Hussong's Beer to Tap a Mystique : Thursday Debut of Mexican Import Aims at Cantina Cult

Times Staff Writer

For years, carloads of young Californians have headed across the border over the Labor Day weekend for a taste of Mexico and a bottle of brew at one of Ensenada's most famous watering holes--Hussong's Cantina.

But this holiday weekend, Hussong's enthusiasts need only drive to the local liquor store for a reminder of the colorful cantina.

Moctezuma Imports of Irvine, a subsidiary of Mexico City-based Cerveceria Moctezuma SA, plans to introduce a new beer--named after the Baja California bar--to the U.S. market Thursday, just in time for Labor Day. Cerveceria Moctezuma will premiere Hussong's beer throughout Mexico the same day, said Martin Johnson, director of marketing at Moctezuma Imports.

Standing Room Only

The company is calling it "the beer with the built-in mystique."

And rightfully so. The cult-like popularity of Hussong's Cantina--primarily with American tourists under age 30--prompted Moctezuma to seek a partnership with the tavern founded 66 years ago by John Hussong, a German immigrant. The rustic bar--which seats about 100 but more commonly has up to 300 standing inside and a long line waiting to get in--now is overseen by 29-year-old Ricardo Hussong, John's grandson.

So popular is Hussong's with American tourists that bumper stickers and T-shirts touting the bar are sold throughout Baja by everyone from street merchants to department store clerks. Moctezuma, one of the largest beer importers in America, hopes to cash in on this popularity by licensing the Hussong name--a name that to many is synonymous with a good time.

Moctezuma's decision to import Hussong's beer also comes at a time when imports continue to rank as one of the fastest-growing sectors in the beer market. Although high costs--nearly twice the price of domestic beers--always will limit the import market, some industry executives project that import sales could double from the current 5% to nearly 10% by 1990.

U.S. import beer sales exceeded $1 billion in 1984, according to a recent study by G.B. Schmidt Associates, a Bethesda, Md., statistical information service company. Heineken remains far and away the top-selling imported beer.

But Mexican imports are gaining a better foothold. Moctezuma, which now imports Dos Equis, Sol and Superior beers--most of which are brewed in Guadalajara--projects first-year sales of about $1.8 million for Hussong's beer, which will be brewed in the same city.

No Six-Packs at First

If that sales goal is met, it will boost revenues for Moctezuma imports, which posted 1984 sales of about $20 million, by 9%.

Hussong's beer will be clear, relatively light and sold in bright green, 12-ounce long-neck bottles for about a dollar. Initially, it will not be sold in six-packs.

The classic buyer of import beers, Johnson said, is the now-proverbial Yuppie, who has an image to live up to, no matter what the cost. "Our customers will be drinking an image," Johnson said.

The beer goes head-to-head with some tough competitors--particularly in California--where a number of Mexican beers have sold well. "They'll meet some tough competition in Corona (beer)," said Wayne Sackett, manager of Baycrest Spirits and Wine Shop in Costa Mesa.

Billy Beer Bombed

But Karl Detken, a sales clerk at Newport Hills Liquor in Newport Beach said he envisions big things for a beer with the Hussong's name. "I've been in liquor sales for four years," he said, "and with a name like Hussong's, it'll sell."

Executives at Moctezuma, however, are hoping that Hussong's will not flop like Billy Beer, named after former President Jimmy Carter's beer-drinking brother. The beer sold well for a few weeks then promptly nose-dived into oblivion.

To avoid that same fate, Moctezuma is limiting the initial market to six Western states and planning minimal advertising. "We just want to hit it off with the beach-area people. These are the opinion leaders for the entire country. If they like us, eventually so will everyone else," said Johnson.

Also, the company wants to initially clamp a lid on which restaurants will sell the beer. "We want to place it in only the very best accounts," said Martin. The more "trendy" restaurant chains such as El Torito and Chart House are likely local customers, Johnson said.

Mecca for Thousands

Hussong's Cantina gained popularity in the mid-1960s when California's surfing set began frequenting the bar during surfing jaunts south of the border. Today, hundreds of thousands of thirsty tourists make the annual trek to the 100-year-old rustic wood building in the center of town. A wooden bar stretches the length of the tavern and sawdust is scattered across the floor.

Many Ensenada residents are perplexed by the popularity of the bar and quietly mock the hordes of Americans that flock there. Many tour groups from buses and cruise ships that dock in the nearby harbor show up at the bar's front door. Because of this popularity, Hussong's owners are considering opening more bars in Mexico, Johnson said. None is yet planned in the United States.

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