It’s a myth that craft lovers only like full-bodied, high-abv beers. Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Durango, Colorado-based Ska Brewing, recalls making his first batch of a light and refreshing lager nearly 30 years ago as a reprieve from the southwest summer heat. Mexican Logger ($10 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans), a nod to popular imports from south of the border, fit the bill. “Today, Logger is our No.-2 beer by volume, even though it’s only available five months of the year,” Thibodeau says. Dave Cole, co-founder of Denver-based Epic Brewing Co. says that when looking to diversify the portfolio five years ago, he found success with a Mexican-style lager produced with lime and a hint of sea salt. Los Locos Mexican-style lager ($10-11) is now one of Epic’s top-selling brews.
Mexican-style lagers from craft brewers are indeed hitting their stride. As competition in the craft segment intensifies, brewers are seeking a wider audience and targeting mainstream domestic and imported lager drinkers. “Mexican imports are the darling of the beer category these days, and craft brewers are now producing their own premium versions,” says Manny Valdez, owner of Cruz Blanca Brewery & Taquería in Chicago, which produces Mexico Calling Especial lager ($10).
“Craft drinkers appreciate that approach to such a popular style,” says Maegan Eason, marketing and events manager at Deep Ellum Brewing Co. in Dallas, which produces Neato Bandito Mexican-style imperial lager ($10). “Many consumers want a Mexican-style option that’s not mass-produced.” Thibodeau adds that domestically produced Mexican-style lagers also appeal to consumers who appreciate great craft beer but find that high-abv offerings can be too much.
Jerry Ornelias, bartender at 1910 bar in Geneva, Illinois, says that while some customers are unsure of what to expect, “they’re generally pleased that the craft beers offer more flavor than Mexican imports.” 1910 offers 21st Amendment Brewery’s El Sully ($6 a 16-ounce pour) and Sun King Brewing’s Pachanga ($5 a 12-ounce can) Mexican-style lagers on its menu.
Eason understands that some question whether Mexican-style lagers are a year-round fit, and notes that Neato Bandito—now available year-round in Texas and Oklahoma—was originally introduced as a summer seasonal. “At first we assumed that because it was a lighter option, Neato should only be marketed during the summer,” she says. “But that wasn’t the case—there’s demand year-round.”
Thibodeau, meanwhile, says that although some distributors and retailers in the 12 states where Mexican Logger is available have pushed for year-round sales, demand for the beer slows down by autumn. Josh Robinson, assistant general manager at Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Denver—which stocks around five SKUs in the category, generally priced at $8-$11 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans—agrees. “They sell better in summer,” he says, noting that the beers are ideal for outdoor activities.
Mexican-style craft lagers receive increased marketing support in the run-up to Cinco de Mayo. “We set up on- and off-premise activations focused on samplings and promos,” Eason says. “Many bars will offer Micheladas using Neato Bandito.” Cruz Blanca—which operates a brewpub and taquería in partnership with chef Rick Bayless—touts pairing Mexico Calling with food items like ceviche, pork belly, and guacamole.
While growing, Mexican-style craft lagers remain a tiny category compared to their imported counterparts. “In Southern California, they do great,” says Matt Link, beer buyer and floor manager at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa “But they’re not having any noticeable impact on Mexican imports. We’re not seeing a crossover of Corona Extra consumers to crafts.” But Thibodeau says some Colorado retailers see Mexican Logger far outselling lagers from Mexico. “As the craft market has saturated, we’ve pulled in consumers who like light lagers, including those who prefer to support a local product,” he notes.
Retailers and brewers agree that Mexican-style craft brews have a bright future. “These beers are on trend with the lighter, more sessionable beer movement,” says Robinson. “I expect the segment to continue to grow.”