Beer, Mexico, Mayas and Yucatán

Mexico is one of the most underrated craft beer destinations in the world.

Although some areas have a more developed beer scene than others, one can really find good beer pretty much in any of the Mexican states.

In my recent trip to Mexico I focused on the Yucatán peninsula.

The Yucatán peninsula is located in the south-east of Mexico and today comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It’s a fascinating and colourful land, still inhabited by the Mayas, thus very much influenced by their culture. In fact, many (especially the older generation) speak Maya as their first language, rather than Spanish. Besides beer, the Peninsula is home to countless tourist destinations: picturesque towns (such as Izamal, the ‘yellow city’), cities and sites of great historic significance (Valladolid, Mérida...), and idyllic coastlines. It’s full of natural wonders (such as the cenotes, sort of natural sinkholes) and sites of archaeological interest. Chichen Itza is one of these; its Kukulkan Pyramid, for instance, is one of the new seven wonders of the world! Also, infrastructures and transports are of a very good standard.

 

 

 

The local food culture is obviously quite different from that of other areas of Mexico. As far as drinking habits are concerned, Rum is traditionally preferred to Tequila and Mezcal. Beer is also fairly common, as it is in the rest of the country. Beer used to be mass produced in the Yucatán before Grupo Modelo bought the local Cervecería Yucateca in 1979 and eventually moved its production from the original brewery in Mérida to Tuxtepec (Oaxaca) a couple of decades later.

 

Craft Brewing

 

According to the website Beerectorio (the most complete online resource of its kind), the number of craft breweries in Mexico started growing significantly around the year 2010, with a peak of new openings in 2012. Beerectorio claims that now there are around 650 craft breweries in Mexico, most of which are predictably located in the states of Baja California (106), the Distrito Federal (i.e. Mexico City, 100), and the Estado de México (which surrounds Mexico City, 53). Yet, figures are far from being official, and several unofficial sources claim that the number of microbreweries operating in Mexico could be much higher.

 

Today craft beer represents only 1% of the entire Mexican beer market. Although many producers have been seriously hit by the drop of the Pesos (which has made raw material insanely expensive, as malts and hops are all imported from the US),  craft beer's market share is predicted to grow up to 5% by 2018. Overall, statistics show a constant growth of craft beer consumption and number of microbreweries across the country.


Given Yucatán’s popularity among international tourists (especially north-American), I was expecting craft beer to be fairly popular there. Well, it turned out I was wrong. Despite the consistent exposure to Western culture, it looks like the Peninsula is often late when it comes to assimilate worldwide trends; craft beer is no exception.

 

Mérida

 

The Yucatecan capital of Mérida is home to around twenty (unofficial number) breweries. The two main producers are Ceiba and Patito. The former is the oldest ‘craft brewery’ of the region, while the latter is one of the youngest (about 1 year).

 

Ceiba produces four regular beers: Ambar Mestizia (Vienna Lager, 4.8%), Dorada Premium (Pale Lager, 4.5%), Ceiba Light (Pale Lager, 3.9%), Imperial Stout (5.0% [sic]). The website Ratebeer records a further brew, Hefeweizen Citrus (4.9%), which I haven’t seen around. Overall, the packaging certainly recalls a mass produced product. Nevertheless, the beers themselves are ok (I haven’t tried the Ceiba Light though…), yet they’re not really exciting. The Imperial Stout, as one might guess from its strength, has nothing of the style claimed on the label. It’s a thin-body stout, medium sweet, with subtle roasted, milky and malty aromas and a mild bitter finish. Quite refreshing I have to say, not a bad choice considering the super-hot Yucatecan climate.

 

Patito follows a completely different path. From packaging to beer styles this brewery opted for a more craft-ish packaging (beers come in cans only) and a rather minimal logo. The core range includes a Pilsner (5.5%), a Belgian Blonde Ale (6.5%, which I haven’t tried), and an IPA (7%). The IPA pours deep golden, has some typical citrus, green and herbal hoppy notes to it, medium body and a mild bitter finish. Not quite like a proper American-style IPA, it reminds more of a British ale in my opinion. The Pilsner is a good alternative to all mass-produced pale lagers from the Modelo group, and might help many Corona enthusiasts to start appreciating more interesting products. It’s light, fresh and crisp, and has a soft floral and grassy nose; however, it lacks a bit of depth and it disappears immediately once swallowed.

 

If you walk around Mérida, Ceiba and Patito are all the ‘craft beer’ brands that you’re going to see advertised. Yet, a lot more is brewing on in the Capital, which just hosted its very first craft beer fest!

During my visit I’ve been able to chat with Ovidio Suárez, one of the many local beer enthusiasts and founder of Cerveza Cuerno de Toro. He only makes one beer, a remarkable oatmeal stout, awarded best craft beer just a few days ago at Mérida Beer Fest.

 

While chatting about the thriving local beer scene, I’ve been able to taste some of Mexico’s best artisan brews (kindly offered by Ovidio himself), from names such as Propaganda Brewing (Monterrey, Nuevo Leon), Wendlandt (Ensenada, Baja California), Cinco de Mayo (Atlixco, Puebla), and Ramuri (Tijuana, Baja California). All very remarkable brews, and it comes as no surprise that some of these names are already available abroad. In the UK, for instance, importer Heathwick recently added Cinco de Mayo to its portfolio, together with Cerveza Cucapá, again from Baja California.

 

 

 

It’s clear by now that Baja California, or broadly speaking the north of Mexico, is driving the country’s beer revolution. Nevertheless, Mérida offers a growing number of places to drink craft beer, both local and imported. Many of these are located in the surroundings of the main square, such as La Parrilla, La Negrita Cantina, Apoala, and La Vizcaina. Others are found in the north of Mérida, not far from its popular avenue Paseo de Montejo.

[Follow this link for a detailed map, and please get in touch if you wish to add more names]

The supermarket chain Walmart stocks a few Mexican labels worth trying. I visited the store on the Paseo and bought a Brown Agave Ale (Rey de Diamantes, Puebla), a Mano Pachona IPA (Albur, Guadalupe, Nuevo León), and an English Brown Ale (Malafacha, Monterrey, Nuevo León). I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first one: extremely hazy, boozy (despite being only 5.9%), and with strong notes of unfermented wort. The Malafacha Brown Ale also presented significant off-flavours, which however I believe were due to poor storage conditions and not to the beer itself. I thought the Mano Pachona IPA was instead not a bad drink, with a good potential. However, its nose was not intense enough for a 7% IPA and its finish too quick. Said that, their all had a very interesting packaging that I thought deserved a picture ;-)

 

Tulum and the Riviera Maya

 

Following Mérida, I spent a couple of days in Tulum, a small village in the south of the Quintana Roo state. Generally speaking, craft beer is not particularly popular there. Despite this, bottles of Cerveceria Tulum can be easily found in town. The brewery, based in Cancun, produces one beer only: an American Pale Ale with elegant floral and biscuity notes, light hoppy aroma and a medium body that makes it a very pleasant drink.

 

The northern part of the Quintana Roo state benefits from a much higher interest towards craft beer when compared to the south. The town of Playa del Carmen, for instance, has been a top tourist destination for years. As a consequence, good craft beer is much easier to find there. The local Club de la Cerveza is probably the best pub I visited on my trip around the Yucatán peninsula: knowledgeable staff, good storage standards and service. I could find a wide range of styles on the menu; I tried an Irish Stout on draught (from local brewery Carmen, very refreshing), a Dunkelweizen (Bocanegra, Monterrey, Nuevo León), and a more popular Dia de los Muertos IPA (Cervecería Mexicana - owned by Grupo Modelo - Tecate, Baja California). I certainly enjoyed the Stout and the IPA, while the Dunkelweizen, thick and sweet, was perhaps not the best choice given the unbearable heat that day.

Regrettably, I could not visit the Cicerone, a further craft beer bar just a couple of minutes walking from the Club.

 

 

On the other hand, I found the time to try something different instead. La Perla Restaurant is likely the only place in the area to serve Pulque. Pulque is a traditional Mexican brew, made from agave sap. It's viscous, milky-white, of low alcohol content and quite sweet. It recalls a very light white wine. Pulque isn’t particularly common in the south, but in central Mexico it’s been produced for millennia. Although today it’s experiencing a sort of revival, I was surprised to find it in Playa del Carmen, but I’m really pleased I got the chance to taste it.

 

 

 

 

Puerto Morelos is a small town north of Playa del Carmen, conveniently located at 30 minutes by coach from Cancun Airport. If a resort-town like Playa is not your cup of tea, and prefer to spend your time on the Riviera in a more tranquil environment, then you should definitely opt for Puerto Morelos. The town is geographically split into two areas: one facing the sea and one about 2 miles inland, separated by thick vegetation.

In the inland bit, just next to the coach station, there’s a remarkable craft beer bar called Micheladas del Semaforo. The bar is named after ‘michelada’, which is a very popular Mexican cocktail. Not one I would necessarily recommend, but if you’re a mixologist looking for inspiration...well, then it’s something you can really sink your teeth into. A michelada is made with beer (traditionally a pale lager), lime juice, plus selected sauces, spices, and ice. It’s usually served in a salt-rimmed glass, just like a margarita. At Micheladas del semaforo one may order a michelada made with any of the craft beers on the menu!

 

That beer menu is indeed noteworthy. It features a good amount of international beers, but the focus is certainly on Mexican brews, which are even sorted by geographical area. On my visit to the pub I first went for a big name: Colonial Clara by Minerva (Guadalajara, Jalisco). A very clean kölsch, with graceful honey notes. Minerva is arguably one of the biggest names of the Mexican craft brewing scene; six-packs of Minerva beer are easily found at supermarkets.

For the sake of consistency, I remained on the ‘German’ track and tried a remarkable interpretation of a maibock: Bufadora by Cervecería Tijuana (now owned by Grupo Modelo, Tijuana, Baja California). Cervecería Tijuana is only one of the former craft breweries that were recently bought out by Grupo Modelo.

 

Buying-out is becoming an issue in Mexico as much as it already is in the US or the UK.  Despite this, Mexican cerveza artesanal is in a remarkably good shape, getting better year after year. The country is experiencing an exponential growth in number of microbreweries and hopefully local and federal governments will soon undertake serious reforms in order to help the Mexican microbrewing industry to thrive. Once this will be sorted, I’m expecting to see more and more Mexican quality beer exported to the US and Europe.

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© 2014-2019 Jacopo Mazzeo.

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