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Can the Corona for Your Cinco de Mayo Party
by Elliot Essman

This article was nominated for the 2005 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award.

The 1970's, my college years, were a time of intellectual ferment for me. At the time I was under the delusion that I needed to study philosophy, history and literature to earn the right to call myself educated. I learned differently during the 1980's, when I attended the International School of Bartending in New York City. One of our teachers was a real scholar when it came to spirits and wines. He encouraged me to earn certificates in champagne and cognac appreciation, to read widely about the cultural history of Scottish whiskeys and Italian aperitifs. I didn't expect his beer lecture, one of the last in the course, to be his finest. "Beer is, or at least should be, a living thing," he stressed, his eyes misting (even though he hadn't yet been doing any drinking). "When you find a fine beer, hold on to it, and hold out for it." He explained the difference between fine English beers (we tend to call them ales) and good German and Czech lagers. He waxed eloquently on the astonishing quality and variety of Belgian beers. "And then," he told us, with reverence, "there is Negra Modelo."

The words Negra Modelo fermented in my brain during the several years it took for me to find an opportunity to drink that which I already loved cerebrally. I was not disappointed. Negra Modelo is a thick, dark ale; its base of caramelized grains gives it a rich fruitiness that make it perfect as an accompaniment to peppery foods. I learned, further, that Negra Modelo owes its original inspiration not to anything home-grown Mexican, but to Austria.

"Austria?" you exclaim. "What does Mexican beer have to do with the land that gave us Strauss waltzes, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, or, for that matter, political Wunderkind Arnold Schwarzenegger?" The historical connection is almost as complex as the beer itself. About the time of the American Civil War, Mexico was forced to default on huge debts it owed to France. Using the default as an excuse to build an empire, French Emperor Louis Napoleon sent troops to Mexico and set up his cousin Archduke Maximilian of Austria as ruler of the country. Maximilian was eventually defeated, and executed, by forces under Benito Juarez, but the Austrian connection and significant Austrian immigration to Mexico continued.

A blip in the long Franco-Mexican struggle was the Battle of Puebla where on the Fifth of May, 1862, Mexican forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin defeated a larger French force and temporarily checked the French advance. Until recently Cinco De Mayo was celebrated primarily in the Mexican state of Puebla (the real Mexican National Independence Day is September 16, commemorating the country's break with Spain in 1821). Of late, however, Cinco De Mayo has become the occasion for American promoters to sell a great quantity of—you guessed it—beer. I stress the word quantity.

Back in nineteenth century Vienna, a new style of beer called Marzen, after the German word for the month of March, was creating real waves. These were strong beers, aged in alpine caves for months longer than traditional lagers; the use of ale yeasts resulted in higher concentrations of esters and hence richer flavors. The beer style rode piggyback with Austrian immigrants to Mexico where it thrived among a host of watery competitors. The original Negra Modelo people were one of the last to make the jump; they were refugees from that somewhat-less-than-jolly Austrian, Adolf Hitler, in the late 1930s. While not quite as strong as the original Austrian Marzen beers, since it also has some German influence, Negra Modelo owes a tangible debt to the original Austrian style (now called oscura, in Spanish). Ironically, true Marzen beer no longer exists in Austria.

I don't remember where I enjoyed that first Negra Modelo, but my last taste is still with me; it was only a few days ago at the Santa Fe Salsa Company, the New Mexican restaurant at the Traditions Marketplace at exit 257 on I-25, halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. In addition to its excellent salsa bar (mango salsa, anyone?) Santa Fe Salsa Company offers ten varieties of what they call "imported" beer (though only one country supplies these imports, and, hint, it's a member of NAFTA).

The ubiquitous Corona, which a few years ago supplanted Heineken as the number one imported beer in the United States, is of course on the list. I referred to it earlier, when I stressed the word quantity. Most beers in Mexico are brewed for hot weather consumption; they are light (in terms of color, hops, malt sweetness, and flavor), quench thirst well, and go down easy. American breweries have perfected the manufacture of these taste-alike, soda-pop style lagers, but Corona, backed by huge advertising and promotional campaigns, which include the exploitation of Cinco De Mayo, has managed to connect to a beach and vacation mystique. American beer purists almost never add limes to their beer, but if Corona is the only choice, you might reach for the citrus to mask Corona's formaldehyde flavor. Though Corona is as light as a lager can truly get, in the marketing tradition of lime extension—excuse me, I meant line extension—Corona Light has also begun to capture market share. Corona Light may require two limes instead of one to compensate for its mass-produced astringency. Corona's clear bottles may beautifully highlight the "beach for spring break" artwork, but they also allow light into the beer, which does nothing to improve its keeping power. Corona is a commodity.

It is fortunate, if a bit ironic, that Negra Modelo and Corona are produced and distributed by the same breweries and US distributors, a case of David hitting the market in conjunction with Goliath. Carta Blanca, Tecate, Pacifico and Sol are other examples of typical light lagers from Mexico; not bad, but hardly different from taste-alike light lagers the world over, say China's Tsingtao or Italy's Peroni. Tecate, which is available in cans and pragmatic quart-sized bottles, has been brewed since 1944 along the US border and has always reflected American tastes. On a hot summer day, any of these light Mexican beers can prove their worth, but they all fall to the wayside when compared to any of the quality (though less widely available) Mexican brands.

An interesting beer on Santa Fe Salsa Company's list is Tequiza, distributed in the US by beer giant Anheuser-Busch. Don't rush to your Spanish-English dictionary; Tequiza is a coined word: the marriage of tequila and cerveza. Mix a light lager beer with lime and blue agave nectar (from the plant they use to make tequila) and you end up with a kind of beer margarita. I admire the boldness of the concept behind Tequiza, but a taste left me yearning for a real margarita: the sour kind without all the slush. Maybe some good margarita salt would enhance this beer's finish.

Two excellent Mexican beers on the Salsa Company list are Dos Equis and Bohemia. Both beers have German roots; each has been on the market more than a century (the Dos Equis namesake twin X's mark the beer's entry into the 20th Century in 1900). Dos Equis has functioned for many years as a "quality" Mexican import in the American market. It has the body of a good mainstream German lager and stands up well to spicy food. The harder-to-find Bohemia has more of a malt taste than Dos Equis, betraying a mixture of German and Austrian influences, making it a little closer to Negra Modelo in concept. I might prefer Bohemia to Negra Modelo if I were drinking the beer without food.

Faced with excellent food, especially any cuisine that counts the letters M-E-X in its description, I would eschew tasting all of these Mexican beers in favor of enjoying multiple bottles, each subtly different from the last, of Negra Modelo. I suggest one for the salsa and chips, another for the main course, a third for a reflective moment after the meal, or with one of Santa Fe Salsa Company's smooth caramel flans. You'll find other great dark beers in the world—porter or stout or excellent dark lagers like Beck's—but Negra Modelo stands on its own two feet as a unique addition to the world of hearty beers. It is coppery rather than black, with a modest head, a good stimulation from the carbonation, a slightly chocolate aftertaste and yet a satisfying smoothness. While I realize that Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States may smack of crass commercialism (though I am glad the Mexicans defeated the French that day), you may count on me to attend—as long as I have the opportunity to wade through the mass of taste-alike beers and curl up with my Negra Modelo. Top -- Food Articles Home

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