Tastings School - Mexico - One upon a time in Mexico

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Mexico - One upon a time in Mexico

The Aztecs claim to have invented beer, and Mexico's modern brewing scene is thriving. Gary Monterosso reports

Think of some of the world’s cradles for brewing history and there’s little doubt that Germany, Belgium and England would be among the first to come to mind.

Yet, evidence exists that the Aztecs, long before the influence of the Spanish and Germans, made a beverage from corn in Mexico. The drink, made from a plant that is related to the agave, from which tequila is made, was fermented using wild yeasts that were native to the area.

It took until the end of the 19th century before the production of beer in Mexico became modernised. In 1890, Monterrey was the site of the first brewery, to be followed shortly thereafter by one in Orizaba.

Climate dictates the types of food produced in any country and it also directly influences the style of drink. Mexican beers, known in Spanish as “cerveza,” frequently are light lagers, pale in colour and highly refreshing. Lagers differ from ales in the type of yeast used in the fermentation process and are characterised by a crisp, delicate and clean taste.

Breweries have capitalised on the “fun-in-the-sun” vacation image of the nation and, coupled with a growing Mexican population in the United States, these beers have been widely embraced.

There are almost 38 million Hispanic residents in the US, making up 13 per cent of the population. Of that number, 64 per cent are of Mexican origin. Mexico is one of the top 10 producers of beer in the world, increasing output by more than 16 per cent in the last six years.

Virtually all beers produced in the country originate from two conglomerates: Grupo Modelo and Fomento Economico Mexicano SA (FEMSA), holding a combined share of 99 per cent of the market. And to really develop an understanding of just how popular beer is in Mexico, 95 per cent of all alcoholic beverages sold there is that particular beverage.

The beer most closely associated with Mexico is Corona, a brand that developed a trendy image a few years ago. Corona has risen the ranks to become the most popular selling import within the US and is the sixth most consumed beer overall.

Adams Beverage Group, one of the leading sources for the alcohol beverage industry reported that Corona Extra’s US sales grew 8.3 per cent in 2005 while little brother Corona Light’s numbers swelled by 8.6 per cent. Extra has been the fastest growing imported beer in US history.

As for Grupo Modelo, exports of its products are increasing at the rate of 30 per cent annually. Anheuser-Busch invested into Modelo in the early 1990s, lending large amounts of funds along with its extensive distribution network. Meanwhile, FEMSA sided with Interbrew initially, but has moved ahead with Heineken. Both relationships have created nothing short of massive name recognition throughout the US and beyond.

Acceptance of Corona has opened the door for other Mexican beers, including one label, Negra Modelo, not generally associated with most other types. This is a Vienna-style dark lager, which, although still relatively mild in flavour, offers more substance than many of the other beers from this region. You’ll note a caramel presence that is balanced by a pleasant hop bitter finish. For those people who say they don’t like dark beers, try introducing Negra Modelo to them. I’ve paired this with a Cubangrilled pork chop for a wonderful meal.

FEMSA’s Dos Equis, meaning “two Xs,” is another label that has become quite visible throughout the United States. The origin of this beer goes back to 1900 when a German brewer immigrated to Mexico and merged his talent with the identity of his new country.

You are likely to find both the lager and amber at your favourite liquor purveyor, although I favour the latter for its richer flavour.

And despite the title, the amber is a lager, not an ale. Sales of amber are strong in the Untied States where 98 per cent of its production is shipped.

Tecate is a highly carbonated pale lager that has been gaining prominence in recent years.

There’s a touch of citrus flavour in the brew and it finishes with a slight hop bite. If you are a fan of some of the mass-produced American types, give this a try. Tecate Light was the first low alcohol beer to be launched for consumption in Mexico.

Bohemia is one of the best beers to come from Mexico. The aroma is complex; I picked up on a graininess that blended subtly with the hop presence. Putting this with a spicy dish makes for an ideal combination. One of the oldest labels in FEMSA’s portfolio, Bohemia is being positioned as a high end beverage based on promotions that associate it with tennis matches, golf tournaments and the like.

Sol is a light lager that is named for a ray of sun. Originally marketed as a working class drink, Sol gained popularity with young drinkers and its popularity soon spread beyond Mexican borders.

Carta Blanca has been a staple in Mexico for more than 100 years. Meaning “White Card,” it symbolises something that is given as a sign of respect. It’s golden with a nice malt-tohops balance that should make for a decent session brew.

Pacifico, a pilsner, is known primarily along the western part of the US where it has a strong following. It has been the top selling beer in Mexico for years and is popular with vacationers.

If you see someone drinking a Mexican beer, there is a decent chance you’ll see it accompanied by a wedge of lime. In reality, this is something that was created for the American audience along with those tourists (los turistas) to Mexico.

There are those who feel the acidity from the fruit helps to cut the sweet flavour imparted by the corn in the mix, but the reality of it is that it probably was a promotional feature created by a shrewd advertising agent. There are other less appetising explanations for this serving method, but, in reality, it should be to the consumer as to his or her preference.

May 5 is the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, an event that probably has more meaning for Americans than for Mexicans. It refers to the date at which Mexican loyalist soldiers defeated an army of French and renegade Mexicans at Puebla, about 100 miles from Mexico City.

Again, thanks to astute promoters, the day has been given holiday status throughout the US with festivals honouring Mexican cuisine, entertainment and, of course, beverage. Beer sales are quite strong on this date.

In actuality, Cinco de Mayo is a festival that symbolises the fight for freedom and independence, blending the culture, food, beverage and traditions of these proud people.