La Cultura de Cerveza
In American geek circles there is debate over whether “craft beer” includes homebrew, as small commercial breweries got bigger but kept the label. So far in Latin America there is no question about the word artesanal—it encompasses both. And it appears that 2012 will be a year of firsts for Costa Rican cerveza artesanal: its first festival, its first association… and its first homebrew shop.
Luis Arce opened TicoBirra on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, in San José’s Pavas neighborhood. He offered free demonstrations on how to brew dry Irish stout from an extract kit. “It’s not just about opening a homebrew shop here,” Arce said, back when he was still cutting through red tape to import ingredients. “It’s also about creating a culture here.”
Fostering the culture of characterful beer also is the stated goal of La Bodega de Chema, founded in the Los Yoses neighborhood by Josemaría “Chema” Mora. He offers courses, tastings, ingredients, books and beers. He began by selling CRCB’s beers and expands the line as more microbreweries open.
American-style homebrew is just now starting to catch on, but Costa Ricans have a long tradition of homemade booze. Everyone seems to know “a guy” who makes illegal contrabanda, usually the cheap, distilled cane liquor guaro (the government keeps the monopoly on making the stuff legally). At local ferias or markets, one occasionally finds chicha made from corn or fruit. And then there is vino de coyol.
Coyol is a type of palm wine most often found in the “summer” months, December through April, on the Guanacaste roads that lead to the Pacific beaches. The puestos for vino de coyol look like roadside lemonade stands; a half-liter plastic bottle typically costs $2. Coyoleros draw the sweet, milky liquid from horrifically spiky trees, with spontaneous fermentation already underway (the trees are loaded with natural yeasts).
One seller estimated that the fresher, sweeter stuff available for purchase ranged from 2 percent to 4 percent alcohol and may get as high as 6 percent as it ages. Some estimates are higher. In either case it has sharp aroma of coconuts and fruit, reminiscent of piña colada, and a sweet taste. Despite its low alcohol, it gives an odd head rush that might be blamed on sugar. The coyoleros insist that one who wakes with a coyol hangover will get drunk again if he exposes himself to the sun.
Those interested in experiencing one of the world’s most obscure and unusual fermented drinks will want to pull over as soon as they see a puesto.