Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Baja Blonde, Amargator, Rio Bravo

As I go through the Mexican craft beers available at The Beer Company I'm finding my preference is a pretty narrow list. Most of the craft beer breweries take on classic styles tend to be too malty and too sweet to be considered good examples. At least this is what I'm finding in terms of my comparisons to commercial versions outside of Mexico. I've only had one beer so far that has the hop bitterness and flavor/aroma presence that I've considered a good example of a pale ale. I'm not reviewing that beer this time but it deserves a quick mention. Calavera's American Pale Ale, has what I deem the appropriate malt bill and hop influence in it's taste. One other qualifier that I need to introduce is what I believe is the influence that Southern California breweries are having on the craft market in Baha California, Mexico. There are a couple of breweries there that are producing some good, true to style beers that I'm enjoying. One of those breweries is T.J.'s (Tijuana Brewery).

In the mean time, here's my review of another three beers I've recently tasted.

Micro cerveceria La Chingoneria's Amargator is labeled as a imperial India pale ale and claims to come in with 100 IBU's This beer is a beautifully balanced, malty beer that if I hadn't read the label would have considered it a barley wine. A big, full malty beverage with enough bitterness to cut the caramel sweetness. The hop aroma and flavor are subdued with the caramel qualities taking the spotlight. This is a big beer at 9% abv. and although La Chinganeria claims to add avocado leaves in the boil, I didn't get any of that flavor. This is not a bottle conditioned beer and is brewed in Mexico city. There website doesn't give much information and is basically there to direct you to their Facebook page. I wrote to the brewery asking about the nomenclature and they assured me that this is indeed a IIPA, I didn't argue.

The Baja Blonde, brewed by the Baja Brewing Company is another Mexican beer that comes across sweet before anything else. I'm beginning to believe that the craft beer brewers in Mexico are trying to stay close to the bitterness level of Modelo (the beer most are used to drinking) in order to entice the consumer slowly away from the big boys. Calling itself a cream ale, this beer is sweet, with sweet honey flavors and a lot of sweet fruitiness. The hops are barely detectable as a citrus quality. At 6% abv. this beer is clear, dark straw in color and filtered. This brewery brew/pub is owned and operated by gringos from Colorado, so they should have the reference point of the Colorado beer scene to produce beers I like. I'll be trying the other labels they have to offer in the near future like their Black, Red, and Stout, to see if this is true.

Finally, a 4.5% pilsener that again is on the sweet side is Rio Bravo which is brewed by Cerveceria Mexicana also known as Mexicali produced in Tecate, Baja California. They also brew a beer called Red Pig which I'll review in a future post. It's a little confusing for me which is which regarding the brewery. I haven't figured out if Mexicali produces Cerveceria Mexicana or the other way around. Regardless, Rio Bravo is a sweet bready beer with light caramel notes and no hop fragrance. It's full bodied and has a long lasting white head. An easy drinking beer that's enjoyable on a hot day. Bottle conditioned.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pulque, Pulque, Pulque

Going to the tianguis or outdoor market every week becomes a regular routine for me while living in San Miguel. I can get the best selection and least expensive produce there, not to mention be entertainment by the plethora of interesting, varied and sometimes bizarre articles for sale, like a boat load of springs for instance, (go here to read more about that). But that's not all, as I discovered last week. Towards the far end of the market just beyond the last of the colorful tarps that stretch across the endless booths,  I ran across a group of three pulqueros selling their home made pulque out of large plastic jugs along with miel de agave, the juice of the maguey.

Pulqueros line up to dispense
Naturally, since I have a proclivity for all fermented beverages I had to sample what was on tap so to speak. I was a bit reluctant considering the possibility of ingesting a swath of unfamiliar bacteria that would possibly give my own flora a run for their money, but I felt like taking the risk to satisfy my curiosity and besides, there are no pulquerias that I've found in the city of San Miguel, this could be my only chance. (Pssst, if you know of any pulquerias let me know in the comment section below).

I carefully looked over the three vendors or 'pulqueros' trying to judge which would have the best tasting brew, it was a crap shoot and I finally settled on a man who appeared the most professional, at least he was dressed nice. I tried to make conversation in my best broken Spanish while discretely recording the exchange on my video camera, which you can watch here. I asked about the process for making pulque and he gave me the basics saying that the mature maguey produces a lot of sweet sap or juice when it starts to go to seed. The center begins to swell and elongate, (yeah, I know what you're thinking). This is when the plant gathers stored sugar to send up a single flower stalk which towers above the base. However, the brewers cut this flower stalk off, leaving a depressed surface 12-18 inches in diameter. In this center, the maguey juice, known as aguamiel collects. The juice is harvested from a scooped out section at the center of the plant and collected to be spontaneously fermented. Unlike most beer that is fermented with yeast, the fermenting agent for pulque is mostly a wild bacteria called zymomonas mobilis. The juice is left in the open air to be inoculated. After a time, a portion is removed and replaced with fresh juice. This process is repeated several times over a period of days until a 'seed' or starter of wild yeast and bacteria has been developed. This 'seed' is then used as a basis for fermenting future batches of pulque.
Interestingly, some of the advantages of this bacteria over the typical beer yeast S. cerevisiae are that it has higher sugar uptake and ethanol yield, higher ethanol tolerance and it does not require additional oxygen for fermentation.

Pulque in large plasitc jugs
According to Wikepedia: Pulque is a milk-colored, somewhat viscous liquid that produces a light foam. It is made by fermenting the sap of certain types of maguey (agave) plants. In contrast, mezcal is made from the cooked heart of certain agave plants, and tequila, a variety of mescal, is made all or mostly from the blue agave. There are about six varieties of maguey that are best used for the production of pulque. The name “pulque” is derived from Nahuatl. The original name of the drink was “iztac octli” (white wine), the term pulque was probably mistakenly derived by the Spanish from the “octli poliuhqui” which meant "spoiled wine".

I was generously given a sample of the pulque which the pulquero referred to as 'acidic', and then a sample of the unfermented juice or aguamiel which was very sweet and thick. The pulque I didn't find to be that viscous but it is white in color, kind of like 2% milk except with a frothy texture caused by the still active fermentation. The taste is lightly tart and sour (like that produced by lactobacillus acidophilus with a slight sweetness and just a hint of vomit(acetobacter?). Although the fermentation does produce alcohol, the amount in this case must be very low as I didn't perceive any in the taste. It wasn't an unpleasant drink but I knew I wouldn't be able to drink a full 22oz. Styrofoam cups worth like the locals were passing around. I asked for media (half) and was given a smaller plastic cup of which I consumed a small portion before dumping the rest on the ground behind a parked car. I didn't want to offend the brewer by discarding something I'm sure he was very proud of and tried to be discrete. After drinking just a few sips of my 10 pesos worth, I could sense the mutiny forming within the ranks of my loyal gut flora. This new bacteria was not a welcomed visitor and later I would feel some minor decent so to speak. It wasn't that it was bad, just unfamiliar.
Frothy, bacteria laden, liquid goodness

It was fascinating and inspiring to witness the revived tradition of selling pulque at the market, a tradition that is slowly making a comeback from the beating it has taken by the beer industry. Before beer was introduced, pulque was the national drink here and at this point in time is slowly making a resurgence, encouraged by the Mexican tourist industry. By the way, you can read my previous post about my discovery of pulque in a can, here.

If you ever get the chance to try pulque, I would recommend giving it a try for the experience. If I were to stay here longer, I suspect that I would get into the habit of drinking small amounts of it until I grew accustomed in terms of the tolerance to this foreign bacteria. In that way, I would be able to quaff the large cup worth and determine the alcoholic strength. Or, I could just take a sample of both the pulque and the aguamiel to get a refractometer reading for a precise record of the alcohol. Ohhh, I see a project coming on. Do you have a pulqueria in your city? let me know.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Homebrewer In San Miguel

Homebrewers in Mexico are few and far between so I was excited to be invited to one of the local cervecero's house for a few samples of his beer and a discussion about brewing beer at home in Mexico.
Barry lives just outside the city limits here in San Miguel in a beautiful house he designed himself. He met us in the driveway at the stone path that led to his 'man cave'/brewery. The first thing I noticed as we entered was the three tap handles coming out of the wall near the bar sink. Above is shelving with custom labeled beer mugs and pitcher and the walls are decorated with signs advertising his favorites. An island bar made with rough hewn wood and a stainless sink separate the kitchen area from the lounge section. A big screen t.v. on the opposite wall had the game on and that end of the room was furnished with what looked like some pretty comfortable chairs and a couch. But we ended up standing around the bar during the whole visit drawing beers off the taps, talking shop and investigating the brewing operation and kegerator set up in the next room, where beer lines run from his corney kegs through the concrete wall to the taps. His brewing area is neat, organized and clean. A large cistern under the floor provides his cooling water which is pumped through a plate chiller and then circulated back to the cistern, conserving his supply and maintaining low temperatures. Barry says he brews extract kits that he orders from the states and is happy to continue with extract which prompted me to ask him about brewing some all-grain batches. Why change a good thing seems to be his attitude and judging by the quality of the beers he offered up I can't argue with him. I sampled three of the beers he had on tap and all were very good. A stout with rich flavors and full mouthfeel, a dunkelweizen that tasted of the classic malt and phenolic spice characteristics that make it one of my favorite styles and a brown ale that was equally good.

Barry for the most part has had to ship in all of his brewing equipment from the U.S. including a More Beer fermentor that is equipped with a chilling jacket that keeps his ales fermenting cool in spite of the high temperatures that are typical here in San Miguel. I suspect his cool fermentation practices have something to do with his extract brews having a fresh malt quality as I didn't detect any of those flavor components that I associate with extract use in beers.

Also, an impressive feature in the brewery was the wall rack that shelved dozens of bottles of Barry's home made wine. We didn't get into tasting the wine but based on the quality of the beer I suspect it's quite good.

Besides an avid homebrewer, Barry has been very involved in dog training, working specifically boarder collies, and has the awards and memorabilia displayed on walls of the lounge area to prove his skill.

It was great to be able to spend some time with another homebrewer down here and talk about what I'm so passionate about with another enthusiast. I'm looking forward to checking back in with Barry as more of his beers come out of the fermentor. In the mean time, I'll be keeping a look out for others down here that are taking on the task of brewing good beer in a climate that challenges the skills of the best brewers.

If you're a homebrewer in the vicinity of San Miguel I'd love to hear from you. Send me a note and let's see if we can meet and talk about beer and brewing in Mexico over a cold one. Cheers!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cucapa, Queretero And Calavera Brewing

This is the first set of Mexican craft beers that I've tasted after making a visit to The Beer Company. I plan to review as many as possible here and will use a gentle touch in the process. As this is a burgeoning industry I don't want to be too negatively critical in my opinion but simply state objectively what I'm tasting and experiencing.

I am pretty familiar with the classic beer styles and what characteristics define those styles in regards to the flavor, aroma, mouthfeel and visual aspects. I would like to evaluate the beers here based on this knowledge but I have to take into consideration the fact that for Mexico the craft beer movement is a new industry. Along with this fact it must be noted that there has been little exposure here to the foreign beer market and thus few classic beer styles available to compare to when brewing beers on a small scale that mimic the traditional qualities of the classics. So, for instance in the review below for Calavera brewing, when they seem to represent their beer as an abbey ale, I have to take that claim with some humility.

Cucapa Brewing's pale ale Called Chupacabras or goat sucker is a big malty ale with some dark fruit qualities like prune and raisin. It's sweet and has a perfume aroma that carries through into the flavor. There is a certain malt extract taste here but I questioned the brewery regarding this suspicion and they told me it is 100% malted grain. The color is amber with an off white head but be careful as the beer is bottle conditioned and there is a yeast sediment at the bottom that I prefer to avoid. This beer comes in at 5.8% abv. which is pretty substantial for pale ale in Mexico. It won a silver metal at the copa cerveza in Guadalajara in 2009.

Queretero Brewing's amber ale is up front caramel flavor and green apple. Thin in body this beer had a 'young' taste and a simple flavor profile or biscuit and light crystal malt. Low hop flavor with the exception of a very subtle, almost indiscernible pine. Again, this beer is bottle conditioned so use caution when decanting.

Is it a dubbel?

Calavera Brewing's Dubbel de Abadia or Dubbel of Abbey should not be confused with the classic Belgian dubbel. This is a bold beer with a robust malt presence and includes cold pressed coffee flavor and roasted grain with a very sweet finish. Smooth graininess with no hops in evidence. This beer is a nice clear amber color with little head and thin body. A pleasant drinkable beer but I can't consider it a dubbel and the yeast used does not provide any of the expected Belgian dubbel characteristics. Bottle conditioned this beer is 6.4% abv.

Cucapa and Calavera brewing companies have other styles of beer and I will review those in the future but first I want to work my way through some of the other breweries. If you're familiar with these beers and have an opinion, please make your thoughts know in the comment section below. Cheers!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Beer Company In San Miguel

The last time I was in San Miguel de Allende (a year and a half ago) there was not a lot of craft beer on the scene. The restaurants and tiendas were tied into either the Modelo brand which included Corona, Negro Modelo and Victoria to name a few, or the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma brewery with their Indio, Sol and Bohemia. At the time, the largest market in town 'Mega' was the only place that offered a broader but still limited selection of other brands but these 'exotics' were the likes of Heineken and Bud along with a couple of German imports.

I was happy to discover this year the addition of a serious outlet for beer. It seems the gaining interest in homebrewing and Mexican craft beer is moving beyond the borders of Mexico City evidenced by the opening of The Beer Company here in SMA. Owners, Antonio and Elizabeth, who happen to be not only incredibly nice people but are real beer enthusiasts with a lot of knowledge to offer about the craft beer scene here. Located on the Ancha de San Antonio they have brought The Beer Company franchise to satisfy a need for those that desire a choice and they are offering a large and much needed selection of Mexican craft beers and imports. Granted, the inventory is small compared to most beer stores in the States but I'm impressed with the variety they've included.
Small on the outside,
malty goodness inside
Samples of just part of the inventory

Also, they are right around the corner from where I'm staying and so I'll be visiting often to begin sampling the Mexican beers in particular. Most of the German beers I'm familiar with including the standards from Paulaner, including the Salvator doppel bock and Erdinger . Belgian beers include Carolus, Chimay and a particular favorite La Chouffe and of course Duvel. There are just a couple English beers, Fullers, Youngs and one I've not had called 'Old Peculiar' from Theakston. But it's the Mexican beers I am most interested in tasting my way through as I try to determine my personal 'best of' list. I'll post updates of those tastings as I go along.
A listing of all the beers
Some of the bigger names in craft beer down here are Minerva who also produces Primus Brewing and their Tempus label. The Cucapa brewing co, Calavera and T.J.'s (Tijuana brewing) which is my favorite so far.
Can I taste them all in my short stay here? God help me I believe I can, and good or bad I will tell you about them here. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mexican Sunset Beer

After the long haul to Mexico (17 hours), sunset on the rooftop of the Antigua Capilla hotel was the perfect place and time for a large bottle or ballena (the slang term here along the coast that means whale) of my favorite Modelo brand beer. Inland, it's referred to as a caguama or turtle. A Vienna lager on the light side of course but with more flavor than other Modelo brands. Victoria was originally produced by the Compañía Cervecera de Toluca y México that was acquired by Grupo Modelo in 1935.

The city of San Miguel de Allende through a beer

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mexico Yet Again

The trip out of San Jose airport was too easy.
I purposely scheduled our arrival anticipating the clusterf*ck that is always going on at the airport and so we got to the baggage check ready to endure an extended session of kicking luggage down a never ending maze. But no line.
In fact, no people at all except a guy behind the United counter that took our luggage with obvious boredom and just a hint of disdain. This process took up only about two minutes out of my perfect plan and we're off to our appointment with TSA for a what I expect to be a severe probing before boarding the 'mother ship'. Again, no people. This whole episode may cause some inappropriate false hope when planning any future trips.

The up side; no crowds to contend with, the down side; we're through security in no time flat and now have two hours to kill. I spent the time thinking about how I would further my beer interests in Mexico. Should I try to brew beer this time like I have on previous visits, incorporating local ingredients, to come up with creative specialties? Or, simply search out the regional beer scene in the hopes of finding any new or unusual beer. The craft beer movement here is gaining interest now and I have to admit that I anticipate coming across some fresh start-up artisan breweries. Don't let me down Mexico. In either case, I brought some essential brewing gear just in case. Stuff that is hard to come by down here like my refractometer, racking cane, bottling wand, bottler, caps and a couple different types of dried yeast.
Seventeen hours later we arrived in San Miguel and checked into the Antigua Capilla bed and breakfast for a couple of days of well deserved spoilage. If you visit San Miguel I'd highly recommend this place. On the side of a hill with a panoramic view of the busy city, it's a haven for the weary and a great location for a quiet respite but within walking distance of the center of town.  The rooftop is a great place to have a beer and I spend some time relaxing and taking in the view.

I have some brewing equipment in the basement here, stored from the last time I was down. I still haven't made up my mind whether to brew but it's good to know I don't have to go through the effort of collecting equipment again. There is also some 2-row sealed in a plastic tub but it's close to two years old now. The plan is to chew on some of it and see if I can still use it.

Yesterday I looked over the apartment we will be living in for the next month and didn't see any easy access to propane and their isn't a lot of room for brewing so I won't be doing any there. It's funny, I keep telling myself I won't be brewing and yet my mind keeps going over all of the requirement to do just that. Weird.
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