Enjoyed for its light, drinkable style that pairs well with the spirited flavors of Mexican cuisine, the Mexican-style lager is seeing an increase in the U.S., both in imports from Mexico and as offerings from more American craft breweries producing their own iterations.
A Mexican-style lager is distinguished by its a lower ABV, a specific yeast strain, and the use of corn, a central crop in Mexico. “When I think of Mexican-style lager in present day it has a neutral lager strain, a true balance of malt and hops, and may or may not use adjuncts for palatability,” says Jeff Ramirez, cofounder and head brewer at Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring, Maryland. Ramirez brewed Buena Onda, a Mexican-style Vienna lager, last fall using a Bohemian yeast strain and corn. The corn lightens the beer without adding too much syrupy sweetness to it, he says.
While the corn provides a sugar, it doesn’t give the protein or body from a barley malt, says Shaun O’Sullivan, cofounder and brewmaster at 21st Amendment Brewery in California’s Bay Area. “So, it’s light and dry,” he says.
21st Amendment’s El Sully, inspired by Modelo, is one of Laurent Lebec’s favorite for Big Star in Chicago, where he serves as beverage director. “Why not take that thing people like and make it better,” he says, calling El Sully crushable and delicious. “Everyone loves adding a lime wedge to a Mexican lager. But El Sully delivers its own bright, citrus note without any help. With its honey malt taste, it stands proud and remarkably full-flavored.”
Lebec also enjoys Oskar Blues Brewery’s Beerito for its amplified nut and bread notes. “Beerito’s amber color hints at a richer taste than we are used to experiencing with lighter Mexican lagers, especially for a 4 [percent] ABV beer,” he says. “It makes a beautiful michelada partner.”
To pair with its menu of tacos, Big Star’s two restaurants serve both imports and American crafts. Lebec curates a diverse list of Mexican industrial lagers and regional favorites like Carta Blanca and Estrella Jalisco for variety. For Big Star’s fish tacos, he recommends pairing a Tecate, which is a component of the beer batter for the fish. “The tortilla is the malt of the taco,” Lebec says.
Ska Brewing Company is credited as one of the first craft breweries to make the Mexican lager style in the U.S. with its Mexican Logger. “It sets the stage with Saaz hops and the perfect balance of crisp and refreshing,” says Katie Nierling, beer buyer for Parry’s Pizzeria and Bar with nine locations mainly in Colorado.
Jeremy Storm, chef at Ska Brewing’s in-house restaurant The Container of Food in Durango, Colorado, echoes Nierling’s sentiment. “Mexican Logger, and the Mexican Lager style in general, is a great food beer—it’s light-bodied and dry-finishing so it pairs easily with a number of foods, especially those that are served in spring and summertime. I really like a pint of Mexican Logger next to jerk shrimp tacos from our catering menu.”
Nierling also enjoys Epic Brewing Company’s Los Locos Lager, calling it a perfect happy accident. “Originally it was a beer brewed for a local taco/Mexican restaurant and Epic’s brewers hit it out of the park, and they brought it to market in package and draft, the rest being history. I like to sell it as similar to a margarita because of the tartness and salt profiles. It really quenches your thirst and leaves you wanting more,” she says.
And Lone Tree Brewing Company’s Mexican Lager is a local fan favorite, Nierling says. “The flaked corn gives the touch of sweetness in this beer, perfect for a summer’s day,” she says.
Despite the growth of U.S.-brewed Mexican lagers, most Mexican restaurants still lean on beer imports like Corona, Victoria, or Sol, like the culturally focused Casa Borrega in New Orleans. Owner and artist Hugo Montero, who was born in Mexico City, wanted to open Casa Borrega in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to show the dignified side of Mexican culture. Montero has tried to import craft beers from Mexico but says, “it’s just impossible.”
Traveling between the countries often, Montero appreciates the American breweries’ nod to Mexican culture and beverages because they’re helping highlight the multiculturalism of beer itself and its history. “I’m totally supportive of these bi-cultural drinks.”
At Casa Borrega, which takes a more regional approach to Mexican food, guests will find cochinita pibil, a Yucatan specialty, as well as mole poblano over enchiladas—the sweet and savory sauce of which pairs perfectly with a Mexican lager, Montero says. “I could have like four Victorias with the mole and enchiladas.”