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!