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Lime Aid

Claim:   Bartender's wager led to the custom of adding a lime wedge to Corona beer.

UNDETERMINED

Examples:

[Collected via e-mail, April 2010]

Why do we put limes in Corona beer? I have read a few different answers: a) It kept the flies out of the beer b) it disinfects the top of the beer bottle c) it masks the skunky taste because of the clear bottle.
 

[Parade, January 2009]

Some people believe that squeezing a lime into a Corona beer is a time-honored Mexican custom that came about to enhance the beer's taste. Others maintain that the ritual derives from an ancient Meso-American practice designed to combat germs, with the lime's acidity destroying bacteria. The truth? The Corona-and-lime ritual dates back only to 1981, when, reportedly on a bet with his buddy, a bartender popped a lime wedge into the neck of a Corona to see if he could start a trend.

This simple act, which caught on like wildfire, is generally credited with helping Corona overtake Heineken as the best-selling imported beer in the U.S. market.

 

Origins:   These days, when you spot a bottle of Corona beer served in a bar, you'll invariably see it provided with a wedge of lime stuck into its lip, and when you see someone drinking a Corona, it will be through the immersed lime wedge that has been thrust down into the neck of the bottle.

While that has assuredly become the way of things, the question remains how the state of lime enhancement as the norm for this beer came to be.

Corona is a light lager typically drunk through a wedge of lime inserted into the neck of the bottle. In 1925 Grupo Modelo S.A. de C.V was founded in Mexico by Pablo Diez Fernandez. Its flagship brew, Corona, became a national brand, and the brewery went on to acquire regional beers like Pacifico, Victoria, and Leon. The beer was first exported in the late 1970s and quickly caught on in the U.S. By 1986, Corona ranked second in the U.S. in imported beers (Heineken led the way), and by 1999 was the best-selling import and the 10th best-selling beer overall.

While a Corona served in the U.S. is always accorded a wedge of lime seated in the rim of the bottle (it's generally left to the imbiber to shove the wedge down into the brew), in Mexico that same bottle of beer would likely be served that way only in a bar frequented by Americans. Mexicans who drink Corona tend to scoff at the idea that the beverage needs a lime, regarding the fruit's addition as a gimmick for los turistas. Whatever the custom's origin, it does not appear it started in Mexico with the local population of suds lovers.

There's no clear answer as to why lime wedges have become de rigueur for Coronas in the United States, but a number of theories exist:
  • Unlike almost every other beer in the U.S. market, Corona is bottled in clear glass rather than brown or green. Those who know beer recognize that light is an enemy of the brew, turning beverages exposed to it "skunky." The lime, therefore, masks the altered taste resultant from Coronas' having been exposed to light by virtue of their packaging.
  • Corona is a mild-tasting beverage, with the inserted lime adding its only discernable note of flavor.
  • The provision of a lime dates to the days when metal caps sometimes left circlets of rust on the rims of beer bottles. The fruit slice was used to wipe away rust stains the brew's drinker would otherwise have been putting his lips to.
  • Lime (or lemon) is said to work to keep flies away. In an expansion of that theory, prior to the lime slice, fly spray used to combat the flying hordes adversely affected the taste of the beer.
  • Some bright spark who works for the brewery came up with the idea of festooning bottles of Corona with wedges of lime, both in an effort to create a more visually enticing image and to provide what might otherwise be regarded as a somewhat uninspired beer with a hint of cachet, and possibly even an intriguing (if unstated) backstory. People like both ritual and mystery, after all, and the lime provides both.
  • On a bet with a colleague about whether a single person could start a nationwide trend, a bartender came up with the notion of shoving limes into Coronas.
We asked Corona the reason for the lime, but have yet to receive a reply. If we had to guess which of the theories is the right answer, our money would be on the "clever marketing ploy" explanation. Say what you will, there is something oddly attractive and alluring about a just-opened bottle of Corona with a lime wedge perched on its tip that isn't there when the bottle is presented lacking its fruit garnish. Possibly the color combination of golden beer, green lime, and blue, white, and gold label works to seduce the eye and thus the customer. And then there's the matter of participating in a ritual, and one for which the reason for doing so remains mysterious — we humans are suckers for that, and any halfway potable beer promoted by such a marketing scheme could do quite well for itself on the "secret knowledge" factor alone.

The "bartender's wager" tale (quoted in the Examples section above) that appeared in the pages of Parade magazine on 4 January 2009 and was subsequently repeated in other publications, was drawn from Martin Lindstrom's 2008 book Buy-ology. While there is something intensely appealing about the notion of a now widespread tradition having been invented in a cynical effort to influence the unsuspecting, search as we might, we have yet to unearth any source for this tale other than Lindstrom. Further, the story he provides isn't checkable, in that neither the bar nor the bartender are named. Interestingly, in a May 2005 post to his web site, Lindstrom provides the further detail that the wager had been between a Californian bartender and one of his colleagues over the power of ritual and that the fruit in question had been a lemon.

Barbara "lemon unpledged" Mikkelson

Last updated:   18 May 2010

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Sources:

    Lindstrom, Martin.   Buy-ology.
    New York; Doubleday, 2008.   ISBN 978-0-385-52388-2   (pp. 88-89).

    Lindstrom, Martin.   "How Subliminal Advertising Works."
    Parade.   4 January 2009.

    Williams, Jack.   "Corona Light Aimed at Legions of 'Limeys.'"
    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   15 May 1989   (p. C1).

   Wilson, Michael.   "A Corona, Please, And Don't Hold the Lime."
    The New York Times.   6 November 2007   (p. B1).