Our head brewer, Jason Buehler, recently traveled to Mexico to participate as a judge in the Slow Beer Mexico competition. Read on to hear about his travels and beer adventures south of the border!
Earlier this month I was lucky to be invited to judge at the Slow Beer Mexico competition. What is slow beer? The basic concept of Slow Beer mimics Slow Food in the fact that it promotes the use of locally produced, high quality ingredients. An excerpt from an article in Slow Wine magazine describes slow beer as:
“The Slow Beer Mexico campaign promotes the use of quality domestic malt in micro-brewery recipes, as well as the use of traditional foods included in the Ark of Taste and Slow Food Presidia in Mexico such as domestic malt, corn, cacao and Habanero chili, to name a few. By using these ingredients, brewers not only support farmers and the local market, but they also open up new taste and flavor possibilities, helping to stop these culinary values being lost.”
My travels took me from Denver to Mexico City and on to Puebla, which is a 2.5 hour bus ride east of Mexico City. In Mexico City I was greeted by Lucia Carrillo, one of the organizers of Slow Beer Mx. Lucia is a brewer and also works in sales for a brewery called La Cirquera. I quickly realized that she has the passion and drive for beer that reminds me of many US craft brewers. She was an amazing hostess on our trip and taught me many things about the culture and food of Mexico.
Our first day of judging began early the next morning and it was an amazing experience. The judging took place at the culinary institute at the local university. We were greeted by some of the culinary students in a beautiful judging room and the students presented the judges with a table full of amazing local exotic brewing ingredients that we would soon be tasting in the competition beers. Most of the judges were familiar with these ingredients but I had not heard of many of them and for fellow American judge Randy Mosher and I it was a treat to be able to smell and taste them and get an explanation from the students as to their primary uses in food. We tasted a couple of calibration beers and the judging commenced. The actual judging was also an interesting experience to me. There were some definite cultural differences in how beers are judged there that I don’t see when judging in the U.S. It was pretty apparent that there is a general concern for giving criticism to brewers and not hurting their feelings or offending them. As a judge, I definitely am aware of how I give feedback and I try not to be too harsh and give positive feedback with negative feedback. However, some of the judges I tasted with directly said that they didn’t think it was appropriate to provide negative feedback. We stopped judging at our table and discussed this very issue and agreed to use the full point scale give and were able to come to an agreement as to how we would judge moving forward. As a brewer, receiving criticism of my beer has been one of the best ways to learn and improve, and I’m hopeful this will be the same for some of the Mexican brewers whose beers we critiqued. Overall, the beers were very good and the ingredients were fantastic to taste in beers.
After the first day of judging we visited some beautiful Catholic churches and toured around some of the local markets. We stopped by an old Pasita bar and tasted some pasita, which is a very sweet liquor that is served in a small glass with a cheese wedge and raisin on a toothpick. The drink itself is super sweet but with the salty cheese it’s actually quite nice.
On day two we visited a brewery in Cholula, San Pascual Baylon. We met with the two owners/brewers and had a tour and tasting of their beers. Their beer was very good and it was great to see how much they were able to produce in a very small space. After visiting with them they took us to the local market and we tasted lots of interesting fruits and found some ingredients for making beer that I bought to bring home. I had a beer the previous day with Jamaica, a red flower, and picked up a small bag of those. I also bought Ocote, which is a type of wood that has a very fragrant sap that I had a beer with previously on the trip. After our touring was over we headed back to the culinary institute for lunch and the day’s judging session.
On Saturday we got up in the morning and headed to Cholula and toured the great pyramid there. We had a private tour from an American ex-pat named Tim who is an anthropologist and studies ancient Aztec language. Tim gave us an incredible tour and we climbed the pyramid and had a tremendous view of the surrounding area. The pyramid isn’t super tall but it is very large and is actually the largest pyramid in the world by mass. There is now a church on top of it that was built when the Spanish conquered the area and there is a museum nearby with lots of ancient artifacts and history from the area. After our tour we stopped by a pulqueria where they make a spontaneously fermented beverage called Pulque. Pulque is made with sap harvested from Maguey plants(huge agave plants) and spontaneously fermented, usually in oak barrels or other small vessels. It’s a still, milky white beverage that is tart, somewhat sour, and has a sticky, stringy consistency due to the nature of the sap. If you think of what a cactus or aloe vera plant does when you cut it, it’s kind of stringy and gooey and sticky. The beverage also has that texture, which I think is off-putting to some people, but I didn’t mind. They generally served Pulque as “Traditional” or “Curado”(fixed). The traditional is somewhat dry, tart, and sour. The Curado has fruit and sugar added to sweeten. Both that we tried were still fermenting slightly and I think it is mostly served this way. ABV is low, probably in the 4-6% range. After visiting the Pulqueria we moved on to a local bar and sampled many mezcals in addition to more pulque. The mezcals are great and have a big range of flavor, most of them very smoky and strong. I was told I could buy a bottle of mezcal and wanted to, so I ordered one. The young girl behind the counter proceeded to take a large bottle, probably 2-3 gallons from the top shelf. She pulled it down and grabbed a funnel and small clean bottle and filled it right there for me. With no available cork, she pulled the cork from another commercial bottle of liquor and I was set!
Later that evening we headed to a bar in Cholula for the final round of judging. The final round was open to the public and conducted live in front of the audience. This was definitely a different experience for me. I’ve always judged in a quiet room in private so being open with the public watching was something I didn’t expect. The judging went great and the gold and silver beers were obvious choices that we all agreed upon. When it got to the bronze beer, we had a slight disagreement. Randy and I both felt pretty strongly about our picks but we were able to talk through it and agree on the final medal beer. In speaking to members of the audience afterward they all thought the judging was really intense. One guy even asked me if Randy and I would still be friends! I really didn’t think we came off as argumentative and Randy didn’t either but there was definitely a public perception that we were not happy with each other. I took this as a cultural difference. We’re pretty serious about craft beer in the US and I think this is a little different than in Mexico. One of the brewers asked me why we took the judging so seriously. I told him my honest reaction was that I felt like I owed it to him and the other brewers who put so much work into their beer to take it seriously. I think he appreciated that.
On Sunday we traveled to Mexico City and Randy and I presented beers from our respective breweries to a crowd of 30 brewers who had bought tickets to hear us speak and taste our beers. The beers were all well received and I had fun telling the story of Denver Beer Co and about the beers that we make. Socializing with the brewers afterward was fantastic. I met lots of great people and we had some very deep conversations about craft brewers selling out to mega brewers. We ended up going out to dinner with some of the brewers afterward and were lucky to get a tour of Cervezaria Cru Cru from the brewers/owners. They have a great little brewery and are making some interesting beers including a Chapuline Gose that was fantastic fresh out of the brite tank. Our night and my trip ended there as I headed out early the next day to the airport.
I feel very lucky to have been a part of Slow Beer Mx 2017. I met some really amazing people and learned a lot about the culture and history of Mexico. The judging and overall beer experience was very special and everyone even laughed at my Taco Bell jokes. A huge thank you to Lucia Carrillo, Horacio Torres De Ita, Alfonso Rocha, Randy Mosher, and all of the amazing Mexican brewers and beer fans. I hope to return back some day to visit again!