A drink map of drink maps! I made an embossed watercolor rough outline of England, Scotland and Wales with red dots showing towns known to have had drink maps in the late 1800s. Their stories are all in the Drink Map Book, forthcoming by Bodleian Library Publishing in spring 2023. Watch here for updates and pre-order information.
Dear TravelSips Readers-
Like many, I’ve been working remotely since March and traveling via my chaise lounge- so no posting here.
My personal Instagram account is @KrisButler6; Twitter is @TravelSips. My map-related posts can be found on Instagram @Boston_Map_Society and on Twitter @BosMapSociety. My puzzles are on jigsawplanet.com under the name “Beer & Maps.”
COVID silver lining: I have time to finally write the drink map book I’ve been researching for the last 15 years! I have a UK publisher, and they suggest I not post about it until we have a pre-order link and the cover design, which will be in 2022. Meanwhile, I wear a mask with a drink map on it.
Through a train strike, distractingly delicious white wine, and climbing 48 floors in one day: beer in Athens and Santorini.
My travel planning is simple: find a beer destination, then find an Airbnb nearby. In Greece, this worked beautifully in Athens. Not so much in Santorini.
It was only after I booked my accommodation that I realized how far it was from the Acropolis- the only other place I planned to see on my two day visit to Athens. Thirty minutes by train. I worried briefly about figuring out the trains (Athens does not have Lyft or Uber; details below about specific train stations) – but it turned out to be the best choice for a beer traveler like me. In spite of a transit strike.
The Local Pub is an English-style bar (meaning dark wood, real ale in casks, and football on the telly) with a lovely outdoor beer garden. Not only were there many good local brews served on engine, but just the week before the tiny pub had opened a brewery next to it called Anastaeiou ((Ζυθοποιία Αναστασίου). I thought the beer was fine, but I kept going back to the rye pale ale made by Satyr Brews.
I opened a dialogue with the bar keep by handing over my US beer gift: Cambridge Brewing Company’s Flower Child. (Good choice, as they already had empty Tree House and Alchemist cans behind the bar.) They told me about their sister pub called the Lazy Bulldog which is on the way to the Acropolis, and also about a food festival- Athenians are very enthusiastic about their town, and it’s infectious.
I assumed I would not be able to find the festival (there was a lot of “keep walking past the red sign and take the third…”) so I stopped listening. But the next day I ended up stumbling right into it. Havana Club Rum- distributed to 185 countries but not the US- was the official sponsor. I had already been thinking that Athens reminded me of Havana, so it was a bit eerie.
I spent the rest of the day on foot. It was hot and I had been walking a lot- I passed one of many outdoor seating areas and ordered the local white wine and chatted with another beer-loving Athens newbie from Slovakia-via-London. I clued him in to The Local, where he showed up later- I found myself a drinking companion.
After my proud work figuring out the trains, it turned out there was a strike on the day I was to leave and I had to figure out how to get a cab from my residential neighborhood to the airport. (by residential I mean- no English.)
And here is my favorite story of Athens, and of traveling on my own for that matter. At the end of my block was a small store that I hoped would call me a cab. But as I approached, the sunny porch next door caught my eye. Not a restaurant exactly, but not a house either. A few old men were sitting at tables chatting, reading the paper, and playing games- and my inner old man was drawn to them. (I am catching up to him. I first became aware of him when I was six years old; he doesn’t age, but I do! Damn- we are almost peers.)
Do you know this kind of old man? He may not have all of his teeth and his clothes may not match, but he sits up straight, is groomed, and clearly cares about his appearance in the sense that everything is tucked in. He is respectful (if curious) towards a solo foreign woman. He may attempt to flirt, but if it actually went somewhere he would be mortified. (Or grateful? I’ve never tried to find out.) These are my peeps!
Inside was a hurried, friendly man in a long white apron, a boy-child trying to help him, and a refrigerator. No oven. No microwave. Not even a cooktop. But a sink full of glasses. I asked him to call a taxi to the airport, and – um – may I have a beer? It was 10:30 in the morning.
A beer was delivered. Readers- when people ask what my favorite beer is, I can’t give an answer because to me it’s about context. And this was definitely one of the best beers I’ve had, even though the taste of the beer itself was not memorable. Ordering the taxi was clearly a project. I was in no hurry- I read my clothbound Treasure Island, and faced the road from the deck sitting at one of the square tables, sun on my face, lilac-scented breeze swishing my short hair around. More old men joined the porch- they all knew each other and were speaking Greek- dotted with the English word “taxi”. Through their joint efforts, and the passing of a portable landline phone around several times, it was explained that a cab would arrive shortly. I raised my beer glass, and everyone responded in kind: we drank together. When the cab arrived, my new crew on the porch clapped and waved (would we meet somewhere, someday, to play bocce with grappa-spiked coffee?) they said “bon voyage” and “have a nice trip” (and a lot in Greek I did not understand.)
I am so glad there was a train strike.
In between Athens and Santorini, I spent a week on Crete for a friend’s milestone birthday (see previous post). When I reserved the ferry from Crete to Santorini, I sprung for the extra 10 Euro for business class. Do this- I had the floor to myself and a waiter who catered only to me! I could crawl all over the exterior decks like everyone else- but I also had views on both sides of the sea, plenty of room for my bags and a comfy sofa to spread out on. For three hours.
I did not really plan my arrival- I assumed I could get a cab and head towards my lodging. But the chaos of the port has its own system. Someone (actually- several people) approach and will ask if you need a cab; then you follow one, wait in line to pay, wait in another line for a little bus, (“I thought I was getting a private car that would take me directly to my place?” Suddenly no English.) Then get dropped off last.
No matter- I still had an hour to kill before checking in. Which is how I stumbled upon Artemis, a fantastic winery and restaurant, because I needed a place to plant myself while I waited for the 2:00 check in for my Airbnb. It was noon, and Artemis does not open until 1:00. It had a shady spot to sit outside, which I planned to do until they opened. But a nice man, a server called Fortis, saw my suitcase and apologized for not being open for food- would I like a glass of wine?
Oh. Yes. Please.
This fortuitous find ended up being the center of my trip- where I would dine, take my friend for a birthday cooking class and dinner, and head back again for more wine.
The map did not reveal something important about my Airbnb: it was half way up a cliff. After two glasses of wine and some roasted sesame crusted warm local cheese, a tour of the winery, and securing a dinner reservation and cooking class for the next day, I dragged my suitcase up the hill to my abode. It was so steep that at times I was reaching for the wall in front of me- which was actually the road.
At the bottom of the cliff was Santorini Brewing Company- the reason for my location selection. But it turns out you can’t really hang out there. In fact you can’t even get a full beer- it’s three tastes and you’re out. I had read this but I did not believe it. Believe it.
I stopped to rest a few times on my way up the hill. And had to rest for a while after reaching my cute place before leaving it again. But I was determined, so I washed my face and went back out (sans suitcase, which changed everything) and followed a zig-zaggy labyrinth of stairs up up and up. To a bar overlooking the sea.
In the morning I checked my device- I had climbed 48 floors the day before.
On Santorini, I did visit infamous northern town of Oia, and it was – too beautiful. I saw someone actually washing a white roof, a gazillion selfie sticks, and overheard servers’ disgusted comments about tourists- which I agreed with. I did not see anyone who seemed to actually live there. Visually stunning, but just too much. Glitter. Gold. Neon white. Turn it off!
I preferred Pyrgos, the island’s highest village. Where I wandered around, up and down different paths, few people around (but a priest in long robes!) and stopped by the terraced restaurant on top for a Santorini Brewing Company beer. I knew I was going the right way, because I followed the signs:
As I made my way back down I found a shady patio, and again ordered a Santorini Brewing beer- this time the Crazy Donkey IPA. I think it’s their best beer, but it only comes in giant bottles. Fortunately my walk home was all down hill.
Athens- From the airport to The Local Pub is a quick walk from the Agia Paraskevi Metro stop (blue line from airport; and blue line in the other direction from the Acropolis) NB: The Local Pub is closed on Mondays.
Next post: What Austrian beery thing does Havana, Santorini, and Ulan Bator have in common?
Over local beers at Bricks on the Greek island of Crete, renegade former financial risk analyst turned craft beer bar owner Kostas Aloupis talks about waking up to beer in Belgium, having his bar singled out and shut down by Amstel, and his theory of good service.
If you look at the shape of Greece on a map, you will see a big hunk of land on the left and bits that seem to be breaking off on the right- islands. It’s like a snapshot of something wet being taken from a bowl by a giant hand moving west. The bowl is Crete.
Beer for Breakfast
When I asked him for an interview, Kostas said, “Sure- I’m here all day” meaning- we are not meeting anywhere other than his bar and he will be working. I am early for our chat, so I order a bottled beer made in the next town over by Lafkas Brewery called White Mountains- a “Triple Hop Pale Ale” that I had enjoyed here the night before. When I first saw it, I thought, “why are they naming a beer after New Hampshire mountains in Greece?” Forgive me; it was an American moment. (I later explored Crete’s “Lefka Ori” and their stunning views. No one would confuse them with New Hampshire.)
Squeezed between other businesses on the northern side of Crete in the harbor town of Rethymno, Bricks is a high-ceilinged hallway lined with stools, a row of five taps and a short bar at the end, and a couple of beer fridges. Outside is a glass-walled square surrounding tables between similar patios lined up as far as one can see up and down the row of other bars and eateries. Much like the boardwalk of any beach town, only classier in that European “we always drink outdoors” way.
I pick a table outside for our talk and settle into the chair facing the water; I assume that Kostas will want to keep one eye on his bar while we’re talking. It is May, so still fairly cool, flowers bursting open everywhere, no bugs, and few tourists compared to the summer months. I send a silent “thank you” to my friend Chip whose milestone birthday is the main purpose of my trip- or more accurately to his parents for getting busy in August of 1967.
Kostas arrives right on time and before my beer. Dressed in a black polo shirt and black shorts, he is deceptively casual. He selects a beer for himself which he describes as a good breakfast beer. It is 11:00am.
In earnest curiosity, he asks why I want the particular beer I ordered, and explains why he chose the beer he did. When the beers arrive he speaks to the server in Greek, and translates for me that he has ordered a snack. His bar does not serve food and he does not ask me what I’d like. The server knows to order from next door. It turns out to be fresh, cool sandwiches made with local salami, peppers, and cheese.
Originally from Athens, with a finance career in Switzerland, France, and Germany behind him- Kostas declares that he moved to Crete for love. This direct sincerity is his style. During his years of finance work in Europe, he visited Belgium and, as happens, the beer changed his life- another love to follow.
“Beer was my hobby.” I ask if that means he was ever a homebrewer. He laughs- “No, my hobby was drinking beer.”
Kostas is my height (meaning tall for a woman and on the shorter side for a man) agreeably and evenly stout, always smiling, and sharper than you first realize. He may look you directly in the eye and respond as if he hasn’t been thinking of anything else- but he is acutely aware of everything going on around him. To the point that he will jump up without warning and leave the table- only to wave and smile when almost out of earshot to say he’ll be right back. To move his car, to talk to a customer, to check on the overdue progress of the noisy construction next door, to take delivery of something- he moves. A lot.
Kostas’ first (and ongoing) business on Crete was a travel and excursion outlet meant for tourists. Scuba diving, car rental, cooking classes- that kind of the thing. Over beers with his business partner, Kjetil Jikiun (the Norwegian craft beer force behind Nøgne Ø, 9 MTA in Tblisi, Georgia, and Cretan brewery Σόλο (pronounced Solo), to name a few) while facing the dilapidated space available next door to the travel front- and the idea of Bricks was born. (Not to be confused with “Brinks”- which Kostas tells me was once a Greek craft brewery but has since been purchased by a macro.) “They always say the quality will not go down, but of course when profit is the motive it is inevitable that cheaper ingredients will eventually replace the higher quality ones.” Indeed.
In addition to Cretan craft, Bricks carries a couple of BrewDog and Stone offerings (likely a Jikiun connection) and some Belgian options. Unless I switched to drinking the glorious local white wines, I could not find other quality beer drinking establishments. I was here daily; sometimes twice a day.
I recognized Kjetil’s name on the list of judges at the most recent World Beer Cup in Nashville. The Solo beers on tap at Bricks are aimed at the hop-head market. Even the saison. Usually when I see a bunch of hoppy beers on offer, no matter where I am, I prepare my taste buds to gag while I try all of them to find a good one- if there is one. All of the Solos beers were not just good, but seemed to be carefully made to be easily distinguished from each other and to allow certain aspects to shine without mucking them up with faddy extras. (Read: strong malt sweetness AND slap-your-face-hops AND aged in a whiskey AND wine barrels- oh- and Brett! Guava, pineapple, chili pepper too. Ick!) It was also refreshing that each server had a different favorite, and could explain why in helpful, non-judgmental beer speak.
As our sandwiches arrive, Kostas orders us more beers. I tell him how much I like everyone I’ve met on his staff, and he asserts something he has clearly put a lot of thought into: “People who sell craft beer must pass the feeling.”
The service at his bar is in sharp contrast to that of other places in Greece, where servers have no expressions, seem slightly worried, and are face-down in the devices on which they take orders. At least when one writes by hand, one can flick up the eyes every now and then to connect with guests. But when tapping into a machine, the demeanor is so cold the customer might as well type it into the flat screen herself. (Have you been to the Philadelphia airport lately? Gah!)
I will add though: Americans, chill out. Servers in Greece are not trying to turn tables for the highest check possible in the shortest amount of time in pursuit of big tips. Here and elsewhere in this country- you will get your beer, your check, your whatever- eventually. Enjoy the view, the company, and take a deep breath. (Frankly, it took me a few days to adjust to Greek Time myself. But now I miss it.)
Doing Business in Greece
Doing business in Greece has its own set of special barriers. Kostas described an incident last February at a time when the third largest annual carnival in all of Greece took place and the stretch of beach-front businesses was wall-to-wall people for three days. Normally bars are not allowed to serve draft beer on the street- but those rules are “handshake” suspended for this event. Unless the sponsor is a macro brewery and you’re the one and only craft beer bar on the strip. Kostas says that on the first day of the event, he got a visit from 12 government officials who closed his bar down for the duration of the carnival for violating the proscription against serving beer outside- while every bar as far as he could see to the right and left was openly doing just that.
But pointing out the obvious injustice to the authorities is not how things are done in Greece. Of course, he says, he would never call out his neighbor businesses. (Technically, they were all violating the ordinance.) But he knew it wasn’t any of his neighbors complaining. He confirmed later that the pressure to shut his bar down came from… Amstel. (Owned by Heineken International, which recently lost a multi-million Euro appeal for significant unfair practices in Greece.)
Kostas had other stories involving death threats and bullying. Suffice it to say that it’s not easy, especially if you do not know the myriad unwritten rules to run a bar in Greece. “In Greece, it’s important to be present when you own a business.” He may open another beer bar in Chania (pronounced “han-ya”) and maybe Heraklion (a center for coming and going, with an airport and major ferry terminal) too. But he says that would be the most, because – as they are clustered on the northern coast – he can get to all three in a single day without difficulty.
At his core Kostas is a business man. And even though he says that he could not make a living if a beer bar were all he had, it is clearly his passion. He is intently curious about the other Greek breweries I have already and will soon visit; he copies my notes about Athens, he asks what I know about the Paris beer scene, as his sister is a judge there and he visits often, and he wants me to report back after visiting and tasting the beers at Santorini Brewing Company. He makes a call to get me an appointment, which I did not think I needed but accepted his help. Later that week, when I arrived at the scheduled time, the person I was to meet did not know I was coming- because the brewer who spoke to Kostas forgot to tell her! But his call got me a revealing conversation I would not otherwise have had.
Proving that in Greece, it truly helps to know a Greek.
More sipping notes about Athens, Santorini, and Greek beer in two weeks.
Dear Americans: You CAN Go To Cuba Now, and You Should (UPDATE – as of June 5, 2019 you can no longer go using the methods in this article.)
Below are details about how to travel to Cuba as an American not born in Cuba. If you are not interested, with a nod to Eleanor Early– you may skip to the part about the beer.
I traveled on November 6-9, 2017, and just today noticed that while I was there further restrictions were imposed by the Trump administration. Do not let this put you off- I found it reassuring to just call JetBlue and ask if they have had to turn away passengers before boarding. So far, the answer is still no.
1. Review the 11 allowed activity licenses. I say 11 on this list of 12 because the first one is no longer allowed. When you book your flight, you will be asked to select one of these from a drop down menu before you complete your ticket purchase. These are NOT visas- see #6 below for that. For details, look up Cuban Assets Control Regulations section 515.560.
As I understand it, as of this date (3 December 2017) Americans are permitted to travel for these reasons- although I encourage you to check before you book:
- 1) NO LONGER AN OPTION: Educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges
- 2) Professional research and professional meetings
- 3) Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions
- 4) Religious activities
- 5) Humanitarian projects
- 6) Journalistic activities (my license)
- 7) Family visits
- 8) Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
- 9) Support for the Cuban people
- 10) Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
- 11) Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
- 12) Official business of the US government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
I selected “Journalistic Activities” because I have been writing about beer, both for money and for fun, since 2006. It has never been a full-time job or steady free-lance gig, nor have I been affiliated with a specific institution. The most steady writing has been in this blog- so I crossed my fingers and booked it. If you don’t have a blog or writing outlet, I suggest you read about each license carefully- especially since the criteria seems to change every couple of months. At the same time, it seems like there is a LOT of maneuvering room, especially if you are truly interested in interacting directly with Cuban people.
2. Book your flight. I used points to fly JetBlue (or “yetblue” as they say in Cuba) leaving from Boston through Ft. Lauderdale, so I can only speak to this airline. I am usually not one to endorse businesses on this site, but I admit that for work and for vacation, I will do whatever schedule gymnastics I have to to fly with them. On time, few lines, good timing options, FF miles that don’t expire (the very reason why I have abandoned other airlines), comfy seats, competitively priced, courteous and funny (non corporate-y, yet professional) staff. For example, at the visa counter in Ft. Lauderdale- the gateway where my trip could be thwarted- the JetBlue representative looked at my passport and belted out “Happy birthday!” She was the only one who noticed all day. That’s not in a training manual- it’s just who they hire. If JetBlue ever flies to Europe I will dump my other FF plans and go steady with them.
3. Book an Airbnb. They are private- so you satisfy the mix-with-Cubans/avoid-government-hotels requirement. Also, my hosts offered to put me in touch with other Cubans when they understood the purpose of my visit, which definitely helped with my itinerary.
4. Prepare two documents, a Certification and an Itinerary. Keep them with you. I found examples on the Internet to create mine; feel free to copy as you like. Sure it’s weird to certify yourself, but that’s how it works! Think of it as saying, “I promise”.
5. Devote a Moleskin or other notebook specifically for your trip and document your efforts to secure interviews, meetings, and “experiences” consistent with your license.
6. The Visa is issued by the airline at the airport from which you leave the country for Cuba just before you get on the plane. In my case, Ft. Lauderdale. Jetblue has a special desk to handle visas across from the gate. It’s $50. You are required to be at the sending airport at least three hours before your flight leaves, and if you do not book it this way, JetBlue will automatically change your itinerary. The visa process took less than five minutes, leaving over two and a half hours trapped in the airport to have a few drinks and study Spanish. And to finally enjoy the anticipation of a trip was really going to happen!
7. You cannot buy Cuban money until you get there; the airport in Havana has bright red and yellow booths for this purpose. You can’t miss them. You MUST bring enough cash for your trip, as your American credit and debit cards will not work there. Decide on a dollar number and then bring at least $200 more. Learn about the two currencies beforehand.
Bonus: When they finally let you in, your passport will be stamped in hot pink ink. YES!
A Dream of Inspired Beer in Cuba
When I booked my Havana Airbnb, I offered to bring American craft beer to my hosts. “Thanks for offering- could you bring us 10 pounds of plaster instead?”
I booked my Cuba jaunt with the idea that I would discover a home brewing scene. For months I methodically went about asking beer industry friends for connections to homebrewers in Cuba, reaching out to veteran beer journalists, Miami-based brewers from Cuba, a food blogger living in Cuba, my homebrewing club, brewers from seven different countries- even all of Twittersphere and Instagram-land. Nada. Not even information about the professional brewers there. I started to realize that this might be the story- Cubans do not homebrew. It would be a short story.
My one solid lead to a human being in Havana came from someone I’d never met. Jen Lin-Liu, author of a couple of food history books and founder of the Black Sesame cooking school in China, was recently based in Cuba and wrote about trying to feed her family in a place where buying eggs means knowing the secret knock to a garage on the third Tuesday of the month. I’d been following her ever since taking a class at her school in Beijing, which led to a homebrew club meeting at Great Leap Brewery in the same hutong (old fashioned enclosed neighborhood), and then joining the Beijing Homebrew Society right then and there. I told her about all of that in an email, and then inquired about the Cuban beer scene- not really expecting a reply. She forwarded my question to Cuban food blogger Ariel Causa. (Are you keeping up here? Because this is exactly how things get done in Cuba.)
Homebrewing is “alegal”
Ariel turns out to be the person who would be leading the Airbnb restaurant experience. He replied to my email- to say he did not know anyone who homebrewed. He only knew that it is “alegal.” He wrote, “[Home] brewing is not illegal, nor legal. It is rather alegal. Get used to that term if you’re gonna travel to Cuba. It means nobody bothered to regulate it so it lays in a gray area. To explain to you the relation between local culture and alegality would take both time and beer but by the end you manage to “feel” it… and then you’re practically Cuban.”
Americans on the Guantanamo base are homebrewing– but they have ingredients flown in just for them. I wanted to know what actual Cubans were doing. I started to worry about lining up enough investigative activity to satisfy my three day visit, and remembered that in many places homebrewers hang out with pros to get advice and ingredients. So that was my plan: visit both of the government run brewpubs in Havana and hope that the brewers would be there and that they spoke English. Stop laughing. I tacked on a visit to the rum museum, a bar mentioned by craft beer geeks (although do not expect any craft beer) called Cafe Madrigal, and booked an Airbnb “experience” at a newly-allowed privately run restaurant. Voila- an itinerary. (As required for all license categories.)
I was pulled over by police as soon as I left the airport. But it was with a shrug, not drama. Two uniformed women standing in the grass (handbags hanging in the tree behind them) hailed my pre-arranged vintage car as we drove from the parking lot (I thought they were waving at me and I waved back); it was explained in a bored tone that my driver was not actually allowed to pick people up from the airport. I was efficiently re-deposited into a properly licensed- but ugly- taxi. It was all quite smooth, actually.
I dropped off the plaster, grabbed one of my beer gifts, and made my way on foot to the brewpub known as Antiguo Almacén (no direct website). It sits on a pier in a touristy area overlooking the harbor. Several square tables spill out to the water’s edge on both sides. In the center is a raised platform with musical instruments set up as if their players just went on a break. At the far end is a bar running the width of the room with a glass walled brewery visible behind it. There are no stools at the bar. I walked across the long empty room towards the bar with my can of Wormtown’s Be Hoppy in hand and asked if the brewer was in. “Oh yes- just a minute.” And suddenly before me was a beautiful black woman with a white lab-coat style jacket. “This is the brewmaster.”
A woman! Just like me, in case you didn’t know, dear reader. The thrill, the pride! I beamed as I handed the beer gift over to Miladys Padrón Sagrera, and she offered me tastes of all three of the beers she makes.
You guessed it: a light, a medium, and a dark. Sigh. After a few questions it was clear that the language barrier was too great, so I asked if I could return the next day with a translator for an interview, and she agreed.
I did not actually have a translator, but I had an idea. Ariel, of the Airbnb paladar experience reservation, who had already agreed to let me interview him. When I booked it, I had again offered to bring beer. Ariel said he’d prefer a “real American football.”
On the way to the paladar class the next morning, my scooter-taxi ran out of gas. “No problem” the driver explained- he always carries a jug of extra fuel and a funnel under the seat. “Could you wait for me up ahead? I have to get a running start, and you hop on as I go by, okay?”
It worked. That’s when I fell hard for Cuba.
Being the first student to show up at La Catedral for my “Concinar con Ariel” experience, I told him about the amazing female brewer I’d met the day before and how I needed a translator- did he know any?- just as I handed him the real American football. With a logo of his favorite team, the Patriots. Eyes wide and laughing, “Oh you know I’m gonna be your translator.”
Private Ownership in Utopia
It turned out that I was the only one in the class that day. In the US, it would have been canceled. Instead I got a private tour, with a focus on the legal side of running a restaurant in Cuba. In 2010, the law changed to allow Cubans to privately own restaurants- they’re known as paladars. (The rule did not extend to breweries or distilleries.) Given the unreliability of ingredient supplies in Cuba, there is a careful dance to make sure the place can have a steady menu. The leader of this ingredient salsa is called the Inventory Man. He spends his days driving around in a 1950s Chevy with the back seat removed searching for ingredients to buy at retail cost.
The menu is intentionally simple, and inventory is so closely monitored that when a server enters an order, the computer recalculates the remaining ingredients. Other than at the airport, this is the most advanced technology I saw in Cuba. Servers are trained to keep an eye on what is available and to discourage customers from items that are running low while also not saying no to a request. The illusion of plenty is guarded. As with the beer, consistency is king- although at least in these private enterprises there is room for innovation. Such is life in utopia.
A Tale of Two Brewers
If there is hope for delicious beer in Cuba, it is with Miladys. When we arrived at the brewery to meet her it was full of people drinking from towers of beer. Boys were fishing on the edge of the dock, and a huge tanker was floating just off the pier. Ariel- there as my translator- and I ordered the medium beer while we waited. I brought more gifts: a Sixpoint Resin, a Castle Island Coconut Porter, and a Pink Boots Society pin. Miladys joined us, and we shared the porter as we talked.
In this land of regular improbable coincidences, it turned out that Ariel and Miladys went to the same school for engineering, although not at the same time. As we talked the conversation was quite animated, and I could see that my translator was as impressed as I was: she had been working full time at Hatuey, a “beer factory” (their phrase) east of Havana, and made it through a competitive process as a CPT (Curso Para Trabajadores, or workers course student) meaning she worked on week days and went to school on weekends- for six years. She explained that the competition was tough- her entering class had 50 students, but only 25 graduated. The tutor of her thesis was another female brewer, Belkis González, who then worked at Antiguo Almacén. When Miladys graduated as an engineer, she became the head of Hatuey’s water treatment plant, and when González retired she recommended Miladys to replace her as the brewmaster. A man was recommended as well, but Miladys prevailed.
I finally asked what had been on my mind since I booked my trip. With all the rum barrels on the island, had she ever thought of brewing a beer and aging in in the rum-soaked oak barrels to make a premium signature beer for Cuba? I watched her face as Ariel asked her this question- his already had that look entrepreneurs get when a new idea occurs to them. Hers matched it- mouth open and eyes wide, they laughed together and then said a lot to each other in fast Spanish. I’m hoping that means – someday. Stay tuned.
The next day I went to visit the other brewpub, Taberna de La Muralla. Just as before, I showed up with beer gifts, which got me in to meet Ruben D. Maceo Rabi “Maestro Cervecero” (right, above) two hours before they opened. One of the waiters spoke fairly good English (left, above) and he translated for us. I asked the same questions as Miladys about his training, his background, how he got started, what he dreams of brewing.
He answered them without enthusiasm- which may be because I interrupted his morning without warning, and not necessarily a lack of interest in his job. Austrian brewing equipment maker SALM trained him; he does not care to make anything other than the same three beers he has brewed for the last 29 years- which he was kind enough to give me samples of. He knows who Miladys is, but does not really interact with her nor has he any interest in collaborating. He notes that his beer is made with sugar cane juice- I wanted to ask him more about this but he had to go back to work.
Rum is King
The first thing the guide will tell you on a tour of the Rum Museum in Havana is that the distiller is the magic ingredient. He explains this while you are facing a larger-than-life photo of four well-dressed men sipping from fancy glasses around a rum barrel, presumably the distillers. They are revered as the creative genius behind the state-owned and controlled national product, and permitted to make a range of variations: single-cask, special blends, and long-aged versions.
Beer brewers, on the other hand, are considered mere button pressers. Like distilleries, all breweries are state-controlled, but in every case the technology is from a single company in Austria called SALM which has an exclusive “lifetime” contract with the Cuban government. SALM rigidly provides only lager brewing equipment. It trains the brewers and supplies the recipes. Hey stay awake! The resulting beer is drinkable, technically, but nowhere close to the inspired, innovative higher standard of beer that drinkers all over the world have come to expect. Nor does it express the richness of Cuban culture that even Miami brewers have only recently started to play with- to delicious results.
Unless this equipment-driven brewing changes, and brewers regarded as artists as well as engineers, beer is not going to get any better in Cuba.
The Rest of Cuban Beer
Ariel described the beer scene in Cuba to me. There are a few brands produced at industrial scales. The big ones are Cristal and Bucanero, sold in tourist currency. (Cuba has two currencies.) A recent addition is Presidente (the Dominican brand owned by Brazilian Brama) which started to be bottled in Cuba by Cristal-Bucanero. Cristal is a light beer, Bucanero, a dark one. They’re brewed in the Eastern province of Holguin. Then there are several minor brands sold in local currency: Mayabe, Cacique, Bruja, Tínima. Most of them brewed either in Holguin or in Camagüey (a province in the center of the country). There are 3 small brewpubs, also state run, two in Havana (above) and the third in Santiago de Cuba.
The exclusive contract with the equipment maker explains the lack of innovation. I thought the beer tasted familiar, and read on the SALM website that they also supply Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Ah ha! Remote locations with few options- what a business plan.
Which is to say- the beer is fine. Not exciting, but certainly consistent and without infection or defect. That may sound dull (and it is) but in a country that gets hit with the occasional hurricane and seems to be held together with duct tape, plaster patches, and the sheer will of people determined not to let anything interfere with the enjoyment of life- it’s quite an achievement. And oh yes, I will be going back.
This is a drinking blog and already quite long- but I left out so much- the vibrancy, the music, the love. Below are more pictures, yet they do not come close to the experience. Americans- go while you still can!