Tequila is delicious. Beer is delicious. So what happened to the tequila-flavored beers that came and went in the middle of the 2010's? Both Heineken and Anheuser-Busch introduced tequila flavored beers in the US in 2014 and 2015, before pulling them from the market in consequent years. With such a large Hispanic population in the US, why did this specialty beer not catch on?
Today I'll dive into tequila infused beers and talk about any and all types of beer that was made in tequila barrels.
In July 2014, Heineken released their brand of tequila-flavored beer in the US under the brand name Desperados. Desperados Beer USA was a venture by the European beverage giant to tap into the tequila aficionado market to try and gain traction. It was initially launched in Florida and Georgia before expanding into the Southwest. While it contained no tequila, it was brewed with the flavor of tequila, transferring that unique taste into the lager.
Desperados Beer was 6% ABV, made from standard beer ingredients with the addition of citric acid and tequila flavors. Desperados Beer calories topped out at 189, making it comparable to other lagers on the market at that time. The Desperados Beer price point was similar to other lagers at the time, indicating that the pricing was not the issue with the failure of the product in the US market.
Desperados Beer USA ran into some issues with the Tequila Regulatory Council in Mexico, who threatened to sue Heineken for falsely marketing the brew as a tequila product. The council stipulated that it was misleading to prominently display the word “tequila” on the bottle when it was not composed of the spirit. Heineken defended itself, saying that it used tequila flavoring and that the labeling made it clear that that was no tequila, merely tequila flavoring. It proved to be a contentious battle because the tequila industry was trying to rebrand itself as a premium liquor. For years it was associated with a cheap way to get drunk, especially amongst spring breakers and college students who loved to consume it in shot form. The move to position tequila as a premium liquor was motivated by the growing market, as evidenced by the sale of George Clooney's brand Casamigos for $1 billion to Diageo.
Desperados infringed upon the rebranding process that was happening for the tequila manufacturers, even though Heineken worked with one of their members to source the tequila for the flavoring of the beer. It could be seen as a threat to elevate the cultural product of a country that had long been viewed as lower-class in America. The dynamic between Mexico and America is long and convoluted, with racism and xenophobia still rampant in the culture of the US. Mexican products are oftentimes seen as cheap; not worthy of the money or attention of supposedly superior and wealthier citizens of the US. Brands like Tecate and Dos Equis already serviced the low-end market of alcohol consumption, while the tequila companies tried to target the high-end. Desperados could have been seen as a way of muddling that delineation and confusing the American public into continuing to associate tequila with cheap products.
But why did the beer not become a hit with the large Hispanic population in America? There were 56.5 million Hispanics in the United States in 2015, accounting for nearly 18% of the population. That should have been more than enough to target for an alcoholic product built for the Hispanic market. Tequila is an essential cultural product of Mexico and Desperados should have been a comforting taste of home. Whatever the reason, it did not connect with an audience and would flounder in sales until being pulled from the market in 2016.
Similar to Heineken and their failed attempt at a tequila-flavored beer, A-B introduced their answer to Desperados Beer. Oculto Beer was launched in March 2015, its name meaning “hidden” or “waiting to be found” in Spanish. In was a lager that was aged in tequila barrels, with additional flavors of blue agave and lemon added to enhance the innate tequila flavorings. It had a 6% ABV and was targeted towards millennials in an attempt to gain a foothold in the growing market. It was branded with a striking white skull and black stars inlaid in jade eyes. So what happened to Oculto Beer?
I'll go on record saying I bought a six pack of Oculto, and I enjoyed it. However, the amount of sugar and calories in it were a little much for me to re-buy it and keep it around.
It could be extrapolated that since the market couldn't even support one tequila-flavored beer, a second didn't even have a chance. Maybe being the second to market immediately doomed the product from the start. It was launched with a handful of other non-traditional beer products that also failed. Bud Light Mixxtails was a line of cocktail-inspired beverages with flavors like Long Island Ice Tea, Firewalker, and Hurricane. It was stronger, at 8% ABV, but was terminated along with Oculto Beer in November 2016. Other offshoot flavors of the popular Bud Light Lime-A-Rita were also discontinued, including Lime-A-Rita Picante. While A-B attempted to experiment with different flavors and verticals to grow their footprint, it was somewhat disconcerting that Hispanic-targeted brands were shuttered so quickly. I don't think the failure was based upon scarcity and that people didn't know where to buy Oculto Beer. I think it was due to a larger trend in brands not knowing how to target the Hispanic market in America.
Will Tequila-Flavored Beers Return?
There is an out-sized influence Mexican culture and tastes have made in American consumption. Margaritas have become a staple beverage. Nachos are essential for watching a football game. Tacos are both restaurant quality and street food. But in the beverage industry, the seemingly obvious combination of tequila and beer never took off. Maybe it was a matter of timing.
Within the past few years, there has been an explosion of alcoholic beverages that are pushing the boundary of classification. White Claw became the de facto drink of the summer in 2019, spurring a flurry of competitors and even supply issues that couldn't meet demand. Canned wine became popular in 2018, appealing to millennials who wanted to socialize in parks and on beaches without having to lug wine bottles and bottle openers with them. Now there is a push towards canned cocktails, riding the coattails of hard seltzers towards even stronger beverages. Maybe now is the time for the return of tequila-flavored beers.
If you enjoy White Claw, check out my WhiteClaw tequila drink recipe.
It seems like the American consumer is more open to non-traditional alcoholic beverages. Maybe the market of Hispanic consumers for Desperados and Oculto Beer was the wrong market. Maybe it's the same consumers of White Claw and Cutwater and Underwood. With the millennial population showing a willingness to try different beverages, now might be the perfect opportunity to relaunch the brands that failed just a few years earlier. Tequila-flavored beers bring a unique and accessible flavor for those who also enjoy Margaritas and Tequila Sodas. There's also an opportunity to learn from the past launches of these beers and modify them to be competitive in the market. For example, if Heineken made Desperados Beer price competitive with IPAs or other specialty beers, it could be rebranded as a higher-value alternative, as well as being outside the price point of Corona or Tecate. Furthermore, Heineken could find a way to lower the amount of Desperados Beer calories to be competitive with a Michelob Ultra or other 100 calorie option. Millennials love to party, but they are also conscious of their calories. That's part of the reason why White Claws became so popular.
With the outsized success of Casamigos as a premium brand, it's safe to assume that the Tequila Regulation Council has succeeded in its effort to rebrand tequila as a high-value spirit. There is no longer the threat of a tequila-flavored beer to confuse American consumers into conflating tequila with beer. If that's the case, then there might be an opening for tequila-flavored beers to make a comeback. In California, where the coldest it can get in some cities is 50°F in the winter and over 100°F in the summer, a refreshing and citrusy beer is a must-have. Combined with the plethora of taco stands and Mexican restaurants, a tequila-flavored beer could have a fighting chance if re-introduced in California. Given a new landscape and changing trends in taste, there's a good chance that what happened to Oculto Beer and Desperado Beer is unlikely to happen again.
Have a Taste
You might be wondering where to buy Oculto Beer and Desperados Beer, especially if you missed the short window they were sold in the United States. Since you are a tequila fan, you probably want to get your hands on some bottles to see how well the unique flavor of tequila is captured in a beer. Unfortunately, neither are sold in the US or Mexico, and given current travel restrictions, it's going to be extremely difficult to travel to any of the other international destinations where the products are sold. To add insult to injury, many of the specialty distributors are out of stock on the products, or no longer import them to the US. Contact your local breweries and see if any brew their beers using tequila barrels. It can be rare and seasonal, but your timing might be right.
In the meantime, sit tight, have a tequila cocktail, and hold on until travel opens back up again so you can have a can, glass, or bottle of one of the elusive tequila-flavored beers.