“There’s a preconceived notion of what Mexican beer is and it’s not very exciting,” Jacob Sembrano says.
We sit here – chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless, his head brewer Sembrano and I – on a balmy 90-degree late-September day contemplating Mexico’s beer identity. But we’re not discussing the light lagers that are commonly associated with the region. Instead it’s a German doppelbock named Das Bueno and CDMX Pilsner that recently starred in the brewery’s annual Oktoberfest celebration.
Yes, Chicago’s Cruz Blanca is a true cervecería, but not in the way many would expect. Instead, its roots lie in 19th century Mexico.
Sure, if you want to be nitpicky you can go all the way back to 1540 when Alfonso de Herrero reportedly operated the first brewery in the Americas, specializing in making the same style of beer that was gaining popularity in Europe at the time, but was doomed by poor access to ingredients. Or even further back to when the Aztecs were downing glasses of fermented corn beer after a long day of building pyramids, probably.
But as far as we’re concerned, our story begins in 1864 with the appointment of the first emperor of Mexico, Maximilian I.
“A lot of people think that Mexico and beer have forever been linked, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that that started,” Bayless says. “The 1800s all over the world were a very crazy time. Mexico had declared its independence from Spain in 1820, but they were completely bankrupt. They had borrowed money from all these European countries to fight that war. Everybody forgave the debt except for France and France wanted their money.”
Flash forward through a series of battles and wars that spanned Mexico into the southern United States until the 1850s. In 1860, the French established Maximilian of Austria in Mexico City as a way for Mexico to pay back its debt.
But what does all this have to do with beer? Well, Maximilian was quick to impose his own beliefs and preferences on the Mexican people, this ranged from expanding the right to vote and limiting child labor to his much more personal love of beer. “Maximilian said he had to have his brewer, he had to his pastry maker and he had to have his bakers so he brought them over in droves and they stayed,” Bayless says.
Maximilian lost his life to a firing squad in 1867, but the brewers he brought over during his short reign remained. These brewers were fond of the Vienna-style lager.
This light amber lager is known for its subtle malt flavor and equally delicate sweetness. If you think it sounds like the Dos Equis or Negra Modelo you are used to, that’s because it does. The first Mexican breweries were making beer as much for the native Mexican as they were for the European immigrants that flooded the country.
Flash forward fifty years to when American prohibition hits and now it’s Americans who are traveling to Mexico in order to get their beer fix. What they found was the highly drinkable Vienna lager, which became representative of Mexican beer.
European brewing roots mingle with contemporary Mexican flavors in a celebration that features steins of bright pink hibiscus lager and bratwurst tacos.”
When it came time for the man behind some of Chicago’s most respected and awarded Mexican restaurants to open a brewery that paid tribute to the same region, Bayless took a deep dive into Mexican beer history. He not only uncovered the story of Maximilian, but also that of Emil Dercher. Dercher is credited with producing the country’s first lager at his brewery Cruz Blanca in 1869. He is also credited for bringing the more avant-garde Alsatian brewing style to Mexico.
“Even though Mexico’s tradition is about making lagers,” Bayless explains. “One of our inspirations for this brewery was not the lager tradition only, but also that Alsatian tradition, which was a lot more experimental.”
Cruz Blanca’s name and brewing style set the foundation for Bayless’ brewery. He brought in Sembrano to translate 150 years of Mexican brewing history into a drinkable product. The brewery debuted in the spring of last year. The opening lineup featured a dry-hopped smoked wheat ale inspired by Mexico’s “Smoke Alley” market, a porter made with cocoa bean husks, and a Bière de Garde.
That great lineup can best be tasted at Cruz Blanca’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. It’s there that the European brewing roots mingle with contemporary Mexican flavors in a celebration that features steins of bright pink hibiscus lager and bratwurst tacos. While the party has passed, most of the Oktoberfest beers are still available.
“Our interpretation was really quite fascinating because as opposed to deliberately brewing this märzen, we brewed a Vienna lager, we were serving our pilsner, and I always like to have a doppelbock in the fall,” Sembrano says.
These brews are the result not only of the months of research that went into planning Cruz Blanca, but also month of brewing since the opening in order to bring that research to life. It might not be the lime-friendly lagers customers were expecting or ales flavored with cilantro, but in many ways its something even more in tune with Mexico’s beer identity.
Cruz Blanca’s draft list now consists of two sections “Mexico City Heritage” and “New American Craft.” Combined they embody brewing legacy of German, Austrian, and French immigrants that brought commercial brewing to Mexico in the late 19th century as well as the new-wave craft brewers that are influenced by today’s craft beer explosion.
“I think people immediately thought that if we said we were doing a Mexican brewery that we were going to copy what they are doing at Five Rabbits,” Bayless says. “It’s anything but that. They are taking flavors that people associate with a Mexican kitchen and applying those to beer. We’re working from a broader perspective than that and a much more historical perspective than that. Actually looking to see what kinds of things we can resurrect from the past.”
So next time you’re sipping a märzen in Munich and dry-hopped, unfiltered Indiana pale lager in Chicago, know these geographically divided beers aren’t as different as they seem.