Anheuser-Busch lineup takes on a Mexican flavor

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It’s back-to-school-time, kids, so here’s a pop quiz.

Name the No. 1 imported beer in the United States.

If you spent the summer studying the labels in the import section of your favorite deli, you may have a few guesses.

Molson? No, those Canadian lagers aren’t selling so hot these days.

Guinness? Nice try, but it’s too dark to pound.

Bass? Sorry, chap. It’s still way down the list, despite all that advertising.

Here’s a hint: Think lime.

That’s right, amigo, it’s Corona Extra, the light lager in the clear bottle from south of the border. Over the last 18 months, Corona – produced by Modelo Group, the largest brewer in Mexico – has displaced the Netherlands’ Heineken, which had held the No. 1 import spot for more than 50 years.

Now, here’s an easier question:

Who owns Corona?

That’s right, Bud – it’s Anheuser-Busch. Last week, the Beer Borgs from St. Louis upped its holdings in Modelo to 50.2 percent.

Unless you’re an A-B stockholder, the megabrewery’s latest assimilation – uh, acquisition – shouldn’t have any direct impact on your day-to-day drinking habits.

It certainly won’t change the taste of Corona, which is high on refreshment but decidedly low on distinctive flavor.

But underlying Budweiser’s interest in Mexico’s largest brewer is a singularly puzzling question: How is it that millions of straight-laced American beer drinkers raised on pretzels and cigarettes were persuaded to stuff a slice of green citrus into their bottle neck?

You wander into the beer troughs on Delaware Avenue and every other blonde is traipsing around with a fruit salad in her paw.

While investigating this phenomenon, Joe Sixpack has encountered explanations, ranging from the overall growth of expensive imports (which is outpacing that of domestic microbrews) to the growth in the nation’s Hispanic population and its influence on our culture. Big-money marketing efforts probably explain a lot of the growth, but whatever, Mexican beer imports surged an astounding 36 percent last year, according to statistics from the U.S. Commerce Department. The growth continued through the first half of ’98.

A-B has leapt into the Mexican beer scene in a big way.

In addition to its investment in Modelo, it is test-marketing two new Mexican products: Azteca, a hand-crafted brew from Mexico’s Cerveceria Mexican microbrewery; and Tequiza, a new malt beverage that is actually brewed in Baldwinsville, N.Y.

When I asked David English, the A-B veep in charge of imports, why his company has moved into the Mexican scene, he said something about the appealing imagery of Mexico.

Presumably he meant cooling gulf beaches and the party atmosphere of Cinque de Mayo and not the devalued peso, fixed political elections and the teeming metropolis of the world’s largest city.

In any case, he added, People are interested in a wide variety of tastes. They are sophisticated, curious, serious beer drinkers.

That’s why Mexican beers are so appealing – with hardly an exception, they are light, highly carbonated beverages that pose no challenge to the tongue.

Like a low-alcohol version of Evian, they’re perfect for sweaty swings through the clubs.

I haven’t sampled Azteca, so I can’t comment on its taste. I’m told it’s a Corona knockoff.

Tequiza (Ta-keys-ah) is being tested only in New York City and parts of the Southwest. But after reading its press release description, I had to find a sample.

Get this: Tequiza, the first malt beverage of its kind, is made by combining lager beer with blue agave nectar and a flavor containing lime and imported tequila.

Sounds like last call at a Drexel frathouse party, where the last man standing gets to swallow the worm.

Surprisingly, it’s not as godawful as it sounds. The bottles A-B’s p.r. guys sent me tasted exactly like a Corona with a lime shoved into the neck.

It’s really not all that strange, English said. People squeeze lime into their beer all the time.

English said A-B plans to sell Tequiza in other markets in the near future.

No promises, though. This company test-markets new products the way Bill Clinton goes through office interns.

And even if its fails, A-B will remain strong in the Mexican beer market with its interest in Modelo.

In addition to Corona, the brewer produces Negro Modelo and Victoria. (Mexico ‘s other big brewer, Femsa, produces Sol, Tecate, Dos Equis and Tecate.)

For those who are counting, last week’s purchase means Anheuser-Busch now controls three of the top-five selling brands in the world: No.1 Budweiser, No. 2 Bud Light and No. 5 Corona Extra.

 Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Widmer Bros. Hop Jack Ale) appears every other Friday.

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