For decades the Mexican beer identity has been dominated by light lagers—synonymous with beaches, umbrellas, and lounge chairs. These days, a new generation of independent brewers is emerging and trying to break free from the Coronas and Modelos. As one brewer quickly realized, however, Mexico’s craft beer scene is doing little more than following American trends.
“The fundamental tendency in Mexico is for copying American styles,” says Matías Vera-Cruz Dutrenit, general director of Monstruo de Agua. For example, one of the trendiest beers in Mexico right now is a Mexican stout. “It’s actually a style that started in the US,” Vera-Cruz says.
Vera-Cruz spent two years studying for his Ph.D. in economics in Los Angeles during the early phases of Mexico’s craft beer boom and took note of beer trends in the States. He realized that the Mexican brewing culture at the time was following those trends, just two or three years behind. He wasn’t wrong. IPAs dominate the current beer market in Mexico, but as in the States, they are starting to trail off from the top of beer connoisseurs' lists.
That’s why in 2016 Vera-Cruz along with a collective of 12 friends took up residence in the volcanic foothills of the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor with the mission of destroying this follower mentality by creating a new style of brewing that was uniquely Mexican, based on native ingredients and innovative brewing methods.
What is brewing up in the Monstruo de Agua compound is what Vera-Cruz calls the future of Mexican beer. The foundation of Monstruo de Agua’s radical approach can be traced back to Vera-Cruz’s time living in California, during which he made regular trips back to Mexico City and was able to compare their respective craft beer scenes.
“We are doing radical brewing but with a specific purpose, which is trying to show the Mexican terroir,” Vera-Cruz says. “That’s in a nutshell what we are trying to do.”
While coming up with his ethos was easy, bringing his uniquely Mexican brews to life was a different story. Two of the most important ingredients in beer—malt and hops—aren’t produced in any significant volume in Mexico. The majority is imported from the States. Because of this, Monstruo de Agua turned to alternative sources of sugar and bittering elements to form the backbone of the of their beers.
On a Thursday afternoon, Vera-Cruz rambles through the sprawling untamed garden that surrounds his mountainside brewery, stopping every ten or so paces to pick off a leaf and taste it. I imagine his brain filling with explosions of color and jazz like Remy in Ratatouille while I wait for my guide to snap back into the present tense for our next stop on our tour.
He points to a small bushy plant with tiny bell-shaped flower tips. It’s cempasúchil, a marigold that's synonymous with Día de Muertos. This wild version, which grows in the high altitudes surrounding Mexico City’s volcanoes and looks nothing like the radiant yellow version found during the holiday celebration, has a bitter lime flavor. Vera-Cruz bites, pauses for five seconds, and moves on. He then hands me the leaf of a lemon verbena plant, with its distinct namesake lemon striking my sense before it reaches my tongue.
“Really what we are trying to do is keep and foster the Mexican field: agriculture,” Vera-Cruz says. “I don’t think there’s a clear identity in Mexican beer. The current identity is light beer, light lager. It’s so much so that even craft beers are collapsing onto that, too.” We wander through the living laboratory of Cervecería Monstruo de Agua, a wild half-hectare garden adjacent to the beer-making facilities where Vera-Cruz hopes to discover his next beer. “Being here is a fundamental source of inspiration,” he says. “In the beginning I was all about the tropical fruits, but then I’ve become really interested in the wild stuff. The stuff that is really just from here.”
When Colectivo Axolote, the collective of friends behind Monstruo de Agua, moved into their weathered brick compound, the first thing they did was clear the forest floor of pine needles, leaves, and general wild growth that had nearly covered the soil. That was their first mistake. They soon learned the dead foliage was providing a cover to keep moisture in the ground. Secondly, the indigenous ingredients that they would later be looking for to brew dozens of beer styles had been growing in plain sight and many of them were discarded during renovations.
Since then, the group has worked to rebuild the edible forest. “Basically the idea is you mimic a young forest,” Vera-Cruz says. The brewery seeks to produce beer using ingredients found in its backyard that, in some instances, walk the line between beer, pulque, and fermented botanicals. “We were basically looking for this but we had it in front of us all the time,” he says while picking a leaf off camomile plant.
Monstruo de Agua’s focus on hyper-local ingredients is both a challenge and a blessing for Vera-Cruz and Colectivo Axolote, who formed the company slowly over the last eight years. In 2018 the brewery produced 30 different styles of beer. This year it’s on pace to beat that number. Its hybrid beers are brewed with agave sap, fruits such as mango, prickly pear, and mamey, and plants that play a role in fermentation.
For bitter elements, Vera-Cruz turns to his edible garden, which is named El Jardín del Axolote after the amphibious animal with regenerative properties that’s endemic to Mexico’s ancient Lake Xochimilco. Vera-Cruz will gather pine needles and pine tips from the trees in the garden and add them directly to the batch for bitterness. He compliments that with various leaves from fruit trees, jamaica (hibiscus) flowers, and wild herbs.
The brewery’s first batch scheduled to be exported to the United States is a perfect example of the hybrid methodology. Nochtli, which means prickly pear in the indigenous Aztec language Nahuatl, is a golden ale crafted with cactus fruit, lemon balm from the garden, and a small amount of malt. (They recently found a local producer who is growing organic strains of barley.)
“When you talk about an adjunct in typical brewing you really mean that you added a bit of honey or a bit of this fruit or another kind of compliment to the beer. Basically it comes down to quantities,” Vera-Cruz says. “With some beers, we use a ton of an ingredient and really transform it in a way that it really isn't a beer anymore.”
Blanca de Maguey is a white hybrid IPA made of agave sap, malt, sour orange peel, cilantro seeds, and white yeast. The use of agave sap isn’t unique to Monstruo de Agua, but its method of extraction and the actual product differ greatly. The brewing collective uses sap pulled directly from pulquero agaves that is drawn out of the base of the plant in a similar fashion to pulque production.The more common agave syrup used in the States is a nectar formed from extracting the sugary substance from the hearts of the agaves once they are removed from the ground and heated.The sap from the pulquero agaves that is mixed with the malt in the hybrid beers would produce a sort of whiskey-meets-mezcal spirit if distilled.
“We all agree that mezcal gives you a different high than whiskey. What I really like about that is I feel like these beers have that effect,” Vera-Cruz says. “They do give you this mezcal kind of high.”
For now, Monstruo de Agua’s methods have paid off. The brewery will close the year with about 20,000 liters of beer, which is admittedly small, but by Mexican standards that number puts them in the top 20 percent of breweries in the country. The group will export their first batch of three labels, including Nochtli, in November, which will be available in major markets including New York and California as of January of 2020. For now, you can purchase its beers in its bottle shop in the Hipódromo neighorhood of Mexico City.
Vera-Cruz and his team have a radical vision from what Mexican beer should be, but whether consumers in the States buy in is the biggest question for the young brewery’s future. According to Vera-Cruz, “Our objective is to create or fill a gap in a non-existent Mexican identity in beer making.”