I first wrote about craft beer in Mexico back in 2014 after attending a local beer festival in Guanajuato. 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’d had in years. All made within a few hours’ drive from where I was standing. That’s a pretty normal day in the USA, but this 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 the situation is getting better each year. In the past five years I’ve sampled microbrews in Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador.
In Mexico though, long the Latin American country with the best mass-market beers, there’s a full-fledged craft beer revolution going on and each year the choices are increasing. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a brewery in every state now and in some cities you’ve got three or four viable producers to choose from. Mexico is basically where the USA was in the late 1990s and we know how things went from there.
Let’s admit though that the mass-market Mexican beers are pretty good. Otherwise, why would so many microbreweries in California and elsewhere be putting out “Mexican-style cervezas”? I’ll take a Dos Equis Amber, Pacifico, or Leon over the crap the big American producers put out any day. When you get up to Negra Modelo and Bohemia, they’re on par with the good European standards they were modeled after. It’s really hard to find much hint of hops in any mainstream Mexican beer though. You can’t really blame the big producers on that count though: hops don’t grow in Mexico and have to be imported at international prices.
Unfortunately, there’s just not much variety when it comes to the predominant style of pale lagers. Only the most experienced beer drinkers would be able to do a blind taste test and tell which is which between Sol, Tecate, Corona, Modela, Superior, and on and on. I can pick out a Pacifico, Indio, or a Dos Equis as they are a bit more distinctive, but the others are a sea of sameness. A lot of them are like lite beers when it comes to alcohol too, usually 4% (Victoria and Tecate) or 4.5% (Corona and Carta Blanca), so you wonder how those guys on the corner drinking a “ballena” or “caguama” big bottle got so drunk.
My go-to mass brewer brands are Negra Modelo, Bohemia, and Noche Buena (only available in December) because they have the most flavor and (not coincidentally) are 4.9% alcohol or more. They never taste watered down and don’t have to be freezing cold to taste good. All are malty dark beers except Bohemia Clara though, so get that if you are a lager fan but still want something with plenty of punch.
Mexican Craft Beer Distribution
There are two major problems with craft beer in Mexico. One is the price, which I’ll get to in a minute, but the bigger problem is distribution. It’s really hard to find more than an odd brand or two in stores. You think the Bud/Miller/Coors/InBev distribution hold is a strong one? It’s got nothing on the lock that Mexico’s duopoly has throughout the country. Your odds of finding a craft beer in a convenience store are so low that I’ve actually seen customers jump for joy when they find one.
There’s a good reason for that. The two biggest convenience store chains are Extra and Oxxo. Guess who owns them? The two beer companies! Grupo Modelo owns Extra and Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery owns Oxxo. Since it’s hard to go two blocks in a Mexican city without seeing one of these, a whole lot of people get their beer from them. Then Modelo also owns a chain of beer stores that they’re less cagey about: the stores are called Modelorama.
It’s a little better in the largest supermarkets, especially in tourist cities, but you’ll still only find a small sampling of what’s available in the region and it’s a crapshoot as to whether the same bottles will be on the shelf next week. (And yes, it’s mostly bottles for now. Portable canning operations are not viable here yet and most brewers can’t afford to buy one of their own.)
The craft beer brand you’re most likely to see is Cucapá and that’s because Grupo Modelo purchased it in 2015. This was around the same time the Mexican government eased restrictions on craft brewers and the big boys realized they were going to have a lot of tiny brewers nipping away at the heels of their nearly 100% market share. It’s the Goose Island of Mexican craft beers since it’s part of the duopoly, but a nice change of pace and reasonably priced. A couple years later, Modela also purchased three other craft brewers, including Bocanegra from Monterrey, so you’ll see that one a fair bit too.
Other brands that seem to get onto the shelves beyond their home state are Tempus from Queretaro, Sierra Madre from Monterrey, Minerva from Guadalajara, and Colima from Colima. Minerva makes a good pale (6%) and a good IPA (6.5%) that you should snag if you see one on a shelf and are craving a beer with some hops.
In some states, there’s a major craft beer brewer that at least has a sizable foothold in its own state, like expat-owned Baja Brewing of Los Cabos. Visit their great taproom in San Jose del Cabo if you are there on vacation.
There are at least 1,400 brewers in Mexico now though, with an output that is doubling every two years. Exports are only about 5% of that, so obviously people are finding these beers somehow within Mexico. They’re mostly finding them in bars, which leads to the next problem…
Mexican Craft Beers are Too Expensive for Most Mexicans
If you go out for a craft beer in the USA, you won’t blink an eye if the tab is $6 for a draft. Show a Mexican a drinks menu with prices like that and her jaw will drop. “So it’s 120 pesos for…one beer?!” When you can find a Mexican mass-market beer for 25 to 45 pesos in any city, a price with three digits is hard to swallow.
A hoppy craft beer in a bar in Mexico will sometimes be as low as 60 pesos–snag that if you see it. More often it’s the equivalent of $3.50 to $4.50. It can cost more than your main dish in a restaurant.
These prices are, unfortunately, justified by market forces. As I mentioned before, hops don’t grow in Mexico, so a Mexican craft brewer has to pay the same prices as one in Florida or England. While a brewer in Portland or Prague will have local hops connections, that’s not possible here. Mexico grows a respectable million tons of barley a year (27th in the world), but that’s less than a quarter of what the USA grows and one-eighth of what Canada grows.
Add that to the distribution problems mentioned earlier and it means wholesale prices are high unless it’s for a brand owned by a mass brewer. It’s not unusual for the head brewer or someone in his family to be out delivering cases and kegs from the trunk of his car. Despite that, margins are thin. The micro breweries are just not able to scale up high enough to get cost efficiencies that bigger operations see.
Back in 2014 I discovered the local Gambusino brand in my city at that beer festival and they’re still around, but with a different business model. They have a brewpub on the edge of town that’s really hard to find, but that’s where you need to go to drink their beer or buy their bottles. Apparently they gave up on trying to get them into stores and bars, even locally. Another local brand I like a lot, Tepoli, sells much of its beer at a weekend food truck gathering place. At $2.50 a bottle though, it’s a decent price when drinking it there, but a splurge for me to buy a whole six-pack for $15. That’s more than I’d spend in the states on any brand from a store.
So most of the time when people do order a craft beer in Mexico where I live in Guanajuato, they go for something weaker and less interesting that won’t break the bank: the Allende brand from San Miguel de Allende. It’s okay, much better than a Tecate, but nothing to get really excited about. Better options in Guanajuato state are Chela Libre, Tepoli, Clandestina, and Cerveceria Guanajuato if you can find one of those. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and see one from La Brü of Morelia. They make some of the best IPAs you’ll find outside of Mexico City.
In bigger cities, the selection is much better. It’s downright great in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, places where you’ll find full-fledged brewpubs and taprooms serving 20 different craft beers. Even in smaller Queretaro, there are now a dozen breweries. Because of its proximity to California, Baja has a lot of good craft beer brands.
In Merida one of the bigger ones–Ceiba–is kind of like Allende, derided as “craft beer lite” by beer nerds. You could be kinder and call them “session beers.” Other brands are more interesting though, like Patito, which has a good IPA and a Belgian blonde. I enjoyed both after finding them at a supermarket in Cancun–both in cans. Cerveza Cancun has a boring name, but theirs also come in cans and you can get a pilsen, a stout, and amber, and wheat ale, and my favorite–the 5.9% Playa Pale
If price is a factor, you might want to start with the craft brewers owned by the big boys because they’re often 30 pesos ($1.50) or less in a store, often only 60 or so ($3) in a bar or restaurant. These include Cucapa, Bocanegra, Mexicali, and Tijuana. (Those latter two were obviously founded by people without much imagination, so it’s kind of fitting they got bought by international brewing conglomerates.) Of all of these the Bocanegra Dunkel is my favorite, a great value.
What Craft Beer Styles Are Popular in Mexico?
I’ve had several brewers tell me that Mexicans prefer beer on the sweet side, probably because that’s what they’re used to from the mass brewers, plus they gravitate to the light lagers they’ve been drinking all along. The middle class and the well-traveled have expanded their palates though and now you see many of the same styles you will find anywhere else in the world. Nearly every brewer makes some kind of light lager or pilsner, but you’ll now see a lot of ales and dark beers as well.
Just remember that if you order an IPA from a Mexican bartender who doesn’t speak English, you should request an “EE-puh.” A pale ale would be a “Pa-ley-AH-ley.” The English word, but using Spanish pronunciation rules. (Kind of like you have to ask if they have WEE-fee, not WHY-fi.)
If you have just come from the U.S. and are sampling craft beer in Mexico, you’re probably not going to be blown away, I have to warn you. There’s a fair bit of timidity in the brewing process here, partly because of the young age of the industry, partly because the Mexican palate isn’t as adventurous…yet. Occasionally you’ll find a true dud that tastes like something went wrong at the brewery. So then you’re cursing them for wasting $3 you could have bought a plate of tacos with. Once in a while, however, you’ll find a real gem though that makes you go, “Wow.”
If, like me, you live in Mexico though and spend months in a row here, you’re more easily impressed and will be pretty psyched when the hops aroma hits your nose and you take your first sip. It’s such a contrast with what the day-to-day beers are like that you appreciate it more. Plus there’s one consolation no matter what: Mexican graphic designers are quite talented and some of these beers have really cool labels.
I’ve been to several more local beer festivals since that first one in 2014. A few brands have disappeared, but most of them survived. My “best of show” choice back then was a blonde ale made by 7 Barrios of San Luis Potosi. It was pretty much a perfect beer and could appeal beyond the hop-heads. I bought a glass of their strong red ale too (7.5% alcohol) and it was also delicious. I had both later in their home city and they’re still going strong.
Mexico’s craft beer scene is a point in time much like you saw in the USA 25 years ago or more, when Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Anchor Steam, and others were just getting off the ground. Maybe your American city had three breweries, not 30 like it has now. Support these small guys and someday the Mexico selection will follow the same path. Support the craft brands from the big brewers too because they’re bringing new people into the market with more affordable prices.
And hey kids—you only need to be 18 to order a craft beer in Mexico. (Or really just look like you are…)