A few years ago, in March 2020 a group of friends played out a scene at a pub in Hillcrest which was probably replicated elsewhere in South Africa: they ordered a round of Corona beers because they’d heard something about a Coronavirus in China…

Photographs were taken and shared on social media, the label of the Mexican beer prominently displayed. The pandemic and accompanying booze ban which followed wiped the smiles off those innocent, joking faces very quickly!

By value, the Mexican beer trade is massive. According to figures released in 2021, the Mexican beer market was worth $5.657 billion (R101.8 billion) while in April 2022 monthly beer exports from the country hit a record high of $588 million (R10.6 billion).

Contrast this figure with the statistic that back in 2020 South Africa imported $56 million (R1 billion) worth of Mexican beer annually. Beer is the 15th most exported Mexican product – and the South African market is very small when compared to Mexico’s northern neighbours the United States and Canada which account for
$4.1 billion (R73.8 billion) and $74.8 million (R1.35 billion) in sales.

The really interesting thing is that there’s more to Mexican beer than just Corona, Sol and Dos Equis. This is a country which has a long and very proud brewing tradition that stretches back centuries – way back to the Aztecs in the 1200s. As a people, this warrior tribe were probably the last great American civilisation before European colonisation took over the continent.

Until the Spanish colonists introduced barley after they occupied the country in the 1500s, beer was made from corn. The alcoholic beverage most commonly made before the Spaniards arrived was pulque, a lightly alcoholic drink fermented from the sap of the agave plant. This was the drink which was frequently used in religious rituals by the Aztecs. The drink which closely resembled beer was tesgüino or izquiate, brewed from fermented corn which was amber in colour, according to Wikipedia, and was also whisked before drinking. Tesgüino can still be found in the northern and western states of Chihuahua, Sonora and Colima but it tends to be brewed at home rather than commercially made. Something similar is also home brewed in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco. It’s called pozol and cocoa beans are added to the mix.

Spanish colonizer Hernan Cortes allowed his soldiers to brew their own beer since it’s what they knew – but barley was in short supply. It took a long while for sufficient supplies of the grain to be grown in order for the drink to reach commercial quantities – and it was heavily taxed. It was only after the Mexican War of Independence (1810 to 1821) that these restrictions were lifted. There was an influx of German immigrants who brought their proud brewing tradition with them and by 1918 there were 36 brewing companies across the fledgling nation.

The biggest spur to the growth of commercial brewing in Mexico was Prohibition in the United States! Americans happily crossed their southern border to slake their thirsts and led to the construction of breweries along the border – Mexicali Brewery and the Aztec Brewing Company, both of which were on the Baja peninsula. Wikipedia states that by 1925 Mexico produced 50 000 litres of beer a year, but most Mexicans still preferred to drink pulque.

Although it’s never been proven to be the case, the European immigrant brewers apparently began circulating rumours that the making of pulque was unsanitary while promoting beer as “rigorously hygienic and modern”. The ruse worked and people rapidly switched to beer.

In the past century, industrialisation as well as consolidation meant that where 36 different brewers thrived, only two corporations remain, controlling 90% of all beer production: Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma. Both of these companies are in turn owned by global brewing behemoths, AB InBev and Heineken respectively.

Despite this there are many different styles of beer made in Mexico with lager and pilsner being the most common, but there are also Vienna-style light and dark beer as well as Munich dark beer as a result of the contribution made by German immigrants.

Corona is the single largest individual brand sold in Mexico and beyond. The light, mild brew which clocks in at 4.6% alcohol by volume, is one of the five most consumed beers in the world and is the best-selling non-domestic beer in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia! But since 4.6 billion litres are brewed in eight different facilities, that’s hardly a surprise!

Bohemia is the most traditional and longest lived pilsner in Mexico and it boasts a distinct hops flavour, being quite dense. Much of this can be attributed to its use of Lepa Styrian hops and long aging. It’s one of the original products in the Cervecería Cuauhtémoc stable and takes its name from the Bohemia region of what is now the Czech Republic. Other brands in their orbit include Tecate, Sol, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Superior and Indio.

The large brands made under Grupo Modelo’s banner include Corona, Corona Light, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, Victoria, Estrella, Léon, Montejo and Pacifico. Some of the darker beers to look for are Dos Equis Ambar, Léon Negra, Negra Modela and the popular Noche Buena.