When David Favela and his brother Marcelino launched Border X Brewing with Marcelino’s sons Marcel and Martin in 2014, they were the 86th brewery to open in San Diego.
“We could have led with a West Coast IPA like everybody else,” Favela says, “but we decided to dig into our roots, our culture, and our palates and create beers that reflected who we were.” Favela and his family are of Mexican descent, and knew that they wanted that heritage to be a major part of the brewery’s identity. According to Favela, they started with the ingredients for a beer inspired by a common non-alcoholic drink in Mexican and Chicanx culture.
“My nephew Martin took the initiative and brewed an Agua de Jamaica-inspired beer named Blood Saison, which included hibiscus flowers and agave,” says Favela, who adds that he and his co-founders all grew up drinking “Jamaica,” a beverage that isn’t light on the hibiscus — and the Favelas didn’t want their homage beer to be, either.
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“There were a lot of breweries using hibiscus, but they didn’t grow up with that tradition, so they would just use a little bit, and it would give it a slight pink hue,” Favela says. “We grew up with grandmothers and uncles who would make Jamaica that was such a dark ruby red, and very tart. It would smack you in the face. When Martin poured it for us the first time, the color was gorgeous and the foam was pink, which was awesome, and when we tasted it, it blew our minds.”
All that aggressive hibiscus character needed some taming, and Border X chose a distinctively Mexican sweetener for the job, an ingredient more familiar to American drinkers than probably any other from Mexico: agave. This succulent plant provides the fermentable sugar base for tequila and mezcal, and is finding its way into more and more beers as well.
“The agave balanced out that real strong tangy citrus and floral flavor from the hibiscus with a little bit of sweetness,” Favela explains. “Adding something else like honey didn’t seem right. We needed something from our culture.”
Blood Saison was a home-run hit, becoming Border X’s No. 1 seller for the brewery’s first three years in business.
Border X isn’t the only Latino-owned brewery infusing Mexican agave and other Latin American flavors and ingredients into its beers. As a sweetener, fermentable sugar, or foundation for tequila or mezcal to be aged in barrels, agave is bringing a Mexican influence to craft beers across the border, putting a twist on American wheat beers, farmhouse ales, and imperial stouts.
‘Tastes like Sunshine’
Across the U.S., Latinx-owned breweries such as Casa Humilde Cervecería Artesanal and 5 Rabbit Cervercería in Illinois; and Atrevida Beer Co., Cheluna Brewing, and Raices Brewing in Colorado are using ingredients like prickly pear cactus, mango, and chocolate as cultural touchstones. But for most American craft drinkers, agave remains the most familiar association with Mexican beverages. The ubiquitous Margarita cocktail serves as a common entry point, and numerous breweries offer beers reminiscent of the refreshing cocktail without even using agave, including Great Divide Margarita Gose, Dogfish Head SeaQuench, and Two Roads Persian Lime.
Yet more adventurous brewers opt to age beers in tequila or mezcal barrels, offering an intriguing counterpoint to often-weightier bourbon barrel flavors.
“Frankly, I think mezcal goes well with more delicate beers,” says John Haggerty, brewmaster at Warped Wing Brewing Co. in Dayton, Ohio, who recently released a mezcal barrel variant of his popular 4.5 percent ABV Liquid Picnic Farmhouse Pale Ale.
“When I drink mezcal in Mexico with my good friend Jorge Ringenbach at Cervecería Escollo, we always say it tastes like sunshine when you get a really good one,” Haggerty says. “You can almost taste the weather coming in if the mezcalero is good. So, I have always equated mezcal as a brighter flavor even though the smokiness that you get is more savory. To me, pairing with a Belgian Tripel or a saison-type flavor profile just makes sense.”
Meanwhile, brewers such as South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewing use tequila barrels to take the hefty character of an imperial stout in a new direction. Westbrook has occasionally released a tequila barrel-aged version of its coveted Mexican Cake, a 10.5 percent ABV stout brewed with cacao nibs, vanilla, cinnamon, and habanero peppers. These Mexican hot chocolate-inspired flavors gain further complexity after spending time in barrels formerly used for añejo tequila (tequila aged in oak at least one year).
God of the Moon
One brewery in Denver is going beyond using agave as an occasional accent, and instead makes it a central part of the brand portfolio: Dos Luces Brewing bases all of its beers on Peruvian Chicha and Mexican Pulque, ancient beer styles founder Judd Belstock feels deserve renewed attention. Pulque is made from corn and the sap of the maguey plant, a type of agave; the drink was a sacred beverage in Aztec society. Belstock named his pulque Metztli, after the Aztec god of the moon.
In addition to the malted blue corn, Belstock uses maguey sap from Villa de Patos farm in Mexico. To harvest maguey sap, the farm cuts a hole in the bottom of the plant and collects the sap overnight. Over about 30 days, this will yield enough sap for one batch of Metztli. This slow collection process brings a good deal of native microflora along with it, and the brewery has harvested its house bacterial culture from the sap.
Every May, Dos Luces releases a reposado tequila barrel-aged version of Metzli, which it refers to as Moctezuma III Imperial Pulque. This May, it will host a vertical tasting of the last few vintages of this drink of the gods.
“Pulque was reserved for the priesthood and for special ceremonies,” Belstock says. “It was considered a gift from the gods. If you were about to be sacrificed, you got two cups of it before you went.”
Pulque nearly went extinct in Mexico in the 20th century, but Belstock says pulquerias have been popping up in Mexico City over the last several years. It is efforts like these that help preserve its import and culture.
To source the agave and other ingredients for Blood Saison, a member of the Favela family drives to the Mercado Hidalgo municipal market in Tijuana about once a month.
“For Latinos who had grown up in Mexican culture, they recognized that connection right away. Those who hadn’t [had Agua de Jamaica] appreciated it on its own merits,” Favela says. “It set our strategic direction as a brewery and confirmed that we could do things that integrated our culture and our palate.”
5 Agave-Centric Beers to Try
1. Border X Blood Saison
This Agua de Jamaica-inspired saison is brewed with an abundance of hibiscus and is gently sweetened with agave to balance the tangy floral and citrus notes of the flowers.
2. Warped Wing Mezcal Barrel Liquid Picnic
This light-bodied saison balances Belgian fermentation notes with citrusy American hops, and the mezcal barrels bring a subtle smokiness, like a sunrise campfire on the beach.
3. Great Divide Margarita Gose
This tart wheat ale is brewed with lime puree, makrut lime leaf, and Himalayan sea salt and partially aged in tequila barrels to evoke the flavors of the popular Mexican cocktail.
4. Dos Luces Moctezuma III Imperial Pulque
Based on the ancient Mexican beer pulque and brewed with malted blue corn and maguey sap, Moctezuma III is aged in reposado tequila barrels and balances complex and funky fermentation notes with the warmth of the barrels.
5. Westbrook Tequila Barrel Mexican Cake
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
This highly sought-after imperial stout brewed with cinnamon, cacao nibs, habanero pepper, and vanilla and aged in añejo tequila barrels is only rarely released.