On Saturday, May 5, we'll observe a Mexican holiday with more gusto than it attracts in Mexico.
Some of us will gather at themed chain restaurants and down margaritas or bottles of light beer garnished with limes. There's logic to this: Cinco de Mayo owes much of its popularity north of the border to aggressive marketing by beer and spirits companies since the 1980s.
It's another instance of commercial interests twisting a foreign national holiday into an excuse for Americans to drink too much of a bad thing, like St. Patrick's Day and green beer. Still, there is at least a tenuous connection between Cinco de Mayo and the history of Mexican brewing.
Most Americans mistakenly think that Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican independence. In fact, the country celebrates on Sept. 16, and it broke from Spain in 1810, more than 50 years before the events commemorated on May 5.
In 1861, the French had invaded Mexico on the pretext of collecting on the country's foreign debt, and stayed with the intention of creating an empire under Napoleon III. The following year, an ill-equipped Mexican militia of 4,500 defeated the larger, well-armed French army in what became known as the Battle of Puebla on the fifth of May. Though the victory was short-lived, it took on great significance for Mexican patriots.
Within a few years, the French withdrew, but new immigrant populations from Europe stayed in Mexico. Originally hailing from Austria, Germany and France, they represented the dominant beer-producing nations of Europe.
Today, like our own, the Mexican beer industry is dominated by two brewing behemoths: Grupo Modelo and FEMSA, which between them control 90 percent of the Mexican market. The light-bodied, sweetish beers of Mexico are familiar to American drinkers: Corona toppled the Netherlands' Heineken as the No. 1 import beer in the United States in 1997. Corona has its competitors in Sol, Pacífico, Victoria, Carta Blanca and others—all of them variations on a similar, light lager theme.
There are other Old World lager styles available from Mexico's brewers. Dos Equis is an example of the amber, malt-accented lager style called Vienna. Its growing popularity in the U.S. has less to do with either Austrian or Latino culture, though, and more to do with "The World's Most Interesting Man," a classy series of ads that offer a clever departure from girls-and-sports clichés.
Another Vienna-style lager that can stand on its own merits is the more assertive Negra Modelo. Oddly, the Modelo company now calls it a Munich dunkel, a darker style than Vienna: regardless, this chocolatey brew is one of the best companions to Mexican food that you're likely to find in restaurants.
Given the variety and depth of traditional Mexican cuisine—the spice mixtures, the moles and salsas, the local fruits and fresh chilis—one would think this would be a culture ripe for more experimental and flavorful beer. That day may come, but for now, the association of Mexican craft brewers—or cerveza artisanal—boasts only 16 members. Small brewers struggle with high costs, a naïve consumer base and a market made near-impenetrable by the big brewers.
Some Mexican craft brewers see their most promising market in the U.S., where an established interest in specialty beer, greater disposable income and a pool of middle-class consumers with family ties in Mexico might spell success. Several companies have tried the brew-in-Mexico-sell-in-the-States formula, the latest being Cerveza Cucapà from Baja California; beer names like Green Card and Lowrider reinforce the impression that their audience is here.
Cucapà styles itself "the best-rated Mexican craft beer." That may be premature, but the brewery has cleverly specialized in brewing ales, which are rare in Mexico, and incorporating unique Mexican ingredients, which are plentiful. Thus, La Migra Winter Imperial Stout is brewed with four sorts of Oaxacan chocolate; Runaway IPA blends in tangerine, lemon, grapefruit and lime; a barleywine is aged five months in tequila barrels; and their strong red ale incorporates piloncillo, a creamy, unrefined sugar.
Cinco de Mayo echoes Mexico's history as a land where Old and New World cultures met, clashed and mingled, and it should give rise to beer that matches that vibrant background. Imagine, say, a cool dark beer, sweetened with agave, lightened with corn, flavored with bitter chocolate and spiked with chipotle. Wouldn't that make an exciting alternative to a bottle of lager with a lime slice in the neck?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dame una cerveza."