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On Tap: The Story of Mexican Lagers

BELLINGHAM, WA (MyBellinghamNow.com) – Tamales wrapped in corn husks are steaming away. Gringos near and far are trying and likely failing to emulate flavors from south of the border. Breweries across Whatcom County are cranking out Mexican lagers for all to enjoy. Cinco de Mayo weekend is here.

What is a Mexican lager? Why are they such an integral part of Cinco de Mayo celebrations?

“It (Mexican lager) was created years and years ago by German immigrants in Mexico that wanted to keep their beer going but they couldn’t get the grains that they wanted,” said Scot White, brewer and co-owner of FrinGe Brewing in Ferndale. “So, they would use flaked maize (corn) to lighten the beer up and make it more drinkable, approachable.”

FrinGe’s Noroeste (Northwest) Mexican lager is based on a recipe from 1869, making it a perfect example of how history and brewing are intrinsically linked.

Noruste Mexican lager from Fringe Brewing in Ferndale, WA. Photo by Adam Smith.

The first half of the 19th century was tough for Mexico. Years of internal political struggle, along with the disastrous outcome of the Mexican American War, left the country with massive debts owed to European governments.

In 1861, Benito Juárez was elected president and immediately set about instituting liberal reforms. To manage the country’s financial problems, Juárez announced the country would default on their debt to Britain, Spain and France.

The United States was preoccupied with the Civil War at the time, so these European monarchies seized the opportunity and sent forces to Veracruz in hopes of recouping those debts. Britain and Spain negotiated deals with the new Mexican government and headed home, but France decided to invade the young republic.

The French marched towards Mexico City and were confronted by a much smaller contingent of Mexican troops. On May 5, 1862, Mexico was victorious at the Battle of Puebla. The victory was bittersweet. Mexico won the battle, but eventually lost the war.

Just as the United States had done fifteen years before, French forces stormed Mexico City and seized control of the country. Napoleon III anointed as the leader of the Second Mexican Empire an Austrian named Archduke Maximilian. Maximilian brought Austrian and German immigrants to Mexico and with them came their insatiable thirst for lager beer.

The French empire in Mexico fell apart in 1867 and Archduke Maximilian was tried and executed. The Austrian ruler responsible for kicking off the beer scene in Mexico is a polarizing figure to this day, but the beer culture he left behind continues to bring people together.

“If you look at history, so many of the brewing centers of the world are influenced by German, Czech or Austrian immigrants,” said Sam Milne, head brewer and co-owner of Larrabee Lager Company in Bellingham. “So, you think about St. Louis and Milwaukee; all German guys in the 1800s that moved over here to start brewing. It’s the same thing in Mexico. All these Austrian brewmasters moved to Mexico City and brought their beers.”

Larrabee Lager’s LarraVeza Mexican lager. Photo by Adam Smith

Like FrinGe’s Noroeste, Larrabee’s LarraVeza Mexican lager is light and quenching. Milne says he and his wife have always gravitated toward these kinds of lagers.

“I’m passionate about drinking four beers on my porch with my dog, spying on the neighbors, cutting the grass or going to a baseball game,” Milne said.

Mexican lagers don’t have to be light though. Beers like Negro Modelo and Noche Buena are amber to dark in color and have a smooth malty flavor. They’re descendants of the Vienna lagers, dunkels and Czech dark lagers that were popular in central Europe during the 19th century.

“The Mexican dark lagers…. are lovely because they are still very clean but then they give you a touch more caramel,” said Milne. “It’s just layers of depth.”

El Sueñito Brewing in Bellingham’s Sunnyland neighborhood has a great selection of Mexican lagers. Owner’s Osbaldo Hernandez and Dennis Ramey have created a space dedicated to preserving and celebrating the traditions of Mexico.

“It’s in our bones,” said El Sueñito Operations Manager Kiersten Umbinetti-Hutton. “Process wise, we’re doing things more modern but any chance we get we are going to pay homage to the traditions of Mexico.”

El Sueñito’s award-winning Alebrijes Mexican lager is a standout light-drinking lager. They’re not afraid to go dark though. Their Conejo Azteca Dark Mexican lager is bold and smooth. It is a must try for fans of dark beer.

“It’s a little bit darker. A little bit more rich than a Negro Modelo,” said Dennis Ramey, head brewer and co-owner of El Sueñito. “We’re aiming for somewhere between a Negro Modelo and a Schwarzbier.”

Conejo Azteca Dark Mexican lager from El Sueñito in Bellingham, WA. Photo by Adam Smith.

Last year, El Sueñito celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a cultural party that included live music and dancers. This year, it’s all about the beer. They’re hosting Fiesta de Lagers this weekend (May 3 to 5), welcoming brewers from five Seattle breweries pouring everything from Mexican Lagers to Italian pilsners.

The Mobile Mouth Hole will be on the scene at FrinGe Brewing this Sunday, May 5 serving up tacos to go along with the Noroeste Mexican lager. Larrabee Lager plans on serving a special Cinco de Mayo pizza that should pair nicely with their LarraVeza Mexican lager.

While Cinco de Mayo is not widely celebrated in Mexico outside of Puebla, it has become firmly cemented across the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage. So, wherever you end up this Sunday, take a moment to try a Mexican lager. Raise a glass to our brothers and sisters to the south. Taste the history.

Just make sure you do it responsibly.

On Tap is a monthly column by Adam Smith exploring the ever-expanding beer culture in Whatcom County. If you taste a beer you’d like us to cover in the future, send an email to [email protected].