Ask a modern American what Mexican beer means to them and they’ll reply not by explaining a flavor profile, but by describing a feeling. They’re beers for hot weather. Beers that go great with food. Beers that necessitate a lime. A cerveza you can drink a lot of.
But there’s a lot more to Mexican beer and brewing history than those simplifications.
What Is Mexican Beer?
As with many countries’ brews, Mexican beer was created and developed through an amalgam of cultures. Its history goes back quite a long way: Evidence suggests that Mesoamericans had already discovered fermented beverages before the 16th century, and, according to The Economics of Beer, the Aztecs made a sort of beer produced from sprouted kernels of maize.
The arrival of Hernán Cortés in 1519 and the ensuing Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, however, took beer in Central and South America in an entirely different direction. The first official European-style brewery was opened in New Spain by one of Cortés’ soldiers, Alfonso de Herrero, in the 1540s, probably in the what’s today south of Mexico City. It was heavily taxed (in favor of native intoxicants) and expensive to make, due to the lack of native wheat and barley. But it did give locals a taste for the stuff. As colonial restrictions waned, beer production and consumption began to rise.
By the latter portion of the 1800s, German immigrants had begun to immigrate to Mexico as part of a Second Mexican Empire, which was led by Austrian archduke Maximilian I of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. He brought with him his own brewer, who produced the sorts of Vienna-style lagers that no longer really exist in Austria today, but have become synonymous with a certain type of Mexican beer, most notably seen in the present courtesy of Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Ambar Especial.
A burgeoning railroad system allowed Mexicans to import brewing machinery and malt from the United States—as well as American beer, a new competitor to their homegrown stuff. Yet, by 1918, there were 36 beer producers in Mexico. The beginning of America’s Prohibition a couple years later would only help the Mexican beer industry, with many residents from the States crossing the border to drink.
As with the beer industry in many other countries, competition would lead to consolidation and closures. Cervecería Toluca became Cervecería Modelo in 1925 and start snapping up smaller breweries. Monterrey’s Cervecería Cuauhtémoc bought Tecate in 1954. By the second half of the 20th century, there were only two major brewers left, Grupo Modelo and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma.
Most brands Americans know today are owned by these two giants and, the Vienna-style lagers excepted, most all of these beers are extremely light Pilsners. Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (now a subsidiary of Heineken International) has Tecate, Sol, Dos Equis and Bohemia. Grupo Modelo offers Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, Victoria, Estrella and, of course, Corona. (Due to anti-trust legislation in 2013, Constellation Brands distributes Grupo Modelo in America.)
Corona was first imported to America in 1981 where it was seen as a luxury product..
“Corona-mania” ensued with Americans throwing back beer from so many silk-screened bottles that it led to a glass shortage. Corona became America’s number one imported beer in 1998, but by 2018 Modelo Especial had taken the crown.
Whatever the case, Mexican beer had become a dominant force. Today, Mexican beers account for 80% of all beer imported into America.
The Mexican Craft Beer Movement
The craft beer boom began in America in the early-1980s before spreading to Canada, South America, Europe and Asia, but it would take a bit longer for Mexico to capitalize on the trend.
Not only was it hard to produce an artisanal beer here—Mexico doesn’t grow its own hops, and its barley production is far less than what the U.S. and Canada grows—but there wasn’t exactly a Mexican consumer willing to pay five to six times the cost of a macro beer. The country’s Big Beer duopoly also made distribution virtually impossible for the small guys; Grupo Modelo and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma own the two biggest convenience store chains in the country, Extra and Oxxo.
The country’s earliest craft breweries and brewpubs like Sierra Madre Brewing, Cerveceria Minerva and Baja Brewing (owned by American expats no less) began to appear in Mexico at the start of the 21st century, but it wasn’t until around the mid-2010s that craft beer began to take off in Mexico, and only because the government had finally eased restrictions. Before then, bars had to pay up to $50,000 to serve beer, but they could get an interest-free loan if they signed a contract agreeing to carry the Big Beer brands exclusively. In 2013 the law was changed to allow bars to sell craft beer even if they’d previously signed an exclusivity contract.
Suddenly, craft breweries began to pop up like Cervecería Dos Aves, Cervecería Artisanal de Colima and countless others. Grupo Modelo would even acquire their first Mexican craft brewery, Cucapá, in 2015. Unlike the major players, these breweries produced ales.
Currently, RateBeer lists around 700 craft breweries in Mexico and the numbers continue to grow rapidly. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for an easy-drinking, light beer on a hot day, it’s hard to beat the country’s legendary lagers.
By now, you surely have a hankering for Mexican beer. Here some some of the best, according to experts including brewers, brewery founders, beer and travel writers, podcasters, marketers and sales directors.
The Best Mexican Beers
1. Modelo Especial
Not just the best-selling Mexican beer in America, it’s now dollar-wise the second best-selling beer overall in the entire country after Bud Light. The sessionable lager is as drinkable as Corona, but isn’t as watery; it still offers a crisp flavor and some texture on the body. That’s why even craft beer connoisseurs like Justin Kennedy, the producer of the popular Steal This Beer podcast, cite Modelo as their top offering from south of the border.
2. Corona Extra
It might not be the best-selling Mexican beer anymore, but Corona surely remains the most iconic. For many fans, like travel writer Ali Wunderman, it’s the platonic ideal for what a Mexican lager should taste like: light, crisp and crushable, with just a hint of skunkiness.
Even though it lays claim to being Mexica’s “first cerveza,” this Vienna-style lager first brewed in 1865 is not as ubiquitous in America as many other longstanding Mexican brews.
“Here in New York, they’re just a little harder to come by than some other similar options, which maybe makes them feel just a tiny bit more special or exciting,” says Courtney Iseman, a Brooklyn-based beer writer. This crisp, easy drinker always manages to transport her back to a leisurely boat ride she once took in Xochimilco.
This slightly grassy and citrusy lager is the go-to for LeAnn Darland, co-owner of Talea Beer Co. in Brooklyn. “It’s one of the most balanced Mexican lagers and was my go-to on beach days in San Diego,” she says, citing how refreshing and crisp it is while still offering a subtle malty character, a mild hoppy bitterness and just a hint of acidity.
5. Negra Modelo
This quintessential Mexican-style Vienna lager upends the idea of what “Mexican beer” is for many drinkers used to brews light in color and flavor. But, of course, it has a heritage every bit as traditional as the more crushable, fizzy yellow beers. And just because it’s dark and more robust in flavor, doesn’t mean it isn’t highly-drinkable—as well as an ideal food-pairing beer.
A fan of Vienna-style lagers, when opting for a lighter Mexican lager, longtime beer writer Meredith Heil grabs this golden offering. Expectedly crisp, it offers a little more hoppy bitterness than most Mexican lagers of its class, making it an ideal food beer, especially for spicy dishes.
7. Cervecera Hércules’
Basil Lee, co-founder of Finback Brewery in Queens, loves the traditional (though not always traditional to Mexico) lagers of this decade-old brewery. “Head brewer Josh Brengle is meticulous and methodical in brewing crispy, balanced lagers, paying close attention to European heritage and traditional process,” says Lee, citing the joy of drinking in the outfit’s beautiful taprooms in Queretaro and Mexico City.
8. “All of Them“
Then again, many experts were happy to simply celebrate the entire category. Like Chris McClellan, an advanced cicerone and the head of marketing and sales at Torch & Crown Brewing Company in New York. “[I] will drink anything imported from Mexico,” he says, especially if they are ice cold.
Why You Should Trust Us
We tapped beer industry pros for recommendations of the best Mexican beers on the market. This group of brewers, brewery founders, beer and travel writers, podcasters, marketers and sales directors returned a list that included everything from corporate-owned macro lagers to smaller, newer and more obscure craft releases.
What’s the Best-Selling Beer in Mexico?
Unlike in the States, where it has dropped to number two, Corona remains the best-selling beer in its native land. The brand has a value just under U.S. $6 billion, while Victoria actually comes in second at around U.S. $4 billion.
Does Mexico Have a National Beer?
While the major breweries were once nationally-owned, today they are in the hands of multinational conglomerates. So, while you could call Corona Mexico’s “national beer,” that would be strictly unofficially.
How Is Mexican Beer Different from Other Beers?
If different, in any way, it is by keeping the Vienna-style lager still alive. While no longer really brewed in Austria, it is the prominent style in Mexico today, best exemplified by Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Ambar Especial.