Cinco de Mayo used to be a nice little half-holiday on which Americans drank Corona and tequila after work in a vague but earnest tribute to Mexico. What exactly did Cinco de Mayo signify? Maybe it commemorated the beginning of a just reign or the end of a cruel one; perhaps it had something to do with a great hero's birth, or a major development in the fields of soccer or socialism. We weren't certain, nor did we need to be. It was the day when Señor Sombrero's had two-for-one frozen margaritas, and we all had guacamole for dinner. Who would ever want to rain on such a benign parade?
The holiday truthers, of course. You know those people who spend the entirety of April 1 bitching about the millions of imaginary pranksters tearing society apart with their LIES—because that's all pranks really are, you realize, is LIES—even though the only thing that really happens on April Fools' Day is your least-clever friends tell Facebook they're pregnant and food brands pretend to invent wacky flavor combinations? Well, the ardent April Fools' opponents now consider it their duty to remind us all that Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexican Independence Day (which, as it happens, is a far more significant holiday that falls on September 16).
I want you to keep a tally of how many people on your Internet say, "Yay for Mexican Independence Day!" versus the number who say, "SMH at all the ignorant donkeys calling this Mexican Independence Day." I bet the latter outnumber the former by at least three to one. The people who happen to know that May 5 commemorates the Mexican army's defeat of the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 are better informed than the rest of us, and for that they deserve a slightly colder beer. It's good to be informed, and we should all respect the origins of another culture's minor civic holidays.
But that said, leave us the fuck alone. All you history minors and Google Doodle sleuths need to stop pretending there's this mass movement of stupid Americans spreading false rumors about Mexican history. We don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo because we think it's Mexican Independence Day; we celebrate it because it's nice to have an excuse for a little theme-boozin' on a Monday night.
Now that we've agreed to ignore the holiday pedants, it's time to confront an even more pernicious problem standing between us and the optimal Cinco de Mayo experience: Most of us order the wrong Mexican beer every damn time, and this year we might not be able to depend on limes to bail us out. There's a lime shortage, you see (95 percent of our limes come from Mexico, incidentally, where the groves have been subjected to bad weather and a terrible anti-citrus bacteria), which has caused prices to quadruple in the past few months. A bar's profit margin takes a hit when the wedge of lime they cram down your Corona's throat starts to cost actual money, so some places are starting to get pretty tight with the fruit.
But you shouldn't be drinking beer from clear-glass bottles, anyway. Clear glass doesn't protect beer from UV light, which is why Corona and its imitators are usually skunked by the time they reach your bar or liquor store. (It's rumored that the skunk flavor is now such an integral part of the brand identity that Corona intentionally exposes the beer to light prior to canning, so even the trusty aluminum well may be poisoned.) Most Mexican beers imported to the United States are fairly simple lagers, good-time juice meant to be sucked down by the bucket, and those are among the beers most susceptible to light shock, because they have relatively little flavor to mask any flaws that develop.
I threw these 11 beers in my fridge and had my research assistant deliver them one at a time in unmarked pint glasses, and I could guess the color of the bottle they came in every time. That's partly because I was working with a small sample, and it's pretty easy to differentiate between Negra Modelo and Corona Light, but I didn't even have to get my nose to the glass before I could say, "Well, this is either Sol or Corona, because those are the only two clear glass bottles left." That's depressing, but also instructive. You should obviously treat this definitive guide as your Mexican beer bible forevermore, but in case one night you're wearing really tight pants that prevent you from rolling up the leg to consult your "Mexican Beers, Ranked" calf tattoo, just remember to order something in a dark bottle.
I swear I'm not just trying to be a contrarian dick (I said Guinness is the best Irish beer!); Corona happens to be terrible.
There's a faint dairy flavor underneath the typical clear-bottle mess. Sol, which is better than Corona, tastes like a skunk's breast milk.
9. Corona Light
Bottles of Corona Light tend to be ever-so-slightly less rancid than regular Corona. Maybe they lighten it by decreasing the hops, which is the ingredient most directly affected by exposure to UV light.
This smells like chocolate-covered-cherry Runts, but the fruit disappears once you quit sniffing and start drinking. There's a strong chocolate and caramel malt taste, which isn't terrible, but there's no hint of hops or anything else—I'd settle for some corn—to balance it.
This brown-bottled yellow fizzer has a two-tone malt character with a bready nose and a fruity flavor, making it more complex than most cheap adjunct lagers. There's not a drop of hops, of course, and Pacifico has no particular strengths, but it doesn't have any obvious flaws, either. This is the point on the list where the beers turn decent enough to drink by the dozen if the time is right and the options are limited.
6. Modela Especial
It's really a shame that Modelo bottles this in clear glass, because there's decent beer under the funk. The squat bottle and foil around the neck offer enough shade to save a bit of the sweet fruit and toasted grain flavor.
5. Dos Equis
This is a good lunchtime sneak-beer, because it has no discernible scent. It tastes agreeably basic overall, with a mild undercurrent of grape juice and a hint of sour apple on the finish.
Tecate smells like a rich guy's lawn and tastes like clean cotton (I made that second part up; I've never actually seen raw cotton, never mind eaten it, but that's what it says in my drinkin' and rankin' notebook), with a tiny little ghost of hops on the short finish. This one doesn't linger, and would be well suited to firing down by the case on a boat or beach or park bench.
3. Dos Equis Ambar
The darker Dos Equis smells like molasses and tastes like slightly smoky cocoa.
This has a nice crisp astringency and a touch of hops on the long, clean finish. I've picked this classy pilsner as my favorite Mexican beer in previous rankicles, and I might have again if I'd done my research on a warmer day.
1. Negra Modelo
Negra Modelo has a deep, earthy nose, which is all well and good, but the winning trait here is the meaty, smoky flavor. This beautiful beer tastes like ham! Negra Modelo is the best Mexican beer of all time among Mexican beers that were in my fridge the other day.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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