When I started this blog a year ago or so, one of the first things I wrote about was my experience trying to find the right beer to go with a dinner of cheese quesadillas, salsa, and my wife Amy’s fresh guacamole. It was a non-event, really, held on an ordinary Thursday, with no particular goal or intended outcome in mind. It just seemed like fun to us, and that, in a way, is what gave rise to my idea for starting a weekly blog: writing aimless thoughts, about nothing especially important, to share with anyone who wants to be carried away for awhile.
Well, in honor of that fateful moment, and in celebration of Cinco de Mayo, which turns up on the calendar tomorrow (and in light of the fact that fewer people will be heading south of South of the Border any time soon), I decided to revisit the question that started it all — what beer goes best with Mexican food? — and recently held a tasting (a last-minute decision, of course) over dinner with some friends.
But before you shout out the names of your favorite imports — especially the bottled ones that require you to cram a lime down their necks like some poor foie gras goose — let me just say that I decided to go with an all-American craft brewery selection for this tasting. Why? For one thing, like St. Patty’s Day, Cinco de Mayo is really just an Americanized version of another country’s phony holiday. (In fact, this boozy-woozy pair of “traditions” single-handedly, and literally, keeps places like Hooters and Party City afloat through the springtime doldrums.) Why “phony”? Well, according to Wikipedia (the phony Encyclopedia Britannica), Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day, as popularly believed. Instead it’s a relatively regionalized, voluntary holiday commemorating the Mexican army’s defeat of occupying French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 — 50 years after the country had declared its independence. (You can read a more detailed history of the holiday here.)
In other words, few people in Mexico care about Cinco de Mayo. The main reason it’s recognized in this country is to celebrate Americans of Mexican ancestry. And that’s not a bad thing, except that the most popular “holiday” beers are terribly Yankee-fied — there’s very little difference between, say, a bottle of Corona and a bottle Coors. (Perhaps it’s an urban myth, but it’s my understanding that even Mexicans don’t drink Corona.) Because of this cerveza chauvinism, few people know about or have tried the better-tasting Mexican beers, like Dos Equis, Tecate, Pacifico, or (my favorite) Negro Modelo.
And the “traditional” Mexican foods we Americans eat — tacos, nachos, quesadillas, chalupas, etc. — are about as culturally authentic as Chicken a la King (read this amusing and informative article, or this “taco-off” review, and you’ll see what I mean). I have had the good fortune to eat real Mexican food only once or twice (and only on this side of the border), so I am no expert; suffice to say, though, from the ingredients listed in some of the recipes I read in preparation for this article, the mix of flavors looks complex and delicious. In case you are interested, you can find recipes for authentic Mexican meals here, along with some traditional drink recipes. Also, SELF magazine offers some healthy yet tasty-looking variations on traditional recipes, such as fish tacos and sangria.
As it turns out, then, unlike the marauding French who failed to conquer Mexico and got their son of a Bonaparte blown apart on May 5, we neighborly Americans have quietly taken over Cinco de Mayo entirely. So it seems fitting that we gringos should celebrate it on our own and let Mexico honor its true Independence Day on September 16 in paz.
With that objective in mind, and with the help from Jed, my trusted sudsologist at The Wine Source, I chose beers from several different styles — cinco, to be exact — for this week’s tasting: amber lagers, pale ales, India pale ales (IPAs), pilsners, and saisons. All are versatile and flavorful enough to accompany and enhance a less-than-traditional (though no less delicious) Americanized meal of homemade guacamole, chips and salsa, chicken enchiladas with green chili and cheese filling, Spanish rice, and a salad with a ginger-spiced herb dressing and pan-fried tortilla croutons. Slight variations to the menu would call for different beer choices — for instance, I might serve an altbier or a brown ale to go with a bean burrito slathered in smoky chile sauce, while a dry Irish stout would make the perfect mate for sizzling beef and grilled vegetable fajitas.
Also, in terms of a pre-dinner cocktail for this menu, I recommend tequila and prefer to sip it on the rocks, with a wedge of lime. It’s a simple, elegant way to prepare for the fiesta of flavors to come. Margaritas are my next choice, but only if made from scratch and poured over ice; the premixes are often bitter and too harsh as an aperitif, and the frozen variety numbs the tongue like a lime Slurpee (and aye-aye-ayee!, what a “brain freeze”). Anyway, I recently received a sample bottle of the 2008 Plata from Tequila Ocho, a “single estate” tequila distilled in Las Pomez, in the mountains of Mexico. I tried it over ice, with and without fresh lime, and concluded that, with a pedigree like that of a single-batch bourbon, and its sweet molasses aroma and fruity, nutty flavors, this drink could be habit forming.
Following are the beers we tasted, grouped by style (from the lightest to the most complex), with a few tasting notes and serving suggestions. Enjoy!
Pilsners: I never tire of the quaffable Prima Pils from Victory Brewing Co., which has a dry, slightly bittersweet quality that’s perfectly suited for starters like chips and salsa, and which a tasting panel at the New York Times recently hailed as best in style. However, I thought the Pils from Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, California, should be crowned pilsner head honcho for our meal. This Czech style pilsner was a little darker in color than the others, had a slightly maltier, sturdier flavor base, and thus was better able to shoulder the broad mix of flavors of the whole meal. We also enjoyed Sunshine Pils from Troegs, which was slightly hoppier than the others and shone brightest with the mildly flavored foods.
Amber lagers: Following in the pioneering spirit of their forebears, many of the early American microbrewers thought that bottling a pilsner — which is a lager, essentially the only style of beer available on the market in the early 1980s — was not distinctive enough. So, many focused on ales. But a few, including the Brooklyn Brewery, combined several ingredients (a little roasted malt for color and flavor, some aromatic hops, etc.) to create something unique: the American amber lager. The extra caramel sweetness and added hoppiness found in Brooklyn Lager and others like it, such as Old Scratch, from Flying Dog, make this style quite versatile, compared to the more traditional European pilsners. For instance, I thought Brooklyn Lager, which is great with something zesty, like pizza, paired well with the tomato-based salsa and the spicy rice dish. Others preferred the Flying Dog, which with its smokier flavor and slightly drier finish, would be a faithful companion to chicken enchiladas topped with guacamole and sour cream.
Pale ales: For years, my beer of choice for Mexican meals has been Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Its slightly bitter, sweet, bready flavors and fragrant, citrusy aromas are a great match for the toasted flour tortillas, melted cheese, and tart tomatoes and cilantro in my wife’s chicken enchiladas, smothered in salsa. I always have a bottle or two in the refrigerator. However, after tasting the Pale Ale from Caldera Brewing Company in Ashland, Oregon, my Sierras may have to make some elbow room on the “staples” shelf in the door. This robust, malty, clean-tasting beer — which comes in a can and will surely share cooler space with Dale’s Pale Ale come summer — paired well with everything on my plate, from the dollop of guac to the discriminating, zesty salad dressing. The group also liked another stalwart of mine, Shelter Pale Ale from Dogfish Head, which is a little less pungent but weathered the meal equally well.
India pale ales: The typical IPA differs from a pale ale in one distinct way — hops. And most American craft-brewers are generous when adding these little, green flower buds, which produce the bitter, citric, piney aromas that are characteristic of the IPA style. The hops are also responsible for providing the slightly crisper, sharper refreshment and extra cutting power that some pale ales lack but are often needed in the battle against spicy food. So, if your tamales are well-wrapped and you like your chilis hot, hot, hot, then pour yourself an IPA. I thought the ThunderHead IPA from Pyramid Breweries, which the label says is “bursting with hops,” certainly lived up to its name and was a palate pleaser. However, several eaters felt the Hop Hog, from Lancaster Brewing Company, and the “perfectly balanced” Southampton Publick House IPA, were less tempestuous and and thus a more level-headed selection for the table.
Saisons: As brewmaster and brews expert Garrett Oliver says, saisons are so complex and diverse they “seem to go with everything.” This Belgian “farmhouse ale” style is especially accommodating to meals featuring a mix of flavor types, whether bright (lime, chilies, cilantro) or dark (refried beans, cayenne pepper), or sweet (cheese) and acidic (salsa). There’s plenty of bitterness in saison to cut through the fat and salt, high carbonation to cleanse the palate, and spicy, fruity notes (everything from pepper to coriander to oranges) to mingle with an assortment of flavors. We tried Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York, and Red Sky at Night from Baltimore-based Clipper City. Although I liked both beers, especially the way they enhanced the starchy, smoky rice and the salsa, the group of tasters all preferred the Red Sky ( “slightly sweeter,” they said, and “tamer”) to the Hennepin ( “just plain weird”).
So, there you have it — my suggestions for five American-born craft beer styles that will make you shout “yee-ha!” at your Cinco de Mayo festivities. As always, let me know what you think.
And, I should mention, here we are — 52-plus posts later, nearly 3,500 page views, and lots and lots of great comments. Although I haven’t said anything important in a whole year, I’m still having fun. Hope you are, too. Thanks for reading!