Mexican microbrewers fight for space at the bar

In some dark corners of Mexico you’ll find a revolution taking place, a bitter battle of the palate, as artisanal beer brewers battle against market giants Corona and Dos Equis

By Cristian Salazar  /  AP, MEXICO CITY

Sun, May 08, 2011 - Page 11

The craft brewers plotted their revolution in a bar evoking the era of Prohibition speakeasies.

Their goal felt equally subversive: nothing less than the transformation of Mexico’s beer-loving culture into one that thirsts not for the mild flavors of Corona or Dos Equis, but for the richness of stouts, the dark body of double malts and the bitterness of India pale ales.

The brewers said they were fighting for choice: “Por la Cerveza Libre,” or “For the Liberated Beer.”

“To choose what we consume based on our tastes translates as free choice, a fundamental right of every person,” they wrote in a manifesto.

Even though Mexico is known worldwide for its beer, only two companies hold nearly 100 percent of the domestic market and determine what millions of people swig.

Mexican craft brewers in the “Por la Cerveza Libre” movement hope to change that — one bar, one beer, one drink at a time.

More than 1,000 beer enthusiasts have signed their manifesto online and in bars and restaurants, organizers say. First step in the revolution? Use social media to promote the establishments and stores that buck the trend by serving lesser known brews. Eventually, the group will award such places “For the Liberated Beer” certificates.

The craft brewery movement in Mexico has been growing for only a few years now, inspired by microbreweries in the US. However, in that short time, Mexican brewers have launched one of Latin America’s largest beer-tasting festivals in the country’s second-biggest city, Guadalajara, and opened a series of bars under the name El Deposito there as well as in Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta that double as stores to sell their creations.

The “Por la Cerveza Libre” movement was hatched last year in one such El Deposito in a swank Mexico City neighborhood.

The bar is designed to look like a clandestine liquor depot during the Prohibition era in the US and is decorated with pictures of Al Capone and other gangsters of the period. The centerpiece is a piece of equipment made to look like an old distillery.

El Deposito’s exposed-brick walls could come straight out of Portland, Oregon, except for the Mexican twist in the brews: One alcohol-rich barley wine by Cerveceria Cucapa is aged in tequila barrels. And Cerveceria Minerva’s Malverde, an American-style pilsner, is named for Jesus Malverde, “patron saint” to the country’s drug traffickers.

Drinkers pack the bar on Thursday and Friday nights, young professionals who arrive straight from work in nine-to-five wardrobe to sample over 100 imported and Mexican brews.

Jesus Briseno, 33, one of Mexico’s craft-brewing pioneers, had a hand in opening the country’s El Depositos and founded Cerveceria Minerva seven years ago in Guadalajara.

He opened the brewery, he said, after he took a semester off from college to study at the Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy in Chicago. Inspired by the explosion of beer culture around US microbreweries, he returned to Mexico with the dream of starting his own craft beer business.

“I thought exactly the same thing was going to happen in Mexico,” he said. “I thought there was going to be more culture growing around the beer.”

Such hopes turned out to be premature. Mexican craft brewing is now at the point their US counterparts were in the early 1980s: basically zero. The country’s microbreweries, numbering more than a dozen, account for less than 1 percent of Mexico’s beer market.

In the US, craft beers account for about 5 percent of the volume of beer sold and 1,600 brewers operate all over the country. Multinational giant Anheuser-Busch InBev enjoys a nearly 49 percent share of the US beer market, while MillerCoors LLC, a joint venture of SABMiller PLC and Molson Coors Brewing Co, is No. 2, with about 30 percent of US market share.

Mexico’s top brewers, Grupo Modelo and Heineken’s Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma, -produce Corona, Dos Equis, Tecate and dozens of other mainstream brands, all of them either bright pilsners or darker Vienna-style lagers. There’s hardly a nightclub or restaurant in Mexico that doesn’t serve one of their brews.

And while some US beachgoers still find those beers exotic, to connoisseurs they’re the Coors and Budweisers of Mexico.

Miguel Fimbres, who blogs about beer and wine in Mexicali, said most big brewers in Mexico produce products with generic flavors that slate thirst and nothing more.

Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma said they embrace competition in the Mexican beer market.

“The Mexican market is an open market and, as in many countries, artisanal beers are niche beers that have experienced good growth in the last few years,” Grupo Modelo said in a statement.

Grupo Modelo and Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma go back generations, starting from industrialist families in the 19th and 20th centuries; today they are transnational giants. Grupo Modelo is half owned by Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev, makers of Budweiser, and commands more than a 60 percent market share. Dutch brewer Heineken bought Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma from its Mexican parent company last year.

Vertically consolidated conglomerates, they each own dozens of subsidiary -distributors, bottlers and malt producers. Competitors have long accused the companies of engaging in monopolistic practices.

In 2006, the federal government’s competition watchdog found Grupo Modelo had engaged in antitrust activity by entering into exclusive rights agreements with sites selling its bottled beers. The company successfully appealed the decision.

Authors of a 2009 World Bank report found that because of legal tactics favored by big companies in Mexico, “the regulatory system is not a credible, independent threat to the behavior of large business interests.”

The report specifically cited Grupo Modelo as an example.

Mexican lawmakers approved changes on April 28 aimed at strengthening the country’s antitrust law.

Ivan Franco, an economist with Euromonitor International, said the sheer size and longevity of Mexico’s two giant beer producers make it unlikely that small brewers could compete any time soon.

Craft brewers’ best hope might involve turning to another giant — Walmart de Mexico, which has been adopting new suppliers every year and isn’t beholden to longtime relationships with the big brewers.

“Walmart could be the key to expansion,” Franco said. “More than the bars and cantinas and restaurants.”