The First Brewery In The Americas

While I don’t have many specific details, the first Western-style brewery in the Americas began today when Don Alfonso de Herrera was granted permission to build a brewery on December 12, 1543. He built it near Mexico City the following year, opening in 1544.

Although the story began at least three years before, the specific details vary widely depending on which source you look at, I’ve done my best to piece it together as best I could.

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish Conquistador who led the expedition that led to much of South America and Southwestern North America being conquered by Spain. Cortes arrived in what today is Mexico in 1519. They found that the native population enjoyed traditional fermented drinks such as pulque, zendecho (pulque corn), izquiate, and pozol (or pozoles), chinguirito, tepaches, mesquite wines, chicha, the zambumbia and tesgüino. Initially, beer brewed with barley was produced in small quantities by Cortés’ soldiers, but it was very limited due to the lack of supplies.

On August 23, 1541, Don Alonso de Herrera, from Seville, Spain, submitted an application to the Spanish government hoping to receive royal authorization to build a commercial brewery in New Spain, which is what Mexico was called at that time. His application was debated in Madrid by the Council of the Indies, which Charles V, King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, used to administrate his North American territories. The following year in the city of Nájara, on either June 6, 1542 or July 6, 1542 (sources vary), either Alonso de Herrera signed a contract with the Crown or Emperor Charles V (who apparently loved beer) signed a decree (or Royal Charter) giving him permission to establish his brewery in the New World (again, there is conflicting information about this).

Whichever is correct, the deal with the crown was this. Alonso de Herrera received a license to brew beer in New Spain (the “Indies” apparently was what was written on the agreement) exclusively for a period of twenty years. “He was liable to pay one third of his profits in tax, supervised by the Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza. The price of beer was estimated at 6 reales (20.1 g or 0.7 oz of silver) per arroba” (a unit of measure equal to 25 pounds or 11.5 kg in Spain).

The Crown, in return, made him Corregidor (district governor) of an area of the valley of Mexico inside what is now Mexico City where the hacienda (estate) “de El Portal,” the site of the brewery, was situated. This allowed him, among other privileges, imports free of excise duty.

The agreement also stipulated that he was also permitted to manufacture other goods, such as “naveta oil, soap and blonde.” I think naveta oil is possibly shipping oil but I have no idea what they meant by “blonde.” But he had one more hurdle to get over, and that involved getting permission (probably a formality) from the Viceroy of New Spain, who at that time was Don Antonio de Mendoza. On December 12, 1543, Mendoza formally granted him permission, issuing him a permit to build his brewery, and he began at once. He also granted Herrera “land to grow hops and other necessary plants.”

Alonso de Herrera hired Flemish brewers, who brought “tackle, boilers, and other equipment necessary for brewing.” According to the terms of the deal, the Crown had also agreed that Alonso de Herrera would bear the costs on the workers he took with him. But he also received an exemption from the payment of any import tax on what was transported to and from Spain, and was also given two hundred slaves from Portugal, Cape Verde and Guinea, which would be used for the building of the brewery.

Apparently things didn’t go all that well for America’s first commercial brewery.

Herrera’s brewery struggled during its first years, as alcohol consumption was highly regulated by authorities, and the new brew had to compete with native beverages. It was also more expensive due to the lack of ingredients. However, the beverage caught on, as it was drunk by colonial authorities, leading others to want it as well. Herrera worked to expand his brewery and the land on which wheat and barley were raised. In the long run, Herrera’s brewery did not survive, and the production of European-style beverages such as beer and wine were heavily taxed and heavily regulated by Spain to protect home markets. The purpose of this was to make colonials import these products from Europe.

Herrera also sent lavish gifts to Emperor Charles V, and Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza was supplied with all the beer he could drink, which must have helped grease the wheels. Because wine was scarce, beer did become more popular, although the price did rise to more like 8 reales, mostly die to shortages of wheat and barley. Beer was sold primarily in the markets, plazas, and in a tavern Herrera built. “Beer production suffered ups and downs,” and he even had to stop production briefly when “some of his brewers decided to return to Flanders, and others chose to work in the mines of Mexico to make good money. However, from 1549 production increased: 1,158 pounds to be made between 28 January and 25 October 1549-an average of 128.6 pounds per month- and reached 4,192 arrobas between the last date and 8 May 1552, which places the monthly average in about 246.5 pounds, as noted by Emilio Luque Azcona.” The fate of the brewery is not known with any certainty, although it appears to not have survived Herrera’s death, although I’ve been unable to find when that was exactly. The last mention of it in the historical record appears to be in 1552.

While El Portal is thought to be where the brewery was built, its exact location is unknown, but it is thought to have been located in the south of Mexico City (where Metro Portales is today) or in Amecameca, Mexico State. Another source puts it “near the so-called Paso de Cortés.”

Portrait of Alonso de Herrera, by El Greco.

Beer In Ads #1546: Tecate’s Three Amigos

Tuesday’s ad, for Cinco de Mayo, is for Tecate beer, from 1988. The cartoon art was created by Leslie Cabarga and used by Tecate in a series of ads that summer, and was even made into a poster. Showing two Tecates, a bottle and a can, though the can is clearly the leader, along with a bottle of Chihuahua (which I recall selling at BevMo for $2.99 per six-pack), making an entrance into a wild west saloon. Notice the can has a bottle of salt and a lime in his holsters. It’s a pretty cheesy ad, but this was also the same time 7-Up was advertising using a spot with arms and legs, and California raisins were similarly animated, so maybe it was popular.


Modelo Agrees To Reduce Its Tied House Monopoly In Mexico

I know governments have become increasingly beholden to business interests in my lifetime, but the idealist in me is unable to just be okay with that. It’s certainly true here in the U.S., where politicians are bought and sold, and the interests of ordinary folks rarely count for much in political decisions. And that’s unlikely to change while corporations are essentially immortals with all of the rights of people and none of the consequences or responsibilities, and whose profits have been declared free speech that can be used to influence our politics. Apparently Mexico’s government is similarly business-oriented. According to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Mexico’s top brewer said Thursday it reached an agreement with the country’s anti-trust authority to limit its sales exclusivity contracts with corner stores, bars and restaurants, allowing more room for craft brewers and other players in a lucrative market split by Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Grupo Modelo unit and Heineken N.V.’s Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma.”

In a world where people mattered, a government would tell companies what the rules are and expect them to follow them. Negotiations would be, and frankly should be, unnecessary. But that’s not the way the world works anymore, if indeed it ever did.

More from the Journal piece:

Modelo said in a statement it would cap such agreements to no more than 25% of its points of sale, with the aim of reducing that number to 20% by 2018. The brewer said it would also allow craft brewers to sell their beers in bars and restaurants where Modelo has locked in exclusive pouring terms.

The Mexican beer market, the world’s fifth-biggest according to Euromonitor, is a virtual duopoly, with Modelo brands like Corona claiming around 58% of the 67 million hectoliters of brew sold in Mexico each year, while Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc brands like Tecate account for 41%.

Around half of the beer sold in Mexico each year is channeled through small convenience stores, many of which agree to sell only one of the two brewers’ brands in exchange for branded awnings, signs or refrigerators, as well as discounts on beer purchases, credit and even assistance with local permits.

The country is Heineken’s largest market, accounting for about 16% of sales, while it represents around 13% of AB InBev’s pro forma sales, according to Credit Suisse.

Nice that Modelo will “ALLOW craft brewers to sell their beers in bars and restaurants.” How magnanimous. While the Wall Street Journal, itself as pro-business as they come, ignored the reasons for Modelo’s change of heart, Beer Business Daily reveals why they’ve agreed to soften their monopoly. It’s because the Mexican Federal Competition Commission ruled, 4-1, “that future exclusive contracts that Cuauhtemoc and Grupo Modelo have with retailers be limited in nature.” If they don’t, they could be fined up to 8% of their total income. According to Harry, currently the two biggest Mexican brewery’s “exclusive contracts with retailers account for about 85% of total volume.”

More from Beer Biz Daily:

The CFC ruled that craft brewers (such as Cerveceria Minerva and Primus) that manufacture beer in Mexico (under 100m hectos a year) should have unfettered access to restaurants, bars, and cantinas, and that big brewers’ exclusive contracts with accounts should not exceed 25% of the total outlets they do business with, which is reduced to 20% over five years. Current contracts are allowed to continue in effect without change until they expire.

I find it odd that Heineken apparently responded with a press release saying “that it will abide by the new rules and ‘standardise and simplify some of our future contracts with customers.'” How nice that they let us know they’ve agreed to follow the law. That’s what drives me crazy about the large multinational corporations with economies bigger than many nations. But at least it’s some good news for Mexico’s smaller breweries and their burgeoning craft beer scene.

Beer In Ads #880: Viva El Gran Sabor

Today’s ad is a holiday ad for Cinco de Mayo, for Miller Lite, though I don’t believe it’s very old. The model reminds me of Sofia Vergara from Modern Family, though my wife assures me it’s not. Viva El Gran Sabor translates as “experience the great taste.”

Given that the holiday commemorates the Battle of Puebla, where Mexican forces defeated Napoleon III’s French army in 1862, it’s odd how America has turned it into such a party holiday. Business Insider has an interesting take on How Beer Companies Turned A Minor Holiday Into America’s Favorite Mexican Drinking Day. And while it may be a relatively minor affair in Mexico, here in the States it’s actually an “official” holiday, at least since 2005, when in June of that year, the U.S. Congress sent a proclamation to the President for him to sign “calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo ‘with appropriate ceremonies and activities.'” Certainly this ad shows the amount of reverence we tend to show for what should be a more solemn holiday. Maybe that’s what Congress meant by “appropriate ceremonies and activities.”


Mexico Beer

Today in 1810, Mexico gained their Independence from Spain.


Mexico Breweries

Mexico Brewery Guides

Other Guides

Guild: Asociacion Nacional De Cervez Mexico; Beer Manufacturers Association

National Regulatory Agency: Ministry of Health (Secretaria De Salud)

Beverage Alcohol Labeling Requirements: Labels must include the following information: Name or commercial trademark of the product; Name and address of importer; Net contents (in metric units); Country of origin; Alcohol content by percentage of total volume; Date marking, if applicable; Special instructions for use, storage, or handling, if necessary

Drunk Driving Laws: BAC 0.08% Note: Foreigners with recent (in the past 10 years) drunk-driving criminal convictions are generally refused entry at the border. Mexico’s Immigration Act section 36 considers any foreign drinking and driving outstanding charge or conviction as an Indictable offense (similar to a felony).


  • Full Name: United Mexican States
  • Location: North America, bordering the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, between Belize and the United States and bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between Guatemala and the United States
  • Government Type: Federal Republic
  • Language: Spanish only 92.7%, Spanish and indigenous languages 5.7%, indigenous only 0.8%, unspecified 0.8% [Note: indigenous languages include various Mayan, Nahuatl, and other regional languages]
  • Religion(s): Roman Catholic 76.5%, Protestant 5.2% (Pentecostal 1.4%, other 3.8%), Jehovah’s Witnesses 1.1%, other 0.3%, unspecified 13.8%, none 3.1%
  • Capital: Mexico City
  • Population: 114,975,406; 11th
  • Area: 1,964,375 sq km, 14th
  • Comparative Area: Slightly less than three times the size of Texas
  • National Food: Mole poblano; Tacos
  • National Symbols: Golden Eagle; Dahlia; Ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum); Our Lady of Guadalupe, Castillo de Chapultepec, Teotihuacan, el Zocalo, sombrero, chocolate, mariachis; Eagle, snake and cactus
  • Affiliations: UN, OAS
  • Independence: From France and the UK, January 1, 1960


  • Alcohol Legal: Yes
  • Minimum Drinking Age: 18
  • BAC: 0.08%
  • Number of Breweries: 34


  • How to Say “Beer”: cerveza
  • How to Order a Beer: Una cerveza, por favor
  • How to Say “Cheers”: Salud
  • Toasting Etiquette: N/A


Alcohol Consumption By Type:

  • Beer: 78%
  • Wine: <1%
  • Spirits: 21%
  • Other: 1%

Alcohol Consumption Per Capita (in litres):

  • Recorded: 5.02
  • Unrecorded: 3.40
  • Total: 8.42
  • Beer: 3.96

WHO Alcohol Data:

  • Per Capita Consumption: 5 litres
  • Alcohol Consumption Trend: Stable
  • Excise Taxes: Yes
  • Minimum Age: 18
  • Sales Restrictions: Time, places, specific events, petrol stations
  • Advertising Restrictions: Yes
  • Sponsorship/Promotional Restrictions: Yes

Patterns of Drinking Score: 4

Prohibition: Zapatista Communities will often ban alcohol as part of a collective decision. This has been used by many villages as a way to decrease domestic violence and has generally been favored by women. However, this is not recognized by federal Mexican law as the Zapatista movement is strongly opposed by the federal government.

The sale and purchase of alcohol is prohibited on and the night before certain national holidays, such as Natalicio de Benito Juárez (birthdate of Benito Juárez) and Día de la Revolución, which are meant to be dry nationally. The same “dry law” applies to the days before presidential elections every six years.


Beer In Art #152: Diego Rivera Self-Portrait

This week’s work of art is by the renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera. He was known for his political murals and being married to artist Frida Kahlo, but early in his career, when he was about 21, he painted a self-portrait of himself wearing a big black hat. In the painting he’s sitting a table at what perhaps is an outdoor cafe. He’s also drinking a bottle of beer out of a glass, both of which are also on the table. It’s actually believed to be only the fourth painting Rivera completed. Today it hangs in Mexico City’s Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino.


I can’t tell what the beer from 1907 might be. It’s a green bottle and looks like the cork was covered in silver foil before it was opened.

You can read Rivera’s biography at Wikipedia, the Artchive or at Plus,
<em>Diego Rivera, Art and life is available online. You can also see more of Rivera’s works at Olga’s Gallery, and the Nader Library.