Over the weekend, the Great American Beer Festival handed out 286 medals to brews in 96 different categories – covering everything from “American-Style Lager or Ice Lager or Malt Liquor” (where Pabst Blue Ribbon took home the gold) to more high-minded styles like “Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer.”
One category you wouldn’t find at this year’s competition was Mexican-Style Cerveza. At first glance, it makes sense: The event is the Great American Beer Festival and is only open to breweries based in the US. However, medals were awarded for plenty of other international styles—things like Belgian-Style Fruit Beer, German-Style Pilsener and English-Style Summer Ale.
But despite not having a category all their own, American-made Mexican-style beers still got their due. At least four different cerveza-like brews took home medals this year. Pelicano Extra! from Oregon’s Pelican Brewing and Mexican Logger from Colorado’s SKA Brewing both medaled in “American-Style or International-Style Pilsener.” El Sully from California’s 21st Amendment Brewery took gold in “American-Style Cream Ale.” And Casa Azul from California’s El Segundo Brewing took gold in “American-Style Amber Lager or Dark Lager.” And that doesn’t even include Mexican Spring from Iowa’s 515 Brewing, the gold medal winner in “Fruit Wheat Beer,” a brew made with agave and lime which I would consider more Mexican-inspired than truly Mexican-style.
Back in March, I wrote an article entitled “This Summer’s Hot Beers Will Be Mexican Lagers Made by American Brewers” speaking to the growing trend of American breweries doing their best impressions of beers from south of the border. These Great American Beer Festival results not only speak to that trend, they also show just how competent US craft breweries have become at tackling Mexican styles. But the problem still remains that when it comes to a competition like GABF, deciding where to enter these types of beers can be tricky.
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“There is not a recognized category for Mexican-Style lagers and there is the rub,” 21st Amendment Founder and Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan told me, explaining the difficulty of figuring out where to enter El Sully. Ironically, after much consideration, he decided to enter the self-described “Mexican-style lager” into the “American-Style Cream Ale” category – where it won. An outsider would probably find this victory perplexing, but O’Sullivan had his logic. “Yes, El Sully uses a lager yeast (bottom fermenting if you will) but it presents in many ways as an ale,” he says. “The yeast strain we use has an herbal fruity note. We use flaked maize in this beer to keep the body light, which also lends to a light ‘corny’ aroma... When entering beers in the GABF brewers need to enter that beer where it will show best.” For El Sully, that was a category casual observers probably wouldn’t expect.
Still, even O’Sullivan doesn’t necessarily think the GABF needs to add a Mexican-style beer category. “There are a lot of categories,” he points out. Not to mention that the style seems to be doing okay without one.