Written by Ken Ellingwood for The Los Angeles Times, McClatchy-Tribune News Service and Clrvrland.com/The Plain Dealer
MEXICO CITY — It sounds like a movie where high jinks ensue: A teetotaling Mexican hotel worker travels to England, befriends a whisky-drinking Irishman and scrubs toilets in a pub while learning to brew killer beer.
Such is the odd path Jose Morales has taken since a sweltering day five years ago when he found himself wondering how to make a beverage he doesn’t even drink. The daydreaming has led Morales, then a hotel warehouse manager, to an unlikely new calling as a beer maker.
Morales, 36, is among a burst of Mexican brewers who are testing recipes and investing in imported equipment in hopes of finding the same formula for success that microbreweries north of the border have found.
Mostly self-taught, the Mexican brewers have launched an array of offerings, from Belgian-style wheat beers and imperial stouts to an ale aged in tequila barrels. They want to translate a hobby into commercial success in a country that is increasingly quick to embrace foreign trends, from smartphones to designer coffee.
“There’s a niche. People are looking for something different,” said Jaime Andreu, commercial director of the Primus Brewery and spokesman for the Mexican microbrewers association, which has 16 members.
Some brands of cerveza artesanal have won awards abroad. But the entrepreneurs have found that peddling fancy $4 beers in Mexico means battling a couple of Goliaths.
Although Mexicans are among the world’s leading consumers of beer, drinking about 16 gallons a year per person, microbrews are dwarfed by two huge companies that dominate the $15-billion market at home and make almost every Mexican brand known abroad, from Corona to Dos Equis.
The newcomers say the vast majority of restaurants and bars in Mexico are off-limits because the establishments have agreements to buy only from one of the two giants, Grupo Modelo or Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma, in exchange for equipment and discounts.
The small brewers often have to import ingredients and even bottles, making their product considerably more expensive than the big-name beers. Moreover, they lack the kind of tax breaks that have given beer makers in the United States a chance to survive infancy.
For every 100,000 beers drunk in Mexico, only eight are craft beers, according to the microbrewers association.
“Basically we’re working against the system,” said Jesus Briseno, who owns the Guadalajara-based Minerva Brewery, which makes Imperial Tequila Ale and five other beers. “We have all the odds of dying in battle.”
The entrepreneurs have sought to tap into the Facebook generation to promote their beers, and two have opened stores, part beer boutique and part pub. So far, though, sales are modest.
The struggle hasn’t stopped Gustavo Gonzalez, a brewing pioneer who produces three ales — an amber-toned pale, Belgian-inspired red and caramel-hinted porter — in a former tortilla factory on the southern end of Mexico City.
Gonzalez was a marketing student when he tried American craft beers during trips to Austin, Texas, in the 1990s. Before long, he was schlepping ingredients and home-brewing equipment back across the border and devouring books and magazines on beer making. By 2000, he was brewing Cosaco, or Cossack, in 18-gallon batches in his yard.
Gonzalez, 39, now has two workers who help mill grains and cook and ferment ingredients in stainless steel kettles in a brewery the size of a two-car garage.
His production is a drop in the bucket compared with that of U.S. microbreweries: just 3,200 gallons a year. And he sells only by the keg, meaning you won’t find Cosaco even in specialty shops. He trucks his beer to trendy corners of Mexico City, but struggles against high production costs and a market that is as hard to penetrate as one of the steel kegs.
“We’re not competitive,” Gonzalez said.
The first Mexican microbrewers started producing more than a decade ago, most of them near the U.S. border. Some newcomers say they have been encouraged to see their sales, though still tiny, climb quickly in the last few years.
Still, as more beer makers have joined in, they have run up against the realities of the Mexican economy, where numerous sectors are ruled top to bottom by one or two huge companies.
Makers of craft beer say only a few hundred Mexican establishments are willing to sell their products. And some say they buy malt abroad because they can’t count on Mexican processers, which are controlled by the two beer giants.
Smaller producers are fighting back through a social media campaign to pressure restaurants and bars into opening their refrigerators to independents. Supporters use Twitter, Facebook and a “Free Beer” website to praise places that serve craft beers and ding those that don’t.
Some supermarkets have recently begun selling microbrews, and you can find them in the small world of specialty beer shops. But as a way to further increase access to their products, the Minerva and Primus breweries have opened a handful of outlets called the Deposit in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.
Mexican beer makers say they’re years behind their counterparts in the United States, and some of their beers don’t rise above mediocre. The brews tend to be limited to time-tested styles — especially popular are English stouts, ales and porters.
“You can count on one hand the people who are innovating with new styles and flavors,” said Hector Lopez, a veteran home brewer who sells beer-making equipment online.
Yet those familiar with brands such as Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada may be pleasantly surprised by the body and lively fragrance of some of the Mexican craft offerings. At Cossack, Gonzalez goes light on the hops and, after experimenting, settled on an imported yeast that lends fruity notes to his semisweet red.
Drinkers of Mexican craft beer say it’s worth paying a few pesos more for a drink that stands out from the mass-produced brews, even those that are well-regarded.
“I like it more. It’s thicker and creamier, and probably less bitter too,” said Emanuel Ordonez, 22, a university student.
Ordonez and a friend had just plopped down $4.50 each for a pair of Cossack porters at a restaurant and pool hall in the capital’s funky Roma neighborhood. They had no regrets.
“They taste quite different from the normal ones you can get in any store,” said his friend, Socrates Rodriguez, 24, also a student. “Even though they’re a little more expensive, I don’t have any problem paying for them.”
Americans who know the beer scene south of the border say the cervezas artesanales are as good as U.S. microbrews.
“It’s right up there on par,” said Greg Koch, chief executive of Escondido-based Stone Brewing Co. “There’s nothing about Mexico that suggests that the craft beers can’t have the level of quality we have here.”
Morales, whose daydreaming led him to quit the hotel job, spent a few years in halting stabs at homemade beer. He experimented with different flavors: kiwi, tamarind, chili pepper. Relatives gave happy reviews, but batches were going bad and he knew there was much to learn.
Still, Morales believed there was a future in making beer. In the end, it was his wife who urged him to go for broke. “If you want to continue, then continue,” Morales recalled her saying. “But you have to specialize in what you really want to do.”
He chose stout, a dark, strong beer. With little money in his pocket, he went to England, where he washed dishes and cleaned bathrooms at a pub in exchange for a month of lessons from an Irish brewer.
Morales returned with his teacher’s treasured recipe and specifications for custom copper brewing equipment. He was ready to be a brewer.
Two years later, Morales makes and bottles two stout varieties in batches of 50 to 125 gallons in a tiny plant on the edge of Mexico City. His brand is called Beer Jack, a name inspired by a U.S. supplier who insisted on calling Morales by an Anglo name, Jack.
When Americans mark the Cinco de Mayo holiday by drinking Mexican beers, Morales’ thick, chocolate-edged brew won’t be among them. Selling at home is hard enough, though he’s found buyers at some restaurants and high-end beer stores and managed to break even.
But, Morales acknowledged, “there isn’t as much profit as we thought.”
He said he tries to stay upbeat. He’s contemplating a couple of new products, including a cherry-flavored amber.
“I keep producing. I keep knocking on doors,” he said. “If not, I would have said adios to this business. I want to make something that grows.”