If it’s early May, then it’s time for my neighbors to host their super-loud Cinco de Mayo party—no real objection here, as it’s on a Friday this year. All the same, I think a much better use of your time would be to blow off the neighbors, stay home, and brew a style that has been increasing in popularity lately: the Mexican lager. I know, I know: many of you are picturing a certain clear bottle with a lime wedged in the neck, and I have two responses. First, let’s be a little less judgmental: lots of people have good memories associated with those bottles since they’re ubiquitous in sunny, sandy locales. Second, let’s revisit our stereotypes: craft brewers have embraced Mexican lager and are making some really incredible versions of it, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, too!
Strictly speaking, there’s no actual “style” here (it’s undefined in both the BJCP and BA Style Guidelines), but we have enough examples in the marketplace to start narrowing it down for ourselves. Typically, these are pale lagers (though some versions are darker and flirt with Vienna lager or even dunkel territory). Almost all have restrained flavors across the recipe. We find light honey or grain malt flavors (and maybe some light corn, either from DMS or actual flaked maize additions), low IBUs, and not much in the way of flavor or aroma hopping. Even the darker versions tend to be darker in color only and rarely exhibit rich caramel or roast flavors. Most examples are light in mouthfeel, pour brilliantly clear (you’ll need to either filter, aggressively fine your beer, or wait it out and let time do its thing), and are refreshing on the palate (even the darker versions)—unsurprising, when we consider drinking them with the sun on our faces and the sand between our toes.
This recipe is a tiny bit on the darker side compared to the “classic” Mexican lager but is still on the “pale” end of the spectrum (it should be a pleasant lighter gold color). It’s a variation on a clone of Flying Dog’s Numero Uno (Frederick, Maryland), with what I think are some good modifications! We start with 6 pounds (2.7 kg) of Maris Otter and 3 pounds (1.4 kg) of flaked maize, which lends the beer a nice grainy background with a touch of corn flavor, like a fresh corn tortilla. To that we add 4 ounces (113 g) of Munich malt to bump up the breadiness just a bit and add some richness. If you find that your version is too rich or heavy, then cut in Pilsner malt at the expense of the Maris (say, 1 pound (454 g) of Pils to 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of Maris) but leave the Munich in there. Without it, you run a risk of getting a beer that’s thin and dilute in malt character (rather than “light”).
For hopping, you want just a bit of anything at the top of the boil to add about 12 IBUs, then it gets a little weird. Rather than jamming a lime into the neck of your bottle, add some great lemon-lime citrus flavor and aroma with an ounce (28 g) of Motueka hops with 5 minutes left in the boil. It will add a few more IBUs (my target is 15–20, total), but more importantly it will add that unique lime-like New Zealand hops flavor—without the rampaging acidity of actual lime or the kind-of-risky (because it might taste pithy) lime-peel addition. A surprisingly aggressive late hops addition gives all the benefits of these with almost no risk.
And for yeast, you have two choices. If you want to play it conventionally, White Labs actually does offer a Mexican Lager yeast (WLP940), but it’s reputed to kick off a fair amount of diacetyl (which will be a real deal breaker here, frankly). Instead, I suggest you use Wyeast 2278 (Czech Pils) if you can get it or WLP001/Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) if you can’t. Both will give you a beer that’s crisp, bright, and clean, and at the temperature at which we’re fermenting, there’s no real risk of noticeable esters even with the ale yeast.
Nothing special in the mash or boil here—flaked maize doesn’t add any particular process challenges, but a kettle addition of kettle finings (e.g., Whirlfloc, Protafloc, or Irish moss) is probably a good idea to promote clarity downstream. At fermentation, we want this beer cold, though. It is, after all, a lager, whatever yeast you end up using! You can go a little bit warmer (to help ensure a robust and full attenuation) and start at 56°F (13°C). Hold it there for one week after the first signs of fermentation, then let it free-rise to about 70°F (21°C). When fermentation is finished, cold crash (again, for clarity) and then package. Carbonate to an even two volumes of CO2 (if carbonation is too high, you could end up with a beer that’s too full in the mouth), and then store cold for at least six weeks. You should have plenty of hops aroma to survive the aging process, and about two months in this will be a fantastic warm-weather beer.
If you brew this thing this coming weekend, it’ll be ready to rock just when summer is starting to become unbearable. You’ll want this beer on hand when the dog days of late July and early August start beating down. Feliz Cinco de Mayo!