Take clam juice, tomato juice, worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, lime, and Tabasco. Mix with ice, and top with a mass-produced lager. There you have it: a Caesar for people with no vodka in the kitchen. A fishy beer Bloody Mary. America’s ascendant brunch libation.
When Budweiser announced their nationwide collaboration with Clamato in 2008, eyebrows were raised. Why was this St. Louis mega-brewer suddenly cutting their beer with mollusk broth and airplane juice and selling them in 24 oz. cans? A decade later, the chelada is chic, with brands like Modelo, Tecate, and most recently Sol bringing their variations on the savory beer cocktail to the United States.
Last year, the top eight chelada brands accounted for $380 million in off-the-shelf sales, and that figure is growing, up 11% in 2019. The chelada may be trendy, but it is certainly not new. Though the recipe reads like something a college student invented while trying to drink their dorm fridge dry the night before semester’s end, there is a dense history behind the craze.
In Mexico, when you have a michelada, you have it with seafood. They use that seafood sauce to dress ceviches, seafood cocktails.”
The etymology “michelada” is the subject of some debate, but prevailing logic goes that it’s a Spanish portmanteau for mi (my), chela (Mexican slang for beer), and helada (iced). A competing, probably apocryphal, story contends that Mexican civil engineer Michel Esper liked to drink his beer with salt, lime, and a chili powder rim, and the tennis club he frequented named the mixture in his honor.
The difference between a michelada and a chelada down to semantics. In Mexico, a chelada commonly refers to a beer cocktail (or cerveza preparada) made with ice, lime, and salt—Esper-style, which is maybe not too different to how you’d dress a Corona or shot of tequila. Michelada more typically refers to the beer-based sister to the Bloody Mary.
Bill Esparza doesn’t put too much stock into the origin story of the chelada. The L.A. Mexicano author writes off any anthropological exploration as “bullshit.” If you understand the flavor profile of Mexican beach cuisine, there’s nothing mysterious about the popularity of cheladas.
“This is all coming from mariscos culture,” Esparza says. “In Mexico, when you have a michelada, you have it with seafood. They use that seafood sauce to dress ceviches, seafood cocktails. Clamato is used on tostadas. Especially in Sinaloa.”
It’s likely that the beverage spread from Sinaloa across Jalisco and through Baja California, even down to Oaxaca, where residents make their cheladas extra salty. Cheladas have been gaining favor among Mexicans, and the taste for the drink migrated north with immigrants to America. All it took was the big brands recognizing their customers to flip it into a trend. They know their customers are Mexican-American, they know that segment is growing, and they know they like these flavors.
“It’s just good marketing,” Esparza says with a chuckle. “Budweiser is very popular with Mexicans. So, they were drinking it and adding salt and lime. I saw family members doing that when I was a kid. Naturally, Budweiser said, ‘Well, these are our customers, so let’s give them something they like.’”
The main difference between the Baja beach bevvy and the mass-market interpretation is clam juice, which is a key ingredient in Clamato. Sol has distributed three distinct products called Sol Clamato in Mexico since 2011. When the brand relaunched its U.S. distribution with MillerCoors in 2018, its michelada became Sol Chelada. Sol, like many big brands, does not include clam juice in its ready-to-drink cheladas. In many cases, ingredients such Maggi, Chamoy, and Tajín are added instead. Sweeter interpretations with tamarind and mango, such as Modelo’s Tamarindo Picante Chelada, are also becoming popular. So long as it’s tomato-based and made with beer, it fits squarely in the American understanding of the chelada.
“When culture transferred from Mexico to the United States, it filters through the American filter,” explains Luis Castelló, account supervisor for the Sol brand. “‘Chelada’ is the term that Mexican Americans coined specifically for that type of beverage. When companies began taking notice of this, they just used what’s most popular among Mexican-Americans.”
The mass-produced, canned chelada is optimized for grab-and-go decision-making. Almost exclusively in 24 oz. cans, it’s perfect for convenience store shopping, which is the domain of the macros. Rarely do you see a craft brewer vying for shelf space in the corner gas station.
Beer was never super sacred.”
Sergio Manacero, president of La Doña Cervecería, is one of the few craft brewery owners vying for a piece of the chelada market. Manacero grew up as the son of Uruguayan immigrants. When he opened his Latin-inspired craft brewery in Minneapolis, he resolved to make his menu representative of the diverse cultures of South and Central America.
While most craft brewers see their beer as a complete product, to the point that they even discourage cellaring. Manacero and his head brewer Dicky Lopez disagree. They both grew up in cultures where adding flavor enhancers to beer was encouraged.
“The culture in the United States is a very purist culture when it comes to drinking,” Manacero says. “You drink your bourbon neat, maybe a couple drops of water, you take your coffee black. Everywhere else, it’s not a big deal to play around with it.”
“Beer was never super sacred,” Manacero continues. “When I go to Uruguay, you can drink a liter of Pilsen. It’s great beer, but it doesn’t taste like anything amazing. So, you throw some Fanta in there, and now you have an interesting drink.”
La Doña serves three cervezas preparadas: a traditional lime-and-salt chelada, a tomato-y michelada, and a mango michelada. It’s the only taproom in the Twin Cities that offers cheladas, and one of a very small population of craft brewers—headlined by California’s Tio Rodrigo and Black Market Brewing—capitalizing the craze. Much like Bud, Modelo, or Sol, Manacero uses his cheladas as a market differentiator.
“Everybody’s had a lager, everybody’s had ten IPAs,” Manacero says. “This is a way to make your taproom a little more interesting.”