Pint by Pint
The Mysterious Case of the Michelada Beer Cocktail
The backstory of this refreshing drink runs through Austin and down to Mexico.
Late one afternoon in the fall of 1985, I was sitting alone at a table inside a giant coffee cup two doors down from the Music Machine on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles when the waitress brought me a can of beer. Tecate—and cold, cold, cold.
But with it came a saucer, and on the saucer was a neat little mound of subdivided lime wedges and diced white onion. The lime bits I could understand—longnecks of Mexican beer with wedges of lime jammed into them were a recent fad in that part of the country. But the onions? I had no earthly idea what to do with them.
For some reason, I had been invited to play bass at an “all-star” punk jam at the Music Machine—my band, A Blind Dog Stares, was new in town and I suppose that made us a novelty; Lord knows I wasn’t a star, nor even a particularly accomplished bass player. I did jump around a lot, though, so there’s that. In any case, after soundcheck I didn’t really want to hang around backstage.
In my considered opinion as a New York punk, Los Angeles punks tended to be either big, aggressive ex- (but only just) high school jocks, in it for the slamming and spitting and ritualized aggression, or deeply concerning lowlifes such as the pair of fellow “stars” who were going around backstage with an enormous bag of miscellaneous pills, all mixed together and looking like so many Sumo-sized sprinkles, peddling them to the other musicians and their hangers-on. (The disturbing thing wasn’t so much that they were selling them, despite not even knowing what most of them were, but that people were actually buying them.)
I went to the coffee cup instead. Los Angeles used to abound in such places, eateries built, back in the Mack Sennett days, to look like whatever foodstuff they were selling. This former coffee shop had gone Mexican at some point, and it was as good a place to hide out until jam time as any, at least if I could figure out what to do with the damn onions. 2018 me would just ask the waitress. 1985 me was far too cool for that.
Luckily, there were a couple of guys in mechanic’s overalls eating tacos at one of the other tables and one of them ordered a beer, too. After he shoveled his onions into the Tecate can and squeezed in the little lime points I followed suit.
Now, I’ve never come across this particular beer set-up again, and can find nothing about it online. I’ve always maintained a lazy belief that the folks running the teacup came from some obscure part of Mexico where beer with lime and onions was a thing, but it’s entirely possible that you were supposed to snack on the onions and the auto mechanic was an idiot—and I an even bigger one for blindly following him.
That Tecate did taste good, though: the lime sparked it up, as lime does, and the sweet onions marinating in the can gave it a little gentle funk; a little interest (something Tecate has never been accused of having). If it did nothing else, it served as a harbinger for me for another, far better drink.
If, after the Music Machine gig, I had gotten into a car, driven east on I-10 for 21 hours, and stopped in the Northwend shopping center, just outside of Austin, I could have caught the first incursion into the United States of another, ultimately more interesting Mexican way of messing with beer.
The Torta Brothers restaurant there, opened earlier that year by one Juan Carlos Zalladares, specialized, naturally, in tortas, the well-upholstered Mexican sandwiches. But it also offered, besides a full line of sincronizadas, flautas, quesadillas potosianas and so forth, some house drinks that went beyond the usual Margarita; drinks that were straight out of Mexico. Among them were (as recorded by Susan Brownlee of the Austin American-Statesman) the Vampiro—tequila mixed with sangrita (citrus, hot sauce and spices)—and the “house specialty, Michelada, made with Corona, lime and ice.”
These days, the Michelada is a little more elaborate and a hell of a lot more popular: the lime juice is augmented by various hot sauces and other bottled condiments, the glass is rimmed with salt and sometimes other spices, the beer is whatever you like, and you can find them all over North America—even in Canada.
There are even Michelada kits, like the one I picked up last year at a convenience store off the highway near Modesto, California: a 24-oz Styrofoam cup with a salt-and-chili rim, protected by cellophane, and an attached flavor packet containing an evil-looking red powder and this little round grey thing that turns out to be a salted plum, of all things. You activate this device by ripping off the plastic, emptying the packet inside and pouring in a 24-oz can of Tecate, conveniently sold in the refrigerator case. Let the foam subside, put your car in gear and off you go.
Back in 1985, though, the Michelada was just something that was kicking around northern Mexico. There are, as always in these matters, a number of stories of where the drink came from. The most credible one is also the simplest. One day in the late 1970s, Michel Esper Jorge, a civil engineer from San Luis Potosí, a large industrial town a couple of hundred miles northwest of Mexico City, showed up somewhat hungover for a round of tennis at the Club Deportivo Pototosino, the local sports club.
After the match, he repaired to the bar, afflicted with, as he told a journalist in 2008, “a hideous thirst.” Esper liked to play around with mixing drinks, or at least have bartenders do it at his direction, and so he had the mesero bring him a glass full of ice, some lime juice, some assorted condiments and a bottle of beer. Into the glass went the juice, a few dashes of this and that, and the beer. “The bartender asked me, when he saw how I made it, what it was,” he recalled in 2010. “Well, I guess it’s a Michelada.” (Helada is Spanish for “frosty.”)
As with the invention of most drinks, it’s an open question exactly what it was that Esper invented: “cerveza preparada,” beer mixed with various juices (lime among them) and condiments, was already a Mexican drink of long standing, and it’s quite possible that all he contributed was the precise constitution of the dashes and, most importantly, the name. Others have achieved greater fame for contributing far less.
There is some debate as to what those dashes were, at least at first. In 2010, Esper said they were Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and Maggi seasoning, a liquid MSG-powered soy-sauce analogue that also appears in another Mexican classic, the Petroleo or Petrolero (“Petroleum” or “Oil Man”), where, along with lime juice and sometimes hot sauce, it’s used to spice up tequila. A couple of those ingredients may have come in at the end of Esper’s development process, rather than the beginning. In any case, when the drink began seeping out of its hometown, in the early 1980s, it was often quite simple: beer, lime, ice, maybe a salted rim or a dash of hot sauce.
It was certainly simple at Torta Brothers, although it’s possible they snuck in a few dashes of something along with that “Corona, lime and ice.” Juan Carlos Zalladares’s mother, who provided the restaurant’s recipes, was from San Luis Potosí, and for all I know her son was, too. They would have gotten their Michelada from the source, or close to it. It was all in vain, though: unfortunately for hot and thirsty American drinkers, in 1985 the Michelada was too much of a stretch and it didn’t catch on (and neither did Torta Brothers, despite being, from the sound of it, a fine place to eat).
It took another ten years for the Michelada to turn up again in El Norte, again via Texas. This time, it worked. By 1998 it was getting attention nationwide, and by 2000 it was even something of a fad. At that point, though, its connection to San Luis Potosí was well-obscured and there was a good deal of speculation about its origin. In 2001, when Tim Weiner of the New York Times tried to walk back the cat and figure out where it hailed from, after asking various American experts on cocktails and Mexican cooking and a number of old-timers working behind Mexico City bars, he could only get as close as the Petroleo, which he was told was particular to Veracruz. (Esper claimed it as a Potosian drink; we’ll save that argument for another time.) Esper, somewhat embarrassed by the success of his creation and the local notoriety it brought him, didn’t step forward until the end of the decade (back at the beginning, he had even tried to get the bartender at the Club Deportivo to change its name). By then, the Michelada was established as a modern classic.
If the United States has a unique genius in the realm of mixed drinks, and I believe it does, it lies first and foremost in the field of thermodynamics, and in particular in the art of removing heat from liquids and the containers in which they are served. There are many examples—the Mint Julep leaps to mind, which when made properly seizes moisture from the air around it and uses it to encase itself in a thick coating of ice—but to my mind there is none that exceeds the so-called “frosty mug”: the thick-walled, handled glass tankard that has been kept in a cold freezer so long that, when you pour beer into it, the beer thickens into a slurry so cold that it can slow molecular motion to a standstill. Or at least the motion of whatever those particles are that ping-pong around your brain yelling “I’m so fucking hot!”
Sometime in the early 2000s, American bartenders began applying frosty-mug technology to the Michelada: no ice in the glass, just spicy, savory, thirst-decapitating slurry. This is why we have cultural interchange.
These days, there is no one set formula for a Michelada—quot potatores, tot Micheladae, to coin a Latin proverb: “This many drinkers, that many Micheladas.” Between idiosyncratic proportions, unusual condiments, clever spice mixes to rim the glass, the variety is near-infinite. I generally like to stick pretty close to Esper’s formula, though: as he explained it in 2010, a lot of these things tend to be counterproductive. For him, “it has to be just a little lime juice—you put in, say, the juice of half a lime—and maybe five drops of each of the condiments, because otherwise you obscure the taste of the beer.” That said, I do like to put half an ounce of smoky mezcal in my Micheladas; just a splash, really. It seems to help with the chilling—if not the drink’s, then mine, anyway. And, you know, if you’ve got a spoonful or so of finely-minced white onion and don’t mind a little texture in your beer, why the hell not?
Oh yeah: that “all-star” jam? Complete shitshow. Nobody knew any songs and we spent 20 minutes riffing loudly and badly on Howlin’ Wolf’s one-chord “Smokestack Lightning” and the Stooges’ two-chord “No Fun” and called it a night.
- 1 12-oz bottle or can Mexican beer (I like Dos Equis or Bohemia, but really anything will work)
- .5 oz Lime juice
- 2 dashes, or 5 drops, Worcestershire sauce
- 2 dashes, or 5 drops, Mexican hot sauce, such as Tapatio
- 2 dashes, or 5 drops, Liquid Maggi seasoning or soy sauce
- 1 teaspoonful finely minced White onion (Optional)
- .5 oz Mezcal, such as Vida or El Buho (Optional)
- Mix of salt and powdered chiles to rim the glass (Optional)
- Glass: Beer mug or a pint glass
- Put the lime juice, spices and, if you’re using it, mezcal into either a glass beer mug taken straight from the freezer or a pint glass full of cracked ice. (Either vessel can be rimmed with salt or salt and chiles in advance; simply wet the outer rim with a wedge of lime and roll it in the salt or mix).
- Slowly pour in the beer. Chill.
Helpful Hint: For parties, I like to bottle up the mix, using 12 oz each of lime juice and mezcal and spices in proportion, and put it and a 1-oz jigger next to a bucket of ice and one of those 5-liter supermarket kegs of beer. (Heineken works fine.) Fill solo cup with ice, add an ounce of mix and fill with beer. Life is good.