19 May 2008

Yer Man in Havana

Ten days in Cuba was quite enough for me. I stayed mostly in sweltering Havana, with just a brief side-trip to El Che's mausoleum in similarly-sweltering Santa Clara via a nightmare rail journey -- Cuban public transport seems to have been meticulously designed to prevent people from travelling anywhere. The intense heat meant that my preferred drink for the trip was the daiquirí: basically crushed ice with perhaps a dash of rum in it. But obviously it was impossible to pass up the opportunity to try the nation's beers, despite their less-than-fantastic reputations.

I mentioned in relation to Oslo last year that it's usually possible to tell the big players in the local beer market from advertising seen on the journey from most any international airport. The ban on advertising alcohol in Norway makes it impossible there, and similarly in Cuba where there is no form of advertising at all of anything. The occasional branded fridge, ashtray or other point-of-sale breweriana is as close as any commodity gets to being advertised. The three main lagers are made by (state-owned, obviously) Bucanero in the south-eastern city of Holguín. Bucanero Fuerte is the commonest, and the strongest I found. The big 5.4% ABV is made by adding copious amounts of Cuba's abundant sugar, and I doubt that anywhere near all of it gets fermented as the result is extremely heavy and thickly sweet with little refreshing fizz. It just about stands up when it's very cold, but nothing stays cold for very long in the tropical heat. On the plus side, for that little reminder of home, there's a portrait of Colin Farrell on the label. Bless.

Stepping down the heaviness chart we come to Cuba's next most ubiquitous beer, Cristal: la preferida de Cuba no less, if the label is to be believed. I captured this photograph of a rare bottled specimen in an upmarket Havana restaurant, but it's almost exclusively sold in 355ml cans. Again, added sugar is on the ingredients but it's used much more judiciously here and a hint of malt character is allowed through. There's a good, cleansing fizz to it and, at 4.9%, this is the one to drink by the poolside when the weather forbids anything more strenuous. Think of it as somewhere south of Heineken but north of Bud: the mainstay hot country lager which forms the backbone of world beer.

Bucanero's final offering is the rarest, and the only one I saw sold exclusively in the on-trade and in bottled form. The beer is a very light lager called Mayabe. This is a mere 4% ABV and shockingly pale with it. With concentration it's just about possible to discern that some class of grain went into this but which ones is anyone's guess as no ingredients are listed. Other than that it's watery, tasteless, and a waste of anyone's time but the ticker's.

Of course, if you want something darker, more flavoursome, with a bigger hops dose and a good thick head on it, you're best going for Bucanero's Malta. The bad news is that this isn't a beer and contains no alcohol. I saw quite a few children drinking it. Malta is especially popular in parts of the Caribbean and Africa where stout has a strong foothold in the beer market. I was surprised to see it here where there is no stout of any kind to be had at all. I was also a little disappointed that Hatuey beer, as referenced by Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea is no longer brewed or sold in Cuba. Its owner, Bacardi, moved all operations off the island when the government's programme of nationalisation struck in 1960. A photo of the old Hatuey brewery decorates the wall in Havana's, indeed Cuba's, only brewpub: Taberna de la Muralla.

The taberna is a joint Cuban-Austrian venture on Plaza Vieja in a classically Cuban high-ceilinged colonial mansion house. Tables spill onto the arcade out front and further into the square itself. A barbecue dishes up excellent and cheap meat and seafood, and behind the bar a Salm brewing kit merrily puffs away.

There are three house beers, all presented with the typically Cuban approach to information: there's no indication what they're made from, how they're brewed, how strong they are or even what measures they're served in, though I think the latter is somewhere in the region of 400ml. Each one is titled with a slight misnomer as well.

Negra is light brown rather than black and tastes to me very much like a typical Vienna lager. There's lots of caramel in there, balanced with a hoppy dryness. A lack of gas makes for an almost aley smooth drinkability. My only criticism is one I have for all of these beers: it loses its cool very quickly and the all-important refreshment quotient is severely reduced by the time the glass is even half finished.

My favourite of the three was the middle one, Oscura. "Dark" is a relative term, I suppose, but this looks to me the colour of light ale. There's not much by way of hops going on, but there's a pronounced tannic quality which lends it the thirst-quenching properties of ice tea. Light enough to chug down, this is the perfect pick-me-up for the heat-sensitive northern European tourist. Well, this one, anyway.

The last beer is the pale and cloudy Clara. It isn't a wheat beer, as far as I can tell, but it exhibits a little of the lemony character found in the Belgian variety. I found it a bit too sweet to gulp in quantity like the Oscura, but it rewards sipping so long as, of course, it's not allowed to get warm. Some foam insulators for their glassware would be a good investment for this bar. And a bug zapper: you get flies with that whether you ordered any accompaniments or not.

My sucker-for-novelty streak wouldn't let me go past the beer cocktail section of the menu. From the trade news I read on US blogs, micheladas are sweeping the beer scene in the Americas, with their strange mix of lager, salt and citrus fruit juice. Taberna de la Muralla offers a tomato-based entity along the same lines based, I assume, on Clara. It's not up to much: rather bland in a way that suggests to me that some Tabasco wouldn't have gone amiss, but also that this doesn't offer anything even resembling a beer experience: replace the lager with rum and you have a cubanito. Why anyone thought to do this with beer is beyond me.

Still, speaking as a veteran of the Cuban railways, it's far from the strangest thing I saw in this utterly unique country.


  1. Lager and tomato juice is a fairly ocmmon hangover cure in Canada, called a "Red Eye" in western Canuckistan. It's even better with Clamato.

  2. I had "clamato" explained to me quite recently and I still don't believe in it. Whoever first explained the concept of portmanteau words to a food scientist has a lot to answer for.

  3. Thanks for the info. I'm heading to Cuba soon. The beer scene sounds... interesting. I may have to stick to the rum!

  4. The rum, admittedly, is good. Havana Club 7-year was my preferred digestif; the single-barrel version is overpriced, however. And if you're bringing any home remember to buy it before you check in for your flight. I saw half the contents of Havana airport duty free confiscated at Charles de Gaulle 10 hours later.

    But the beer's inoffensive, and the brewpub is quite (figuratively) cool, except for the flies.

    How's your Spanish? If you don't have a guide, travelling without Spanish is a real pain.

  5. We are deeply grateful that you do this type of research, Beer Nut. Cuba was never on my shortlist of holiday destiantions, and this report strenghtened my predjudices!

  6. I have had Hatuey (now brewed in Puerto Rico) and found it strongish and cidery, generally unpleasant but probably a good example of the Cuban style, at least as you describe it and I imagine it. Preferable to tap water under the circumstances.

    As regards the Havana Club 7yo, I probably have the only bottle of it in the USA with a tax stamp. I bought a bottle in Mexico and told the liquor authority (who did not want to let me bring the Cuban product into the USA) that the bottle was probably made in Mexico and as fake as the Izod shirts and Rolex watches that were also for sale on the same street. So he gave me a reproachful look and a tax stamp.