Can Dos Equis Sell Pale Ale in America?

Who doesn't love a good, old-fashioned real-world experiment? Beer Business Daily, the industry newsletter, details a venture by Dos Equis to launch a new pale ale into the American market. For several years, Mexican imports have been the one reliable growth segment in the beer industry. Even as craft beer has sagged to barely-positive growth, Mexican lagers continue to grow at the double-digit pace craft beer enjoyed a few years ago. And irony of ironies--one of the biggest trends in the last couple of years among craft breweries has been a boomlet in Mexican lagers. Why are Mexican imports so popular? In launching a pale ale, we may learn something more about what exactly it is consumers crave.

A bit of background. The new beer will be a 5.5% pale ale made with Lemondrop hops and habanero chilies. The IBUs are purportedly "significant," though the pepper is subdued. It's not being positioned as a craft beer, though--it's directed at regular Mexican lager drinkers and will be sold only on draft, largely in sports bars, beginning in September. The rollout, as BBD describes it, is somewhat contradictory. Buffalo Wild Wings plans to carry it in all their restaurants nationally, but Quinn Kilbury told BBD that they plan a targeted launch and won't be going into regions like the Southeast, where the flagship still has room to grow. So I have no idea where you might find it.

Although everyone has a pet theory, no one really knows why Mexican imported mass market lagers are selling so well while domestics, which taste nearly identical, are in freefall. If they're not selling so well because they're light lagers, is it because they're Mexican? There's some weight behind this theory--many Mexican brands have done well in recent years. Or is it some less easily defined, nested explanation relying on several factors?

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Jens Stecken at Reissdorf Brewery in Cologne. He was talking about the softening kölsch market, and how weissbiers were becoming more and more popular, even there.

“In the 1970s, the beginning of the 1980s, weizenbier was only known in Bavaria. In the last ten, twenty years, maybe because of advertising, maybe because people vacationed in Bavaria and came back and remembered sitting outside in the sun on holidays and wanted a weizenbier.”

Mexican lagers have a wonderfully evocative quality domestics lack. They signal sunshine and vacation, tacos and guacamole. There is a halo of other positive elements that encircle a beaded bottle of Mexican beer. For Latino consumers, the halo effect may be more homey and nostalgic than vacation-y, but a halo nonetheless. As Patrick always says, beer is an "experienced good"--we consume it for the experience it delivers. But will a pale ale come with that halo? A chili-pepper beer may evoke those same things, or it may break the spell and seem like a counterfeit. We don't have to guess, though; Heineken is running the experiment for us.

Of course, the beer will have to be good. I always worry when large companies add flavors, because they tend to taste processed. Maybe the beer will suck and the experiment will be a bust for more obvious reasons. If, however, it is a good beer and the rollout is competent, we'll see if lager is a necessary part of the popularity. A good many people will be watching to see what happens next.

Jeff Alworth