Historical records suggest that the first brewery in the New World to make beer as we know it was located in Mexico, run by a man named Alfonso de Herrero in the 1540s. Almost half a millennium later, Mexican beer is typically looked down on by American craft-beer snobs, although there’s no denying how popular it is among mainstream drinkers. (How many Trump voters had a sixer of Corona in their fridge when they decided that a border wall would be a swell idea? More than a few, I’m guessing.)
Most of Mexico’s beers that make it north of the border are light and drinkable, and, better yet, evoke the idea a tropical getaway—some even argue that Mexican beer’s appeal is due to the “vacation effect,” in which a bottle of imported beer functions as a sense-memory substitute for your last sun-drenched stay at a beach resort. Corona leans heavily on this idea for all of their American marketing.
Some of the snobbery is deserved. Mexico’s worst beers, ironically, are the ones that have penetrated the deepest into the American market. Tecate, while hip, has never been a tasty beverage, and the maddeningly popular Corona Extra would be essentially undrinkable without being served ice cold and accompanied by a fat wedge of lime shoved down the neck to mask the beer’s more unfortunate flavors.
But appreciation for Mexican beer has matured in recent years, and a number of American craft breweries now offer a version of a “Mexican-style” brew, most typically in the role of a light, drinkable summer seasonal. Officially a trend as of 2016, the phenomenon has continued into this summer and shows no sign of disappearing. There are four easily accessible Mexican-style beers made by Oregon breweries that are now readily available in bottles and cans in the Portland area (and you can no doubt find further examples on brewpub menus and draft accounts).
But what is a Mexican-style beer, exactly? Not all Mexican beers are identical, and the four made-in-Oregon examples differ slightly in style. Virtually all Mexican beers are lagers (as opposed to ales), which indicates parallel origins with the German-influenced brewing styles that dominated pre-Prohibition America. But for a brief moment in the middle of the 19th century, Mexico was ruled by an Austrian emperor, and this led to the rise of darker, maltier Vienna-style lagers among Mexican brewers.
That Viennese influence—as opposed to the German and Czech-descended brewers that colonized American pint glasses—can still be found in Mexican beers today, specifically in Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Ambar. Vienna lager is a flavorful and versatile but not particularly widespread style of beer; it goes marvelously with food, and the roasty, red malt profile makes it one of the few beers that works with tomato-based dishes. It also goes excellently with rotisserie-style chicken and dark, rich moles, both staples of various Mexican cuisines.
Still, most Americans tend to think of Mexican beers as light, yellow beers that offer unobtrusive, sweet flavors and maximum guzzle-ability. The sweetness usually comes from the addition of corn, an adjunct often derided among strict brewing traditionalists. But corn is a decidedly New World ingredient, and its presence in many Mexican beers (as well as mass-produced American ones) differentiates them from crisper, sharper-tasting lagers made in the Old World style. A heavy corn flavor can also make a beer a sturdy accompaniment to a dish that revolves around corn tortillas.
The four Oregon-made Mexican-style beers we tasted are all suitable beverages for summertime (although two of them, Ex Novo and Session, are now available year-round). They’re sunny, light, versatile, not too alcoholic, and best enjoyed fresh out of an ice-filled cooler. Avoid muddying them up with lime if you can—there are perfectly good gin and tonics for that sort of thing.
Pelicano Extra! Lager Cerveza
Pelican Brewery, Pacific City/Tillamook, 5 percent ABV
Pelican’s Latin American-inspired lager conceals a surprising amount of complexity, so you’ll have to dig a bit to find it. On first sip, the taste is barely there, almost invisible, with only a wispy trace of metallic flavors. But the light-platinum beer, which boasts a gorgeous, long-lasting head, sustains itself with gentle kisses of malt and a muted, Saison-lite quality. Best of all, the nose is full of sea salt and ocean waves—evoking the Oregon Coast, where the beer was made at Pelican’s expanded Tillamook facility. (We realize this sounds like the placebo effect, but it really does smell like the sea.) With that in mind, the beer should pair well with boiled crustaceans served with butter, and mild, white-fleshed fish; it could even probably hold its own with an oilier fish, such as salmon.
The Most Interesting Lager in the World
Ex Novo Brewing Company, Portland, 5 percent ABV
Although Ex Novo’s entry was one of the first Mexican-style beers to be made in Oregon, this was our least favorite among the ones we tried. The 16-ounce can pours hazy platinum with a nice, creamy head, but the flavor is a little too corn-dominant, tasting of actual tortillas with occasional hints of raw green grass. There’s also a hollowness to the center of the beer, like something out-of-reach is eluding your taste buds. The finish doesn’t disappear cleanly, but lingers on the palate a bit longer than desired, and there’s a callow, “unfinished” quality that’s common in beers made by smaller breweries. While that quality is usually ignorable when you’re in the brewpub, it isn’t so welcome when you’ve brought the beer home with you.
pFriem Mexican-Style Lager
pFriem Family Brewers, Hood River, 4.4 percent ABV
In terms of sheer stylistic diversity, pFriem has got to be one of Oregon’s greatest breweries, as they’re able to make complicated Belgian-style sour beers, immaculately clean Germanic lagers, and hop-dominated Pacific Northwest IPAs with equal aplomb. Add their Mexican-style lager to the list, as this was easily the best of the four beers we sampled. Pouring a super-light platinum color with a lingering seafoam head, it almost looks like champagne and has the persistent effervescence to match. The aroma is lightly musty, but appealingly so, and the beer is full of light-colored-malt flavor with only a faint trace of corn. The result is something like a lemon-almond cake, with a gentle metallic clang to give some friction to the beer’s pillowy softness, and a clean finish that will demand you to keep drinking. This would be a great choice for any number of Mexican dishes, but would also work with tomato-based pizza, lemon-pepper chicken, and sweet barbecue.
Sesión Cerveza Mexican-Style Lager
Full Sail Brewing, Hood River, 4.5 percent ABV
Session Lager’s Mexican counterpart is a nice surprise, a compulsively drinkable lager that might actually be better than regular Session. It’s the darkest of the four, pouring a shadowy gold color, and the head melts away quickly, leaving a relatively flat beer behind, suggesting you are supposed to drink it from the bottle, which we don’t really like to do (your mileage may vary). But taste-wise it’s just fine in or out of the bottle, with an appealing rainy-day smell to the nose and a soft, rounded taste that’s not bitter at all. There is an occasional metallic hint of iron, but otherwise this is an unobtrusive crowd-pleaser of a beer that you won’t regret buying in bulk.