It starts with a spreadsheet. I've been obsessed with micheladas, the spicy and tart Mexican beer cocktail, for some time. It's been something of a love-hate relationship for me. Some of the micheladas I've drunk have been foul and vomitous, tasting more like the murky dregs of forgotten barroom beer cups with cigarette butts bobbing on the surface. Others have been pure refreshment: bracingly tart, icy-cold, and lip-tinglingly spicy. There have been a few outliers, too, like the one I drunkenly toted around an outdoor market in Mexico City one summer. A sticky-sweet, cherry-red chili syrup swirled with my beer and dripped down the side of my oversize plastic cup, gluing my hand to it. In retrospect, it was pretty gross, but I enjoyed it in the heat—and only later learned that imbibing in the street there could have landed me in jail.
At its best, a michelada is one of the great drinks of summer, a low-alcohol concoction of cheap, light Mexican beer (think Modelo, Victoria, Tecate, Pacífico, or Corona); fresh lime juice; and chili heat. But striking the perfect balance of flavor is deceptively hard. A michelada can quickly become a hot mess, especially as the ingredient list grows.
To find the perfect version, my mission was to get to the bottom of this. Which ingredients are required and in what proportions, and what are the risks that can tip the scales into disgustingness? One of the challenges with a michelada is the number of potential ingredients—hot sauces of a thousand stripes and chili powders galore, citrus juices, tomato, Clamato, and a dizzying array of flavorings, from Worcestershire to soy sauce, fish sauce to bouillon. Combine them in the wrong way, or in unwise ratios, and you'll end up with something you might dare a friend to drink, not something you'd be willing to pay for.
And thus, I started with a spreadsheet. My columns listed my recipe sources, a handful of great bartenders, and trusted restaurants where a good michelada is pretty much guaranteed. The rows broke down into each possible ingredient, and the quantity each recipe used. I had to sort through and discard a lot of recipes that were too far off from a classic michelada, like ones with papaya juice and herb ice cubes, or Japanese yuzu and miso. They all sounded great, but they were advanced deviations, not suitable as roadmaps to a more Platonic form.
This brought me instant clarity. The tomato juice, described as a quasi-necessary ingredient in so many write-ups of the drink, appeared in only a small fraction of the recipes I looked at. Quickly, I was able to see that a classic michelada really has only five critical components: beer, fresh lime juice, hot sauce, an umami bomb, and salt. Well, six ingredients, if you include ice. And ice is very much required.
This bird's-eye view of michelada recipes made testing far more manageable. It was clear that I had a few steps to success: I had to dial into the ideal ratio of lime juice to beer, then I had to figure out the hot sauce component, and finally, I had to identify the best umami bomb to finish it off. Just for thoroughness, I played with versions that included tomato juice, but this only confirmed my suspicions—it can work, but it adds an extra variable that complicates all the others significantly. A solid, basic version is best made without it.
To test lime juice ratios, I started by making a chelada. (I've included a recipe here for that as well.) Terminology is a bit messy, but in general, a chelada is a more basic version of the drink that combines just beer, fresh lime juice, and salt on ice. From my spreadsheet, I knew that lime juice quantities ranged from as low as three-quarters of an ounce to as much as three ounces.
I love acidity, especially in a drink that's meant to be refreshing. For me, that meant my preferred version ended up with a solid two ounces of fresh lime juice per 12-ounce serving of beer. Though it's rare that you can fit all of that beer in the glass at once; you have to top it up as you drink, slowly tilting the drink more and more out of citrus territory and into the beer zone. That's another argument for a stronger dose of lime: As the drink dilutes, with the ice melting and the beer getting topped up, you're going to need it, or the drink will taste increasingly weak and spineless.
During my testing, only one friend expressed a preference for less lime, gravitating toward the glass made with just one ounce. He said he could drink more of them that way. Everyone else agreed that more lime was better, at least to a point. Three ounces is a lot of lime, coming close to filling an ice-filled glass halfway. I think that's too much.
Next, I played with hot sauces, trying out a variety of mass-market brands. There's no way to name a single definitive hot sauce for a michelada—there are simply too many possibilities to choose from, and too much room for personal preference—but to my taste, Tapatío offered the best jolt of chili spice and bright, balanced, vinegary tartness, layering just enough complex flavor on top of the lime juice. I'd start with Tapatío, then experiment with other hot sauces to see what else you can bring to the drink.
For a while, I was using a single teaspoon of the hot sauce per glass, but after a drinking session with a friend, I grew convinced that two teaspoons was better, giving the drink improved viscosity and a spicier punch that stood up to the lime juice better. If you don't like spice, dial it down to a single teaspoon.
The umami bomb was the next ingredient to test. Worcestershire sauce is one of the most common additions—some people call a michelada made with it a Cubana—but Maggi seasoning sauce (a savory flavor enhancer), soy sauce, and fish sauce are all possible. So is bouillon, whether chicken or beef. I tested all of these, both solo and in various combinations, and settled on the Worcestershire as the strongest pick. It delivers enough of a fermented, fishy funk to render actual fish sauce unnecessary, and enough inky, concentrated depth to edge out the Maggi and soy sauce. It's just enough to round out the bright flavors of lime and vinegary hot sauce, and it adds a kick of heat all its own, but it's not so strong that it overpowers the drink.
Salt, meanwhile, is a must. Not just on the rim, but a generous pinch in the glass as well. When made well, a michelada is like a beer and salted pretzels all in one. Every sip should light up your taste buds. This is even more true if you rim the glass with a chili powder mix like Tajín, which includes salt—just not enough on its own.
That's it, a blueprint for the perfect michelada. Start with it, then tailor it to your tastes.