Beercraft newspaper column #11: The beers of Mexico

Cerveza por favor, and hold the Mayo

By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish

Were it not for all the marketing dollars, Cinco de Mayo would be a non-event in American bars. The producers and importers of Corona, however, have succeeded in transforming this holiday commemorating the May 5, 1862 victory of the Mexicans over the invading French into a boozy mess.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. All we’re suggesting is, if you’re going to party Mexican-style, you might as well pick up one of several excellent, but less commercially visible, beers from south of the border.

The most recognizable Mexican beer is Corona, loved by spring breakers, loathed by beer geeks everywhere. Indeed, there’s something undeniably uric about Corona’s color which raises questions as to the beer’s production process.

During the eighties, it became something of a “status” beer. The microbrew movement hadn’t yet made its full impact, and image-conscious consumers latched on to everything perceived as boutique. Corona sales skyrocketed in the USA, and it seemed that every yuppie with a sleek suit and Miami Vice pastel tie was hoisting a clear bottle with a lime wedge jammed in the neck.

In fact, Corona is nothing special. It’s brewed with a high percentage of cheap cereal adjuncts, and its flavor is pretty much nonexistent. When you add a lime, the beer tastes like lime. The light taste and lack of almost all possible character makes it easy to drink fast. Fundamentally, it’s a sub-premium product at a super premium price, and even today, Americans buy it by the gigaliter.

Unfortunately, Corona has come to embody our perception of Mexican beer, when in fact, it is an anomaly. Thanks to the aforementioned French invasion, which, in true 19th-century empire-building style, installed an Austrian Hapsburg prince on the throne in Mexico, The country experienced a wave of settlement by Austrians and Germans.

These expatriates longed for the beers of their homeland, so pragmatically, they began brewing them in Mexico, and thus the lineage of many Mexican beers can be traced directly to the Vienna lagers and Helles beers of Austria and Bavaria.

Those styles still exist in Mexico today. Probably the best example of which is Negra Modelo. Dark copper in color, with a malty aroma and a sweet taste that bears as much resemblance to Corona as oranges do to the Crab Nebula, Modelo is a fine brew that maintains the style hallmarks of Vienna lager, while imparting unique flavor elements as well.

Negra Modello is pretty widely available in our region, certainly it can be found at Mex, on Alexander Street, and Selena’s, in Village Gate. We recommend pouring this beer into a glass, because you won’t get the full aroma and color when swilling it out of the bottle. Oh, and just say no to the lime in this one.

Hey, as long as you’re bellying up to the bar in that Mexican-themed entertainment establishment, try a Dos Equis dark. It’s similar to Negra Modelo in formulation, appearance, and overall flavor, but a little less sweet. Still the toasted malt flavor dominates, with very little bitterness in the finish. If you like beer with character, but aren’t crazy about hops, Dos Equis might be a good patio beer for you.

We’d definitely choose a Modelo over this beer, but Dos Equis has the benefit of greater distribution. You shouldn’t have problems finding it in any Mexican place without the word “Bell” in the name.

Slightly more difficult to find is Bohemia, from Monterrey, Mexico. Reminiscent of a southern German lager, it garners rave reviews from American consumers. It has a light flavor, but maintains plenty of character. Bohemia is balanced toward malt rather than hops, although you can pick out a bit of the floral hop aroma.

Finding Bohemia in bars may be a problem, so your best bet might be to call your favorite beer store and see what they can do. Oh, and don’t wreck the taste of this beer with citrus fruit. It’ll just obscure the character of a very good lager.

Probably the best thing that can come of the nightlife industry’s promotion of Cinco de Mayo is an awareness of the pleasant cultural aspects presented by our neighbors from the south. It’s a shame that something as consistently good as Mexican beer doesn’t really get a fair shake in many parts of the US. So let’s all give the lime growers fits and enjoy some REAL Mexican beer. Chances are you’ll find something enjoyable year-round and not just on this co-opted holiday.

Which came first, the bottle or the beer?

I used to be a huge fan of American microbreweries. Had you talked to me in 1998, I would have told you that, contrary to popular belief, America is a great brewing nation. Hell, New York State alone had dozens of fine micros.

I still pretty much feel that way, but my enthusiasm is lessened by what I see as a pervasive emphasis on marketing over quality on the microbrew scene. I’m kinda sick of cutesy beer names. I’m tired of overdone bottle art. And I’m annoyed that breweries’ often scant operating dollars are going to this aspect of the business rather than into creating the best possible beers.

Have you ever bought a science fiction novel because of the cool cover art, only to find a hackneyed, overdone formulaic story? That’s my take on disassociative marketing- the kind of marketing that emphasizes image over the quality of the product.

Plus, at the beer store, everybody’s beautiful, pramary-colored bottle art and everybody’s “Old Defribulator” and “Angus McFuckstick’s Ale” all blends together into a sea of gobbledygook that tells the potential consumer nothing about the beer.

I know packaging is important, but i wish it wasn’t always so over the top. No if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to have a beer that gets it right, Southern Tier IPA.

Review: Rohrbach Brewing Company Bluebeary Ale

We’re at the bar. It’s been a while since we tried a Rohrbach Brewing Company beer, so we trucked out the good ol’ Bluebeary ale.

Positives: The blueberry flavor is in the background, where it belongs. As is appropriate for a fruit ale, you get the nose and essence of the beer instead of the syrupy sweetness.

Negatives: Hops, Hops, HOPS. Excessive bitterness in the finish clashes with and overwhelms the fruit.

Overall it’s not too bad, probably on par with the fruit beers offered by most micros.
An easing up of the hop bitterness would make a huge difference in our overall impression of this beer.

Things looking up at McGregor’s

As I mentioned in a previous post, the house beers at MacGregor’s Grill and Tap Room in Rochester are now being brewed by the Southern Tier Brewing Company. I harshed their Cherry Wheat beer and their pale ale. THey were both very diasappointing.

However, the MacGregor’s Milk Stout is lovely. Also brewed by the Southern Tier guys, it’s complex, with a nice vanilla undertone. A very drinkable example of a style we don’t see here very often. It’s also a deal at the house special price. If you live in town, it’s worth a stop.

Also, congratulations are in order to the High Falls Brewery and Brewmaster Dave Schlosser. Their J.W. Dundee’s Pale Bock won the gold medal in the Bock category in this year’s World Beer Cup. Quite a feat, considering that the intrepid team from Rochester was up against some heavyweight German competition. Cheers, guys!

-Mark

Beercraft newspaper column #10: Lambics

From Belgium with love: Lambics

Can beer be romantic?

Think about it. If you’re trying to impress a girl on a date, you go right for the wine. But (yawn) so does everybody else. If you really want to slay her, try ordering a goblet of Framboise, a Belgian Lambic beer aged with raspberries. Chances are she’s never tasted anything quite like it.

Fruit Lambics come flavored with Cherry (Kriek), Raspberry (Framboise), and more recently peach (Peche) and blackcurrant (Cassis). You can also get unflavored Gueuze, tongue-mangling in both name and flavor. They’re hard to find in bars, but readily available at specialty beer stores.

Straight Lambic is an extremely dry, sour, cidery brew which originates from the region around the town of Lembeek (which is near Brussels, but so’s everything else in Belgium). It’s only served in a few cafes in the capital and around the region.

Despite the efforts of breweries on this side of the pond, the flavor of Lambic is irreproducible, due to the key role that geography plays in the beer’s fermentation process.

After the Lambic wort is boiled, the unique yeast native to that small Belgian region is introduced through a method that would make strait-laced German brewers cringe. The liquid is left out in the open air, so the airborne yeast, along with other assorted microorganisms, can settle in naturally.

Afterward, the wort is transferred into old wooden barrels, creating the only possible environment for Lambic. When done, and after a couple of years’ maturation, the beer tastes light, tart and acidic. Its mouth feel is comparable to champagne. If the batch is to be a fruit Lambic, the appropriate produce (or fruit syrup for the more bottom-line oriented producers) is added into the barrel.

The resulting beer is an intricate blend of Lambic’s tart vibrancy and the color, aroma, and sweetness of fruit. A good Kriek, such as Lindemann’s, pours a deep ruby red, with a persistent light pink head. Predictably, it smells like cherries, the sweet flavor of which is mellowed by the acidity of the beer. It’s not cloying, yet just intense enough to make a great dessert beer. It’s fantastic with dark chocolate.

Framboise and Kriek are the two traditional, old-school fruit Lambic types. The other flavors are the creation of marketing personnel and, while not bad, just lack that aura of authenticity. They’re made with cheaper fruit syrups instead of the raspberries and sour cherries straight from the Belgian fields.

Although Lindemann’s is the most widely imported brand, and the only one you’ll probably ever find on draft in the USA, several other producers export to this area. They’re all small operations, and the flavors can vary greatly in tartness, sweetness and intensity.

Now granted, this isn’t manly bachelor party brew. You’re not going to see rappers swigging it on MTV, and rarely will some dude roll up on his Harley for a couple of Peches. Most beer geeks view Lambic as an occasional indulgence at best and it finds favor with a primarily female audience. However, it can be an excellent choice for celebration and an expression of creativity as a party gift. Mark even serves Kriek instead of champagne on New Year’s Eve.

And, for drinkers of sweeter cocktails, the beautiful, richly-colored Framboise is a great introduction to the world of beer. There’s no hop taste to get used to (hops are present, but only as a preservative, aged beyond the point where their flavor is evident), and the fruity essence is welcoming and refreshing. That, and their visual appeal, makes elegantly-served Lambic absolutely unique among beers.

So next time you’re out on that big date, swing by a bar that serves Lambic (Monty’s Korner and The Old Toad frequently carry it), or pick up a bottle at Beers of the World. If you’re back at your place, serve it in champagne flutes. Then watch her eyes go wide.

And remember to send us a thank-you card.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com