The Cerveza Report
A Complete Rundown on Mexican Beer
In most Latin America countries, the beer is a letdown. One or two brands usually dominate the market and they generally present minor variations on a similar taste profile.
Mexico is an exception to the rule, with a long history of quality beer at good prices, with a wide array of choices. Early inhabitants of the region made a variety of fermented drinks from the agave cactus and corn, but Europeans introduced beer from the homeland as they arrived. Some Mexican brands have surprisingly long histories of a century or more, thanks to German and Swiss brewers that established companies in the 1800s. In a footnote of Mexican history, the Austrian emperor Maximilian ruled much of the country for a brief four years. Left behind were recipes for darker beers, the precursors to Negra Modelo, Bohemia Obscura, and Dos Equis Ambar today.
There are reportedly a few microbrews in Mexico, but only once have I seen any of these beers for sale anywhere. This probably has more than a little to do with the fact the entire beer market is tightly controlled by just two powerful companies: FEMSA and Grupo Modelo. (Imagine if the only beers available anywhere in the entire U.S. came from Budweiser or Miller.) Thankfully the Mexican producers haven’t taken the easy way out and just produced a line of bland, indistinguishable beers. Even the average brands are better than the mass market yellow fizzy water you get in the U.S. from the big boys and the good ones are really great.
Buying Beer in Mexico
Beer is widely available in stores, bars, and restaurants in Mexico, with few of the silly restrictions you find north of the border. The drinking age is the age of adulthood—18.
If you buy non-returnable bottles, you can be 99% sure they will just end up in a landfill or on the side of a road. Cans have a slightly better chance of being recycled, especially in tourist areas, but Mexico is far behind the curve with reusing materials. The best bet is to buy returnables. Returnable bottles require a deposit, which you will get back when you return them to the same store—keep your receipt! Or you just trade them in anywhere when buying new bottles and keep the chain going until it’s time to leave.
In bars and restaurants you will find a “chelada” and “michelada” on the menu by the beer. The first is usually a beer glass rimmed with salt, filled with ice, and coming with a plate of cut lime or lime juice in the glass. A michelada is usually the same but with some kind of Bloody Mary kind of hot sauce and maybe some Worstershire sauce or Clamato. If you only see “chelada” on the menu, then it probably comes with hot sauce. Ask if that’s not your thing. You can usually pick which beer goes in it, but with all the salt and hot sauce taking over, it doesn’t much matter.
Expect to pay 6 to 12 pesos for a 12-ounce beer in a convenience store (50 cents to $1 U.S.), anywhere from 12 to 30 pesos in a bar or restaurant depending on how fancy it is and whether it’s a tourist trap. In many cases a beer will be about the same price as juice or bottled water and in the Yucatan you will get complimentary botanas snacks—all the more reason to order a beer!
Mexican Beer Brands
Here is a complete rundown of Mexican beers, from the stellar ones to those best left on the shelf. Unless indicated otherwise, the alcohol percentage is 4.5%.
The Standouts—All With 5.3% Alcohol
Bohemia—For real beer lovers, Bohemia is the clear winner. The most common one, with gold foil on the top, is an unabashedly European lager with far more complexity than the competition. There is also a tasty dark “obscura” version (with silver foil) that resembles a bock beer. Occasionally you’ll find a 5.7% Bohemia Weizen wheat beer, but it’s rare.
In bars and restaurants, Bohemia will often be the most expensive beer, but only by a few pesos, so it’s worth the upgrade. Expect to pay 10-12 pesos a bottle (a dollar or less) in convenience stores. The main drawback of Bohemia is that it isn’t available in returnable bottles, so drinking this is not helping Mexico’s mounting garbage problem.
Negra Modelo—The other true premium beer, this fine malty brew is familiar to many Americans as it’s a staple in Mexican restaurants. It’s a dark beer that goes well with spicy and hearty Mexican food and is interesting on its own—no lime required.
Other Dark Lagers and Amber Beers
DosXX Amber—This is another restaurant staple in the U.S. It has a more intense flavor than the norm and is a refreshing change from the sea of lighter beers, going well with hearty food.
Leon—Looks are deceiving with Leon, a beer that looks darker and maltier than it really is. It is a wimpier version of Negra Modelo, but is the only dark beer that is widely available in large returnable bottles—reason enough to have it on your list.
Victoria—This is a popular choice for those who want to drink a couple beers without getting buzzed as its only 4% alcohol. It’s surprisingly flavorful though and is widely available in small and large returnable bottles. Not available outside Mexico.
Modelo—This sister beer to Negra Modelo is touted as a premium beer and comes with a neck wrapped in silver foil in bottles, but in reality most people wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from most others in a taste test. It has a little more body and heavier finish than the Corona class though and also comes in cans.
DosXX Lager—The Rolling Rock of Mexico, in a green bottle with a strangely sweet taste. Available in cans as well.
Carta Blanca and Estrella—These two similar-tasting brands used to be quite common, but seem to be fading away into obscurity. Neither is a standout, but perfectly drinkable.
Pale Yellow Lagers—all 4.5% alcohol
Corona—This is reportedly the best-selling import beer in the world, but it usually tastes better in Mexico, where the bottles don’t have so much time in transit and on shelves. (Sunlight coming through clear bottles is never a good thing for beer.) This is the typical “drink all afternoon” beer, working well on its own or with a plate of tacos. Refreshing with a lime.
Sol—While Corona wins the marketing wars in the U.S., Sol is the winning brand in Mexico. You see the logo plastered everywhere and it’s seemingly on every restaurant and bar menu. Like Corona, it’s simple and inoffensive, but still more flavorful than your typical American macrobrew. At its best cold, and progressively worse as it gets warmer.
Montejo—Named after the Spaniard who conquered the Yucatan and left a trail of blood in his wake. Less dramatic than its name would suggest, but a nice change of pace.
Superior—Very similar in taste to Montejo and available in big returnable bottles or cans.
Pacifico—A bit more bitter and hefty than Corona, Montejo, or Sol, many beer drinkers view this as the best of the light lagers and it is especially popular in the western half of the country.
A Step Down
Tecate—Sold mostly in cans, this is a “load up the cooler” kind of beer that is nothing to get excited about. If you are staying at a low-end all-inclusive resort, this is what they will probably be serving.
Corona Especial—There’s nothing “especial” about this cheaper beer and it bears little resemblance to the regular Corona. Available in big quart bottles only for when quantity is more important than quality.
Tecate Light—Billed by a friend who lived in Mexico for a year as “the worst beer I have ever tasted,” this is one to avoid at all costs unless you are on a crash diet. It’s as bad as Coors Light, which is saying a lot. Has 3.9% alcohol.
Modelo Light—Almost as bad as Tecate Light, but not quite, with 3.7% alcohol.
Indio—A beer designed to appear to people who can barely afford beer, the poor peasants who are probably of “Indio” blood themselves. Made with cheaper ingredients and it shows.
Pre-mixed combinations—You can buy beer in the supermarkets of Mexico that is mixed with salt, lime, hot sauce, or some other chemical concoction. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.