The arrival of summer means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For more than a few Houstonians, it offers excellent incentives and opportunities to regularly indulge in one of our most distinctive regional treats: Tex-Mex food and cold beer. (Margs and Mex will have to wait for another article.) With the majority of the beer selections at many Mexican restaurants being, reasonably enough, Mexican, we thought it would be a good idea to kick off this season with a blind tasting of popular Mexican beers.
My Table’s editor, Teresa Byrne-Dodge, assembled a tasting panel comprised of a mix of professionals and enthusiastic amateurs, several of which could hold their own against any wine aficionado in terms of knowledge, experience, passion and preference.
The panel knew that all the beers being tasted had something in common with each other, but not, exactly, what. It’s a testament to the panel – as well as to the distinctive character of Mexican beers – that about halfway through the tasting an overall consensus emerged that the beers were, indeed, all from Mexico. About three-quarters of the way through the tasting, a steady stream of fond reminisces of sunny Mexico spontaneously emanated from the panel.
Each of the beers was judged on five categories: appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and finish. Each category was given a rating of zero to 5 by each panelist, with 5 being the best. A perfect score would be 25. All of the beers were lagers, and they were all served at 55°F.
The first beer tasted was Tecate Light. This beer was bright, sunny and clear and produced a large head with small, tight bubbles with almost no retention. The panel agreed that it, “sort of smells like beer.” Its flavor was described as bland, simple and “kind of like club soda without the minerality.” Some malt was detected, but no hops. Its finish was long, but metallic. Its average score was 9.
Next, was Corona Light. It was bright, clear and very pale in color. There was little or no head retention. Its nose was stale, skunky and slightly oxidized. The panel though the flavor was “bitter in a bad way” and tasted of cardboard. The carbonation was very aggressive and reminded the tasters of hydrogen peroxide. Its finish was bitter, but short. It received an average score of 6.
We then tasted Corona Extra. It was bright, clear and pleasant in appearance, with moderate head retention. It had a mild but discernable and attractive aroma of hops. On the palate, it exhibited some light hops, but also some soapy dishwater notes. Without paying much attention, it came across as diluted beer. The carbonation felt non-integrated. Its finish was medium-long, and tasted of metals and chemicals. Its average score was 9.
We then moved on to Sol. This beer was unusually bright, with an attractive, slightly more golden hue. Its head was thick, with good retention and some lacing. There was a consensus among the panelists that it smelled and tasted like cardboard. It was fairly thin in the mouth, with large, non-integrated bubbles. The finish was medium-long, with some pleasant minerality. Its average score was 10.
Next up was Tecate. It was bright, clear and pale, with a very nice head and decent lacing. Its aroma induced the sensation of a chemical burn. Its flavor was smoother and slightly sweeter than previously tasted beers, and had a more-integrated carbonation. One panelist suggested that a better quality of corn was used. Its finish was medium-length and smooth, with a hint of hops. Its score: 11.
We then tasted Dos Equis Lager. It had a very attractive lemon color, and a generous head with very little retention. Its overall flavor was bland, but with a discernable and unpleasant burn. The mouthfeel was smooth, although the carbonation was on the aggressive side. It finished with a small amount of tasty hops. Its average score was 11.
Modelo Especial, the pale cousin of Negra Modelo, was next. The color was unattractive and dull, with almost no head. The aroma was faint, but vaguely beer-like. The flavor was tired and more indicative of corn than barley. There were some hop flavors, the mouthfeel was smooth, and the carbonation felt more integrated than some of the previous beers. The finish was short and tasted like flat beer. Average score: 11.
We moved on to Carta Blanca. The color was a dull, pale yellow. Its head was tight, with decent retention. The aroma hinted at muted malt and hops. The flavor was similar, coming across as if it were beer, but diluted. The mouthfeel was smooth, but the finish was flat, cardboardy and short. Its average score was 12.
Next, we tasted Pacifico. Its color was a light, bright, clear yellow, with very little head. The aroma was subtle, but was slightly painful and burning. The panel thought the taste was harsh, sweet, cardboardy and reminded them of rust. The mouthfeel was flat and watery, with non-integrated carbonation. The finish was short and rusty. Score: 8.
We then tried Indio, an amber beer. Its color was a very attractive, bright toffee, with a full though short-lived head. The aroma was honeyed caramel, not to be confused with toasted malt. Its flavor was contrived and meretricious, but redolent of caramel, honey and nuts. The mouthfeel was thinner that the panel expected considering the color, aroma and taste, with a short finish of molasses. Its average score was 11.
Our next beer was Bohemia. It had a very light, sunny yellow color, and a good head with some retention. On the nose, tasters detected citrus overtones, along with cardboard and a slight chemical burn. On the palate, a smooth maltiness and pleasant hops were noted. The mouthfeel was round, with nicely integrated carbonation. Its medium-long finish ended with mild hops. It garnered an average score of 13.
Dos Equis Amber had a dull, red-amber color and a healthy head with good retention and some lacing. Its aroma was of bad coffee in a rusty mug. The flavor was mild, slightly sweet, and metallic. The mouthfeel was compared to “licking sharkskin” and the finish was coarse. Its score was 9.
We ended with Negra Modelo, a darkish Vienna-style lager. This beer was a favorite of the panel. It had a very nice, toasted orange color, and a good head with some retention and lacing. The aroma demonstrated a pleasant, toasted maltiness. The flavor was sweet (almost cloying), without much malt, but some hops. The mouthfeel was round and full and the medium finish was of toasted malt and chocolate. It scored 15.
The two biggest points made in the course of this tasting were the importance of context and the ruthless nature of blind tasting. Scrutinized under the harsh light of the highest expectations and standards, without the safety net of fond memories of past encounters with the brands being tasted, most of these beers didn’t fare very well. The truth is, for someone looking for something cold and bland with moderately aggressive bubbles to wash down rich, spicy foods, the lighter beers that were tasted will absolutely do the trick. If sufficiently chilled, many of their less pleasant characteristics are mitigated. (This is not high praise, but it is true.) The darker, sweeter beers do a good job of accentuating and complementing the flavors in corn, chiles, various aromatics and spices, and in squelching excessive heat. I, for one, have very fond memories of drinking Negra Modelo with chicken mole.
Most light-colored Mexican beers are (very) vaguely in the style of a Pilsner. Many of the darker Mexican beers can be considered relations of Vienna-style lagers or Oktoberfest. If you enjoy Mexican beers and are in the mood to branch out a little, it might be fun to experiment with beers that have served as their inspiration.