In Zacatecas, an old mining town high in the mountains around Mexico City, in a sleek bar strung with paintings by Dalíó and Miro, a man pours tomato juice into my beer. To be strictly accurate it’s Clamato, a particular kind of tomato juice flavoured with clam Broth and spices. If a bartender back home in the UK tried to pour fish water into my beer, I’d walk out.
But this is Mexico, so instead I watch as he adds a dash of chilli sauce, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, a little stock and a squeeze of lime. He finishes with a handful of ice cubes and a flourish of chilli powder and then passes me the result: a michelada. It’s delicious — a Bloody Mary without the vodka kick — as I knew it would be, having become addicted to the drink while cycling across the country. But rather like the old adage about never watching a sausage being made, I hadn’t quite realised what went into the quintessential Mexican beer cocktail.
Michelada is the evolutionary pinnacle of ‘cerveza preparada’ — prepared beer — which is Mexican shorthand for a beer loaded with extras such as salt and lime. The tradition started because Mexican beer bottles were sealed with metal caps that left traces of rust on the neck. Drinkers used a wedge of lime to wipe the rust off the mouth of the bottle, but more often then not they’d then chuck the lime into the beer.
The first cerveza preparada I tried, in a dusty little bar in the desert in southern Baja, was a revelation. I was brought a bottle of Corona, a glass with a salted rim and a generous glug of lime juice: it was a world away from the British practice of shoving an emaciated lime wedge down the neck of a lager bottle and hoping for the best. My second was in mainland Mexico, in the tiny northern town of Saín Alto, but what the 10-year-old mixologist brought me then was entirely different: a giant styrofoam cup, sticky with chilli sauce, filled with a red liquid that was, concerningly, foaming. This was michelada, and it was a miracle. I had to learn how to make one.
And so it is, on my arrival in Zacatecas, the first in a string of elegant old silver-mining towns that run along the spine of the Sierra Madre mountains, I take the advice of my host family and head to Acropolis, an historic brasserie that’s supposed to serve the best micheladas in town. A street away from a gem of a museum housing Mexican artist Pedro Coronel’s extensive collection of modern art, Acropolis is lined with paintings by Mexican and Western Surrealists and feels like an extension of the collection. But really, so does the whole town: Technicolor houses line its steep streets, and outside the pink cathedral men in skeleton costumes sell doughnuts to the crowds. It’s the kind of chaos best enjoyed from the terrace outside Acropolis, but I want to drink with Picasso, so I perch inside and watch my michelada come to life.
It’s good, but it’s not the best: that comes next, when I leave Acropolis to walk through the historic centre, by early evening a riot of mariachi music and street performers. I’m drawn into Artesan because it’s an outlier on a street of boutique hotels: a dark bar blaring Iron Maiden into the night. I wave the extensive craft beer menu aside, sidle over to the barman, who’s name is Andre, and seemingly break his heart by asking for a michelada. “Mexico has an amazing beer scene,” he protests, gesturing to the fridge behind him. “I really try to interest people in the new beers. But all anyone wants is michelada!”
Sensing he can’t tempt me off course with a white stout from Tijuana, he asks if I want a michelada classic or ‘red lion’. When I ask what the difference is he writes out on a napkin: “Chelada = lime + salt + beer. Michelada = Chelada + sauces. Leon rojo = Michelada + Clamato.” I go for a classic michelada, for which, the barman explains, you need to use a simple beer, a lager like Tecate or Indio. “Artisanal beer has too much taste,” he says, pointedly, when I wonder what it would taste like with one of his lauded IPAs.
To my surprise, I like the classic even more than the version with the Clamato: undiluted, the umami of the savoury sauce shines. “The mix of salt, lime and chilli is like alchemy,” Andre agrees. “Beer is prepared like this across South America.” But, he insists, the michelada’s precise balance of flavours was invented in Mexico. I’d been told that michelada was just a portmanteau of the Spanish for ‘ice-cold beer’ — ‘mi chela helada’ — but Andre tells me it’s actually named after its inventor, Michel Ésper, a member of a very exclusive sports club in the nearby town of San Luis Potosí.
San Luis blues
The next day I peddle my way to San Luis, and cycling into the city feels like peeling away layers of an onion. Commerce gives way to suburbs, which themselves give way to a concentration of preserved cobbled streets and baroque architecture. It takes the combined guile of the entire concierge desk at my hotel to swing me an invitation for drinks at the prestigious Club Deportivo Potosino, and on my arrival, I feel immediately out of place among its manicured lawns — I’ve been travelling continuously for 15 months at this point and my smartest clothes are my pyjamas. But that feeling momentarily disappears when I meet manager Reynaldo Martinez Herrera, a man who is even more enthusiastic about michelada than I am.
“Yes, michelada was invented here,” he says, ushering me into his office. “Michel Ésper was celebrating after a tennis match and asked for a beer with lemon, salt and chilli.” I had heard that Señor Esper was hungover after a night of partying, but Reynaldo dodges this detail, saying only: “It’s so refreshing, it’s perfect for the hot climate. The drink was popular here for many years, then in the 1980s it started to reach other parts of Mexico.” I ask whether I can try Michel’s chelada in the bar where it was born, and Reynaldo sheepishly concedes that I can’t, because the bar is for men only. At least he has the grace to look embarrassed. Instead, he brings me one to drink in his office, but my enthusiasm is diminished. Left to walk the courts I make a hearty attempt to break in, but am stopped by a dashing French tennis instructor, who explains: “You have to go through the men’s locker room to get to the bar. But you’re not missing much: they sit around in towels and put the world to rights.”
I rant about my misadventure to a taxi driver on the way back to the hotel, and he responds by taking me to Las Lolas Avenue, promising the best micheladas in San Luis. Walking through its bustling, industrial courtyard I’m heartened to notice that at least half the clientele are women. The bar looks more like a buffet, its young staff piling spicy-looking snacks on to lids that sit atop the litre glasses of spicy beer. My waitress, Karen Damaris, explains that the beer-tapas combination is the invention of her female boss. “When you’re having beer, more than anything you want to have something to snack on,” she says. “So our micheladas come with snacks on top.” Partially, I admit, to spite Señor Esper and his draconian tennis club, I order the most obscene michelada on the menu: ‘La Taquichela’ comes with a topping of sugar-crusted taquitos stuffed with peanuts soaked in chilli sauce, although I’m also tempted by ‘La Nortena’, served with jerky, lime and chilli, and the apocalyptically spicy ‘La Serrana’.
On Karen’s advice I make my last stop Tikix, a shrine to both michelada and ’90s punk. There, while examining the kaleidoscope ceiling of concert posters, I pick out the gigs I went to and wait for my michelada. This time I’ve gone for a classic ‘with extras’ — shrimp and cucumber — and it’s a perfect compromise between the old and new traditions. “It’s a bit like a soup, like gazpacho,” explains the owner, Rogelio Vazquez Campos. “The secret to a good michelada is the sauce — the mix of chilli and Maggi. Some places use premixed sauce, but we make our own.” Tikix claims to be the first bar to sell flavoured michelada — which they call michelada las de sabor — a proposition I’m not sold on until Rogelio brings me a tamarind-flavoured one. Like my very first roadside michelada, it’s a revelation: the eye-wateringly sourness of the tamarind perfectly rounded out by the beer.
Micheladas, I reflect as I leave the bar tipsy and full of Tikix’s obscenely good nachos, embody the exuberance of Mexican cooking and its common rule that more is better. A bag of crisps is nice, but better when mixed with cheese, mayonnaise, chilli, lime and sweetcorn to make tostilocos. Tortillas are fine, but wouldn’t you rather eat them as chilaquiles, deep fried, drowned in green salsa, cheese and sour cream and served for breakfast? In the case of the michelada, Mexico liberated one bar’s take on a Bloody Mary and dressed it up with Gummy Bear kebabs and a side of bacon. I remember the little bartender on the road to Zacatecas proudly handing me a cup as big as her head, her bar noisy with farmers and taco sellers. Michelada might have been Michel Esper’s idea; but make no mistake, it’s Mexico’s drink.
As featured in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.