On the Cuban Beer Scene

I’m settled into my seat, ready for take-off from Havana’s José Martí Airport after eight days in the land of classic cars, non-stop music and scarce wifi. I got to ride in a ’53 Pontiac convertible and dance until late with the crowd at a Buena Vista Social Club show. I stayed so busy that I experienced only mild withdrawal symptoms from the lack of communication with the virtual world. Oh, and in the land drenched in mojitos and other rum-based drinks, I drank plenty of Cuban beer.

2015-04-09 13.02.19The two most popular domestic brands, Cristal, in green cans and bottles, and Bucanero Fuerte, in red cans and red-labelled bottles, aren’t winning any medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Of course, the primary reason is the U.S. embargo, but change could be in the wind.

While our Road Scholar group was touring Cienfuegos on Saturday, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro were sitting down for a historic meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. This comes four months after Obama’s announcement that he intends to seek normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. However, given the half century of embargo, don’t expect to see U.S. beer retailers making room for Cristal and Bucanero on their already crowded shelves any time soon.

Americans and Cuban beer

Americans Tom, Leslie and Peggy enjoying Cristal

To be sure, change has begun. We most often ate in paladares, privately owned restaurants where, as the Cuban guide informed us, the food and service are generally superior. This is primarily because the paladares pay their cooks and staff more than their counterparts working in government-owned restaurants. In other words, capitalism, pure and simple.

Cristal and Bucanero are both typical pilsners, pale, with a modest head that soon wilts in the Caribbean heat. Maltiness predominates the taste. Cristal, crisp and refreshing in the excessive heat, (4.9% abv) is number one in sales. Bucanero (5.4% abv) is slightly stronger, with a fuller flavor. In short, think Budweiser and Bud Ice. Interestingly, in this country where almost every business is state-owned,Cervecería Bucanero, which makes both beers, is today owned by none other than global brewing giant InBev. The company’s U.S. presence is AB InBev, owner of–you got it–Anheuser Busch and those Clydesdales. The roots of this investment go back to Labatt’s in Canada, now part of AB Inbev.

3 Cuban beersAs for other beers, I was finally able to buy a Bucanero Malta (yellow can) at the airport. Malta or Maltina is an alcohol-free brewed product, basically unfermented beer. Very sweet and nutritious, popular in the Caribbean.  I’ve heard of the Mayabe and Hatuey but never saw them. In the hotels, eateries and shops for tourists, imported beers, most commonly Heineken and Corona, weren’t hard to find.

While Cubans aren’t prohibited from tourist venues, the prices far outstrip the locals’ earning power. We were told that many Cubans earn about 60 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) a month. A Cristal or Bucanero in a tourist bar typically runs three CUCs. If salaries and prices were similar in the States, an American earning $48,000 per year would pay $200 for a Bud.

Cuban friends enjoying a beer

Cuban friends enjoying a beer

Mind you, we saw plenty of Cubans drinking beer. They just weren’t paying tourist prices. In fact, Cuba has a double currency system. The official exchange rate is one CUC to one U.S. dollar–with a 13% tax, effectively rendering a dollar equal to $.87 CUCs. Cubans themselves trade in CUPs (Cuban National Pesos) which are off limits to foreigners. Officially the exchange rate runs 25 CUPs to one CUC. In businesses where both Cubans and foreigners shop, prices are listed in the two currencies, with the CUP price being much cheaper. Shopping options for both Cubans and foreigners are limited. I imagine most Cuban beer consumers rarely, if ever, drink anything beyond a Cristal or Bucanero.

Like Obama and Castro, I believe restoring relations will be a great boon for Cuba. What it will mean for the island’s brewing scene is anybody ‘s guess, but I’d bet my last CUC that somewhere in Cuba there are already individuals dreaming about brewing up new Cuban beers.

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