Cerveza de los Muertos: Where did this stuff come from?



Four varieties of Cerveza de los Muertos
  • Four varieties of Cerveza de los Muertos
You've probably seen Cerveza de los Muertos in shops around town—over the past month or so, this line of "Mexican Craft Beer" (to quote the six-pack holders) has become ubiquitous. If you're a remotely normal person, though, you've spent exactly no time wondering who makes it or how this happened. After all, when Oregon brewery Deschutes started distributing here early in 2013, they saturated the market just as suddenly.

But it's difficult to remain undisturbed in the assumption that Deschutes beers showed up everywhere else in the country at the same time they showed up here. Most people don't buy six-packs because they're looking for reading material, but Deschutes bottles say "since 1988."

The point I'm leading to is that the arrival of Cerveza de los Muertos (translated as "Day of the Dead Beer" on the label) didn't result from the slow, steady growth of a faraway regional brewery that's been going like gangbusters for decades. It did in fact show up everywhere else at the same time, or near enough to it. The brand's website says it debuted nationally in late September 2013, after a "soft launch" in May. A year ago it didn't exist anywhere.

The bottle labels for Cerveza de los Muertos identify it as a product of Cerveceria Mexicana, which is in Tecate, about 30 miles east of Tijuana in Baja California. It's the third largest brewery in Mexico, and it does a fair amount of contract brewing—though best known for Mexicali, it also makes the Ed Hardy beers, the Trader Jose Mexican lagers, and the legendarily nasty Cave Creek Chili Beer, among others. Does it have the market muscle to pull off a U.S. launch on its own? Maybe yes, maybe no. If you've followed my logic this far, though, it won't surprise you to hear that Cerveceria Mexicana has connections to Coors.

I didnt remember these were twist-off caps till Id used a bottle opener on the first one.
  • I didn't remember these were twist-off caps till I'd used a bottle opener on the first one.

Louis Glunz Beer, the distributor handling Cerveza de los Muertos in Chicago, sent me an unsolicited package containing four of the six beers in the line. When I asked if they were Coors products, Glunz's publicist replied that "Coors was involved with [Cerveceria Mexicana] seven years ago. The brewery is now privately owned by a family." Of course, Coors doesn't have to own the facility to have beers brewed there, but I didn't get an answer in time when I followed up to ask if Coors contract brews Cerveza de los Muertos at Cerveceria Mexicana. (I'll update in the comments if I hear anything definitive later.)

There's almost no information out there on the Web linking Coors with the brewery—understandably, I suppose. If I were a multinational macrobrewer trying to sell "Mexican Craft Beer," I'd wipe my fingerprints off it too. But I'm pretty confident that "involved with" means Coors used to own Cerveceria Mexicana. I've found a presumably outdated Bloomberg Businessweek listing that says Cerveceria Mexicana has been a subsidiary of Coors since May 2000. Wikipedia seconds that listing on the ownership question, for what it's worth. So does The Real Tijuana, a blog on Tijuana history.

This 2000 article describing a trademark skirmish over the brand "Mexicali" indicates that Coors was then planning to brew a beer of that name at Cerveceria Mexicana, intending to market it in the States. The author misidentifies the brewery as "Cervacia Mexicali S.A. (Cermex) of Tecate, Mexico," but I've found what appears to be an SEC filing demonstrating that "Cermex" means "Cerveceria Mexicana."

The only current information I could track down, unfortunately, comes from a blog post by intellectual-property lawyer Robert Iussa. Commenting on a May 2013 Los Angeles Times piece on Disney's failed bid to trademark "Dia de los Muertos," he pointed out that no similar outrage had erupted over a trademark application for a "Dia de los Muertos" beer filed on May 9, 2013. According to his research at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, that application "appears to originate with" Molson Coors. (MillerCoors is a joint venture between Molson Coors and SABMiller, operating in the United States. You may remember them as producers of the only other beer I've reviewed that had a twist-off cap: Redd's Apple Ale.) I can't find any record of that application myself, but I don't know if that proves anything one way or the other.

Of course I realize that most folks don't care who makes their beer. Even people who would refuse to buy a macrobrewery's product under ordinary circumstances might relent if it were delicious—in my experience, relatively few craft-beer drinkers care enough about politics to deny themselves something tasty. The question, then, is whether anything by Cerveza de los Muertos qualifies.

Death Becomes You Amber Ale: The promotional copy that came with these beers says this one is "balanced between soft toffee and caramel notes with a floral-hoppy bitterness. It has a semi-dry finish with subtle coffee notes." If you ask me, it smells slightly sweet, buttery, and toasty, like toffee that's baked till it's nice and crisp; I can also pick up a bit of violet and green pear. The taste is mostly of caramel malt, as promised, but the hops aren't floral but rather grassy. A bitterness like coffee and baker's chocolate complements a faint roastiness that persists into a slightly scorched finish—other than a somewhat thin body, that lingering burnt flavor is the only thing objectionable here. (ABV 5.5 percent)

Death Rides a Pale Horse Blonde Ale: My picture makes this look relatively flat, but that's just because the head dissipated while I struggled to get a shot in focus. "Medium body, mild caramel sweetness and a soft pleasant bitterness," says the PR. In keeping with that thinner description, there's not a lot going on here. I definitely smell caramel, plus something like cereal (maybe corn flakes?) and a little jasmine. The taste combines honey, butterscotch, and nonspecific grains, with a very faint peppery bitterness in the finish. The beer is insubstantial but entirely inoffensive. (ABV 5.6 percent)

Pay the Ferryman Porter: "A full body beer with rich roasted malt and chocolate notes," says the PR. "Finishes with a good hop, creamy toffee and caramel followed by delicate coffee notes and smooth chocolate aftertaste." That's pretty close as far as the aroma goes: I smell vanilla-hazelnut coffee, milk chocolate, and roasted malts. The taste adds chicory coffee and unsweetened cocoa, plus something like cola, thanks in part to some hard-water minerals—the beer is weirdly watery on the whole, actually. It finishes with lots of toffee, enough to be a little distracting. (ABV 5 percent)

Queen of the Night Pale Ale: "Pleasant floral aromas with a distinctive bitterness and great character," the press release says, and the floral aromas are indeed lovely—I get rose and jasmine, mingling with honey, papaya, and a tiny bit of juniper. The flavor is honestly pretty disappointing after the smell. It finishes with an astringent, soapy bitterness that's also a little like chalk or aspirin—not the value of "distinctive" I was hoping for. I taste caramel malt and a touch of tangerine too, thankfully, but they can't overcome that finish. (ABV 5 percent per PR, 4.8 percent per bottle label)

I doubt it's necessary at this point to make the disclaimer that I'm a horrible beer nerd, or to say that I'm holding Cerveza de los Muertos to the same high standards I apply to everything I review for this column. Beers that are obviously mass-produced don't get extra points for not being terrible, because I don't approach them assuming they'll be terrible just because they're mass-produced.

And nothing from Cerveza de los Muertos is terrible. These are all decent beers, perfectly drinkable and often pleasant—pretty much everything I consider a flaw comes down to personal preference. Maybe for you a light-bodied porter with a lot of toffee in the finish hits the spot! Just like with Redd's Apple Ale, what I can't swallow is the price. Cerveza de los Muertos costs $10.99 per six-pack in my neighborhood liquor store—as much as regular-rotation beers by Metropolitan, Great Lakes, Founders, or Revolution, and a dollar more than a six-pack from Deschutes. All those breweries make what I consider superior products, and in every case I know who's getting my money and what it's supporting—a question I can't answer for Cerveza de los Muertos. So there's really no contest. I can't see myself paying for this stuff, except maybe as an accessory for a themed Halloween party.

I'll sign off with "Texan Book of the Dead," a song from Clutch's self-titled 1995 album. To quote front man Neil Fallon: "It is written / I have spoken / So put this in your pipe and smoke it."

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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