It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon. Time to sit, relax, and sip on something light and refreshing while I catch up with a compadre. I want a Michelada.
“A what?” said nearly every bartender I asked between Washington D.C. and Portland.
“You know, a mi-che-la-da,” I said, as if saying it slower and annunciating it more clearly was going to magically poof this local Baja Arizona potion into their scope of knowledge.
Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore. (Not that Kansas knows what a good michelada is, either.) ”Moe, you’re not in Tucson anymore,” I had to say to myself in disappointment, as I tried to think of something else to order. But nothing else hits the spot when the your heart wants a michelada.
It wasn’t until I tried to order one in anywhere but here, in Tucson, that I realized what a sacred gem of a drink the michelada is. The probability of finding a michelada that meets our spoiled standards decreases with distance. In other far away places, you can usually only find them at Mexican food joints. Like Mexican food itself, a michelada’s authenticity spreads thinner the further you are from Baja Arizona. The only consistent way to curb this craving comes from a pre-mixed can. It’s just not the same.
During my travels, I did learn that some places use different vernacular to describe what we call a michelada. ‘Red beer’ was one of these terms. On the East Coast, the concept of a red beer is not entirely foreign; however the style in which it is dressed up and served is. El Paso calls their version ‘clamatos’ because, you guessed it, they contain Clamato. However, clamatos are traditionally garnished with carne seca instead of a heaping pile of pickled and/or fresh produce. There is also a ‘chilada,’ which sounds similar to a michelada, but is actually a clamato-less beer that is served in an icy cold, salted glass with a generous portion of lime juice at the bottom.
We take our michelada abundance for granted here in Tucson, especially because we can order a good one at virtually any local bar around town. They are made fresh, with love, and they are damn good. According to bartender Julio Navarro, “love is the secret ingredient” to the award-winning Micheladas at The Neighborhood, a sports bar in Tucson off of 29th Street and Alvernon that has earned the right to flaunt the title of “Best Michelada in Town.” Although it’s only been open since 2015, The Neighborhood has won the People’s Choice Award for best michelada for the past two years. They have even taken home a first place trophy for their micheladas from El Paso, Texas.
The Neighborhood takes its title seriously, and so do the patrons who visit. According to its bartenders, the bar serves about 300-400 micheladas a week! “The cool thing about our Micheladas is that everything is fresh, made daily,” says Navarro. “It takes 30 minutes alone just to squeeze enough limes for the 10-gallon batch.” Navarro owes much of the micheladas’ pronounced flavors, like slight spiciness and a dash of saltiness, to the muddling of its ingredients.
A good michelada isn’t just about the tomato juice that provides its recognizable red color–the same red that’s reminiscent of its more common relative, the bloody mary. Sure, the distinct tomato-y color makes the two drinks look similar, but the first major difference is that the color in a michelada doesn’t only come from tomato juice–it also comes from Clamato. Clamato is not to be confused with regular ‘ole V8. CLAMato, as its name implies, is made with clam juice, which starts the drink off as a little more “extra.” Why stop with clam juice? How about some horseradish? Worcestershire sauce is a must. Pickle juice. Lime juice. Hot sauce. Get freaky with it.
Then there’s the beer. Any traditional light Mexican beer will do, and some people even use Bud Light or Budweiser in their micheladas. IPAs, stouts, wheats, or anything heavy is highly discouraged. Beer gives the michelada character because it adds a light refreshing fizz, unlike liquor-based bloody marys. Making a michelada also feels like an “extra” party because getting it started usually takes two hands. The tomato juice (Clamato) concoction, which varies by house, is often mixed in its own glass. It is left with just enough space to add beer to it. As you drink, you make space for more beer, which gradually dilutes the redness of the drink. Then you can then begin to spot wandering olives peeking out between the ice in the glass.
Olives are an important garnish to any michelada masterpiece. Garnishes can vary by location, but their presence is very necessary to the michelada experience. Half of the michelada awe is in its presentation; part of its appeal comes from the pickles, peppers, and celery that spew out from the top of the glass. Mexican candies might also be present, and are abundant in The Neighborhood’s house michelada. The michelada knows no limits when it comes to garnishes. The more the merrier!
Going the true extra michelada-mile starts with the glass. The rim, to be exact. If that thing isn’t sprinkled in some kind of salty goodness, I would be skeptical. Sometimes the rim is dipped in chamoy, and smothered with tajin or margarita salt. But it should never be naked! Taking sips from the entire rim of the glass is part of the fun of drinking a michelada.
Aside from all the various ingredients, a lot of effort is put into creating a michelada masterpiece. The beauty of this beloved beverage is that no two servings will ever be exactly the same. They come in all (glass) shapes and sizes, various red hues, and spice combinations. They are drinkable, edible art forms that are unique to our region and should be appreciated as such. They taste like home.