It’s rare to meet a Texan with an identity problem; these folks are loud and proud to let the world know exactly where they’re from. But the lineage of the Lone Star State’s quirky beer-over-ice concoction is a different story. The Michelada—pronounced mee-cha-lah-dah—struggles with a murky past. Perhaps it was invented by a revolutionary general named Don Augusto Michel or came about when the Tecate Brewery encouraged drinkers to rub a lime and sprinkle salt on its newly introduced beer cans to diminish the tinny taste. Even though Michelada loosely translates as “my cold beer,” maybe the name does refer to the days when the drink was made with Michelob. However, despite its questionable background, there’s no mistaking the Michelada’s link to Tex-Mex border culture. When the food is spicy and the sun is hot, it makes sense to keep your beer cold.
Unsure of its origins, the Michelada does what it can to fit in. Travel north and the mix includes tomato juice, according to Sarah Fisher, bar manager of the Hotel San José in Austin, where the Michelada is typically a lighter drink with a tart edge. But even when you settle on a style, it’s tricky to pinpoint the proportions. “We don’t measure the ingredients. You have to feel the Michelada—make it by touch,” Fisher says. “The mix is delicate, so tinkering with even one ingredient alters how the flavors interact. More Tabasco and your beer goes from picante to downright mean; the amounts of soy sauce and Worcestershire give the drink a savory richness. Make enough of them and you’ll be able to tell if you have the right mix by the color and how the ingredients blend.” But there’s one constant: The Hotel San José Michelada is always topped off with south-of-the-border beer. First-timers might want to start with a lighter beer, such as Modelo Especial. For a step up in flavor, Fisher recommends either Pilsener of El Salvador or Xingu, a Brazilian black lager with a rich, “roasty” flavor, medium body, and a clean, malty finish. “We serve it on the side, giving each drinker the freedom to pour the beer into the mix exactly as he likes it,” Fisher says. “That’s very Texas.”