MEXICO CITY – The waiter brings a tall, salt-rimmed glass filled with two fingers of fresh-squeezed lime juice. He cracks open an icy Corona and moves to pour –- but wait -– will this michelada even be Mexican anymore?
Corona belongs to Grupo Modelo, whose pending sale to Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev will leave Mexico's two major beer makers in foreign hands. While the $20.1 billion deal hasn't prompted the nationalistic outcry that it might have in the past, one corner of the market sees opportunity: the growing craft beer industry.
Mexico's beer culture is primed for a shift in tastes, said Jaime Andreu Galvan, commercial director of Cerveceria Primus, one of Mexico's up-and-coming microbreweries.
"The only beer makers backed by Mexican capital will be artisan," he said. "That matters to the Mexican consumer."
Until recently, Mexican beer drinkers haven't had many options.
Restaurants in Mexico typically sell one of the two dominant lines of beers –- never both. Either Grupo Modelo's brands are on the menu: Corona, Modelo Especial, Negra Modelo, Victoria. Or those belonging to Heineken-owned Cuauhtemoc-Moctezuma: Tecate, Indio, Bohemia and Dos Equis. At most cantinas, it's rare to find any of the brews made by Mexico’s 40 craft beer makers.
Yet consumption is growing as offerings expand and an increasing number of bars in urban areas promote variety.
Mexico City-based Cerveceria Primus makes Tempus. Guadalajara's Grupo Minerva makes imperial stouts and pale ales of the same name. Together, the two operate a small chain of bars called El Deposito, which offers dozens of craft beers as well as popular imports.
Mexican microbreweries believe they may gain an edge when they alone can claim to be Mexican-owned and operated.
Mexico's craft beer market represented a miniscule 0.3 percent of the total in 2011, according to the Mexican Beer Association. Yet that was double the prior year.
As an emerging economy, one in which a growing middle class has more disposable income and free time, beer volumes are growing. Grupo Modelo is already the country's No. 1 beer seller, with nearly 60 percent market share. Through the takeover, AB InBev would add Mexico to the list of fast-growing economies where it has dominant market share: 69 percent in Brazil and 77 percent in Argentina; the company is China’s No. 3 beer seller.
Grupo Modelo was once a regional beer maker, beloved in the capital and not terribly well known beyond Mexico. Two decades ago, driven to boost exports, the company launched a plan to make Corona a world-class brand and succeeded wildly. Corona's success has given the company's other brands entree into the coveted U.S. market.
"The hottest brand in the U.S. beer industry right now is Modelo Especial," said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights.
That's because Modelo Especial has hit a sweet spot in pricing in a down U.S. economy: A case costs about 1.3 times a case of Bud Light, the top-selling beer –- considered a pricing benchmark –- while Corona costs about 1.5 times more.
The pricing of Corona, Modelo Especial and Bud Light in the U.S. market is at the heart of an antitrust lawsuit recently brought by the Justice Department to block the takeover, if ongoing talks between the company and U.S. regulators don't reach a resolution. If AB InBev controls one of its toughest competitors, will the combined company raise prices across their brands?
Although Modelo was chugging along fine on its own –- beer sales in Mexico climbed 10.5 percent in 2011 and export sales rose 7 percent –- the company lacks the scale AB InBev can provide, Steinman said. (Grupo Modelo already counted on support from its suitor; AB InBev is purchasing the roughly 50 percent of Grupo Modelo it doesn't already own.)
Gerardo Copca, an analyst with Mexico City-based Metanalisis, believes that the bigger company might boost competition in the Mexican market, especially if the deal prompts AB InBev to sell more of its brands here at lower prices.
"We know that in the world there are more beers of better quality that aren't produced in Mexico," Copca said. "We don't have to drink just this," indicating the beers of the top two makers.
It remains to be seen if Mexico's homegrown brews –- many of them darker and more powerfully flavored –- can steal the crown from lighter, lime-topped Corona.
Photo: Kyle May/Flickr
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Grupo Modelo was based in Monterrey; the company is based in Mexico City.