In the fourth installment of Beyond the Boilermaker, Gray Chapman explores the classic pairing of mezcal and Mexican cerveza.
American drinking culture has come a long, long way in its understanding of and appreciation for mezcal. The Mexican spirit is made with agave hearts, roasted in underground earthen ovens and typically described as “tequila’s smoky cousin,” but, as Max Falkowitz points out for GQ, mezcal is far less predictable than the more popular tquelia. True artisanal mezcal is just as fastidiously produced as the best Scotch whiskey or Haitian rhum, made with traditional methods that have been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries.
Unlike tequila, different agave varieties can be used and blended together in mezcal production. That, combined with aging categories, results in flavor notes that can range from grassy and vegetal to savory and woodsy. As Michael Dietsch points out for Serious Eats, producers are often working with such small volumes that each batch may differ from one to the next. At the artisanal level, no two mezcals are alike.
Which brings us to beer. While many purists like to enjoy mezcal’s nuances just as any hardcore bourbon hound might—by sipping it straight—mezcal has a longstanding relationship with beer, and for good reason. In Mexico, pilsners and lagers like Estrella Jalisco and Modelo are common counterparts to a smoky shot of mezcal, served and enjoyed side-by-side.
Just because mezcal is such a beautiful and rare spirit that takes so much hard labor and time to produce, you want to make sure you're not masking it with a blast of hops or malts.”
Still, mezcal can be a handful to pair with beer, thanks to its tendency to overpower subtler flavors. “It can be a real bully,” says Erick Castro, “so it can be a tough one to pair.” For that reason, Emma Janzen, digital editor at Imbibe and author of a James Beard Award-nominated book all about the history and craft of mezcal, says the best pairings are those where mezcal takes center stage.
“Just because mezcal is such a beautiful and rare spirit that takes so much hard labor and time to produce, you want to make sure you're not masking it with a blast of hops or malts,” Janzen says. And when done right, the mezcal boilermaker is a divine study in contrasts: Mezcals’ fiery smolder is a fitting counterpart to a crisp, fizzing pilsner or the zap of tanginess in a fruit beer. Read on for a few beer-mezcal combinations worth sipping side-by-side.
Lagers and Pilsners
This one’s a classic for a reason. Janzen says her standard go-to for pairing mezcal with beer is Modelo, and she’s found few other combinations that can top it. “It's such a clean canvas—it doesn't overpower the mezcal,” she says. And while marrying beer with spirits is enjoying a renaissance, this combination has deep, deep roots in Mexico. “When I visited the Vago palenque in Sola de Vega, Tio Rey gave us Coronitas with our mezcal pours at lunch, so that's sometimes how the mezcaleros are drinking it and even at some of the bars that's how we'd drink it,” Janzen adds. “The combo takes me right back to Mexico every time. I know it's not crafty, but you can't really beat the classic.”
Castro agrees. “A nice pilsner or traditional Mexican cerveza is always great to pair with mezcal,” he says. “Especially if the beer has a squeeze of lime and pinch of salt in it, as it transforms the pairing into something of a deconstructed cocktail.” At Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, the R&D Bar features a nightly rotation of experimental drinks, and always includes a beer-shot combination. One of the house standards is a shot of mezcal served with Olympia. It just works, says head bartender Aaron Polsky: The $10 special is “cheap and easy, and something we’ve always done.”
Polsky says mezcal with Stiegl Radler is a crowd favorite. “My favorite part is that they’ll drink an ounce of two out of the Radler and dump the mezcal right in,” he says. Why does it work so well? The sweet, fruity, sessionable radler—a beer blended with grapefruit juice—is the yin to mezcal’s yang. “The radler is otherwise really sweet and low-ABV, and the mezcal tempers the sweetness a bit and almost acts as a chaser to the radler,” Polsky says. Plus, he adds, the grapefruit aspect of the radler is a perfect match to mezcal’s smoke, and isn’t too far off from a mezcal paloma.
Janzen also has combined Stiegl with mezcal on occasion, adding that it's one of the popular menu offerings at Parson's in her hometown of Chicago. “It's probably because of the super citrusy quality of the radler,” she says. “Citrus juices like lime and grapefruit are some of the perfect matches for mezcal in cocktails, so it makes sense that the same idea would apply with beer.”
Janzen’s sentiment about the importance of citrus made me suspect that a tart, briny fruit gose would be a suitable match for mezcal, too. With fruit, acidity and salinity, a gose has all the components of a good mezcal cocktail. Inspired by this epiphany, I tried a sip of joven Oaxacan mezcal, Viejo Indecente, alongside Wicked Weed’s Tropicmost, a passionfruit gose. The resulting combination is an easy-drinking (perhaps too easy) marriage of tropical fruit with Indecente’s unaged grass-green notes, rounded out by that touch of salinity reminiscent of a salt rim on a Paloma or a margarita. Pretty damn close to a cocktail, if you ask me. I have a feeling that melon-y goses such as Anderson Valley’s Briny Melon would be a great fit here, and so would a lime-forward beer like Westbrook’s Key Lime or Creature Comfort’s Margarita in Gose. Can you imagine how good Creature Comforts’ cool-as-a-cucumber Tritonia would be in this situation? I can’t wait to find out.
These wild-fermented Belgian fruit beers get a bad rap for being saccharine-sweet and syrupy. But a traditional Belgian fruit lambic, like Lindeman’s Framboise, is one of Castro’s favorite beer-mezcal pairings. He says the combination of smoky mezcal with jammy, sweet-sour raspberries reminds him of a sweet, berry-based barbecue sauce. “It’s a legit combo.” And, per Janzen’s tip above, it’s one that allows the mezcal itself to sing while the beer plays second fiddle.