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The Spice Is Right: Why Brewers Are Betting Big on Micheladas

Around late 2019, the 4 Noses Brewing team assembled at its Broomfield, Colo., headquarters to brainstorm collaborations, setting one ground rule: no breweries allowed.

“We all landed on the Real Dill,” director of marketing Dustin Ramey says of the Denver company that produces zippy pickles and Bloody Mary mixes. Instead of a brunch cocktail, maybe 4 Noses could make a Colorado Michelada?

The Mexican beer cocktail classically merges a lager with lime juice, hot sauce, and perhaps tomato juice or Clamato, with no two recipes alike. For its version, 4 Noses brewed a corn-heavy lager akin to Modelo Especial, then added pickle brine, Bloody Mary mix, lime juice, and hand-sliced serrano peppers.

“It was the most labor-intensive beer that we’d made,” Ramey says of the canned Michelada, first released in early 2020. Response to the one-off was so positive that 4 Noses added the Michelada and a spicy variant to its year-round lineup. Later this year, 4 Noses will also release a Michelada featuring hot sauce fermented in a former stout barrel.

“We’re starting to branch out into some really cool culinary areas that most breweries don’t get to play around in,” Ramey says.

Flavor is now king, queen, and everything in between in the alcoholic beverage industry. Hard ciders and teas taste like popsicles, double IPAs evoke fruit punch, and Simply and Mountain Dew have spawned boozy spinoffs. Now the flashiest flavor delivery vehicles are Mexico’s bold yet approachable Chelada and Michelada cervezas preparadas, or beer cocktails. (Simpler Cheladas contain beer, lime juice, and salt, while more complex Micheladas contain tomato or clam juice and seasonings like soy, hot, and Worcestershire sauces.)

These refreshing beer cocktails, sold in cans or mixed behind a bar, are broadening beer’s multicultural appeal by deploying heat and fruit in a lower-ABV format that’s ideal for most any drinking occasion.

“The Michelada has the three Fs: flavor, fun and functionality,” says Oscar Martinez, the chief marketing officer of Miche Mix. “We love to think about the Michelada as a blank canvas.”

Canned Micheladas Have Been a Simmering Trend

Like a grill lit with gallons of lighter fluid, today’s alcohol trends are fast-developing fires, with hazy IPAs and hard seltzers burning up sales charts. The Michelada, though, is a slow-burning success.

In 2007, Miller Brewing (now part of Molson Coors Beverage Company) introduced the bottled “chelada style” Miller Chill, flavored with lime and salt, which remains popular in Australia. Tecate debuted America’s first canned Michelada in 2012, while 2014 saw Modelo roll out Chelada Especial, made with tomatoes, salt, and lime.

“We like to call Chelada our 10-year overnight success story,” says Logan Jensen, Modelo’s vice president of brand marketing.

As of May 26, dollar sales of Cheladas in stores reached nearly $913 million in the last 52 weeks, an increase of around $150 million, according to Circana. Modelo’s Chelada line leads with about $613 million in sales, dwarfing Bud Light’s Chelada family (about $172 million). In simpler terms: Nearly seven in 10 packaged Micheladas sold in America are Modelo Cheladas.

While Modelo’s classic Chelada has its fans, tomatoes are a polarizing fruit. The brewery expanded the Chelada line by foregoing tomatoes and creating spicy variants flavored with watermelons, pineapples, oranges, mangos, and strawberries, plus one with lime and salt.

“Fruit flavors have created an entryway for consumers into the category,” Jensen says, adding that sessionability — about 3.5 percent ABV for the Cheladas — can expand occasions. “Having lower alcohol makes it more accessible.”

Low alcohol, high flavor, and lots of liquid are big value propositions for Micheladas, which are typically packaged in single-serve, 24-ounce cans. The Dos Equis Micheladas are 4.1 percent ABV, while Bud Light’s Chelada line sits at 4.2 percent ABV, meaning most folks can crush a can and still stand. If you want another one, head back to a convenience store, where the majority of Cheladas are sold.

“Micheladas have provided us with an approachable, cocktail-style offering.”

This spring, Lagunitas Brewing introduced a trial line of two 19.2-ounce Cheladas, in spicy tomato and lime and salt, specifically to be sold at convenience stores in California, New Mexico, and Nevada. The Petaluma, Calif., brewery looked to differentiate itself by upping the ABV to 6 percent to “offer that bang for your buck,” says vice president of innovation Ben Widseth.

Producing the Chelada line makes sense when you dive into the demographics of the Lagunitas drinker. In general, “Lagunitas over-indexes with Hispanic consumers,” Widseth says. Moreover, Lagunitas has been a little lost in the wilderness, experimenting with hard teas and a tiki cocktail–inspired imperial IPA.

“I think people felt that we may have gotten a little bit too cute,” Widseth says. The Chelada line realigns Lagunitas with beer, delivering flavorful innovation within a familiar form factor. “It’s really reconnecting us to who we are as Lagunitas, which is a brewery,” Widseth says.

Craft Breweries Mix It Up With Micheladas

National and international brewers might dominate Micheladas and Cheladas, but there’s fertile ground for local and regional breweries to enter the mix. Thorn Brewing is based in San Diego’s historic Chicano neighborhood of Barrio Logan, and one core beer is the Mexican-style Barrio Lager.

“It helps give us a sense of cultural identity as a company,” says cofounder Eric O’Connor. He began tinkering with a Michelada recipe during the pandemic’s early days, using his kitchen to mix and match about 25 different ingredients, including ponzu, clam juice, cumin, and tomato juice.

“We didn’t want to just pour tomato sauce into a macro lager,” says O’Connor, who tried to emulate the Micheladas served at seafood restaurants in Mexico’s coastal Ensenada.

“The Hispanic community wasn’t too familiar with the craft beer scene, so I was trying to merge those worlds together.”

After settling on a mix that met Baja brewers’ approval, Thorn released its craft Michelada in summer 2020. It remains a staple and is even sold at the nearby Legoland California resort. “They are going through a ton of it,” O’Connor says.

A Michelada can boost taproom sales, too. At Stone Brewing’s World Bistro & Gardens, in San Diego and Escondido, Calif., the Micheladas made with Buenaveza lime-and-salt lager are always among the top three best-selling drinks.

“Micheladas have provided us with an approachable, cocktail-style offering,” director of communications Lizzie Younkin writes in an email. The brewery also offers its mix to bars and restaurants that might want to sell Buenaveza Micheladas, too.

Crafting compelling cocktails is not always a core strength at taprooms, and a well-made mix can make it easy to offer an excellent Michelada. Miche Mix sells bottles of concentrated mixer seen as “a solution for restaurants or bars that care about quality but don’t have the time to make a Michelada from scratch,” Martinez says.

Back in 2020, Houston’s Adrian Jimenez, who was just getting into craft beer, wondered why few breweries offered Micheladas in the heavily Hispanic metropolis. Jimenez decided to create Space City Snax, making and selling Michelada mixes to Houston breweries and bars.

“The Hispanic community wasn’t too familiar with the craft beer scene, so I was trying to merge those worlds together,” Jimenez says.

Today he counts nearly 30 accounts, including Project Halo Brewing and H-Town Brewing, where bartenders blend beers with Space City Snax’s range of mixes, including cucumber, spicy, and watermelon and lime. Bars serve Michelada flights with unexpected beer styles like a gose (“Sour beers are great” in a Michelada, Jimenez says), and breweries collaborate with Space City Snax on beers like a forthcoming watermelon Michelada with Turkey Forrest Brewing.

“I’ve converted a lot of people who say they don’t like Micheladas,” Jimenez says. “They’re fans for life now.”

Micheladas can also deliver a different kind of buzz. ILLA Canna’s Blaze Mota cannabis brand, which celebrates Chicano culture, makes the Moto’lada Michelada with dealcoholized beer and 20 milligrams of THC.

Its salty and savory profile “is so differentiated within the THC-beverage space” that it over-indexes on sweeter sodas, says Liz Fowler, the vice president of marketing for ILLA Canna, which also partnered with cannabis enthusiast Cheech Marin on the Cheeche’lada packed with 50 milligrams of THC.

The Michelada is a mutable concept, shapeshifting to meet the multifaceted needs of today’s flavor-driven drinkers. Hate tomatoes? Dislike hot peppers? That’s all right! Try a Michelada with a little lime and salt, or maybe one with mango. The Michelada can be tailored to any taste buds; no need for consensus in a world where ordering the same drink as your friends is an anomaly.

Says Martinez of Miche Mix, “We love to think about the Michelada as a blank canvas.”

The article The Spice Is Right: Why Brewers Are Betting Big on Micheladas appeared first on VinePair.

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