The Spaniards were the first to brew beers in Mexico using barley and wheat, 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 high taxation imposed by Spain on locally-produced beers and wines stymied the industry’s growth.
After Mexico’s war of independence, beer production began to flourish in Mexico, and during 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 turn of the 20th century, beer had become big business in Mexico, helped also by prohibition in the United States at that time, which gave rise to a brisk and profitable trade of beer and other alcoholic beverages along Mexico’s border towns and cities.
By the end of the Mexican Revolution, there were more than thirty-five breweries operating in Mexico, and a period of consolidation that began in the 1920s brought about the beer market we see here today: independent breweries were absorbed into one of the “big-two” breweries, Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuautehmoc-Moctezuma, which emerged as the dominant players of the Mexican beer market.
Successful beers produced by the acquired regional breweries were mass-produced and distributed 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 economies-of-scale brought about through consolidation.
The two big Mexican breweries, which by the turn of the 21st century controlled over 90% of the Mexican beer market, were subsequently acquired by international conglomerates. Cerveceria Cuautehmoc-Moctezuma, whose brands include Sol, Bohemia, Tecate, and Carta Blanca, was sold to Heineken in 2010; Grupo Modelo, which sells Corona, Modelo, and Pacifico brands among others, was acquired by Anheuser-Busch in 2013. Mexican Corona beer is a light lager sold world-wide and has become an iconic brand. Other, darker and craft Mexican beers can sometimes be found in the premium brews section of higher-end supermarkets and trendy restaurants across the US, Canada and Europe.
The colossal marketing budgets and the extensive distribution networks controlled by these two breweries ensure that their big-brand names are placed at the forefront of buyers’ choices across the country. However, changing consumer habits are fueling a boom in artisanal beer across Mexico, and independent brewers have been making a noticeable comeback recently with small-batch craft beer and ale labels appearing regionally in local stores, restaurants, and bars.
The majority of beers sold in Mexico today are lagers, pilsners, Vienna-style light and dark beers, as well as Munich dark beers. Beer in Mexico is served cold, or taken as a Michelada: beer with lime juice, or lime juice mixed with a variety of spicy sauces like Worcester, Tabasco, and soy.
The beverage is still regularly supplied using returnable bottles, although recyclable cans and bottles are becoming increasingly common. If you are visiting Mexico and purchase beer from a local store, choose the cans or recyclable bottles with the words “No Retornable” printed on the label, which don’t require a deposit and can be recycled after use.
When you’re living in Mexico, it’s worth building up a small stock of returnable bottles which you can take back to the store when you want refills. Over time, if you build-up a good rapport with your local independent shopkeeper, they might waive the deposit if you’re passing-by or forget to take your returnables on that occasion.
Most Mexican beer bottle sizes are 325ml, although some brands of beer are also available in larger 925ml, 940ml and full 1-liter sizes.
In Mexican slang Spanish, the larger bottles are called caguamas (sea turtles) or if you’re in north-eastern Mexico you might hear them referred to as ballenas (whales); in Mazatlan, ballenas refer specifically to the Pacifico brand of beer sold in the larger-sized bottles.
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