Brewers have been taking to Mexican-style lagers like Coronas on Cinco de Mayo. This summer seems to be an apex to the trend, with new releases like Full Sail Sesión Cerveza, pFriem Mexican Lager, Anchor Los Gigantes, and Alesmith 40oz to Freedom, to name a few. Not to mention those early adopters, like Pelican’s Pelicano Extra! and Ex Novo Brewing’s The Most Interesting Lager In The World. But what the hell is a Mexican-style lager anyway? Brewers and consumers are embracing them, but not many know what makes one.
Scott Ungerman, Brewmaster at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, says “people do refer to it more as a Vienna lager more than anything else. It’s not a true Vienna lager; if you say Modelo Ezpecial is the prototype, that’s a much more pale lager than any Vienna you are going to find. It’s much closer to an American macro adjunct pilsner.” Jason Barbee, who created Ex Novo Brewing’s Mexican-style lager, says, “I look at Pacifico as the prototypical Mexican lager. It’s got a little more malt and bitterness to it than something like a Corona or Sol. Plus, the brewery was started by German brewers over 100 years ago.”
Unwrapping the Mexican-style lager suggests brewers have found a new way to market an American macro adjunct lager to craft beer fans. So, it turns out the style we call Mexican lager is far more influenced by Americans and Germans than anything else. American craft brewers have been trying their interpretations of these beers for years, often under the heading of “Lite” beer, but the craft drinkers have not really bought in until now. Giving them a slightly more exotic nod that makes the consumer think of beach vacations and imported beer is a good selling point, and most people could not tell you what a Mexican-style lager is supposed to be anyway.
Jason Barbee, then of Ex Novo Brewing, was among the first PNW brewers to add a Mexican-style lager to the lineup called “The Most Interesting Lager In The World.”
“We started making the Mexican lager because at the end of a long day on our feet myself and the other employees all wanted something super light and refreshing to drink,” says Barbee.
Noting that at the time, the Mexican-style lager did not have much interest in the craft beer world, but more classic German and American takes on lagers were heating up.
“I’ve always been a fan of some of the more mass market versions, Tecate, Pacifico, Dos Equis, so this seemed like a fun little project…we also figured rather than a Pilsner this would be something a little different.”
Barbee looks at Pacifico as the prototypical Mexican-style lager, acknowledging that the early Mexican lagers were brewed by German expats and closer adhered to Vienna lagers than anything. But these days he says most people think of them as an adjunct lager with a touch of sweetness.
“Personally I think of Mexican lager as having nice light malt complexity from Pilsner and Vienna malts, a touch of sweetness typically from flaked maize, with just enough hop to balance out the little sweetness and keep it crisp and light. We were shooting for a happy middle ground with ours somewhere between the Vienna-ish and super light lager.”
Ex Novo settled on a happy medium between Vienna and Adjunct for the Most Interesting Lager recipe, using a combination of Pilsner and Vienna malts with a little flaked corn maize. L09 Que Bueno yeast from Imperial Organic Yeast is used with an assumption that it’s sourced from Negra Modelo. It’s hopped with all Czech Saaz with an earthy, herbal hop aroma and flavor with a clean yeast fermentation and two weeks lagering. Over time Ex Novo has slightly bumped up the hopping to please our hop addicted northwest palates and is now canning “The Most Interesting Lager In The World” year-round.
Whitney Burnside, now of 10 Barrel, then of Pelican Brewing, created one of the first new Mexican-style lagers to be packaged. Pelicano Extra was released early summer of 2016 after being a draft-only beer before then. Burnside was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica in 2013.
“The two ubiquitous pale lagers you’ll find in Costa Rica are Imperial and Pilsen. I was partial to the Pilsen for its smoothness and balance, .5% higher ABV, a subtle corn-like sweetness, and its delicate herbal/grassy nose. I was so fond of the beer that I ordered the malt through Skype in the rain forest in Monteverde. The other brewers had no idea where the random pallet of 6-row and corn malt came from or who ordered it because I was out of town.”
For Burnside, Corona Extra, Pacifico, Tecate, and Negra Modelo are the first beers that come to mind when you mention Mexican-style lager. She notes all are pale lagers except Modelo, which is more in the Vienna style. Based on her own preferences, she made Pelicano Extra a pale lager with flaked corn and noble hops that nod to its German heritage.
“The malt profile is slightly sweet but finishes dry and crisp. The lager yeast that is used should be clean and not be too fruity/estery/sulphuric. ”
Pelican Brewmaster Darron Welch adds that with a Mexican-style lager he is loooking for a “balance of the grains and cereals, the clean lager yeast, and a low to moderately low noble hop character are what stick out for me in this type of beer. Modest but detectable bitterness, light noble hop aroma, refreshing … yum!”
Welch and Pelican Brewing has crafted a special darker version of the lager for the Oregon Brewers Festival this year. “Negra Pelicano” is closer to a Munich-style dark lager with the addition of Black Prinz malt to the recipe.
Scott Ungermann, Brewmaster at San Francisco’s legendary Anchor Brewing, acknowledges the styles roots as a Vienna, but its present version as heavily adjunct. For Ungermann, creating the brewery’s collaboration with the San Francisco Giants baseball team as a Mexican-style lager called Los Gigantes was all about authenticity. It’s not a stretch to assume that the recent surge of Mexican-style lagers, just like fruited goses, is at least a little about following a trend, like the recently newfound love of beers to be consumed on beaches, i.e. Corona, Kona, and other tropical-themed summertime brands. But for Anchor Brewing, already famed for its flagship lager hybrid Anchor Steam, it seemed a natural extension of their brand.
“One of our brewers our lead brewer Ramone Tamayo is Mexican-American, and has for a long time been championing this,” said Ungermann. Finally, one day Ramone went rogue and brewed the beer on his own on the Anchor pilot brewery. “We tasted it and we were like, goddamn that is good. We loved it, but we didn’t have the platform. How do you make it real, how do you make it authentic?” recalled Ungermann, continuing “for him it’s a true homage. It’s not that we are trying to recreate or do something to be kitschy, we are brewing a beer that we want to drink. That’s how it started.”
The recipe for Los Gigantes uses 20+% flaked maize corn and German hops, like most of the other interpretations of the style. Brewers pull back on hops for bittering and turn up aroma.
At Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, Oregon, a Mexican-style ager seemed inevitable. After all, the brewery has built itself up on the original Session Lager and its spinoffs, which have grown exponentially the last few years. With Sesión Cerveza the brewery leans in to the “imported” beach party vibe that is featured in the marketing for many of these beers. The original press release states “Sesíon Cerveza offers the refreshing character of the imports in a locally crafted beer, perfect for your next fiesta.” Sesión Cerveza has been a big enough hit for the brewery to take it year-round and will soon be adding it to 12oz cans.
Full Sail Brewmaster Jim Kelter points toward the International Pale Lager category as the inspiration for the beer recipe, which, like the others, uses pilsner malt along with flaked corn, but also adds some Northwest-grown takes on German hops instead, with Northern Brewer and Celeia hops. The Brewers Association does not recognize a “Mexican-style lager” category, but does have the international lager classification of three sub-styles: International Pale Lager, International Amber Lager and International Dark Lager. These categories neatly encapsulate what most of the Spanish-speaking countries consider beer and what most of America calls a Mexican-style lager.
Brewers Association definition for International Lager:
International lagers are the premium mass-market lagers produced in most countries in the world. Whether developed from American or European styles, they all tend to have a fairly uniform character and are heavily marketed. Loosely derived from original Pilsner-type lagers, with colored variations having additional malt flavors while retaining a broad appeal to most palates.
While other countries discover American IPAs, we are rediscovering the mass produced international brethren that were the forefathers of Budweiser and Coors. For sure, these beers are tastier, but in the same vein as the cheap beers you purchase at the gas station. Now the style is getting taken back by the craft brewers in an interesting turn of fate.