Last weekend I tasted a few wonderfully aromatic pale ales, German style Heifweizens, a Belgian-style whit beer, a couple red ales, and one of the best stouts I’ve had in years. All made within a few hours’ drive from where I was standing. There was only one unusual aspect of this tasting session: it was in Mexico.
In the not-too-distant past, finding a craft beer, brewpub, or micro-brewery anywhere in Latin America was next to impossible. If you were to drive south from Texas or Arizona, you wouldn’t be able to find something with an abundance of hops until you got to Santiago or Buenos Aires, down in the Southern Cone of South America.
The situation is still pretty bleak most of that stretch, a non-stop stream of monopoly producers’ yellow fizzy lagers, but a few cracks are starting to appear. In Mexico though, long the Latin American country with the best mass-market beers, there’s a full-fledged craft beer revolution going on. Last weekend there was an event in the medium-sized city where I live that would have been unthinkable just three years ago: a Mexican craft beer festival. For real!
After spending the past eight months choosing between what the giant Mexican beer producers put out, I was in heaven. Goodbye 4.5% Corona and Indio, hello full-bodied Gambusino and Brü. Gambusino is actually the home town hero where I live in Guanajuato, the first craft brewer to make a real dent in the marketplace, so I have had a few of their beers in between the usual suspects since I moved back. Microbrews are still a novel concept with bars and restaurants though. When I first moved here there was exactly one place I could order something different—then “imported” by an owner with a car who would load up on Minerva or Cucapa cases in Guadalajra or Mexico City. Now there are a smattering more serving good beer where I live, plus a full-fledged store (called “The Beer Store”) with a great selection from all over.
Fortunately for us in Guanajuato, Gambusino has one of the best pale ales you’ll find in the country right now. (If you order one, be advised it’s pronounced “pah-lay ah-lay” here. And while we’re at it, If you need to go online while you’re drinking it, Wi-Fi often ends up as “Wee-Fee.”)
I was extremely impressed with the quality of what I drank at this festival. I tasted more than a dozen different beers and there was only one dud in the bunch. That’s a better percentage than I’ve managed at similar festivals in Nashville and Tampa. Even the Las Mulas guys who were so new they didn’t have business cards, a website or a Facebook page were making surprisingly good beer. Nearly everyone had great packaging too: these beers may be expensive compared to their mass-market counterparts, but they sure look good sitting on a table in front of you.
My top choice was, surprisingly to me, a blonde ale made by 7 Barrios of San Luis Potosi. It was pretty much a perfect beer and appeal beyond the hop-heads. I bought a glass of their strong red ale too (7.5% alcohol) and it was also delicious.
The stout from Embajador, a Guanajuato company I’d never heard of previously, was complex, robust, and just plain yummy. My other favorites were from Genuine Black (Zacatecas) Clandestina (Leon) and Puro Veneno (Mexico State), but I would gladly stock my fridge with what’s coming out from any of the companies that were attending.
This won’t likely be an everyday thing though: labor is cheaper in Mexico, but the ingredients, transportation, and equipment are not. So ordering a microbrew in a bar or restaurant in Mexico will usually cost you 35 to 45 pesos ($3-$4). Figure on $2 or so per bottle in a store. This is double what you’ll pay for a Pacifico, almost double what it costs for the best mass market brands: Bohemia and Negra Modela. But what you’re getting for the price is at a whole different level than the norm.
This is a point in time much like you saw in the USA 25 years ago, when Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Anchor Steam, and others were just getting off the ground. Support these guys and someday the Mexico selection will follow the same path. And hey kids—you only need to be 18 to order a beer here. (Or really just look like you are…)