The midnight black Russian imperial stout with its persistent cappuccino-colored head tasted just like it smelled: Huge chocolate notes backed by coffee, dark fruits, bitter hops, and anise coated my palate. My tongue tingled from the 12 percent ABV advertised on the placard hanging behind the bartender in the small stand on the crowded exposition floor.
This beer, and many others poured by the 100-plus brewery vendors at Cerveza México, the beer exposition in the World Trade Center Mexico City, blew me away. Far from the lagers most U.S. drinkers would associate with Mexican brewing, these brews represented every major style of beer.
Just days before I had attended Copa Cerveza México, the largest craft beer competition in the country, as a judge and now found myself talking with brewers representing the various beers I had helped rank.
During the exposition I tried excellent stouts, American IPAs, blondes, tripels, sours, smoked beers, meads, and many more, while typically talking with the brewer who headed the production of the beverage I was sampling. A foudre-aged Flanders red ale took Best of Show honors.
Still quality levels varied greatly in this fledgling market. Some breweries only put out beers that would easily compete in the competitive U.S. market, some performed admirably in a few styles while missing on others, and a few needed a lot of work to make a product that I could see on the shelves of my local bottle shop.
Though not every beer was great, there were more than enough excellent examples to satisfy even the harshest critic with the highest expectations, proving that Mexico is taking steps toward craft beer relevance.
But there are many steps still to take. Despite the growing skill and number of Mexican craft brewers, outside of the expo and the competition it was very difficult to find their products in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. I went with a Mexican brewer friend to a gathering of Copa participants after an event dinner and never would have found the location if he wasn’t along. Our Uber driver’s GPS did not lead us to the front door. It took several turns on one-way alleys from a main road to arrive at the brewery entrance, which was without lighting or visible signage and blended perfectly into the row of buildings lining the curbed cobblestones.
When I entered the brewery I saw what I believe will grow this industry in the next few years: camaraderie. As I sipped a guava-infused kettle sour, I saw representatives from dozens of competing breweries ogling the brewing setup at the location and happily exchanging ideas. I got the sense that they really felt that they were in it together, that they wanted each one of their brethren in the battle against mass-produced swill to succeed. The contestants typically cheered another’s medal winning beer as their own at the competition’s awards ceremony, while subsidiaries of large corporations received audible hisses.
Speaking with local entrepreneurs, I learned about the challenges these businesses face as craft pioneers. Hop, malt, and yeast providers are not as prevalent in Mexico as in the U.S. The equipment they use is typically not the refined setup one would find even in the smallest professional brewery in Minnesota. Many are still learning the intricacies required in making and bottling world-class beer. All of these issues pale in comparison to what seemed to be the biggest obstacle: The demand for their products, even the best ones, is not yet great enough locally for them to make the money they need to improve and expand.
That is evidenced by the beer selection in the typical Mexico City bar or restaurant, where beers from Modelo (Anheuser-Busch InBev) or Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma (Heineken International) reign supreme. These two companies control the brands that make up nearly the entire market share for beer. The other main option for getting a fermented drink is going to a pulquería, where one can sip on the pre-Hispanic drink, pulque, made from fermented maguey sap.
Despite the established macro-brewers, the craft beer market seems set to take off. The quality of the products and determination of talented brewers will make them impossible to ignore. The numerous expo attendees and the fact that submissions in Copa Cerveza México is growing yearly show positive momentum. Americans should pay attention: when these craft breweries gain traction at home, bold Mexican beer will surely drive north.
Curious to learn more about craft beer’s impact around the world? Follow The Growler as we globe-trot in search of craft beer in 7 Continents of Beer.