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Mexican Beer Steals Thunder from Mezcal in Oaxaca

an article by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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Rosario Maza's beer store in San Felipe del Agua
Rosario Maza's beer store in the Oaxacan suburb of San Felipe del Agua has been operating for less than four months. The astute businesswoman is already preparing to open up another, this time downtown. Maza, a descendent of the famed Mexican Margarita Maza, wife of Mexico's first indigenous president Benito Juárez, says that the time had come for Oaxaca, known more for production of mezcal and gastronomic excellence than beer consumption, to have its first beer store. Hence she opened Bier Stube, restricted to craft brews, otherwise known as beer produced in microbreweries.

Maza had been an event planner arranging for the needs of Oaxacans preparing to throw all manner of fiesta; weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, 15 años, and whatever other rite of passage came her way. But she was also the representative of the Mexican beer Cucapá.

"My customers liked Cucapá, and while the brewery has always produced a variety of beers, they began to ask for other artisanal beers, brews that weren't available in Oaxaca, or at least not on a consistent basis," she explains. "Then it just clicked," she continues, "I knew that the time was right, and that I could supply a broad range of artisanal beer week in and week out, both domestic and international brands [with a view to avoiding definitions and the controversy surrounding the issue, I employ the terms craft, artisanal (most commonly used in Mexico) small batch and independent, interchangeably, cognizant of the politics regarding terminology]."

Indeed the problem in Oaxaca until now has been consistency. You can buy a modest diversity of craft beers in Sam's Club, but once the shipment is sold out, you don't know when that particular beer will next appear on the shelves. And supermarket chain Soriana has always had difficulty with keeping even staples in stock.

Although craft beer in Mexico is nothing new, at least in this part of the country the beer drinking public needs a helping hand in learning about the different independent brews, and pairing. Maza consults with a beer sommelier on a regular basis, and attends beer festivals out of state, mainly in Mexico City and Guadalajara. In addition she's an avid reader of anything related to cerveza.

Maza spends a lot of time with her customers, educating and advising them, imparting them with the knowledge she's gained over the years. Her buyers are still learning and honing their palates. Hence she tends to still be selling mainly single bottles, on average three or four bottles of small batch beer per customer, instead of cases. "But gradually they're learning," she beams, "and they're coming back for cases of their favorite artisanal brews much more often now. I sell a lot of the German beer Paulaner Salvator by the case lot."

"Don't get me wrong," Maza cautions," Oaxacans do know about different flavors and other nuances, body, and so on. Having mezcal connoisseurs amongst my customer base has actually helped. It's now simply a matter of training their palates in an alternate direction, extending their appreciation to beyond simply being able to discern between the different commercial beer products. Once I've accomplished that, more will start to return to buy their preferred artisanal brews by the case."

Of the approximately 100 different beers in Bier Stube, German brews are the biggest seller, followed by Belgian beers and then Mexican. Maza actually carries between 13 and 15 Mexican brands of craft beer. They're made by independent breweries in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Mexicali, Tijuana, Querétaro, and yes even Oaxaca. Other countries represented on the shelves include England, Czech Republic, Holland, Denmark, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, France, Scotland, Argentina and Cuba. Some of her beers have won international awards, such as Delirium Tremens.

Small batch brews range from stout and porter, to pale ale, lagers, wheat beers, pilsener and others. Bier Stube carries beers fermented with apple, banana, cherry, raspberry, coconut, coffee bean tequila barrel, and even a mandarin peel / star anise / cilantro fermentation. Pricing is anywhere from 28 pesos a bottle for the German Bitburger, to 90 pesos for a St. Peter's Honey Porter. Maza is always prepared to order cases of beer not on her shelves. "I know far from everything about artisanal beer and all the products available on the marketplace, so getting in something special from an artisanal brewery for a customer helps me to learn as well."

Restaurants in Oaxaca have also jumped on the beer bandwagon. Popular bistro - style eatery La Biznaga carries some of Maza's products, even though the restaurant continues to buy from Sam's and other stores - Maza tries to shelve beers not otherwise available in the city. La Biznaga carries about 45 different types of beer, roughly 35 of which are produced in microbreweries. Competitor restaurant La Jícara, another Maza client, also stocks both commercial and craft beers. When the restaurant holds special events it makes available upwards of 100 different beers, depending on the request of the particular patron. Downtown Oaxaca restaurant La Olla has held beer tasting evenings, most recently with representatives of Mexican microbrewery Tempus supplying the beer, and the restaurant providing appetizers for pairing.

Maza laments that it won't be long before someone else opens a beer store in Oaxaca. That was part of her motivation for jumping ahead with a second brew outlet. "But I don't worry about it too much," she assures, "since I just have to keep my customers happy and stay ahead of the game when it comes to marketing and promotion. The more artisanal beers are accepted in Oaxaca, either purchased from me or someone else, the more it helps all of us," she rationalizes. "After my second opening I'll begin working on opening a bar which specializes in artisanal beer."

Beer is a long way off from displacing mezcal as the alcoholic beverage of choice in Oaxaca. Clearly craft beer will never become as popular with the locals as mezcal, or even commercial Mexican beer brands. But a burgeoning Oaxaca craft beer market providing the diversity of small batch brews we're now beginning to see, does give both visitors to and residents of Oaxaca more ways than before to both enhance even the most exceptional Oaxacan culinary experience, and sit back and imbibe with friends.

Bier Stube
Avenida de las Etnias 113, San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca
T: (951) 520-0548
W: http://www.bierstube.com.mx

Alvin Starkman is a mezcal and pulque aficionado, living full time in Oaxaca. He takes visiting couples & families up into Oaxaca's mountains to sample and learn about mezcal and pulque, as well as to more traditional tourist sights. Alvin is finally beginning to gain an appreciation for Mexican craft beers. Alvin is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País - Imagen de México. He operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast with his wife Arlene, and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera.

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