Joe Sixpack | U.S. quaffers embracing Latin beers

Immigration attitudes haven't slowed sales of south-of-the-border brands

Posted: August 10, 2007

WHEN MILLER Brewing debuted its weird, lime-flavored Chill a couple months ago, brewery chief Tom Long let slip a new term that speaks volumes about our nation's ongoing debate over immigration.

His new chelada-style beer - flavored with lime and salt - would be a hot seller this summer, he predicted, because of the "Latinization" of America.

Curious, isn't it, that even as polls show two-thirds of U.S. citizens support tighter borders - especially the one to the south - a large corporation dependent on public acceptance has no qualms about rolling out a Mexican-influenced product.

And why should it? America is living a grand dichotomy when it comes to the immigration debate. Even as anti-immigration forces gripe about bilingual voice-mail instructions, they're sucking down bowlfuls of salsa.

Did you know that tortilla and taco-chip sales are growing 2.5 times faster than sales of good ol' American potato chips?

Mexican beer, of course, has been a big seller for years.

Corona long ago supplanted Holland's Heineken as the No. 1 imported beer, and today more than half of all imported beer comes from south of the border.

It's such a big swing that even the Dutch beer giant bought rights earlier this year to begin importing Dos Equis and Tecate into the United States.

Meanwhile, rumors have been floating of new Latin beers on the market, including the once-popular Brahma from Brazil, which reportedly is set to return to U.S. shelves.

So, what's driving Latin American beer sales? Immigrants surely are a big part of it.

An estimated 45 million Latinos live in the United States. Naturally, many reach for familiar brands from their homelands. But that isn't the only reason you see more and more people with limes stuck in their longnecks.

Christina Benitez, author of "Latinization: How Latino Culture Is Transforming the U.S." (Paramount Market Publishing, $24.95), believes Latin culture is now officially mainstream.

"People are embracing the culture," Benitez said.

"You see the word caliente on the menu in Idaho. They're drinking dolce de leches in Kansas. Not long ago, I was in a hotel room where they had mojito-flavored jelly beans."

Justin Fisch, senior brand manager for United States Beverage, believes a large part of the interest is spurred by Caribbean cruises and surfing vacations Americans have been taking.

"Central America is a hot tourist destination. Americans are going down to Costa Rica to experience the rain forests, and Nicaragua is attracting more tourists than ever," said Fisch, whose company has begun importing Tona Cerveza from Nicaragua.

"Americans are going there for vacations, they experience native beers, and then they want to find them when they're back home," he said. "I think American consumers are looking to explore, not only with their vacations, but with their beers."

This is the melting pot in action – and it's something that should be welcomed by every beer lover.

The American beer scene is so vital today because we've adopted and adapted dozens of foreign styles. America's first great beer, porter, was brought here by English colonists. German immigrants gave us their lager, the Irish their stout.

Brand names like Czechvar, Baltika and Krusovice are increasingly commonplace because of the wave of Eastern European immigrants who've settled in the Northeast.

"It's a sign that we're becoming more like global citizens," Benitez said.

"If we limited ourselves to just Budweiser and potato chips, it wouldn't just limit our palate, it would limit our whole experience in life."

As explorations go, Latin American beer isn't exactly Mount Everest.

We're mainly talking pale, thin-tasting lagers - the sort of thing you mindlessly sip while the sun's blazing over Cabo San Lucas, or your rooftop deck in Fishtown. If you're looking for a little more flavor, here's a quick sampling of a few Latin brands that have made it into the rotation in my beer fridge this summer.

_ Tona (Nicaragua). Don't stick a lemon in the neck; its an easy-sipper, with enough flavor to satisfy any lager fan.

_ Eisenbahn (Brazil). Though this brewery has a German brewmaster, it's producing a lot more than typical European lagers.

Among its styles: a Belgian golden ale, a weizenbock and a smoked lager.

Definitely the best stuff I've seen from the region since Xinghu Brazilian stout.

_ Negra Modelo. Hard to believe that the same company that makes Corona can produce this gem.

It's a Vienna lager with a nice malt character.

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.JoeSixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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