Mexicans have been brewing beer for centuries and today Mexico is one of the world’s top beer-producing countries.
A large range and variety of beers are brewed in Mexico, and some of them are top selling beers in markets other than Mexico, including the USA, Canada, Europe and Australasia.
This guide shares insights into the story of the Mexican beer industry and and introduces you to all of Mexico’s contemporary beer products from the country’s two main brewers.
Even before the Europeans arrived, ancient civilizations had been fermenting plants and corn grains to produce alcoholic beverages in Mexico. Pulque, still sold today, is made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant and creates a thick, milky, and quite potent mixture. In Aztec times, the drink was sacred and taken only by the elite. Following the Spanish conquest, pulque became a secularized beverage and its consumption expanded.
The Spaniards were the first to introduce barley and wheat based beers to Mexico although production was limited in the early days, in part due to the lack of available grains. The first official concession to brew European-style beers was issued by the Spanish authorities in the middle of the 16th century; however, despite the brewers’ attempts to expand the business by growing more crops locally to increase the supply of barley at a lower price, heavy regulation and very high taxation imposed by Spain on locally-produced beers and wines (thus forcing Mexicans to buy imported beverages from European traders) stymied the industry’s growth.
The Rise of Mexican Beer Production
After Mexico’s War of Independence, and the absence of European regulation and taxes, beer production began to flourish in Mexico. In the latter part of the 19th century, an influx of German immigrants brought additional knowledge and expertise to the field which caused the local market to diversify and improve its products. By the early 20th century, beer had become big business in Mexico, helped also by prohibition in the United States, which gave rise to a brisk and profitable trade of beer and other alcoholic beverages along Mexico’s border towns and cities.
By the time the Mexican Revolution was over, there were more than thirty-five breweries operating in Mexico. Consolidation of the industry began in the early 1920’s and kick-started a process that brought about the beer market we see today. During the consolidation, smaller breweries were absorbed into the one of the “big-two” breweries, Grupo Modelo or Cerveceria Cuautehmoc-Moctezuma, which emerged as the dominant players of the Mexican beer market. Successful beers were mass produced and distributed regionally or nationally, and less successful beers disappeared from the market altogether. Smaller breweries that were not bought-out were forced to close as they could not compete with the efficiencies of scale brought about through consolidation.
The “Big Two” Beer Breweries in Mexico
The “big two” corporations managing the Mexican market today are Cerveceria Modelo (Grupo Modelo) and Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma (FEMSA). Between them, they supply over 90% of all beer in Mexico and, in 2003, Mexico overtook the Netherlands as world leader in total beer production, helped by massive growth in exports to the neighboring U.S. beverage markets.
Today, domestic sales of beer total some 6 billion U.S. dollars; exports account for some 1.2 billion U.S. dollars. The major brewers operate seventeen brewing plants in eleven states and support over ninety barley-producing centers across the country. They also run and manage one of the country’s most extensive and sophisticated retail distribution networks, which deliver their branded beers nation-wide—even to remotely located small towns and villages. More than 90,000 people in Mexico are employed directly by the big brewers and a further 800,000 indirectly.
Micro breweries in Mexico
Small, independent micro brewers are not very common in Mexico, and nowhere near as proliferate as they are in places like the U.S. and Europe, where small-scale, often regional, breweries are carving out lucrative niches. However, some micro brewers do trade in Mexico including Cerveceria San Angel and Cerveceria Santa Fe Beer Factory in Mexico City, Pepe and Joe’s in Mazatlan and Beer Lounge in Guadalajara. These micro brewers tend to produce ales instead of lagers and pilsners preferred by the big-two. Better quality local bars and bistros in Mexico are also beginning to stock local and artisan ales which is helping the micro-breweries to get known and noticed.
The majority of beers in Mexico are lagers, pilsners, Vienna-style light and dark beers, as well as Munich dark beers. Local micro breweries produce a small range of ales—your best chance of tasting the local ales is to visit a decent bar or bistro.
Beers produced by the major breweries sold in Mexico are either available nationally or regionally. Over 90% of the beers sold in Mexico are produced by the “big two” brewers, and a description of their principal products and brands is summarized below.
Corona Extra is a light lager pilsner beer and is the top-selling Mexican beer abroad, currently exported to 159 counties. It is the largest selling non-domestic beer in the U.S. and the U.K. This light, lager beer has a very mild flavor, coupled with touch of hop bitterness. Some 4.5 billion liters of Corona are produced each year.
Corona Light was introduced in 1989 and is Grupo Modelo’s first low calorie beer. The brewer asserts that the beverage maintains its traditional taste but has 30% less calories than Corona Extra.
Negra Modelo is popularly known in Mexico as the “cream of the beers” and is a dark beer, very smooth and described as a “Munich-dunkel (dark)” type beer by the brewer. This was one Modelo’s original beers, and when launched sold only on draft; today, very little beer is sold on draft in Mexico and Negra Modelo is now available nation-wide in bottles.
Modelo Especial was the first brand produced by the Modelo brewer in 1925 and remains a firm favorite with Mexican consumers (second best selling beer). Modelo Especial is a lager beer (described as a Pilsner lager by the brewer) but has a slightly richer and fuller taste than Corona. A lower calorie ‘light’ version was launched in 1994.
Victoria is described as a Pilsner-Vienna type beer. This fine brew has been in production since 1865, and in 1935 the brand was brought under the wing of the Modelo group from the original brewer, Cerveceria Toluca y Mexico. The beer has a unique amber color and is a remarkable and very tasty blend of a light pilsner and a dark beer.
Leon and Montejo beers were originally brewed in Merida, Yucatan. Leon has been in production for over a hundred years; Montejo has been in production since 1960. Leon is a Munich, dark amber, and full-bodied beer, whereas Montejo is a pilsner with a light taste and aroma. Originally available only in the Yucatan region of Mexico, the brewer was taken over by Modelo in the late 1970’s and these two beers are now available across most regions of Mexico.
Pacifico This light refreshing pilsner type beer was originally brewed in Mazatlan and is Grupo Modelo’s leading brand in the north-eastern region of Mexico. It has also been exported to the U.S. since 1985. A “light” version of this beer was launched in 2008.
Barrilito which literally means “little barrel” is a light beer. Barrilito’s refreshing taste and aroma put it in the pilsner category.
Sol is a light, tasty, lager beer. Originally produced for the working classes, recent marketing studies showed that young people identified with the brand so Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc re-launched the product in 1993 after a long hiatus. Today Sol is also exported to Asia, Europe and South America.
Tecate was originally brewed in the state of Baja California, at a brewery in the town of Tecate. In 1954, Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc took over the regional brewer and made this medium lager with a sharp, strong taste available nationwide. Tecate was the first beer to be sold in cans in Mexico and won gold medals in Geneva, Paris and Madrid. The brand can often be seen promoted at major sporting events here, making it one of the most well-recognized beer brands in Mexico.
Tecate Light, a low-calorie version of Tecate, made its debut in 1992 and was the first low-calorie beer to be introduced to the Mexican market. The brewer asserts that the beverage asserts the traditional Tecate flavor but with fewer calories.
Ambar Dos Equis (XX), and Dos Equis (XX) the Ambar version was first produced by a German brewer in 1897, and marketed under the name ‘Siglo XX’, in commemoration of the new (20th) century. Originally a vienna-style dark beer, XX was Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc’s best-selling brand throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. Today, it is the best selling non-domestic dark beer in the U.S. and in 1996 XX was awarded Gold Prize in the “European Style Pilsner” category at the World Beer Cup. Dos Equis (XX) is a light lager beer, based on the ambar version, and is very popular in Mexico and the United States.
Bohemia competes with Modelo Especial and is a light, rich lager beer. It is one of Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc’s (and Mexico’s) oldest brands and has won international recognition as one of the world’s finest beers. Bohemia imparts a significant hops flavor and, notwithstanding its clarity, is quite a dense beer. The brewer also launched a dark version of this beer Bohemia Obscura. In 2009, Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc introduced Bohemia Weizen, a version of this beer made using wheat, Mount Hood hops, coriander and orange peel and has the distinction of being the first wheat-based beer to be produced by a major brewery in Mexico.
Noche Buena If you are in Mexico between October and December, look out for this beer that is only sold during the festive season. Translated it means “Christmas Eve” and is a dark, rich beer with a strong flavor. Many people who know this beer look forward to its seasonal availability each year.
Indio is a smooth, dark, beer that has been produced since 1905. Its original name was Cuauhtemoc (after the Aztec Emperor) but customers would ask for the beer “with the Indian” so the brewery changed the name to Indio, and it retains the same image on the label. The brewer asserts that this beer’s popularity is due to it being refreshing in warm weather and warming in cooler climates; ideal, then, for Mexico’s varied climate types.
Sol 2 was launched in 2007 and is a medium bodied light beer with a stronger taste than its cousin, Sol. The bottle’s design and images were chosen by consumers throughout the country, after a campaign undertaken by the brewery.
Sol Cero is the first non-alcoholic beer produced in Mexico. The brewer asserts that the beverage maintains its flavor but with less carbohydrates and no alcohol.
Sol Limon y Sal is produced for those who enjoy drinking beer with lime juice and salt and this pre-prepared Sol version of the beer comes “ready mixed” with those ingredients.
Sol Cero Limon y Sal This is the non-alcoholic version of the Sol Limon y Sal.
Superior is a light beer that has been a favorite among Mexican beer drinkers for over fifty years and, as the name suggests, was brewed as a premium product. The brew is making something of comeback after some long while in relative obscurity; helped perhaps by its golden medal at Le Monde Selection in Brussels, Belgium.
Carta Blanca technically a pilsner beer, is one of Mexico’s oldest beer brands, that was first brewed by Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc in 1890. It has won several international awards for its taste and quality.
A michelada is a beer mixed with lime juice, or lime juice and spicy sauces like Worcester sauce, picante sauce, or soy sauce (or a mixture of these). The name is derived from the Mexican slang for beer, ‘chelada‘, so michelada translated to mi-chela-helada, meaning “my cold beer”.
If you ask for a michelada you’ll get an iced glass with salt around the rim, at the base of which will be lime juice alone, or lime juice and a selection of sauces. Regional variations exist in the precise wording but, generally speaking, if you ask for a michelada, you’ll get a salt-rimmed glass with just lime juice; if you ask for michelada preparada, you’ll get a salt-rimmed glass with the lime juice and the sauces. In either event, your beer bottle will be brought to the table separately, giving you an opportunity to check the contents of the glass and change your mind before the precious nectar is introduced to the glass.