This article is the July/August 2017 Zymurgy magazine online extra.
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Last November, I traveled to Mexico to serve as one of 22 judges in Copa Cerveza, the largest craft beer competition in the country. I was intrigued to see how Mexico’s craft beer market had changed since my previous visit in 2008, when I had washed down food with Corona, Pacifico, and other mass-produced beers that can only be enjoyed when sand covers the bottom of the bottle.
Judging took place at the World Trade Center in Mexico City over the course of two days. Our panel included judges from Spain, the US, Uruguay, Peru, and Chile. Almost all the judges worked in the industry in some way, including such brewery founders as Doug Odell of Odell Brewing Company.
We split into judging teams and divided among seven different tables so each group could cover different styles, and then we introduced ourselves to the room in English, Spanish, and often both. I was set to evaluate beer with two strangers: a Grand Master III BJCP judge, and the head brewer of a small operation in northern Spain.
Breweries had submitted just 550 entries to Copa Cerveza Mexico, so some styles were grouped together. British ales came first to our table, where ordinary bitters, best bitters, strong bitters, and a lone British golden ale competed for one set of medals. The samples arrived a few at a time until we each had a lineup of 14 beers identified only by numbers written on the plastic cups. A sheet explained the stylistic guidelines by which we were to judge each beer. Silence filled the room as everyone at every table swirled, sniffed, sipped, and scribbled on score sheets.
Jinete de la Muerte Smoked Robust Porter
Recipe courtesy Eduardo Smeke, Grupo Cervecero 4 Jinetes del Apocalipsis, Mexico City
Award: Silver, Special Beer, Copa Cerveza
This English-style brown ale features a roast aroma with notes of smoke, chocolate, and cocoa. It pairs well with roasted or smoked dishes, full-fat cow’s milk cheeses like Gruyère, and desserts that feature coconut or peanut butter.
- Batch Size: 5.25 US gallons (19.9 L)
- Original Gravity: 1.055 (12.8° P)
- Final Gravity: 1.013 (3.3° P)
- Color: 30 SRM
- Bitterness: 36 IBU
- Alcohol: 5.5% by volume
- 3 lb. (1.36 kg) US Munich malt 10° L
- 2 lb. 12 oz. (1.25 kg) German pale malt
- 2 lb. 5 oz. (1.05 kg) German beechwood-smoked malt
- 1 lb. 2 oz. (510 g) UK Caramalt
- 13 oz. (369 g) US crystal malt 60° L
- 9 oz. (255 g) UK pale chocolate malt
- 5 oz. (142 g) US black malt
- 1.25 oz. (35 g) Willamette, 4.5% a.a. @ 60 min
- 0.5 oz. (14 g) Northern Brewer, 7.8% a.a. @ 60 min
- Danstar Nottingham
- Ca 80 ppm, Mg 5 ppm, Na 25 ppm, Cl 75 ppm, SO4 80 ppm, HCO3 100 ppm
- 1.75 oz. (50 g) dried chipotle chiles soaked in vodka for 3 days
- 3.2 oz. (91 g) brown sugar for bottle priming
Mash grains at 154° F (68° C) for one hour with a mash thickness of 1.3 qt./lb. (2.8 L/kg). Ferment at 72° F (22°C) and bottle prime with brown sugar and chipotle-infused vodka to achieve 2.1 volumes (4.2 g/L) of CO2.
At the end of the flight, it was our duty to find consensus regarding the top beers according to style. The best brews had style-appropriate appearance, nose, flavor, and mouthfeel and left lasting positive impressions. After two flights of British ales—27 unique beers—we asked that six be re-poured so we could more easily discuss which deserved gold, silver, and bronze. After the British ales, we switched to sours.
Every style I judged included many great Mexican craft beers. Among the remarkable options in the sour category were a sour bomb Berliner weisse, a guava-infused Berliner weisse, a stinky cheese gueuze, a stout that tasted of sour cherries, and a Flanders red ale that boasted a big raspberry, blackberry, tart cherry, and light oak profile supported by a perfect dry finish and malt background. That Flanders made the top three for all of us at the table, and two of us considered it the best of the flight. After a short discussion, we awarded it gold for the sours category. (I later learned the beer was brewed and aged by Cervecería Wendlandt; I would buy it regularly if it were available in the US.)
At the end of each day of judging, a group of judges sampled the top beers in each category to determine which would go on to be considered for the coveted best-of-show award. At the awards ceremony, the 11 beers that had passed through this double inspection were scored live on stage in front of the very brewers who had made them.
With microphones transmitting their voices to the full auditorium, judges discussed the merits and demerits of the category winners and stated how well each fit style guidelines. They slowly eliminated options until my favorite Flanders Red emerged as the best-of-show winner over many deserving candidates.
After live judging was complete, awards in each individual category were called out one at a time. Brewers and friends leapt to their feet over every medal, some literally dancing on stage as they picked up their award plaques. Emotions, especially excitement and camaraderie, filled the auditorium of more than 200 members of the Mexican craft beer scene.
Breweries cheered for one another, shouted encouragement, and, in some cases, teased with lighthearted name-calling. Regional loyalty was on full display, with brewers from the same area applauding one another. One couple seated next to me cried when they (or maybe their friends) received no medals. It felt great to be involved in something so obviously meaningful in this room filled with businesses that treated each another like family members.
Señor Pale Ale
Recipe courtesy Cervecería Flaco Cara de Perro, Mexico City
Award: Bronze, American Pale Ale, Copa Cerveza 2016
- Batch Size: 5 US gallons (19 L)
- Original Gravity: 1.044–1.048 (10.9–11.9° P)
- Final Gravity: 1.004–1.006 (1.0–1.5° P)
- Color: 5 SRM
- Bitterness: 40 IBU
- Alcohol: 5.6% by volume
- 7 lb. 3 oz. (3.25 kg) pale 2-row malt
- 10 oz. (285 g) light Munich malt 5° L
- 7 oz. (190 g) Carapils malt
- 6 oz. (170 g) caramel malt 25° L
- 0.35 oz. (10 g Simcoe, 13% a.a., first wort hop
- 0.35 oz. (10 g) Centennial, 8% a.a. @ 15 min
- 0.35 oz. (10 g) Simcoe, 13% a.a. @ 15 min
- 0.35 oz. (10 g) Centennial, 8% a.a. @ 10min
- 0.35 oz. (10 g) Simcoe, 13% a.a. @ 10min
- 0.39 oz. (11 g) Centennial, 8% a.a. @ 5 min
- 0.39 oz. (11 g) Simcoe, 13% a.a. @ 5 min
- 0.35 oz. (10 g) Centennial, 8% a.a. @ 1 min
- 0.42 oz. (12 g) Simcoe, 13% a.a. @ 1 min
- 0.67 oz. (19 g) Simcoe, 13% a.a., dry hop 3 days
- 0.67 oz. (19 g) Centennial, 8% a.a., dry hop 3 days
- Fermentis Safale US-05
Mash grains at 147° F (64° C) for one hour. Ferment at 68° F (20° C) for 6 days, dry hop in primary for 3 days at 68° F (20° C), and cold condition for 6 days in secondary at 37° F (3° C). Transfer to a keg and force carbonate with 12 psi at 37° F (3° C).
Editor’s note: The original recipe stipulated force carbonating with 15 psi (103 kPa) at 37° F (3° C). At Mexico City’s elevation of nearly 7,400 feet (2,256 meters) above sea level, this approach would yield 2.5 to 2.6 volumes (5 to 5.2 g/L) of carbon dioxide, which is about right for American-style pale ale. But, as one descends in elevation, less regulator pressure is needed to achieve the same level of carbonation, so we have decreased the indicated gauge pressure from 15 to 12 psi to yield the right carbonation level at sea level. All other things being equal, every 1,000 feet of elevation gain requires an extra 0.5 psi to achieve a given carbonation level. For our metric friends, that’s about 9 kPa per 800 meters.
The Expo Cerveza Mexico, which started the day after the awards ceremony, offered competition participants an opportunity to pour their brews for thousands of paying customers. Equipment dealers and maltsters had booths, but the focus was on the more than 100 booths at which breweries sold pints and samples. It was common to see head brewers in their booths discussing recipes or techniques between sips.
I tried beers of almost every style imaginable. One booth featured a malty smoked beer infused with bacon that pleasantly reminded me of smoked fish in taste and smell. Jovial attendees milled about from booth to booth with official Copa Cerveza Mexico glasses in hand. Many had donned horned Viking helmets that seemed comically out of place in a city that very rarely sees snow. None of the locals I spoke to could offer a better explanation than that these were “drinking hats.”
I only saw two malt providers at the expo, and hops were scarce. Most brewers I talked to used dry yeast. Store shelves typically did not contain more than one or two craft options, and I cannot imagine how tough it would be to hone a style without having a host of examples for comparison. Many bars in Mexico City contain only a few select lagers brewed by Modelo or Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma. Examples of Mexican craft beer can be found at high-end restaurants and elite bars, but it is still difficult to find an IPA in one of the biggest metropolises in the world.
Although there is still room for improvement (several samples suffered from oxidation, inappropriate phenols, or bacterial contamination), I tried many excellent beers, and I believe that as passionate brewers gain increasing access to resources, experience, and education, the craft scene in Mexico is poised to explode.