Ruben Hernandez

The cerveza report

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315042-blackangelIn the Southwest, the month of May heralds the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo – or, as it has come to be known among U.S. beer lovers, “Cinco de Drinko.” 

Beer aficionados in festival crowds and in noisy cantinas will be guzzling popular cerveza brands. But, the true beer connoisseur doesn’t need a holiday as an excuse to sip a cold brew. 

A true beer connoisseur has a year-round, life-long affair with the frothy elixir that is the alcoholic lubricant to get feet dancing, throats singing and the party rolling.    

Cerveza and tequila go mano a mano for the title of the national drink of Mexico (although some historians contend that pulque deserves that title); both have evolved from humble homemade beginnings to be the country’s largest domestic and export products. Some brewers have even tried mixing the two in certain brands. However, according to the Beverage Media Group, there are more beer consumers than tequila and wine drinkers in Mexico and the United States. 

A primer of beer’s evolution in the country south of the border is as colorful and boisterous as Mexico’s history. So this month, Latino Perspectives tips its bottle in salute to this fascinating tale of the ale.

Cerveza derives from the Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the scientific name of the ale yeast

Fermented drinks similar to beer in Mexico date back centuries to ancient Mesoamerican cultures, according to the book, La Cerveza en México, published by Cervecería Cuauhtémoc. Long before Hernán Cortés and his soldiers crashed the Aztec party, imbibing native tribes were micro-brewing their own. Pulque, from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, was the pre-Colombian drink of choice. Tesgüino, made from fermented maize, created a low-alcohol, amber liquid that gave a light buzz. It canbe found in Mexico today among the Tarahumara in Chihuahua, who still drink it from a gourd, and in Sonora and Colima. Another ancient beverage, pozol, is produced in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tabasco with corn and cacao beans. 

After the Conquest, Spaniards introduced European-style beer brewed with barley, which most beer fans in Mexico and the United States have since come to know and love. However, the brewery industry in Mexico took off with the arrival of German immigrants in the 19th century. By 1918, there were 36 brewing companies quenching the thirst of Mexicans. 

By 1925, cerveza had displaced pulque as the alcoholic drink of choice for Mexicans. European immigrant beer-brewers campaigned against native drinks by claiming they were produced by unsanitary methods, including the use of feces as fermenting material, and promoted beer as “rigorously hygienic and modern.” This negative campaigning effectively ended pulque’s popularity. 

Throughout the 20th century, consolidation eliminated the multiple competing breweries until only two survived: Grupo Modelo and FEMSA (Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V.). These two conglomerates control 90 percent of the Mexican beer market. Today, beer is a big export, with most ending up in the nearby U.S., which ranks 12th in the world for beer consumption per capita. In addition, Mexican beer is sold in more than 150 other countries.  

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