In Mexico City, year 2021, 18th month of the Great Plague, this is how you make a Michelada: Prepare one glass by rubbing its rim with a lime wedge, then coat said rim with salt; add ice and lime juice, and top with beer. In Mexico City, the basic Michelada—which, in the highlands of Mexico, is called a chelada—is drunk on its own. There is no specific time for the Michelada. Its time is every time: after school, during school, in the wearisome heat of July, under the unrelenting rains of September.
On second thought, there is a time for a Michelada, and that time is now.
As with any creative ecosystem, the world of the Michelada is a competitive one. Once you depart from the original, basic Michelada, the drink is an ever-expanding universe unto itself. There is the Michelada Cubana (the drink most often associated with the word “Michelada” in the United States), doctored with “salsas,” which in this context means Worcestershire sauce, Maggi and salsa Valentina; the Michelada Chamoyada, a sweet and tangy Michelada that calls on Tajín, not salt, to coat the rim, and the beer layered atop a base of salty, sour chamoy; the Gomichela, which is a Chamoyada that has been loaded with sweet and spicy gummy candies, a favorite of Patriots fans at CostiArracheras on República de Uruguay; the Miryhelada, a Chamoyada with a kick of white rum; the Pata de Mula, a Michelada doctored with an ounce of gin and a couple tablespoons of Parmesan cheese; and, what is arguably the Michelada’s apex, the Maruchela, which goes like this:
Take one package of shrimp-flavored instant ramen; follow the instructions to prepare the soup and noodles and reserve, separately. When the soup is at room temperature, coat the rim of two large beer mugs with Tajín; add ice and half the reserved soup to each mug; add beer. Serve with noodles on the side. (The name, Maruchela, is a portmanteau of the Maruchan brand of instant noodles and chela, a nickname for cerveza.)
At left, a trio of chelada, Michelada and a mango-flavored Costichela at Costiarracheras, Centro, Mexico City. At right, a one-liter mug of Michelada with chamoy at one of many chelerías on Calle Regina.
It’s impossible to know precisely when and where the Michelada originated. It is probably as old as beer. According to the Enciclopedia de México, people in Mexico prepared “drinks similar to European beer” as far back as the 15th century. Tesgüino, also called tejuino or izquiate, had a “pretty, clear amber hue, dense, whisked until it forms a large layer of foam.” Sendecho was “similar to the bier of the old Germans, but made with maize.” At some point, “indigenous peoples considered beer better than pulque.” Of course, I don’t know if beer is “better” than pulque. Tastes will come and go. What I do know is that if pulque formed the foundation of Mexico City’s drinking culture, Micheladas speak to its evolution: a colonized version of inebriation by fermented drink.
Some like to dismiss the Michelada as a “tourist thing.” It is not. It is the drink of the poor. Outside high schools and universities, there are small bars and chelerías ready to receive students of almost no income. Go to Beerlyn on Calle Regina, and you’ll find university students drinking Gomichelas by the yard. It is the drink of the wannabe rich. Venture into the grounds surrounding el Tec high school, in the Coapa neighborhood, deep into the south of Mexico City, and you will find aspiring mirreyes downing clear, classic Micheladas. It is the drink of the rebellious. Go to Tepito, one of the fiercest neighborhoods in the city, and you’ll encounter Micherries (Micheladas with cherries as garnish) at chelerías there, where COVID-19 never dared to exist. The Michelada, then, is perhaps best understood as democracy at work: a rite of passage for the young, a sidewalk café companion to the well-off, a way to sand the edges off a difficult day for the working class.
The drink itself, however, is nearly impossible to define. At its core, it is acidic, salty beer. The basic Michelada, in my case ordered with a 10-ounce Caguamita Carta Blanca, is the true apex of the Michelada. But the reason the Michelada is constantly in flux, a blank page upon which the bartender or patron can leave their own imprint, is that no one can be told what the Michelada is. You have to define it for yourself. And the best place in the world to do that is Mexico City, a city born out of fermented waters; a city of the rich and the homeless, of earthquakes and floods.