This week, Oskar Blues Brewery, the grandfather of the American canned craft beer movement, announced they’d be bringing a new brew to their aluminum-packaged lineup: Beerito, a Mexican-style lager.
Though the Longmont, Colorado-based brewery has a history as an innovator, when it comes to American craft breweries producing and canning Mexican-style lagers, believe it or not, Oskar Blues is slightly behind the trend. On the southern side of their state, Durango’s Ska Brewing has been making their Mexican Logger Mexican-style lager since 1999 and canning it since 2011. Meanwhile, last year, another elder statesman of the craft can movement, San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery, introduced cans of their El Sully cerveza, which they’ve been testing out for about five years.
Plenty of the other 4,000-plus breweries across the country have also been trying their hand at the style, regardless of their proximity to the Mexican border. In the Midwest, Ohio’s Great Lakes Brewing Company recently toasted the start of 2016 with their new Mexican Lager and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Wolverine State Brewing’s signature summer seasonal is their Verano Mexican-Style Amber Lager.
So where’s all this Mexican love coming from? It’s certainly not courtesy of Donald Trump. Instead, it’s a confluence of multiple trends in the American beer market.
Strictly from a numbers perspective, while sales from America’s biggest producers, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, have grown stagnant, two areas of the market that have seen large growth are craft beer and Mexican brands. Though craft brewers prefer to tout creativity over filling demand, it’s only natural to give beer lovers what they want. “People want a decently-built light beer that’s not made by a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate,” explains 21st Amendment Founder and Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan, speaking to how the best known Mexican brands have long since been bought up by larger companies.
Thomas Larsen, brewmaster for Ska, agrees that the demand and love of these beers is there. “I think it is a bit of nostalgia for what may have been a lot of people’s first introduction to beer,” he tells me. “Sometimes, even though we trash the Light Lagers of the world, we crave just that!”
Mexican lagers also play into the recent trend of lower alcohol “session” beers – Beerito, Mexican Logger and El Sully all come in below 5 percent ABV – making them the perfect refreshing summer alternative to all the high octane styles out there. These relatively simple recipes can be seen as part of the pushback against the never-ending barrage of super-hopped, high alcohol or overly experimental beers.
And as strange as it sounds, craft brewers tackling Mexican-style beers fits into another American beer tradition as well: innovation. US brewers have been reinventing foreign styles for as long as Americans have been drinking beer. The big ubiquitous American brands are all derivative of German lagers. Craft beer’s signature India Pale Ale is just a new take on a traditional English style. And plenty of American breweries have been obsessed for decades with recreating Belgian beers in the States. Though Mexico might not have the same beer pedigree as those brewing heavy weights, comparatively, bringing American craft beer sensibilities to Mexican brews is still relatively unexplored territory.
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What’s really helping push the trend forward, however, is that many of these new beers are just damn good. From the moment you shove your nose in a pour of El Sully, for instance, you’re immediately greeted with all the notes you’d expect from a traditional Mexican beer like Modelo. It’s built that way by design. “Yeast is the key ingredient,” says O’Sullivan, who openly admits to the irony of a guy with Irish heritage brewing a Mexican beer in America. “We’re using a Mexican-style lager yeast strain and it exudes this kind of spicy, almost herbal note. It’s very distinct from an English ale yeast or an American ale yeast.” The other key ingredient is flaked maize, an adjunct found in many Mexican brews. “That will give it a slight corny flavor and aroma,” O’Sullivan continues. “It’s added to brighten the beer up and make it crisper.”
Ska’s Larsen has a similar explanation for their Mexican Logger. “For us it’s the yeast procured from a brewery in Mexico City that is really what makes it different from an American Lager,” he says. “Another main difference would be the use of corn instead of rice.”
Now that Spring is officially here and weather is beginning to turn warmer, you might be feeling that nostalgic pull towards a classic Mexican beer brand yourself. Of course, you’ll can always grab a Corona, Tecate, Pacifico or the like, but if you’re looking for a new take on one of your old favorite styles, keep an eye out for American-made Mexican-style lagers. You may see more on the shelf than you expect.