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Casta Morena

We like to spring surprises, and this one certainly qualifies: a Scottish-accented ale from a micro-brewery in Mexico.

CastaThe influences on Mexican beer are more varied than most beer-lovers might realise. This land claims to have had the first brewery in North America, in the time of the Spanish conquest. The briefest period of Austrian rule (the Archduke was shot dead after four years) and the immigration of brewers from Switzerland, Alsace and Germany introduced lager, which today accounts for all but the tiniest drop of Mexican beer.

Almost all of today's Mexican beers emanate from just two big groups of breweries.

One group, based in Mexico City, is Modelo, partly owned by Anheuser-Busch. Mexico's rival giant embraces Cuauhtémoc, of Monterrey, and Moctezuma, of Guadalajara. (Moctezuma was a Mexican king; Cuauhtémoc his son). Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma is partly owned by Interbrew, of Belgium.

Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey are the country's three great cities. Monterrey is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, on the river Santa Catarina. That river is today largely dry. When it does flow, it heads for the Rio Grande.

A family from Spain who had settled in Mexico in the 1700s established the Cuauhtémoc brewery there in 1890. The founding family of Cuauhtémoc prospered and grew, with different branches becoming prominent in a variety of local industries and activities.

Now one of them, Mauricio Fernandez, has returned to the business of brewing, but on a far tinier scale. He has done so with his brother-in-law, Manuel Zambrano, a member of another long-established Monterrey family.

Manuel Zambrano worked in the Cuauhtémoc brewery during his student days. He qualified as an engineer at the Technical University of Monterrey (as famous in Mexico as M.I.T. is in the U.S.), then took an M.B.A in Philadelphia. While in the U.S., he encountered brewpubs and micros, and became interested in beer. Through a cousin in Texas, he established a long-term friendship with Scott Birdwell, a renowned seller of home-brewing supplies in Houston.

Manuel brewed at home, even adding an extension to his house to accommodate his kettles. Later, he took a short course at the Siebel Institute, in Chicago, with a view to turning professional. While there, he gained some practical experience at the Goose Island brewery.

After a couple of years' planning, the brothers-in-law started their own micro-brewery at the end of 1998. They call it Especialidades Cerveceras (Beer Specialities), and have a range of brews under the label Casta. The name indicates "pure", or perhaps "pedigree". It suits all-malt beers in classic styles, but also hints at the family's roots in brewing. The virginal connotation of purity is heightened by beer-names that translate as "Blonde", "Tan", "Dusky" and so forth. The notion that this might be sexist is mitigated by stylish labels illustrated by contemporary Mexican artists.

Mauricio, a distinguished art collector, is the marketing man. He formerly practised the black art in the hotel and real estate businesses. He is also a former mayor of a Monterrey borough, recently completed a term as a Senator, and is regarded as a likely candidate one day for State Governor.

The brewery was declared open by the then-President of Mexico, despite his being from an opposing party. A curtain of fresno trees soften the lines of the modern industrial building, in an industrial suburb near the airport. The smartly-fitted 35-hectolitre brewhouse was bought new from the U.S. supplier J.V. Northwest.

Manuel and Mauricio have been working hard to promote their speciality beers in a country unused to such styles. They have given particular attention to the serving of the beers with food. Last year, the brewery sent me samples of their (filtered) wheat beer, a golden ale, a pale ale and one that I eventually deemed to be a Scotch ale, I reviewed them in Notes From My Tasting Room, and was so impressed that I wanted to visit the brewery.

Having taken a closer look, I have developed a particular taste for Casta Morena, which seems to have taken its original inspiration both from dark ales in Scotland (as I had thought) and some of the maltier brown brews of Belgium. For the technically minded: it starts at 15 degrees Plato, and has an alcohol content of between 5.6 and 5.8 by volume. it is brewed from Carapils, crystal and chocolate malts, and there are two hop additions: East Kent Goldings and Styrians.

I am also becoming enamored with a newer beer from Casta, a brew called Milenia. Astonishingly, this is an abbey-style beer. First, though, join me in sampling Morena.

Tasting note: Very attractive, tawny to dark brown color. Pours with good "Brussels lace". Fruity, sweetish, plummy, aroma. Rounded, smooth, body. Clean, toffeeish, malt flavors. A hint of orange-zest acidity in the finish provides a balancing dryness.

Food pairings: The brewery emphasises the serving of its beers with food. With its fruity maltiness, Morena will stand up to sweetish meats and spicy foods. That hint of chocolate malt makes it a perfect accompaniment to chicken molé. Better still, the true Mexican classic: Turkey molé.

Published: APR 2, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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