Cinco de Mayo

How Beer Made Cinco de Mayo

México is celebrated in the United States every May 5th. Not because everyone loves México but because a beer company invented a holiday to make Mexican beer the only beer for the frat boys for the day. The story of Cinco de Mayo is two stories in one - a historical record of Mexicans who fought against foreign interlopers, and a Mexican beer company trying to correct a wrong. It is the story of two underdogs trying to compete in an unfair world. It is a story that defeatism can be overcome.

On the beer front, the story is simple. Grupo Modelo, founded in 1925 in México started to export its beer, Corona, to the United States in 1981. [1] By 1986, Corona was in second place in the market share of beer sales in the United States. It was second to another beer import, Heineken. Corona’s meteoric rise in the U.S. market left competitors puzzled and jealous. [1] A Mexican beer company was eroding their sales and it bothered them. A beer wholesaler in Reno, Nevada, which distributed Heineken beer, resorted to creating a lie to destroy the Corona beer brand. Luce & Son, Inc. started the rumor that Corona beer was contaminated with human urine. [2]

Because it was a beer from México, the U.S. public heartily took in the rumor as fact even though it was based on a falsehood.

The response to the rumor was immediate, Corona’s market share dropped as much as 80%. [3]

Corona’s importer, Barton Beers, Ltd., tracked down the rumor to Luce & Sons. Barton sued the Heineken distributor for $3 million in 1987. A few months later, Luce & Sons admitted publicly that Corona beer was “free of contamination” as part of its out of court settlement. [3]

Despite the court settlement, the rumors persisted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington. The damage had been done and Barton Beers needed to get Corona beer sales rising again.

What Corona beer needed was an excuse for consumers to consume Mexican beer - preferably Corona.

In 1989, a San Antonio-based beer importer, Gambrinus launched a marketing scheme around the Cinco de Mayo, a little-known Chicano holiday. [4] The advertising campaign by the Richards Group has made Cinco de Mayo synonymous with drinking Corona beer.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is ranked fifth on the list of days when beer is most consumed in the U.S. There is more beer consumed on Cinco de Mayo, then there is on Super Bowl Sunday, according to a 2014 Nielsen survey. [5] Corona beer is the fifth best selling beer in the country, and it is looking at doubling its production capacity in order offset shortages. [6]

Although most Cinco de Mayo celebrants believe that they are celebrating México’s Independence Day, what they are celebrating is the Battle of Puebla, where a ragtag Mexican Army beat the strongest army of the day, the French invaders under Napoleon III.

Ethnic holidays in the United States are big spending days for U.S. consumers. St. Patrick’s Day embraces the Irish in the country. But the history of Mexican immigrants in the United States is a complex cultural identity crisis between Mexican-Americans and recent Mexican immigrants making their homes in the country.

This is because of the unresolved animosity between the Mexicans that suddenly became U.S. citizens after the United States took almost half of México, and the Mexicans who remained in México. Recent Mexican immigrants carry with them the mental stigma of losing half of México, while dealing with resentment and animosity from inhabitants of areas to which they immigrate to in search of jobs. It is the psychology of defeatism that dominates the Mexican psyche.

In the 1960’s, the Mexican-Americans, embolden by the successes of the civil rights movements across the United States, organized themselves under the Chicano movement. The unresolved cultural identity crisis between the U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants made it difficult for the two diverging groups to embrace the Mexican Independence Day as the unifying day for celebrating their ethnic identity. Sixteen of September was too Mexican for the U.S. citizens of Mexican descendants in the lost Mexican territories, while other ethnic groups in the United States did not see Mexican Independence Day as a day to celebrate.

What was needed was a unifying day to commemorate the Mexican culture, or Mexicanism, in the U.S. without it being too Mexican. The Battle of Puebla was the day that all groups could embrace because it provided a rare and uncontested win for the Mexican state under overwhelming forces. It helped that it tied directly to the core of the U.S. identity - the support of a neighbor who helped to keep the Union together during the Civil War.

When the French were intent on establishing a monarchy, under the domain of the French in México, the United States was in the midst of the American Civil War. The French were backing the Confederacy during the Civil War, making the French an enemy to the Union, Abraham Lincoln and of México.

When the Mexican Army defeated the French invaders at Puebla, it did not end the French invasion of México, but it celebrated that a ragtag group of Mexicans could beat the best of the world. Adding to the unification narrative was the hero of the Battle of Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza. [follow this link for a history of the Batalla de Puebla]

Zaragoza was born in present day Goliad, Texas while it was still a Mexican territory. Zaragoza, a Tejano, bridged the divide between the inhabitants of the lost territories with those who remained in México. Zaragoza represented the unifying marker needed to celebrate Mexicanismo without it being too Mexican. It helped that Zaragoza was from Texas, one of the lost territories.

It also provided the common ground for other U.S. ethnic groups to celebrate a Mexican holiday that had a common enemy for all - the French. It connected everyone to the history of the United States through the Civil War.

Cinco de Mayo was a Chicano holiday celebrated in Chicano enclaves. Most U.S. residents did not know the holiday existed.

The Corona beer brand needed something to build a marketing brand around to regrow its market share. The beer had been popular with the surfer crowds prior to the rumors of tainted beer. It just needed them to come back and to do so they needed to create an ethnic identity around a Mexican brand.

The Chicano Cinco de Mayo celebrations fit the bill perfectly. It contained a group of ethnic Mexicans celebrating their cultural identity. Corona just needed to convince them to buy Mexican beer to make the celebration truly ethnic-centric. And thus, the Cinco de Mayo holiday was born.

Cinco de Mayor celebrates the Battle of Puebla where a ragtag Mexican army subdued the world’s best military force subduing the arrogance of the French who considered themselves invincible. The French arrogance never contemplated the idea that Mexicans could beat them in battle. The Mexican resolve had been underestimated, much to the chagrin of Napoleon III.

As for Corona beer, a Dutch brand, Heineken, believed it could start a rumor to stop the Mexican brand from overtaking it. In the end, the beer distributor who started the rumor was forced to issue a public retraction and today, Corona ranks fifth of the most popular beers in the United States, while Heineken comes in at tenth. (Beer Advocate, 2013)

Today, Heineken, not only continues to lag Corona, but it has three Mexican brands as part of its repertoire. They are Desperados, Sol and Tecate.

A Mexican beer brand and a Mexican ragtag army stood up to the dominating forces of their time and beat them.

Published on May 4, 2017

1. Peterson, Jonathan; “Brewer Will Battle False Rumor About Its Product”; Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1987
2. Richter, Paul; “Smear Tactics, Dirty Tricks at New Lows in Corporate Circles”; The Washington Post, September 22, 1989
3. “Beer importer tries to quash rumors of urine contamination”; UPI, August 3, 1987
4. Kennedy, Bud; “The Cinco de Mayo battle was in Mexico, but the marketing is made in Texas”; Star-Telegram, May 3, 2014
5. Madden, Nate; “Cinco de Mayor tops St. Patrick’s Day, Super Bowl Sunday with U.S. beer drinkers”; The Washington Post, May 4, 2015
6. Lutz, Ashley; “A horrible-tasting Mexican beer is so popular there’s now a shortage in America”; Business Insider, June 20, 2015