Raising a Glass to Monterrey, Mexico’s Beer Scene
Generations of regiomontanos, residents of Monterrey, Mexico, have grown up hearing tales of the indomitable entrepreneurs who laid the foundations for the industrial powerhouse that the city is today. Much like the towering Sierra Madre Mountains that abut Monterrey’s southern neighborhoods, their visionary ideas are an inextricable part of the history and tradition in this city of 5 million, located 140 miles southwest of Laredo, Texas.
Not even the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 interrupted production at 126-year-old Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, today owned by Heineken. Just as U.S. consumers link Coors with Colorado, for Mexicans, Carta Blanca, Tecate and Bohemia, are synonymous with Monterrey. For regiomontanos these lagers have long gone hand in hand with good food and good times.
However, for many years, beer enthusiasts who wanted something beyond mass-produced lagers faced a limited selection of premium-priced imports. Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma and competitor Grupo Modelo required customers to sign exclusivity agreements which effectively locked out small breweries. Other factors also worked against the small guys, such as procuring a steady and reasonably-priced supply of ingredients and materials, many of which had to be imported. And, while Monterrey has one of the highest GDPs among Latin American cities, the market for premium-priced beers is still more limited than in the U.S.
But things are changing. In 2013 Mexico’s Federal Competition Commission restricted the large brewers’ exclusivity agreements to no more than 25 percent of their points of sale. With this one act, the government rearranged the playing field. Major retailers are now carving out shelf space for brands produced at small, local breweries, and consumers are discovering the pleasures of fresh beer brewed with quality ingredients.
Sierra Madre Brewing Co., the granddaddy of Monterrey’s small breweries, started with a single brewpub in 1997. Today a production brewery supplies 10 pubs, in addition to bottling, canning and exporting to the U.S. and Europe. According to head brewer Héctor Vargas, Sierra Madre’s 2015 production of 15,300 barrels makes it Mexico’s largest small brewery.
A new crop of brewers, many seasoned homebrewers, are also eager to offer their products to the public. One of Monterrey’s best-trained brewers, José Luis Calderoni, got his start homebrewing, then went on to graduate from Siebel Institute of Technology. A Beer Judge Certification Program judge, he opened Cervercería Propaganda in 2012. His beers have won both gold and silver medals in Mexico Beer Cup competitions.
In 2013, three long-time friends opened Cervecería Albur and promptly won a gold medal in the Mexico Beer Cup for their La Avenida Brown Ale. Last year, they brewed 800 barrels, making them Monterrey’s number two small brewery, and in February, they installed new 30-barrel fermentation and brite tanks. Co-owner and head brewer Víctor Soto anticipates producing 1,200 to 1,500 barrels in 2016.
At the same time, another group of friends pooled their savings to start Cervecería Bracino with Daniel Cigarroa as the lone full-time employee. While 2015 production was still a modest 187 barrels, Cigarroa points out that production has doubled every year and he’s hired a second brewer.
Over time, Monterrey’s famous entrepreneurial spirit created a certain reluctance to collaborate with competitors, but the new brewers are shifting that mindset. Cigarroa and others worked patiently to establish the 20-member Association of Micro Brewers of Nuevo León (Monterrey’s home state) in December of 2014. The sharing of ideas and advice helps all involved to improve quality and consistently and deal with common challenges.
Monterrey’s small brewers have a friend in Abraham Cohen of Cohevi, a beer distributorship whose customers include Walmart, Soriana and H-E-B, Monterrey’s largest supermarket chains. Cohen has worked hard to place their products and educate retailers. Cohevi now represents many of the small brewers, paying them up front instead of making them wait up to 60 days as they often had to when dealing directly with their points of sale.
In December of 2014, Cohen and a group of partners opened Beer for Us, a bottle shop and pub offering 900 brands of beer in a prosperous neighborhood near Monterrey Institute of Technology and its 20,000 students who can legally drink at 18. Business is thriving with events like Tuesday-evening beer tastings and pairing classes, often with the beers’ brewers, and the partners have opened two more Beers for Us.
A growing base of good beer fans and homebrewers is eager to learn. The Regios Maltosos, a homebrew club founded by Propaganda’s Calderoni, hosts a closed-group Facebook page with nearly 1500 members.
Meanwhile, Bracino’s Cigarroa says, “These days, I spend every weekend educating the public at beer events. There are so many beer festivals now that we only participate when we know we can actually talk with people.” No surprise that Bracino expects production to double again in 2016.
Leslie Patiño is the author of the novel, The Brewer’s Justice. She blogs on beer at lesliepatinoauthor.com/blog.