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Lager Lightning

The first question most folks ask about Tequiza: "Does it really have tequila in it?"No. It does, however, have nectar of the blue agave, the plant from which tequila is distilled, and thus Tequiza tastes a touch like the spirits of Mexican mezcal. And that's not all. Copping the custom of Corona Extra beer drinkers who jam a small slice of lime into the bottle's longneck, Tequiza also features the distinctive flavor of the green citrus built right in.Boasting the triple tipple of lager, lime and the taste of tequila, Tequiza combines the sweetness of blue agave with the tang of lime and the malty character of beer. It's yin and yang swimming in suds.Brewed at Anheuser-Busch's Radisson plant in Baldwinsville, in upstate New York, Tequiza has been available in stores and taverns nationwide since Feb. 8, after test marketing since 1997 in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, California and New York City. Available in both six-and 12-packs of clear 12-ounce longneck bottles, Tequiza's bright yellow label features a graphic of the blue agave plant, plus two limes. It packs the same alcoholic punch as most domestic beers--5 percent--and 140 calories per 12-ounce servings, and costs about $5.99 per six-pack."Tequiza is a hit with contemporary adult men and women both in general and Latino markets," says Colleen Beckmeyer, Anheuser-Busch's director of new products. It may be picking up sales steam in the southwest, but Tequiza isn't exactly selling like tortillas here in Yankee country...yet. Outback Steakhouse, on Erie Boulevard East, for instance, sells about one case per month, a worm's rate of approximately one bottle a day.As the summer months grow warmer, however, the Budweiser bunch believe that increased marketing ("crack the whip on boring beer!") and the drink's thirst-quenching potential will combine to make it "grow the beer category," according to Beckmeyer. Other observers aren't so sure. Steve Schmidt, brewmaster at Syracuse, New York's Empire Brewing Company, thinks that Anheuser-Busch "is playing on the whole citrus thing that started with Corona. At least that was their original intent." Although his own tastes run toward the hearty ales he makes at Empire, Schmidt says he first tried Tequiza during its test-marketing phase. "It's not bad--it is pretty refreshing," he admits, "but I can't see it lasting."Timothy Wilson, brewmaster at the Norwich Inn in eastern Vermont, was surprised at the quality of the new beverage, yet disturbed by its description as beer."You know, I was all set to hate the stuff before I tasted it," Wilson says. "I've got to say, though, that it tasted like a pretty good soft drink, very pleasant. But by my lights, it ain't really beer. One reason for calling it beer, I suspect, is that you can shoehorn the product into existing state and federal regulations for beer. In some parts of the country, {hard} cider is actually marketed as beer to avoid dealing with winery regulations for production and distribution. Still, I shudder when I encounter these beverages that call themselves beer and then do everything they can to make it not taste like beer."But Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis, the world's largest brewer, doesn't go making its products taste a certain way without careful research and planning. Over the past several years, Budweiser's bean-counters took careful note of the rising popularity of both Mexican beers and imported tequila. Mexican imports rose an astounding 34 percent between October 1997 and October 1998, according to industry newsletter Impact, while tequila sales increased 7 percent in 1998.With its tequila taste, Tequiza has co-opted the legendary Mexican liquor's aura of mysticism and ritual. According to folktales, tequila was discovered during Mexico's pre-Hispanic days, when a bolt of lightning struck the heart of a blue agave plant, naturally fermenting it instantly. After the Spaniards arrived, they dubbed the drink vino mezcal, and in 1795 King Ferdinand IV granted the first official license to produce mezcal wine to Don Jose Maria Guadalupe de Cuervo.Much like cognac (which is a brandy) or champagne (a sparkling wine), the production of actual "tequila" (technically a mezcal) is limited by government regulation to five specific geographic regions of Mexico, making it all the more special.Like its main ingredients, the name Tequiza combines the "tequi" of tequila with the "za" of "cerveza," the Mexican word for beer. "The beer, lime and tequila tastes complement each other perfectly," Beckmeyer says, and after swigging an ice cold one on a hot sunny day, it's hard to disagree with her.The effect is similar to drinking a shandy, the old European summertime concoction blending lager and lemonade. "The shandy I make at the Empire {Brewing Company}, is our Skinny Atlas Light mixed with just a little bit of lemonade," Schmidt says. "It has a refreshing tartness and a sweetness that counteracts the bitterness that's in beer. It's refreshing for a hot summer day, and they start getting popular as it gets warmer."And so will Tequiza, at least with certain customers. "We've found that Tequiza appeals to consumers currently drinking mixed drinks, like margaritas or even wine coolers," Beckmeyer says. Even Schmidt's wife, Janice, enjoys Tequiza, the brewer admits. "I can't always get her to drink my beers, but she'll put away three or four Tequizas whenever we go out," he says.To continue its tequila connection, Tequiza may be enjoyed with a sprinkle of "Tequiza Twang," a new lemon-lime flavored salt (for Twang info, call 1-800-950-8095). Anheuser-Busch marketers suggest drinkers try doing the "Tequiza Two-Step," a variation on the time-tested "salt-shot-lime" tequila drinking ritual. Or they can mix a "Tequizarita," a rather watery version of the margarita created by pouring Tequiza over ice in a Twang-rimmed glass.Not unlike Coors' Killian's Irish Red or Budweiser's Red Wolf, Tequiza represents the macrobrewers' attempt to win back some of the dollars that have been pocketed by the growing number of microbrewers specializing in more flavorful beverages over the last decade of so. Though homebrew purists view such special products as a veiled takeover attempt by capitalist corporate suds-dom, drinkers less predisposed to conspiracy theories see the new brews as expanding consumer choices.Tequiza is being hyped by Anheuser-Busch as "one of the most innovative products in brewing history." No two ways about it: Tequiza is different...and smooth...and refreshing. But will the American public give Tequiza a shot or will it go the way of Zima? Only time will tell.Russ Tarby is a Senior Editor for the Syracuse New Times.FOR COLOR SLIDES, TEQUIZA SAMPLES, ETC. CONTACT: Sara Loveless Anheuser-Busch 314-577-3064 1-800-342-5283

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