mexican food. And besides—that's about all your local taqueria sells anyway.
But what if you're doing takeout or cooking Mexican food at home? I won't tell you not to drink your Coronas, Pacificos, and Tecates, but other beers can offer some serious south-of-the-border beer pairing satisfaction. Just like a well-made sauce can improve a dish, a well-paired beer can make any meal just a bit more awesome.
Where do you start? As you stare down the aisles of your favorite beer shop, it can help to break down Mexican cuisine into a few broad, general categories—flavor profiles that will give you the keys to a delicious beer match.
Bright and Light
One thing that I love about Mexican food is that it's so often bright, vibrant and lively—never afraid of acidity and piquant herbs. It's a cuisine filled with beautifully refreshing dishes. I'm thinking of a plate of ceviche or coctele de camarones, packed with fresh seafood and sour citrus juice, sharp cilantro, and juicy tomatoes—just the thing to enjoy on a hot day. Or these killer tacos with marinated hearts of palm, tangy and spicy salsa verde, and fresh herbs.
These lively dishes need a beer that won't dampen their brightness. Here's where your easy-going Pacificos, Coronas, and Tecates are most appropriate.
But despite the fact that these dishes are often fairly low in fat, they can be really intense. Assertive acidity, spiciness, and herbal brightness will trample your pale lagers' flavor and leave them tasting like nothing but cold, bubbly water. If it's just refreshment you seek, pinch a lime in that longneck and you're set.
If you're looking for a pairing that brings a little something extra to the table, you'll want a beer with the power to fight back a bit. Brightness is still important; you don't want to risk weighing down your dish.
Grab yourself a hefeweizen or a Belgian witbier. The key: these beers have brightness, but can hold their own enough to produce a balanced pairing. They can taste a bit sweet, which helps to soften the acidity of lime juice and ease the fire brought on by chili pepper. Citrus and banana-like flavors in each beer nicely complement the flavor profile found in these foods.
Not a big fan of wheat beers? American pale ales can work with bright Mexican dishes too—they're made with citrusy, floral, and herbaceous hops that can latch on to similar flavors in the food. Hoppy bitterness can help the beer assert itself through richer (but still bright) dishes, like fried fish or proteins served with cilantro and pepita-based mole verde. But beware, that bitterness will intensify spicy heat.
Crisp and Fatty
Carnitas, tacos al pastor, and fajitas all demand a beer with a bit more heft to stand up to their glorious fattiness—less potent beers can taste comparatively flavorless in the face of these meaty dishes.
Another key to the best pairing: these dishes offer a fair deal of crispy caramelization and Maillard browning. This opens the door to a world of darker beers, which will be extra successful by showcasing a similar range of browned and caramelized flavors from the kilning process that darker malt undergoes before it is used for brewing.
American brown ales, amber or dark lagers (such as Vienna, Märzen, and dunkel), and smoked beers like rauchbier or smoked porters are all champions when you're pairing beer with these rich, crispy dishes. All have a caramelized or toasty malt flavor that will find a connection with the browned meats incorporated in these dishes and will have enough body to stand up to richness.
American brown ales often offer a deeply toasted or light coffee-like malt flavor that will find a cozy seat next to warmed corn tortillas, and the beer's subtle citrusy hop character will sit comfortably alongside the squeeze of lime that will inevitably find its way atop your dish.
Darker lagers tend to offer a bit of malty density to tame spiciness, and rauchbiers and smoked porters up the ante with a smokiness that makes for an ultra-savory recollection of the flames that may have cooked your meat.
When it comes to extra-spicy Mexican dishes, it's important to steer clear of three main beer characteristics: excessive bitterness, high levels of carbonation, and elevated alcohol levels. All three will intensify spicy heat, potentially throwing the dish out of balance in an unpleasant way. Malty beers are your best bet here.
Brighter spicy dishes like these chilaquiles verdes tend to work best with paler beers like helles, witbier, and less-hoppy American blonde ales. These are beers that will ease the spicy pain with soft malty flavor without overpowering your dish, offering a refreshing respite from the heat.
Richer spicy dishes need a more assertive beer. You'll still want a malty one, but it needs to stand up to savory meats and intense sauces. For a dish like grilled chorizo in a spicy tomato sauce, Irish red ale or bock are nice options. These beers have a caramelized malt quality that tastes great alongside the sweetness of cooked tomato and won't intensify the dish's heat.
With rich braised meats and deeply flavored sauces like mole poblano, carbonation, alcohol and bitterness can be your friends. All three of these beer characteristics have the ability to cut through richness and allow the beer to hold its own against big, densely flavored food (Just don't forget that they'll also fan any fiery chili flames!).
If you've got a rich braised red meat dish and aren't dealing with a ton of spiciness, give a Belgian dubbel a try. These beers have all the body, carbonation and alcohol needed to help your beer assert its presence amidst all that mouth-coating fat, and their pleasant raisin, caramel, and pepper-like flavors will nicely complement the rich red meat.
This is another great place to bust out a rauchbier or smoked porter. Smoky beer is magnificent with braised or slow-cooked meat—it can recall the smokiness of great barbecue and emphasize the savoriness of your dish in a satisfyingly decadent way.
Dishes with a creamy sauces or condiments are asking for another type of beer. I'm thinking about these creamy enchiladas, anything with a bunch of guacamole on it, and burritos heavy on the cheese and sour cream—these kinds of dishes are especially good at accommodating bitterness in beer. If you love super hoppy American pale ales and IPAs, now's your chance to enjoy how great they can be with food. The bright, citrusy hops in these beers interact beautifully with the freshness of cilantro, tomato, raw onion and citrus, and the beer's bitterness helps cut through all that richness.
While these beers can dominate more delicate dishes with punishing, lasting bitterness, dairy and avocado can help maintain a balanced pairing by softening the bitter blow.
If you had to pick one...
All of the recommendations above will make your Mexican feasting at home extra-delicious, but if you're anything like me, most of your Mexican eating occurs outside the home. Sadly, that taqueria isn't that likely to have smoky rauchbiers or a great witbier on tap. So what are you to do if you're looking for a killer beer match in a restaurant offering standard Mexican adjunct lagers?
Negra Modelo is your new best friend. It's widely available in Mexican eateries all across the spectrum from the dingy taqueria to the classiest of restaurants. While it's not perfect, it's a great one-size-fits-all pairing beer for pretty much whatever you order.
Made more or less in the style of a Vienna lager, it's a malt-focused beer with some toasty, caramelly sweetness that won't throw spicy dishes out of balance. It marries neatly with crispy or braised meats, fried tortillas or fish, and tomato-based sauces and salsas. It's bold enough to retain some flavor amidst big and rich dishes, but not so strong that it will overrun more delicate items.