There’s no entry in the Oxford Companion to Beer for “Mexican-style lager.”
As an official style it doesn’t exist, though the name should connote familiar brands such as Tecate, Dos Equis, and Modelo. Mexican lagers have origins in Vienna and Germany — 19th-century settlers brought their own brewing recipes with them, and they stayed. As the Oxford guide notes, “the Vienna-style beer took hold in Mexico, remaining popular there long after its memory had largely faded in its native Vienna.”
American craft brewers have recently adopted the Mexican-style lager, applying the name to a new wave of beers even as the definition of the style itself evolves.
“A Mexican-style lager is typically a lighter beer with a bright straw color,” says Shaun O’Sullivan, co-founder of San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery, which makes such a beer called El Sully. “They’re refreshing and crisp.”
Sullivan distinguishes between the lighter Mexican-inspired lagers, brewed with flaked corn, and the darker versions richer in malt character.
Tim Matthews, who runs brewing operations for Colorado’s Oskar Blues, says, “I’ve always thought of Mexican-style lagers, from the pale to the amber, as being less fruity than the American counterparts, and lighter in body than other lagers around the world.”
Oskar Blues’ Beerito is modeled after Modelo Negra and Dos Equis Amber, with notes of light caramel, roasted walnuts, and cocoa.
“This is all about the blend of the subtle,” says Matthews. “It’s meant to be enjoyed as a refreshing and light everyday kind of beer.”
The Mexican lager trend extends as far north as Maine, where Biddeford’s Banded Horn Brewing Co. is brewing Wicked Bueno.
“A Mexican-style lager derives a portion of its sugar content from something other than traditional grain,” says Banded Horn head brewer Sean Redmond. “In ours specifically, we use corn in addition to the regular malt bill.”
Wicked Bueno has a Saltine-cracker crispness and a floral kick from Centennial hops, and would be a good companion for mowing the lawn.
21st Amendment’s O’Sullivan adds one other important drinking note.
“There is no shame in putting in a slice of lime and drinking it out of the can,” says O’Sullivan, who was offered an El Sully this way at an Oakland ramen shop. “I looked around the room to see if I knew anyone and said ‘sure,’ even though I feared for my craft-brewer street cred.
“All is good, with or without the lime.”Gary Dzen can be reached at email@example.com.