The Spaniards were the first to introduce barley and wheat based beers to Mexico although production was limited in the early days, in part due to the lack of available grains.
The first official concession to brew European-style beers was issued by the Spanish authorities in the middle of the 16th century; however, despite the brewers’ attempts to expand the business by growing more crops locally to increase the supply of barley at a lower price, heavy regulation and high taxation imposed by Spain on locally-produced beers and wines stymied the industry’s growth.
After Mexico’s War of Independence saw-off the European regulators and their taxes, beer production began to flourish in Mexico. During the latter part of the 19th century, an influx of German immigrants brought additional knowledge and expertise to the field which caused the local market to diversify and improve its products.
By the turn of the 20th century, beer had become big business in Mexico, helped also by prohibition in the United States at that time, which gave rise to a brisk and profitable trade of beer and other alcoholic beverages along Mexico’s border towns and cities.
By the time the Mexican Revolution was over, there were more than thirty-five breweries operating in Mexico.
Consolidation of the industry began in the early 1920’s and kick-started a process that brought about the beer market we see here today. During the period of consolidation, smaller breweries were absorbed into the one of the “big-two” breweries, Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuautehmoc-Moctezuma, which emerged as the dominant players of the Mexican beer market.
Successful beers were mass-produced and distributed regionally or nationally, and less successful beers disappeared from the market altogether. Smaller breweries that were not bought-out were forced to close as they could not compete with the economies-of-scale brought about through consolidation.
Between them, Grupo Modelo and Cerveceria Cuautehmoc-Moctezuma now control over 90% of the Mexican beer market, with annual domestic sales totaling some 6 billion US dollars—exports add around 1.2 billion US dollars to the total.
The majority of beers sold today in Mexico are lagers, pilsners, Vienna-style light and dark beers, as well as Munich dark beers. A small number of local micro breweries produce a limited range of ales, sold in niche markets.
Beer in Mexico is served cold, or taken as a Michelada: beer with lime juice, or lime juice mixed with a variety of spicy sauces like Worcester, chili, or soy sauce.
The beverage is still regularly supplied using returnable bottles, although disposable cans and bottles are becoming increasingly common. If you are visiting Mexico and purchasing beer from a local store, choose the disposable bottles which don’t require a deposit and can be recycled after use.
When you’re living in Mexico, it’s worth building up a supply of returnable bottles which you can take back to the store when you want refills. Building up a rapport with your local store keeper might earn you the privilege of being able to take beer bottles without paying a deposit, as the store keeper trusts that you will return the bottles and, presumably, buy more beer from that store.
Most beer bottle sizes are 325ml, although some brands of beer are also available in larger 925ml, 940ml and full 1-liter sizes. In Mexican slang Spanish, the larger bottles are called to as caguamas (sea turtles) or if you’re in north-eastern Mexico you might hear them referred to as ballenas (whales); in Mazatlan, ballenas refer specifically to the Pacifico brand of beer sold in the larger-sized bottles.
For a detailed guide, further information and a summary of the principal beer brands sold here, read the Guide to Beers in Mexico.