The best beers are the ones that become memorable as much for a time and place as for their taste. The ones that, subtly or overtly, made whatever situation we were in better: the post-lawn mowing beer on a hot day for some; the early morning airport beer pre-flight for others. But few taste as good as that first beer on vacation.
Almost any person reading this who has been to Mexico and drinks beer has had this experience: The story may start with a spring break trip in college, or a destination wedding in Cancun. Or, if you’re one of a handful of craft brewers, the story begins with a surfing trip to Baja — and ends with smuggling crisp, crushable Mexican lager across the border.
These industrialized lagers cross international boundaries. Beers like Corona Extra, Modelo Especial, and Dos Equis sell remarkably well in America, crossing the threshold of millions of barrels sold stateside. Corona wears the crown across both ponds, and is the No. 1 non-domestic beer in the U.K. and Australia, according to the data provided in the Beverage Industry 2020 Beer Report.
There are no real geographic restrictions to make a Mexican-style lager. Examples of the style are brewed in Durango, Colo., at Ska Brewing (Mexican Logger); in Texas at El Paso Brewing Co. (El Matador); in Chicago at 5 Rabbit Cerveceria (Xicago); and even all the way up to the other border at Wolverine State Brewing in Michigan (Verano).
For San Diego native Eric O’Connor, co-founder and head of quality control/quality assurance at Thorn Brewing Co., his hometown take on the style — which is labelled a “Baja-style lager” and called Barrio Lage — takes its inspiration from a San Diego rite of passage: crossing the borders with your buddies to catch some waves.
“When I was [younger], I remember fondly cutting my teeth on the adventure of heading down and surfing in Mexico, or heading way down into the desert,” O’Connor says. “I can still feel what it’s like walking into liquor stores and drinking Pacifco by the campfire. It’s my nostalgia beer.”
Pacifico is an important beer in this narrative. The beer was originally brewed in Mazatlan in 1900 when a group of German entrepreneurs opened La Cervezeria del Pacifico. As the story goes, a group of surfers were the first importers of the brand, loading up cases alongside their gear over the southern border into California.
When O’Connor got into the brewing business himself, a similar trip with his then head brewer sparked the idea for Barrio Lager, a 4.5 percent ABV crusher.
“[At that time] we were brewing all these IPAs,” he began. “We took a little trip down to Northern Baja, so we brought a slim keg of IPA. We went for a surf. When we came back, we were thinking, ‘I don’t really want to drink this IPA, I’ll be too loaded.’ So we ran to the store, got a case of Pacifico, and went out surfing again. When we came in we realized we wouldn’t have gone out for a surf if we drank that IPA.”
Josh Pfriem, owner and head brewer at the eponymous Pfriem Family Brewers in Hood River, Ore., grew up closer to the northern border of California than the southern one, but his inspiration for his brewery’s simply-named Pfriem Mexican Lager is similar.
“It was inspired by surf trips down to Mexico,” Pfriem says. “It’s of that experience sitting on a beach in Mexico crushing fresh Modelos.”
But while superficially, Pfriem Mexican Lager is meant to replicate a time and a place, Pfriem believes his attempt at the style falls in line with his brewery’s ethos. After his “beer journey” led him to a love affair with lagers, he sought to craft innovative and quality examples of historical styles.
“I love working with great lager breweries,” he says. “I enjoy learning about origin and heritage, and what makes those beers great whether it is a pilsner, helles, or Vienna lager.”
Like O’Connor and his American amigos at Thorn, Pfriem came home from his surfing trip and set his team to the task of reverse-engineering a Mexican lager. In other words, Pfriem’s brewing team ran a number of Mexican lagers through the brewery’s lab to assess each beer’s IBU, pH, and finishing gravities. This allowed the team to see “more than meets the eye or the palate,” he says. In the end, they used that information to craft a beer that gives a “nod to some of our favorite modern interpretations,” as well as a “beer we fell in love with.”
“We model our [Mexican Lager] more along like a Modelo Especial,” Pfriem continues. “It’s light, crisp, and super crushable. We use pilsner malt, noble hops. The adjunct is corn. Good with a lime [as it is] good without it.”
The Baja-style lager at Thorn has to be “clean as a whistle, well brewed, well fermented, [and] packaged with no oxygen,” O’Connor says. “It has to be very crushable — a real, light, refreshing ‘beer’ flavor. A little bit of corn, a little rice helps dry the beer out.”
Despite some similar-sounding descriptions, no two Mexican lagers are exactly alike; nor are their American counterparts. Examples of the style have been light, amber, or dark. Some contain adjuncts like corn. Others pay homage to Corona and utilize a lime, salt, or both. And while yeast purveyor White Labs sells a Mexican lager yeast “from Mexico City,” Pfriem uses its own house lager yeast, which is propagated from the Weihenstephan strain in Germany. Unlike many brewers’ intent to stay true to form when replicating European lager styles such as pilsner, helles, or Vienna lager, the American versions of Mexican lagers tend to lack uniformity — and in doing so, authentically follow their Mexican inspirations.
“Within Mexican lagers, there’s a lot of variation,” Pfriem says. “With a range of inspiration, there’s a big scope for American craft brewers to choose their own adventure.”
Five Mexican-Style Lagers to Try
Thorn Barrio Lager
Medium-bodied, low bitterness, and low alcohol. A perfect beer for a San Diego sunset.
Pfriem Mexican Lager
Hood River, Ore.
Corn provides a great addition to the malt bill in this version. A touch of acidity makes it both simple but delicate and complex.
AleSmith Sublime Mexican Lager
Sweet and malty, more akin to a Vienna lager than many of its crisp, dry counterparts, but equally delicious.
Stone Brewing Buenaveza Salt & Lime Lager
Stone drops its signature hop bombs for an easy-to-drink salt-and-lime lager that is light in body and refreshing.
21st Amendment El Sully
San Leandro, Calif.
Combining flakes maize with pilsner and Vienna malt, El Sully contains a creamy mouthfeel, but is light-bodied to keep you on your feet all day.