Finding Cuban Beer in the Land of Cigars and Rum
BY JOHN HOLL | PHOTOS BY JEFF QUINN
HAVANA—At the tables inside a warehouse that once processed and housed tobacco, men and women smoke cigars. Highball glasses, branded with the Havana Club rum logo, are filled with mojitos heavy on the ice and bursting with fresh mint sprigs. A seven-piece band plays in the middle of the room, and despite the heat and humidity, couples find the energy to dance.
The centerpiece of the warehouse, known now as Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco, is a 10-hectoliter copper-clad brew house, and from his perch, Yunier Rizo Rodriguez, one of the brewmasters here, watches as crisply dressed servers in black pants and white button-down dress shirts pour his lagers into dimpled mugs and yard-sized towers, navigate the crowd and serve the beer to thirsty patrons who are visiting one of this city’s two brewpubs.
Will beer ever gain the prominence and respect in his country that is currently enjoyed by rum and cigars? “Eso espero,” he says. I hope so
The interior of Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco on Havana Bay
For generations Americans have had a fascination with Cuba—especially Havana. It’s the city where Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and other celebrities of the 1940s and 50s visited to perform and relax. And where Ernest Hemingway was inspired to write. The fascination continued, albeit on a darker path to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year along with the U.S. embargo of Cuba, known here as the blockade.
While it is modern in many ways, parts of Cuban life—best visually referenced by muscle cars and roadsters resplendent with tailfins and chrome—remain firmly rooted in a bygone era. Recently President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with this island nation of 11 million people, just 90 miles from Key West, Florida. Travel restrictions have eased, meaning American citizens will soon be able to see the famed cities and countryside for themselves.
There is so much to explore in Cuba well beyond the obligatory cigars and rum and the chance to look under the hood of a classic. There is a vibrant and diverse art culture, music rooted in many cultures and religions, and architecture that ranges from stark to whimsical to intimidating. There are sprawling beaches and unspoiled nature, big cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba, and vast farmland harvesting sugar cane and tobacco.
While it might not be the first, or even second vice associated with the country, beer is everywhere and definitely a part of the national fabric.
Currently the shelves and taps are dominated by two brands produced by the Belgian-owned Anheuser-Busch InBev in a joint agreement with the Cuban government: Bucanero and Cristal. Both are lagers, crisp and easy drinking. Cristal is a little more on the sweet side. The two beers are found everywhere, and with good reason: the brewery states that it produced 1.5 million hectoliters last year. That’s about the equivalent of 1.28 million barrels, slightly more than the annual output of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. In all, there are just seven breweries in Cuba. Four are large commercial operations, and the other three are brewpubs. Brewers we interviewed said more are in planning.
So while the Cuban brewing industry might not be as advanced or as diverse as, say, that in Canada, where tourists traveled from for years, or in Austria, where the brewing equipment at Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen was made, beer is immensely popular with the people who live here.
“This is the perfect drink for this country,” our guide, Anna, explained as we drank mugs of helles lager. “People think we are sugar cane and rum, but here people are hot all the time. You go to the beach and the baseball game, and people drink beer. Not the mojito, not the Cuba libre. Beer. Every day they are drinking beer.”
LITTLE IN HAVANA
The city of Havana has a little more than 2 million residents and currently just two breweries, both brewpubs and both owned by the government. Plaza Vieja Cervezas y Maltas opened in 2003 and stood alone for more than a decade until Cervecería Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco opened in March 2014.
Both are operated by small brewing staffs and work continuously to keep up with demand from both the tourists and locals. While the look and feel of both locations are their own, it’s hard not to notice the remarkable similarities between the two, and with good reason: via an exclusive contract, Austrian brewing equipment company Salm Bräu supplies both breweries with equipment, ingredients and recipes. As such, the two breweries each make three lagers: a helles, a Märzen and a dunkel presented to customers as clara, oscura and negra, or light, medium and dark.
There are plans for Salm Bräu and the government to install other breweries in this model in other Cuban cities like Santiago de Cuba, Varadero and Trinidad, brewers say.
With similar systems, it will be easier to team up for repairs and conversation that leads to camaraderie, one of the brewery engineers at Plaza Vieja told us.
Purists will have to adapt to the local custom that all beer will be served in a frosted glass, or at least one that has been refrigerated. Beer is referred to in the feminine; this helps explain why condensation on the side of a glass or a beer bottle is often called “vestida de novia,” or a wedding dress.
‘PART OF SOMETHING NICE’
The brightest light on the square also comes from the loudest spot, a bright goldenrod two-story building with white trim that is home to Plaza Vieja. A band plays the classics from Ritchie Valens and Chubby Checker, and the crowd dances. Waiters in black pants and guayabera shirts carry dimpled mugs—four or five in each hand, like servers at a Bavarian beer garden—deftly weaving between the revelers. On the porch and patio, yard-sized towers of beer rise up like smokestacks from the tiled tables.
Inside is the brewery, a 10-hectoliter copper workhorse directly behind the bar. Fermentation, bright beer tanks and serving vessels are stashed in the back, but still visible behind large glass doors. That back room is cooled for lagering, and the brewers admit that in the broiling summer, it’s a pleasure to come to work.
Luis Hanvel Rodrigues worked as a chemical engineer in the pharmaceutical industry before becoming the master brewer of Plaza Vieja. He says that people enjoy coming here because they are watching the process, “part of something nice going on.”
When the brewery started, it endeared itself to the locals by producing a malta, essentially carbonated sweet wort and a popular national drink consumed like soda. “We have sugar cane in our bloodstream,” Rodrigues says. It remains popular today, as does the beer cocktail they put on the menu: the Havana Vienna. It’s essentially a mojito but substitutes the helles for sparkling water.
The food is typical. Sandwiches, some fish dishes, snacks. It’s advised to stick with the beer, with locals usually preferring the helles.
“You can tell the tourists because they drink the black beer,” he tells me with a smile as I take another pull from the dunkel. But it’s also the style he’s been making more of in recent months as new visitors come to his country.
‘TRUE CUBAN BEER’
In a city where everything is old—either historic or just dilapidated—Cervecería Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco stands out.
It’s in an old building, yes, a tobacco warehouse hard against the port and within shouting distance of the San José Artisans’ Market, but it’s been refurbished with bright wall-length murals fusing together parts of Cuban culture, new comfortable wooden furniture and continuous music from the center stage. The wooden barrels stacked against the wall at the entrance are for show.
When looking to rehabilitate the waterfront here, to appeal to residents and tourists alike, the government decided to install a brewery. President Obama spoke here during his visit, at a meeting between U.S. and Cuban business leaders, plus representatives of both governments.
Obama, who brought brewing back to the White House after being elected in 2008 and has regularly been seen downing pints while on the campaign trail and at official events, did not sample the beer when he visited, says brewmaster José Maria Martinez Valdéz.
Brewmaster José Maria Martinez Valdéz of Cervecería Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco
When he isn’t brewing, the 58-year-old, who worked in food research and water treatment before becoming a brewer, regularly holds tours of the brew house and fermentation room for curious tourists and locals alike.
Here a mug of beer costs $2CUC, about a dollar more than the price of the commercial lagers, but looking around, it’s clear to see that locals are willing to pay for the premium. One CUC equals about one U.S. dollar. Towers of beer, which equal about six mugs, go for $12. “I’m very proud to be working here where the beer is Cuban beer,” says Martinez Valdéz.
Without ever referencing craft beer, and admitting that he doesn’t know much of the global brewing scene, Martinez Valdéz launches into the familiar refrain that smaller brewers sing, talking about the importance of small batches and competing against the bigger breweries. “They use sugar,” Martinez Valdéz says of beers like Bucanero and Cristal. “We do not. Only water, malt, hops and yeast. This is true Cuban beer.”
What makes this Cuban beer? I ask. “The wishes and good intent, the knowledge we have and the water.” Along with his two fellow brewers, Martinez Valdéz, who is also known as Pepe, says the beer they create is “a symphony playing with six hands.” He hopes that the work and passion they put into the beer will continue to encourage people to come and visit.
“If tomorrow we are the favorite, great,” he says. “If not, we sit down and figure out what to do better.”
THE ESTABLISHED PLAYERS
It should come as little surprise that the dominant beer style in Cuba is a light lager, or that the brewery that produces it is partly owned by the Belgian-based AB InBev. In
partnership with the government, the global brewer makes two of the country’s most popular beers, the 5.4% Bucanero and 4.9% Cristal, out of the Cervecería Bucanero S.A. facility in Holguín, on the eastern part of the island.
Cervecería Bucanero S.A. also produces a higher-alcohol (6.5%) Bucanero Max and Mayabe lager, imports Beck’s from Germany and makes a malta under the Bucanero name. In recent weeks the brewery has said it needs to add on-site production space to keep up with demand. Last year Cuba received 3.5 million tourists, up 17 percent from the previous year. Those new visitors are one reason, officials say, beer supplies are strained. AB InBev plans to import several million cases of lager made in the Dominican Republic to satisfy Cuban customers.
Along with the established Cuban brands, Heineken and Sol are also common. A chance encounter with a self-proclaimed “beer bar” on Lamparilla Street in Old Havana, the Lamparilla Tapas y Cervezas, offered much of the same, but with the added surprise of Presidente Lager and Belgium’s Martens Pilsener.
There, the beers are served in tall-boy glasses, similar to a stange, tattooed with the Havana Club rum logo. The prices are more expensive than those at the brewpubs.
If Bucanero and Cristal are the most popular, Hatuey lager remains a sentimental favorite of locals. Harder to find, but dating back to the early 1900s, it’s celebrated as a classic. Currently produced in a government-run brewery in Santiago de Cuba, Hatuey is also made in the U.S. by Bacardi—the original brewery’s owner—under contract and with a corporate office in Florida. It’s available there and in New York.
THE PAST AND THE FUTURE
Before the revolution, beer was a bigger industry. Today, it has a long way to go before Cuba can be considered an international player. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people looking to make that happen, although on their own terms. “Cuba has always been a beer-loving country,” says Enrique J. Garcia, a brewery consultant of Cuban heritage, who has worked with Latin and South American breweries, and is in the process of opening his own brewery in Miami. “It was in the top five beer-consuming markets in Latin America before the revolution.”Garcia, who is also working on a documentary film about Cuban beer, says that while it’s only “a daydream,” had the revolution not occurred, the current scene would be much different.
“The U.S. influence, with trade agreements like Mexico has, the European influence, it’s not too crazy to think that Cuba would have a pretty cool beer scene going on.”
Rodrigues, the brewer at Plaza Vieja, knows about beer from other countries. He’s had offerings from Cigar City Brewing and enjoyed its lager. An employee from The Rare Barrel, an all-sour beer company in Berkeley, California, visited not long ago, leaving bottles of Map of the Sun, a wild ale. The brewers smile politely when I ask what they think of the flavor.After several days in the country—seeing the industry behind rum, and being accustomed to the American
innovations in brewing and the pushing of flavor boundaries—I ask the brewers if they would think about aging their beers in rum barrels, or finding ways to incorporate tobacco flavor, or using local coffee, sugar or fruits.
They all demur.