When he isn’t brewing, the 58-year-old, who worked in food research and water treatment before becoming a brewer, regularly holds tours of the brew house and fermentation room for curious tourists and locals alike.
Here a mug of beer costs $2CUC, about a dollar more than the price of the commercial lagers, but looking around, it’s clear to see that locals are willing to pay for the premium. One CUC equals about one U.S. dollar. Towers of beer, which equal about six mugs, go for $12. “I’m very proud to be working here where the beer is Cuban beer,” says Martinez Valdéz.
Without ever referencing craft beer, and admitting that he doesn’t know much of the global brewing scene, Martinez Valdéz launches into the familiar refrain that smaller brewers sing, talking about the importance of small batches and competing against the bigger breweries. “They use sugar,” Martinez Valdéz says of beers like Bucanero and Cristal. “We do not. Only water, malt, hops and yeast. This is true Cuban beer.”
Tasting beers at
Cervecería Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco
The most popular style at the brewery, it’s hazy golden orange with a thick head, aromas of sweet malt that verges on honeycomb. An earthy hop bitterness emerges on the dry finish.
Caramel-forward with flavors of dried apple skin and slight raisin. Finishes dry.
Molasses-like sweetness with ripe stone fruit aromas and a mineral water taste, slightly sour in a pleasing Guinness-like way.
What makes this Cuban beer? I ask. “The wishes and good intent, the knowledge we have and the water.” Along with his two fellow brewers, Martinez Valdéz, who is also known as Pepe, says the beer they create is “a symphony playing with six hands.” He hopes that the work and passion they put into the beer will continue to encourage people to come and visit.
“If tomorrow we are the favorite, great,” he says. “If not, we sit down and figure out what to do better.”
The Established Players
It should come as little surprise that the dominant beer style in Cuba is a light lager, or that the brewery that produces it is partly owned by the Belgian-based AB InBev.
In partnership with the government, the global brewer makes two of the country’s most popular beers, the 5.4% Bucanero and 4.9% Cristal, out of the Cervecería Bucanero S.A. facility in Holguín, on the eastern part of the island.
Cervecería Bucanero S.A. also produces a higher-alcohol (6.5%) Bucanero Max and Mayabe lager, imports Beck’s from Germany and makes a malta under the Bucanero name. In recent weeks the brewery has said it needs to add on-site production space to keep up with demand. Last year Cuba received 3.5 million tourists, up 17 percent from the previous year. Those new visitors are one reason, officials say, beer supplies are strained. AB InBev plans to import several million cases of lager made in the Dominican Republic to satisfy Cuban customers.
Along with the established Cuban brands, Heineken and Sol are also common. A chance encounter with a self-proclaimed “beer bar” on Lamparilla Street in Old Havana, the Lamparilla Tapas y Cervezas, offered much of the same, but with the added surprise of Presidente Lager and Belgium’s Martens Pilsener.
There, the beers are served in tall-boy glasses, similar to a stange, tattooed with the Havana Club rum logo. The prices are more expensive than those at the brewpubs.
If Bucanero and Cristal are the most popular, Hatuey lager remains a sentimental favorite of locals. Harder to find, but dating back to the early 1900s, it’s celebrated as a classic. Currently produced in a government-run brewery in Santiago de Cuba, Hatuey is also made in the U.S. by Bacardi—the original brewery’s owner—under contract and with a corporate office in Florida. It’s available there and in New York.
The Past and the Future
Before the revolution, beer was a bigger industry. Today, it has a long way to go before Cuba can be considered an international player. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people looking to make that happen, although on their own terms. “Cuba has always been a beer-loving country,” says Enrique J. Garcia, a brewery consultant of Cuban heritage, who has worked with Latin and South American breweries, and is in the process of opening his own brewery in Miami. “It was in the top five beer-consuming markets in Latin America before the revolution.”
“Cuba has always been a beer-loving country.”
Enrique J. Garcia
Garcia, who is also working on a documentary film about Cuban beer, says that while it’s only “a daydream,” had the revolution not occurred, the current scene would be much different.
“The U.S. influence, with trade agreements like Mexico has, the European influence, it’s not too crazy to think that Cuba would have a pretty cool beer scene going on.”
Rodrigues, the brewer at Plaza Vieja, knows about beer from other countries. He’s had offerings from Cigar City Brewing and enjoyed its lager. An employee from The Rare Barrel, an all-sour beer company in Berkeley, California, visited not long ago, leaving bottles of Map of the Sun, a wild ale. The brewers smile politely when I ask what they think of the flavor.
After several days in the country—seeing the industry behind rum, and being accustomed to the American innovations in brewing and the pushing of flavor boundaries—I ask the brewers if they would think about aging their beers in rum barrels, or finding ways to incorporate tobacco flavor, or using local coffee, sugar or fruits. They all demur.
John Holl is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.
Jeff Quinn is the magazine’s art director.