“It still bears repeating: these are still just mild beers intended mostly for refreshment during hot weather…and it’s at this nexus that I get on board.”
Let’s be real, for a moment…
Mexican lagers, in general, are crap beers. I hear people, fresh back from their trip to Cabo or Puerto Vallarta or Cozumel or one of the less-famous Mexican resort towns, seriously comparing the relative virtues of Modelo vs. Corona vs. Indio vs. Victoria vs. Pacifico and it just…makes me tired. I remember similar conversations I sat through, patiently, years ago in Greensboro, before there were Indie breweries, when friends of mine were debating Bud and Bud Light, Miller vs. Coors, Pabst and Keystone. I rarely said anything but I can vividly remember thinking, “This is like comparing Tap Waters of Many Places“, because whatever differences actually were present in those beers were usually the result of the person’s memories that attach to them, rather than anything significant in the bottle.
North American adjunct Pilsners and cheap lagers are all basically the same. Oh, sure, that fabled Miller skunkiness – the result of packaging the beers in clear bottles – sets it apart a tiny bit from Budweasel, whose only virtue can best be expressed as “It’s not Miller!“, and from Pabst, which is sweet enough to be used as an ice cream topping. But, the differences are all on the order of “Who gives a shit?” and are the sole province of people who like to pretend that any of those beers is a serious attempt to express the craft of brewing. In fact, ALL those beers are the product of habit: the 100 year attempt to use Anheuser Busch’s original, dumbed-down bastardization of the great Czech and German lagers – ruined totally by Adolphus Busch’s deliberate attempt to crank out beer that was dirt cheap because, as he told his brewers, “Americans don’t know anything about beer, anyway. This will be good enough for them.” As Americans, the only plausible excuses we have for 120 years of drinking watery pablum beer are inertia and ignorance.
At very least, the Mexicans have better excuses.
No one should blame Mexico for adopting its LONG history of Nothin’ But Lagers. Because Mexico is far hotter than the US and has far less of an agricultural bounty from which to source ingredients, and, because so much of Mexico is so desperately poor, their breweries could not indulge themselves in brewing artsy or experimental beers. They made the beers that their native grains and hops and their own native yeasts allowed them to make and, while I have zero affinity for Mexican lagers, I have infinite respect for those who make them. They’re not cynical, as a rule. They’re trying…they just don’t have a lot to work with.
The basic reality behind Mexican-style lagers is that the grain bill includes corn, which American brewers really don’t use very often. American “Pre-Prohibition Lagers” were made with corn in the grain bill and those have made a come-back, too, after decades of being almost forgotten. Mexican lagers generally use their native corn, maize, in a flaked version, which cuts back some of the mammoth sweetness of the style and gives the beer an earthy, weighty character that is missing in all those dozens of LCD Yanqui adjunct Pilsners. Whatever else I may say, here, about South of The Border lagers, let me just make this clear: ANY of those beers are, IMO, far more enjoyable to drink than our insipid, watery traditional “beers”.
I’ve now tasted about 18 of our American-made versions of the Mexican lager and, for purposes of brevity (and, frankly, because maybe nine of ’em were just as crappy as Pacifico), I’m naming my three favorites only. There will, I’m sure, be plenty of spirited debate about our Indie-brewed Mexican-style beers, in bars everywhere, for years to come. But it still bears repeating: these are still just mild beers intended mostly for refreshment during hot weather…and it’s at this nexus that I get on board. During a recent trip to Cabo, I refused to drink beer for a whole week, father than drink Mexican lagers, which was ALL I could find. But, about two days before coming home, I hit the wall. Scotch is lovely but I was in MEXICO, it was HOT, and I wanted a fuc***g beer, NOW! I drank three Modelo Especials. It was exactly like drinking weak grain tea with the faintest rumor of hops. But it did the trick. In that restaurant, eating that food, the icy cold Modelo made sense. It was NOT awful. And these three beers below are very much not awful. In fact, given the right setting – patio, baseball game, picnic, pig-pickin’, river float, a Republican cocktail party, (might really want the Scotch, then, and lots of it, FAST), they’re just damned enjoyable.
The first comes from a Colorado brewery that flies waaay under the average American beer geek’s radar, mainly because it’s located in Durango, which is near…well, nothing, really. Durango – yes, the same one you know about from all those westerns – is a very cool little city in the southwest corner of CO, down near where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah converge. It’s a town that I, alas, will never see, unless I find myself, inexplicably, in Farmington, New Mexico, (a kidnapping/release after ransom is the likeliest scenario) and drive north, fleeing. Coming from the north, which is far more likely, given my family in Denver, is totally out, as Colorado Route 550 features one of the most terrifying, fabled stretches of highway on the planet, the horrific Red Mountain Pass. I planned to include a photo, here, to illustrate what spooks me so badly but I can’t even look at it without my prostate clenching up like a bad transmission, so…google Red Mountain Pass and hold onto something.
So let’s say that you’ve driven up from Farmington and you’re parched. Where to go?
Ska Brewing, that’s where. Ska is a fantastic brewery. Fan-tas-tic, PERIOD. I don’t drink it, hardly ever, because Ska is not distributed here in Seattle/Tacoma, (this is direct HINT) so I lap it up like a dehydrated dawg whenever I’m in Denver. Ska makes one of America’s truly great, criminally underappreciated IPAs, the magnificent “Modous Hoperandi”. They make “Ten Pin” Imperial Porter, one of my Top Five Porters, and now, “Mexican Logger”, a joyous, fat-bottomed lager that gets its kicks from Saaz hops and quite a few of ’em. If it’s not strictly according to the Mexican template, who cares? This is a beer that does incorporate the corn element and is every bit as refreshing and quite a LOT more satisfying than your Coronas and Pacificos and Modelos.
The flavors? Well, clean notes of subtle lemon, sugar cookie, lime leaf, and grass, wrapped around that stately Saaz bite, with a bit of intriguing spice on the finish. No, this is NOT a beer you have to – or even could – sit around and critically analyze but that’s not what these beers are all about. These are light, fun, cooling-off beers and “Mexican Logger” – as the website says, is “just the thing, after a long day of chainsaw work“. 91 Points
With their workingman’s ethic and cool retro comic-book vibe, Ska is bustin’ stuff up in the Mountain Time Zone and their beers are ones I seek out avidly, whenever I travel.
If you live near Ska and can glom onto some of this, I have two things to say: “Lucky bastard!” and “Be Cool!”
Hood River, Oregon’s, titanic brewery eminence gris, Full Sail, started their line of Session lagers about eleven years ago, with two beers: Session Lager and Session Black Lager. They were an instant success, with people who wanted Indie Beer cred and with people who just want perfectly made, low-alcohol lagers at a price that even undercuts Budweasel. The line has since expanded and now includes ales, too, and, most recently, a Mexican-style lager that is SO flippin’ authentic that I originally mistook that package and label for some new Mexican brand. “Sesión Cerveza” is so authentically Mexican that, on my first sip, I thought maybe Full Sail – which has more than a few people with, uh, playful senses of humor behind its doors – had repackaged a real Mexican lager, maybe in partnership with an obscure Mexican cerveceria. Turns out, this new lager is made right there in Hood River, by American kids who have obviously imbibed quite a bit of the Mexican originals, to produce something this spot-on, dead-ringer perfect.
If you have any history with Mexican lagers, you know that they frequently taste a little bit imbalanced. The fat corn notes can dominate the front end and there are usually a few notes that maybe the beer could do without. They’re sometimes a bit earthy and show their origins in that arid, sweltering climate. In this, those descriptions definitely apply, except for the off-notes. But atop all that blazing authenticity rests a clean, crisp dryness and some egdy hops resins that give this beer a tangy, evergreenish bite and lovely, subtle bitterness.
The beer comes in well under the 5% ceiling that, apparently, constitutes a “session” beer, these days. ART just 4.5% ABV, Sesión packs MASSIVE flavor into its tiny framework, delivering that meaty maize character by the shovelful and still staying perfectly crisp and lemony good. Thre corn sweetness is dragged back a bit by a gorgeous hops profile that lets Sesión finish clean and immaculately crisp.
I was sent samples of this at least two months ago and deliberately waited for our fabulously balky Northwest weather to even begin to turn warm, so that this fine stuff would not be wasted on Helly-Hansen-clad, shivering beer geeks, clustered around their space heaters. Now, with at least the intermittent promise of sunshine, it’s Sesión Time, PNW beer wretches! Let those slug-white legs start getting some sun, bust out the patio umbrellas, and have a near-perfect Mexican-style lager, made by a tree-hugger near you! 92 Points
In a fit of what can only be described as heart-wrenching humility, my friend, Shaun O’Sullivan, co-owner of 21st Amendment Brewing, in San Francisco, CA, named his new Mexican-style lager, “El Sully” after…himself. This is like what this blog was ALMOST named: “Full BODYed”. Or, if Shaun’s partner, Nico Freccia, had come up with “Brew FREEcia or Die” for their celebrated IPA. (Which I wish he had) I don’t begrudge Shaun a bit on this. A proud California boy to his DNA, Shaun grew up drinking and appreciating those real MexiLagers and never condescended to them – as I, smarmy little beer snot from DC that I am – have habitually done, for decades. He just enjoyed them, in the CA heat, and maybe that’s the key to appreciating the style. Despite my sniffy attitude, there are, if you examine these beers closely enough, subtle differences, from brand to brand. They seem trivial to me, like carefully pairing up a drawer full of black socks, but they’re there, even to my palate.
So, when Shaun set out to make El Sully, it was because he loves those beers, not an attempt to cash in (though the beer is selling like handguns to pimps) but an honest homage to those clean, cooling summer lagers. I’ve actually reviewed El Sully before, in a post called “21st Amendment “El Sully”: The Unbearable Lightness of Brewing“. I didn’t even get samples from the brewery. I just walked the brilliant pub that just happens to be the closest beer bar to my house, the legendary Top Of Tacoma, and there it was on tap. I had one…then another one…and, later than evening another one from a can I picked up on the way back home. I DO NOT drink three beers in one day, EVER. I had three El Sully’s and wrote that review the next day.
I’m not going to repeat the entire review here. Click over and read it, if you want. But in doing this pre-summer pre-funk post, I could simply NOT write it without El Sully. So, let me paste this in here, from that original review:
“I found El Sully on tap, last week in Tacoma, at the brilliant Top of Tacoma, and got a fresh pint…WOW!! Gorgeous fruit notes atop silky, light, mellow Pale malts, embroidered sweetly with absolutely lovely floral/citrus hops that do not even try to take center stage. The IBU count is, in fact, a positively wimped-out 19 but it is a 19 IBU that gets the maximum out of its constituent hops, with a fine-grained whisper of resiny bitterness that can take a substantial chilling without disappearing.“
El Sully, of this three, is squarely in the middle in terms of authenticity and at the far end of smoothness and complexity. This, for all its lightness and uncomplicated appeal, is a little complex! Fleeting grace notes explode all over the palate and yet the finish is pure and clean and the refreshment quotient is off the charts. This is just a really great, Low-ABV lager that advances the Mexican Lager style, rather than just repeat its shortcomings. If you want to read this review to mean that I prefer El Sully to the other two, that’s true…today. On other days of the week and at other temperatures (it’s 58, right now, on a very sunny May 12, in the Seattle Metro and was hailing, about twenty minutes ago!) you’d think I like one of the others best…and you would be right. Happily, no one is forced to settle on any of these. Drink ’em all!
Compromise…it’s a beautiful thing, doncha think? 93 Points