But Seriously, What Is a Michelada?

The Michelada has gone baroque, causing an identity crisis for what was once just a dressed can of beer.

When Budweiser debuted their “Chelada” in 2008, it was the first pre-packaged Michelada available in the United States, and an early indicator of the growing taste for the Mexican mixed drink north of the border. By 2012, competitors like Tecate and Modelo began rolling out similar products, and just last month, MillerCoors introduced their Sol Chelada, the latest entry into an increasingly crowded field. But amid a proliferation of manufactured Micheladas, confusion abounds as to what, exactly, a Michelada is.

Not even the brands promoting pre-mixed expressions of Micheladas are clear on what the drink should be. The name of Budweiser’s product alone, “Chelada,” indicates confusion between two drinks: the Chelada (simply beer, salt and lime) and the Michelada (beer, salt, lime, spice and juice or purée). When the product was initially released, the serving suggestions included using a celery stalk as garnish in an apparent nod to yet another drink, the Bloody Mary.

The latter is a comparison that might make sense today, given the trajectory of the modern Michelada, which has gone from simple street-side drink to baroque cocktail bar offering, flaunting garnishes that rival the outlandish everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the Bloody Mary. “In Mexico City, Micheladas are garnished with anything you can think of, and they’re sold everywhere, from stands in the street and at the market to upscale cocktail bars,” says Raquel Ramos Escalante, who bartends at Mexico City’s Licorería Limantour, and answers calls for Micheladas on a daily basis. According to Escalante, markets and street stands allow customers to build their own Micheladas, allowing them to choose between beers, chiles, sauces and garnishes, which can be anything from shrimp skewers to gummy bears.

But this wasn’t the case in the U.S. According to Gustavo Arellano, a Mexican food expert and author of Ask a Mexican, up until about a decade ago, Micheladas, even in their most pared down form, weren’t “a thing” among Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants.

“In Latino neighborhoods 30 years ago, the customer base for bars was predominantly male, immigrant and working class. They didn’t want expensive drinks or cocktails,” says Arellano. “Cantinas and Mexican-American bars, at the time, just sold beer because they couldn’t get liquor licenses. Working class immigrant men, for better or worse, wanted to get drunk as cheaply as possible. Micheladas were more expensive and more watered down.”

But around a decade ago, in the Los Angeles area, Arellano noticed a shift: Micheladas started appearing in Mexican bars, and advertisements for Budweiser’s “Chelada” even appeared in working class white bars. As drinking demographics continued to change, bars were happy to oblige requests for the dressed-up beer, tacking on an additional few dollars for the most basic Michelada accompaniments: Clamato and Tajín seasoning.

“Those were likely the embryonic stages. Within the last three years or so, now you see Micheladas everywhere—Mexican bars, hipster bars, craft cocktail bars. Everyone is making Micheladas now; everyone has their own recipe,” says Arellano. Increasingly, these recipes veer towards the outlandish. The house Michelada at La Chuperia in Los Angeles, for example (which was named the city’s best by LA Weekly in 2017), is garnished with shrimp, cucumbers, mango-chile lollipops, celery stalks, tamarind straws and an inverted bottle of beer.

But as the modern Michelada approaches the gonzo levels of the American Bloody Mary, Arellano issues a cautionary observation: “The bones of the Michelada have to be great before you can build on it,” he says. “If Americans start to see Micheladas garnished with slices of bacon and a slider on top, just know it’s obscuring a truly shoddy Michelada.”

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Tina Vasquez is a journalist originally from Los Angeles. She is currently based in North Carolina, where she is a full-time immigration reporter. In her spare time, she writes about food and culture.