A slice of Mexico
A real party of a brewery with a serious foodie attitude
Saturday 31 July 2021
This article is from
Share this article
With beers that are as fun and zesty as its Mexican-inspired branding, Cruz Blanca is a real party of a brewery, where a distinctly foodie attitude to flavour meets a dedication to refreshment and drinkability.
Cruz Blanca opened the doors to its now-iconic brewpub and taqueria in 2016, in Chicago’s West Loop neighbourhood, on Randolph street, part of the buzzing ‘Restaurant Row’. Founder Manny Valdez was already a well-respected figure in the city’s close-knit food and drink scene, having worked with chef Rick Bayliss for 25 years at Fontera Grill, and on Rick’s TV show. A number of Cruz Blanca’s core team are also Fontera alumni, while others cut their teeth with the big dog in town, Goose Island, including marketing manager Kathleen Gray.
“Manny started out working for Kraft Foods, then went to business school,” she says. “That gave him two solid, written business plans: one for a food company and another for a brewery. And it just happened that the food company panned out first, but beer was always his passion. So he circled back to the brewery 25 years later, with all that experience of working with Rick.”
Kathleen explains that Cruz Blanca was actually “re-established” in Chicago, picking up where a Mexican brewery of the same name left off more than a century ago. The original Cruz Blanca brewery was opened in the 1860s by a soldier named Imelda Cher, who was in Mexico as part of the second French Intervention (a military operation to establish a Mexican government favourable to French interests).
“This brewery had long since closed, but Manny had really fallen in love with it while doing research on the history of brewing in Mexico. So he registered the trademark for Cruz Blanca in the US, and that’s how our brewery began,” says Kathleen.
“I think one of the things that really interested him was how the European brewing traditions, particularly from Germany, came into Mexico through people like Imelda Cher. That’s why you have all of these Mexican breweries making what are essentially a Mexican take on European lager style beers. We in turn draw a lot of inspiration from Mexico. The Cruz Blanca logo is modelled after the iconic graphic design study of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and of course our brewing has a very Mexican sensibility when it comes to flavour.”
The most obvious way this manifests itself is through Cruz Blanca’s ultra-refreshing, crushable core styles, led by its Mexico Calling lager especial, which makes up 80% of its sales and feels like a cool lake on a scorching day. While none of the beers were explicitly designed to be paired with food, with so many of the brewery’s core staff coming from a restaurant background, it’s hardly a surprise that food is always in the background.
Kathleen says: “Cruz Blanca was conceived as a brewery and taqueria, but I think the beer and the food each need to stand out on their own. But there is a similarity in the philosophy, I think. Jacob, our brewer, came up through Goose Island, but prior to that he was a chef; we’re all foodies, and we’ve worked in food for a long time, so Jacob immediately spoke our language. He can play with the layers of flavour, talk with chefs and apply that understanding to beers.
“For example, right now we have our seasonal La Floridita, which is a wheat ale with passionfruit and hibiscus. And then we have another, Coco Frio, a tropical lager with coconut and pineapple. Jacob had his sleeves rolled up, hand roasting the coconut in the wood fired oven at the restaurant. So it all feels like one and the same.”
As long-standing members of the Chicago hospitality community, Manny and the rest of the Cruz Blanca team have witnessed a tremendous evolution. Even in the mid-2000s, when craft brewing was already well established across many US cities, Chicago was still relatively undeveloped, aside from the runaway success of Goose Island. With one clear leader in town – whose eclectic approach sought to showcase the tremendous variety of beers its founder John Hall had found during his travels through Europe – those who followed immediately in its wake tended to mimic this maximalist philosophy.
“But then between around 2010 and 2015, when the beer market just exploded in Chicago, and people started to realise that they really needed to differentiate, and that meant specialising,” says Kathleen. “So you had breweries just focused on super hop-forward beers, or on sours, or obviously on barrel ageing, though Goose Island still ruled that niche.
“Our uniqueness comes from the fact that we had great Mexican-style beer and great authentic tacos, and everything else we’ve done has come out of that. Sure, you see other brands producing Mexican beers as a one-off, but as Manny likes to say, like our heart is in Mexico; this is a full-time thing for us, and everything we do is through that Mexican lens. That’s Cruz Blanca in a nutshell.”
IN THE BOX
Palm Shade Tropical Hazy IPA
“We’re really pleased to see Palm Shade going into the Beer52 box. It’s hazy, but still refreshing, whereas with a lot of hazies you’re basically chewing them; they’re like a meal. So it’s still got that fresh juice character, but it’s definitely dialled back on the sweetness and thick body, so you have more refreshment in it.”
El Train IPA
“The L-Train – short for elevated train – is Chicago’s iconic urban train network, and El Train is our Mexico-inspired homage to that. We’ve elevated the classic American IPA with a Chicago backbone, in the form of assertive malt character. This is balanced out by pointed bitterness and floral, piney, and citrus-forward aroma from Chinook, Mosaic, Citra, and Simcoe hops.”
Share this article