The Best Michelada Recipe Keeps It Simple and Refreshing

Erick Castro’s dad handed him his first Michelada when he was 14 and said, “Drink this.” It was a Tecate over ice, spiked with hot sauce, lime and a pinch of salt. They were in Mexicali, Mexico, where Castro’s dad was living, just over the border from Calexico. Out there, 120 miles from the Pacific, the sun is unforgiving. Castro drank it all before the ice could melt.

It took years for Castro, now 45 and considered one of San Diego’s top bartenders, to see the Michelada as anything but unremarkable. Growing up, he’d only known it as a casual drink, something thrown together by relatives desperate to thwart the heat of the day. But the beauty of the beverage, he says, is its lack of pretension. A minimalist Michelada smacks of utility, a refreshing mix that Castro swears will replenish electrolytes after hours in the sun and stand up to the bold flavors of Mexican cuisine, with a low enough ABV to keep it chuggable.

But the Michelada, in all its funk, can be polarizing. “There’s a lot of people out there who want their beers to be beers and their cocktails to be cocktails, with no crossover,” explains Castro. Bartender and author Jeffrey Morgenthaler has been especially vocal about his aversion to them, writing in 2018 that “every single” Michelada he’d ever had was “f*cking gross.”

Safe to say, Castro disagrees. The menus at Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves, his award-winning San Diego bars, have featured a range of Micheladas, including a bestselling version made with Negra Modelo, spicy cinnamon and pineapple, rimmed with Tajín. 

With ample room to improvise, the Michelada has no rigid structure. It shape-shifts according to preference. “I define it the way the Supreme Court defines pornography,” Castro says. “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.” But no matter how it’s doctored, he says, the basis will always be the same: a cold beer, a glug of hot sauce, lime. The combination is vaguely primal and elemental, blending together in a rust-colored swirl that leaves a hint of salt on the tongue, like licking your upper lip on a hot day.

These days, the playful reinvention of the Michelada has no ceiling: In his travels, Castro’s seen Micheladas of all different hues, with mix-ins ranging from green pepper to grapefruit to celery. “You could travel around Mexico for 10 days, have Micheladas every day, and never have the same Michelada twice,” he says.

One of the drink’s most popular iterations is laced with sangrita, a classic Mexican mixer made from tomato juice and citrus, or Clamato and Worcestershire sauce, resulting in its frequent comparison to the Bloody Mary. But Castro almost always forgoes those additions to highlight the citrusy elements of the cocktail rather than the savory. 

For his most beloved recipe, Castro’s approach is simple and tomato-free. The base is always a mellow Mexican lager—a Pacífico, Modelo or Tecate—that gets a hit of fresh lime juice, simple syrup, sea salt and Tapatío. His riff on the classic also includes muddled orange slices, which dress up the otherwise laid-back mixture. The flavor of the muddled citrus—slightly earthier than straight juice—is a nod to the fresh fruit that colored his childhood growing up in a Mexican household. 

Castro knew he had something special when Morgenthaler ordered his simple Michelada at Polite Provisions several years ago. He loved Castro’s recipe so much that he emailed a few weeks later asking to add it to his own menu at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon—a full convert. “Finally, a delicious Michelada!” he wrote.

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