The logo for Imperial, by far the most popular beer in Costa Rica, is a black predatory bird set against a field of gold. Inspired by the black eagle from Germany’s coat of arms, the logo is so omnipresent in Costa Rica—on bar signs and T-shirts, not to mention the fact that the product itself can be found anywhere—that it is nearly a national symbol. To those who live there it’s as recognizable as the flag or rice and beans.
Imperial is like other national lagers around the world—unremarkable, refreshing when cold, reassuring in its availability. It’s what the typical drinker imagines when he hears that word, beer. As recently as two years ago, Imperial and its similar sister products from Florida Ice and Farm were all that tourists would have been able to find in Costa Rica. There was no craft beer.
But in a short time and fairly dramatic fashion, cerveza artesanal has gained what appears to be solid foothold. Some of the smallest operations lack consistency, and Costa Rica’s famously dense bureaucracy presents an obstacle to others trying to go pro. Yet there is variety and creativity for those who seek it.
The bottom line: Those who come to honeymoon, surf, hike a volcano, or commune with sloths will find more numerous and flavorful options to drink. But it helps, as they say, if you know where to look.
One need not make the 30-minute drive south of San José to drink beer from Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co. But for some tourists (you know who you are) there is no substitute for seeing an actual brewery. Plus, the tasting bar usually has an experiment or two on tap that won’t be available elsewhere, besides the mainstays Libertas blonde and Segua red ale.
The brewhouse is a former storage shed surrounded by cow pastures near Cartago, with the sheer Talamanca mountains providing the backdrop. There is a couch, a table, the bar, and various T-shirts and other schwag. No food, but the hungry can head next door to Dimitris for cowboy paintings, greasy bacon cheeseburgers and the neighbor’s bottled beers.
This brewery is the dynamo of Costa Rica’s nascent better-beer scene, educating bars and restaurants while inspiring several young locals to fire up their brew kettles and dream big dreams.
It might never have happened but for some particularly nasty weather.
Brandon Nappy was running a charter fishing outfit near Manuel Antonio National Park when his business sank—literally. Tropical storm Alma struck Central America’s Pacific Coast on May 29, 2008, killing 10 people in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Amid widespread damage it claimed 12 fishing boats near Quepos. Among them was Nappy’s The Precedent.
It would prove to be a fateful twist in the short timeline of Costa Rica’s cerveza artesanal. Nappy said that if his boat hadn’t sunk, he wouldn’t have moved north to the coastal surfing town of Nosara. That’s where he met and befriended local developer and fellow gringo Peter Gilman. The two of them later bought an 11-barrel brewhouse in Cartago, south of San José, from a defunct brewery called K & S that had shuttered in 2009. They also hired brewmaster C.S. Derrick, who previously brewed for Flying Dog and whom Gilman calls their “secret weapon.” In December 2010 they officially launched CRCB.
At last count, Libertas and Segua were available in 63 locations across the country. It sells every drop it makes and has more would-be clients on a waiting list. Twenty-three of the existing accounts are draft-only—a minor sensation in a country where keg beer is inexplicably called cruda, or raw, and often ignored in favor of ice-cold bottles wrapped with napkins to catch the sweat.
The draft accounts also offer seasonals, including a stout, Scottish ale or IPA. One of the most popular temporadas was a 4.5 percent-strength wheat ale made with cas—a green, sour guava that might be Costa Rica’s signature fruit. It gave refreshing acidity to a session-weight beer, and since the fruit is rarely seen outside the region the drink was almost totally unique. The word terroir is tricky, but that one had it.
Among places that serving CRCB ales, there are several around the country that might be of interest to travelers.
The Hostel Galileo, in one of San José’s safer areas near Sabana park, is a possible overnight stop between the airport and other destinations, or between those destinations and home. Beer lovers on a budget will appreciate its Rugged Pineapple Bar and prices: dorm beds start at $9, private rooms at $24.
Manuel Antonio National Park, with its lively monkeys and livelier beaches, is one of the country’s most popular spots. The road from Quepos town to to the park is strung with bars and restaurants, the pirate-themed Barba Roja being the only one with CRCB on draft. Farther down the road is the Agua Azul with Libertas and Segua in bottles, a sweeping sunset view, and some of the country’s best scratch-cooked pub fare. Behold the tower of patacones: plantains smashed, fried and providing shelter for shrimp, avocado and tomatoes, all drizzled with a lime vinaigrette.
On the Carribean Coast, the Punta Uva Lounge near Puerto Viejo offers laid-back beachfront atmosphere and ceviche. And on the Pacific Coast near Nosara’s pristine beach, and where plans for the brewery first hatched, both Casa Tucan hotel (rooms $45 to $115) and Marlin Bill’s restaurant have CRCB on draft, as does the remarkable Black Sheep Pub (see below).
Finally, back in the Central Valley, one of the country’s most acclaimed seafood restaurants is Escazú’s Product C, a champion of the fresh and sustainably caught. Besides selling a lot of beer and emphasizing pairings with its creative dishes, Product C co-sponsored the country’s first Festival de Cerveza Artesanal on April 21. Brewers both pro and amateur worked side-by-side to serve more than a dozen different styles to drinkers who paid $30 a pop for tickets. Proceeds went to the coffers of the fledgling Asociación de Cerveceros Artesanales, which aims to foster the culture of craft beer in Costa Rica.
Those who go pro will face many of the same struggles that CRCB has faced. Back when he and Gilman were fighting through red tape in 2010, Nappy said some words that might be taken to heart by the next wave:
“You just have to be thick-skinned and level-headed and go with it,” he said. “Here in Costa Rica, it’s always something, man.”
One of the country’s well-traveled tourist roads runs from the classically conical and still active Arenal Volcano, around the northern shores of Lake Arenal, and on toward the beaches of Guanacaste. There are many signs along that route, for hotels and butterfly zoos and other attractions, but this one near Tilaran is hard to miss:
FARM FRESH FOOD AHEAD – 1K
VOLCANO BREWING COMPANY
Because it’s on a touristed route but not usually a destination in itself, Volcano Brewing (rooms $65 to $95) and its earlier incarnations have had to be many things to many people. Hotel, bar, restaurant, windsurfing school, tour guide—it has been and remains all those things. Yet, go figure, beer has a way of bringing folks in that those other things don’t. So the brewpub has moved to front and center of the operation. The owners of Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo recently took over management and infused it with the sort of sunny optimism that seems to emanate from surf culture around the world.
On a clear day, the tavern’s bar stools offer a panoramic vista of Lake Arenal and its surrounding hills, and possibly even the volcano itself (which is still an hour away by car). Flagship beers are the orange-amber Witch’s Rock Pale Ale and nut brown Malo Gato, both flavorful but light enough to refresh in tropical heat. Occasionally there are seasonals. Notably, the tavern also pours CRCB’s Libertas and Segua on draft. If it’s hot enough outside even hardcore geeks may not complain about the default frozen mugs, but unfrozen ones are available.
The cheese comes from milk that comes from cows that live on the hotel’s own farm. Many of the fruits and veggies come from the farm too, although some come from local markets, which get it from nearby farms. The meat is local too, and the fish comes from the lake. Expatriate German bakers make the bread.
“Overall, we’re stoked at how much product we are able to grow or source locally, and we’re happy with our farm-to-table efforts,” said chief operating officer Yana Farrally-Plourde. “It’s great to know where our food comes from… but we also don’t let the eco-farming side completely define us. We are a brewery, and we like to have fun, and not be too over-zealous.”
Eat at Joe’s, the tavern at Playa Tamarindo’s Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, provides the other dedicated outlet for Volcano’s beers, which are draft-only. Weeklong surfing packages include lessons, breakfasts, transport and room starting at $879. Food ranges from breakfast to tex-mex and onward to a full sushi menu. The card advises, sagely, that, “vacation calories don’t count.”
The Pub at the Edge of the World
The usual way to reach Nosara is in a rented four-wheel drive vehicle after flying into Liberia or San José. Respectively those routes offer either 90 minutes or four hours of paved roads followed by 45 minutes of dusty, bumpy gravel. The reward is Playa Guiones, one of the country’s more attractive and pristine beaches.
It feels like the edge of the world there but it’s not, yet. To get there you need to call 8928-5752 and ask Joe and Helena Wygal if they can send their friend Gunter down to pick you up. (Taxis are also available but can be expensive.) If the potholes don’t pop Gunter’s tires or rattle his doors off their hinges, you may indeed arrive safe and sound at the Black Sheep Pub.
The Black Sheep is not a business but rather a shrine to better pubs and better beer. It is a private club open most Saturdays, although with notice it can also be reserved for parties. Reverent bric-a-brac covers the walls, as it should, including a framed photo and autograph of Michael Jackson. The Beer Hunter once stayed at the Wygals’ bed and breakfast in Boston, where they also ran a private pub and lent their support to NERAX, the New England Real Ale Exhibition.
Joe Wygal’s pub is out in the jungle now, his passion for beer no more tame. On recent weekends he has had as many five different craft beers on tap, which is essentially unheard of in Costa Rica. He’s been known to drive many hours to gather a couple of five-gallon kegs for the coming Saturday. He also stocks bottles of every import he can manage, including Samuel Adams, Duvel and Paulaner. Reasonable prices reinforce the idea that this is not a business. Think of them as donations to the museum. A neighbor comes to work as bartender so that Joe can hold court.
“I love the pub culture,” Wygal said. “I had to start my own down here. It’s not a replica. It’s just a tribute.”
Back in Nosara, the Gilded Iguana offers spotless rooms ($50-95), a poolside bar, and solid pub grub, including fries made from local camote sweet potatoes. Gunter knows where it is.
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.
Out of the Woodwork
At least four other small breweries have either opened very recently or are just putting their legal ducks in a row to get started. There are always rumors of more.
One of the most recent arrivals is near Playa Esterillos, along the beaches that run from Jacó south to Manuel Antonio. Cervecería Howler is run by another Boston-area transplant, Jonathan Benson, who also steers the Otter Tale Winery back in Hatfield, MA. It produces a malty amber lager and a ginger beer made with fermented pineapple juice. Among a few other places in that area, Howler is available at Playa Hermosa’s Backyard Hotel (rooms $120 to $200), whose restaurant offers a mix of traditional tico dishes, fish, and American-style bar food. At least one toddler raves about the banana pancakes.
For a combination of rustic charm, remoteness, nature, and surfing it’s hard to beat the Nicoya Peninsula. In Malpaís, Courtney Cargill and Ryan Ackerman work on what they call their “little project,” which is now a 55-gallon nanobrewery called La Perra Hermosa (loose translation, “Beautiful Bitch”). Bureaucracy in Costa Rica can be labyrinthine and occasionally corrupt; Cargill and Ackerman are still working with lawyers to get legal. Meanwhile they make beer for friends and private events. Beer enthusiasts in the area can drop them a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and ideally come by for a sampling. Most frequent recipes include an IPA, a brown, and a blonde that often gets doses of hibiscus, mango, or whatever happens to be falling from the trees. For food and lodging, the Brisas del Mar at the Hotel Buenos Aires (rooms $55 to $70) offers sunset views and takes its beer and wine more seriously than most. Its menu varies daily based on what’s in season and might include crispy pork belly in a blackberry apple compote, with coconut-passion fruit layer cake for dessert.
Another would-be nanobrewer in the Central Valley, Treintaycinco or 35, has shown off some impressive labels for big beers, including an 8 percent IPA, an 8 percent Hefeweizen, and a 7.8 percent porter with cacao and honey. There have been mysterious photos on Facebook but no public appearances yet. Still waiting for permisos.
Finally: If a nanobrewery is not technically legal, and it sells a beer called Clandestina, is that ironic or simply accurate? In fact, César Naranjo’s Cervecería Artesanal de Occidente has ceased public sale of its robust and hoppy brown ale until he completes the local permit process. For a while he accepted orders via a phone number on his Facebook page and delivered the beer himself. It’s a familiar story: Homebrewer’s friends and neighbors rave about the beers, and he decides to go pro. Clandestina began life as an extract-plus-grains beer made to Naranjo’s own recipe; these days he is learning all-grain on the job. Those who want to ask if he has any beer can try him at email@example.com.
Even as Naranjo has been part of the cerveza artesanal wave, he said he has been awed by its momentum. “Two years ago nobody could have imagined the force with which it is happening,” he said.
One could sum up the Costa Rican craft beer scene in a fragment: one or two micros, a brewpub, several nanos in various stages of legality, plus a lot of dreamers waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, beer lovers elsewhere in Central America watch with interest as Costa Rica joins the global craft beer movement, which slowly but surely penetrates rainforest canopies, quasi-monopolies, and far-flung frontiers.