More Than Mojitos: Exploring the Big Brands and Boutique Beers in Cuba
By Daniel Stretton
Republished with Permission of Havana Tour Company and Daniel Stretton
Sampling the local beers is one of the (many) fun things about taking a holiday. What is considered to be a fancy imported beer in your country (and is priced accordingly) is just the local stuff when on holiday. In German speaking countries, you would ask for a bier. In French speaking countries, you order a bière. Fortunately, the pronunciation of both of these words is pretty much identical to their English language counterpart, so there’s little room for confusion. It’s not like you’ll try to order a beer and will then be presented with a platter of braised pig’s feet. When you go to a Spanish speaking country, you need to ask for a cerveza (pronounced sair-vay-zah).
You might not be familiar with the types of beer on offer, so you would generally just gulp down whatever the barman (or barwoman) puts in front of you. When you’re in Cuba, what kind of beer can you expect to be served?
It totally depends on whether you’re in a bar mostly frequented by tourists or have found your way to a watering hole that is largely populated by locals.
It’s Cristal Clear
When you do go into a bar in Cuba and order a cerveza, you’re probably going to be given one of the two major beers in the country: Cristal or Bucanero. Cristal is available outside of Cuba, although it’s sometimes actually brewed in other countries, under license, to the manufacturer’s recipe. It’s infinitely cheaper in its home country, and the Cuban stuff is produced at the company’s brewery near Holguin (which is a city well worth visiting).
While perhaps better known for its rum, the island of Cuba enjoys a healthy and stable core of domestic brews. The popularity of cold brews in Cuba is no surprise given that (1) the beer is cheap and (2) the weather is hot. How would we characterize the Cuban beer landscape? Well, let’s just say that automobiles are not the only consumer products that haven’t been updated in Cuba since the late 1950s. In many ways, the present day Cuban beer scene resembles the American beer market of yesteryear, i.e., a handful of lighter style lagers and pilsners sold under major brand labels. Your no-frills “everyday drinkers” rule today's Cuba brews scene.
Tourists looking for an authentic Cuban brew tend to favor the Bucanero and Cristal brands. Both are standard lagers with alcohol content hovering around 5% that can be readily purchased in many on- premises and off-premises retail outlets for about a dollar. Cacique and Mayabe are cheaper with a bit less octane, and have more of a market with the locals. The real value plays in Cuba are Tinima and Bruja, which each can be had for fifty cents or less.
Some brewpubs that have taken hold in Havana produce and sell darker beers, but these are not the hoppy and flavorful India Pale Ales (IPAs) you’ll find in the states. These local offerings appear to take their inspiration from the European style dark lagers. Yes, Bucanero has a “Max” variant with a darker color and a higher alcohol content, but it is by no means a craft. Think of the Labatt’s “Ice” variant (and also read about Labatt’s significant role in Cuba’s Beer History here). Tourists unsatisfied with the local offerings can usually find mega imports (e.g.Heineken, Corona) at a relative “premium” price.
For now, the craft revolution reshaping the American beer landscape has halted at the shores of Key West, ninety miles to the north. But let’s face it- even the most elite of American beer snobs sitting in the sun on a beach by a palm tree in 90 degree weather are probably going to grab a light lager before a flavorful stout, porter or ale. Speaking of enjoying a cold one in the sun, don't leave without reading about Travel and Beer Tourism in Cuba.
The barriers to the influence of the American craft movement on Cuba’s Beer Scene are substantial and multi-faceted, but at CUBABREWS.COM we hope to kickstart the discussion. Check out our Brews News for industry and marketplace insights and developments, and to keep current on U.S.and Cuba economic relations.
It’s a light, crisp tasting beer (even though it has a fairly standard alcohol content of 4.9%) and the popularity of its light taste makes sense when you consider Cuba’s sultry heat.
It’s really a perfect beer for this type of weather.
A Dark (Yet Refreshing) Beverage
Bucanero is made by the same company that makes Cristal, and is produced at the same brewery in Holguin. You might have also tried this one in your home country, although it’s sold as Cubanero in some places (because another company had already registered a copyright for the Bucanero name in many territories). It has a darker, deeper flavour than its labelmate and has a slightly sweet aftertaste.
While both Cristal and Bucanero are popular throughout Cuba, you should be careful about drinking too much Bucanero, too quickly. It has a slightly higher level of alcohol than Cristal (5.4%), and you can easily overdo it when drinking it on a hot day.
More Beers in Cuba Than the Two Dominant Brews
Sure, in most bars and restaurants you’ll be offered either Cristal or Bucanero, but there are many more beers in Cuba than just the two major players. Long story short: If you didn’t already know, there are two types of currency in Cuba.
There’s the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) which is linked to the value of the US dollar, and there’s the standard Cuban peso (CUP). As a foreigner, you will almost always pay and be given change in CUC. If you go to a bar or store off the beaten track, you might be given change in CUP. It’s off the beaten track that you will find a couple of beers very popular with the locals, Cacique and Mayabe. The beers are honestly not that remarkable, and the closest equivalent would probably be something like a Coors. They are still very refreshing, and certainly hit the spot on a hot day. When it comes to beers in Cuba, these are the best value for money.
You could easily get drunk for the equivalent of a few dollars… not that we’re suggesting you should drink to excess.
Great Boutique Beer in Old Havana
The slightly hipster (and yet still rather awesome) concept of the microbrewery is not so widespread across Cuba, but there are a few. There are a fair number of boutique beers in Cuba, and the easiest to find are right in the middle of Havana’s sensational Old Town.
Located on the Plaza Vieja, Factoria does not have a wide variety of beers, but their quality makes up for the lack of quantity. There’s light, dark, and black beer, although the description refers to their color, rather than their alcohol content (which hovers at around 5%). Both the light and dark beer are excellent and full of subtle flavour, but the black beer can be avoided. It’s like Factoria doesn’t put enough hops into it.
It’s fine, but you really don’t need to bother when there are two high quality boutique beers in Cuba on offer.
About Daniel Stretton
Dan is one of the Founders of the Havana Tour Company, along with Romey Chuit who is a Cuban national. A keen traveller, Dan Stretton instantly fell in love with Cuba when visiting for the first time. Despite countless salsa lessons, Dan still struggles to dance like a Cuban (or dance at all for that matter). He has however picked up how to make a scrumptious mojito! Dan is also a keen photographer, looking to capture the heart and soul of the real Cuba and the tours he has helped to create.
View all posts by Daniel Stretton at Havana Tour Company
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