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Crisp, refreshing Mexican lagers are finally getting their due

Jessica Fierro, owner of Atrevida Beer Co. in Colorado Springs. (Chet Strange for The Washington Post)

Beyond a dusty dirt lot, just off bustling Nevada Avenue in Colorado Springs, Jessica Fierro orchestrates a brew day inside Atrevida Beer Co.

Owner of the first Latinx-owned brewery in Colorado, Fierro pours in flaked maize, a staple ingredient in many Mexican lagers, and arguably the most important component of her award-winning Dolores Huerta Mexican Lager. The malted corn adds a slightly sweet smoothness to the crisp, refreshing, golden-hued lager, which she named after the legendary labor leader known for co-founding what became the United Farm Workers union.

“That’s important to me,” Fierro, a proud product of a Mexican American household, said of her use of flaked maize. “I really want to be able to put out a product that resonates with my culture in a very real way.”

Even the most casual drinkers have experienced the sweet, light, easy-drinking taste that Corona and Pacifico mass produce, but craft brewers have taken that flavor to the next level, re-creating the clean, crisp finish while adding flavorful malts and a variety of earthy hops.

That refreshing taste of Mexican lagers — and some well-executed marketing — has turned something that craft beer aficionados once scoffed at into one of America’s best-selling beer styles. In 2020, U.S. imported beer sales totaled $8.7 billion, according to Chicago-based Information Resources. Of the best-selling brands, four of the top six were Mexican macro lagers, led by $2.9 billion in sales of Modelo, owned by industry giant Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Despite their growing popularity, Mexican lagers still fuel a divide within the craft beer community. It’s not so much the taste — Modelo and Corona (another AB InBev brand) have frequented the Top 10 list of America’s beer sales for more than a decade — but the style itself.

One taproom regular might call the products distributed by Mexican macro breweries authentic Mexican lagers, but the next may claim that the low-ABV golden beers imported from south of the border are really European-style lagers and Pilseners that just happen to be brewed in Mexico.

The discrepancy stems from Mexico’s brewing origins. After the Mexican War of Independence ended in 1821, German and Austrian immigrants began settling in what is today Mexico and Texas. Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc, founded in 1890, was Mexico’s first large-scale brewer, producing Czech-style Bohemian Pilseners. Soon after, Wilhelm Hasse, a German-born brewer, created Siglo XX, now known as Dos Equis. Mexican brewers never strayed far from those traditional recipes.

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The differences between a classic European lager and a Mexican lager are slight, and the use of flaked maize doesn’t necessarily make a lager Mexican. The styles are so similar that the Great American Beer Festival doesn’t have a Mexican lager category, but the style is making its presence felt nevertheless. In 2021, all three medalists in the “International Lager” category were Mexican lagers, including Rip Van Winkle Brewing’s Uncle Tito Mexican Lager. The previous year, Kern River Brewing took silver in the International Pilsener category with its Mexican-style lager, Rioveza.

Still, when Atrevida opened its doors in 2018, Fierro refused to be pigeonholed as a Latina who only brewed Mexican lagers and chile beers. Her beer board was filled with quality German-, Belgian- and American-style beers for the first year. Only after the brewery’s first anniversary did she let the Latin flavors fly.

Then there are the beers that at first glance appear to be as authentically Mexican as the macro juggernauts — featuring Spanish names, jaguars, parrots and even Aztec headdresses — but on closer inspection are anything but.

“They were not created by Latinos, or Mexicans or Mexican Americans, yet they’re pulling heavily from our culture to build out their brand, their look, their design and their name to market back to us,” said Norwalk Brew House owner Ray Ricky Rivera, co-founder of the SoCal Cerveceros home-brew club and the SCC Distribution Network in Southern California. “They’re not authentic, and it drives me nuts.

“I love seeing brown faces and brown names in craft beer and on craft products when it’s genuine. I’m less excited about the person who sees an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of craft beer.”

Fierro said she has no problem with companies selling Mexican-style lagers, but she does take issue when they don’t “give credit to the culture.”

“Any time I make a Belgian beer, I do attach the word ‘style’ to it, because it’s not a true Belgian,” Fierro said. “It’s my interpretation of what a Belgian beer is.”

The design team behind Trejo’s Cerveza — named after Hollywood star and Mexican tough guy Danny Trejo — opted for the words “Mexican Craft Lager” on its beer, which is brewed by Lincoln Beer Company in Burbank, Calif.

“[Trejo’s] team just showed up and said, ‘We have this beer and we want you to brew it,’ ” said Lincoln owner and brewer Patrick Dunn, who said his appreciation for the style has grown since his team started brewing Trejo’s Cerveza in January 2019. “It was actually kind of nice. They diversified our menu.”

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Dunn, who includes Rahr premium Pilsener and toasted rice in his version’s wort (malt extract and water), said he tries to stay true to the style drinkers have come to enjoy in the transparent bottles of Mexican macro lagers. Customers chugged about 600 beer barrels (BBL) that first year. The brewery upped production to more than 2,000 BBL since the start of 2020 by contract brewing through Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin and Mission Brewery in San Diego. Trejo’s Cerveza is now distributed in five states.

Dunn takes pride in brewing true to the style, and he doesn’t claim to be Mexican in person, on cans or in ad campaigns.

“We’re kind of in a Mexican lager boom right now,” he said. “In anything, there’s money grabs. I don’t roll that way, and I personally don’t understand it. You have to be authentic.”

While the latest batch of Dolores Huerta sits in lagering phase, Fierro can’t help but think of the irony within the craft beer community: An industry that celebrates a variety of handcrafted beers from around the world is lacking in diversity.

“While the beer is highly regarded, the appreciation for the cultural history and people behind it seems to be an afterthought,” Fierro said.

Through brewing Dolores Huerta, Fierro has started converting local hop heads and ABV chasers into Mexican lager drinkers, and she hopes that common ground leads to more inclusivity and diversity in the industry.

“When I make a beer that’s craveable and you’re out in the heat thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have to get a Dolores Huerta,’ That’s where that sweet spot lives for me,” she said.

As the summers get hotter and the cold beers get clearer, think of the liquid gold flowing from the Mexican lager tap handles at local microbreweries. Here’s a pro tip: Skip the lime.

“A real Mexican lager doesn’t need a lime,” Fierro said.


A previous version of this story contained a photo caption that misidentified a worker at Lincoln Beer Company.

Jonathan Andrade is a journalist covering sports and beer, based in California’s San Fernando Valley.