This blog documents my attempt to drink a beer from every country in the world and every state in the United States.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Country #5: El Salvador

Beer: Cerveza Caguama

Brewery: Cervezeria La Constancia, San Salvador, El Salvador

ABV: 4.7%

Una Caguama. This beer got 2.1% skunkier in the time it took me to take this photo.
Central America is hot. When you’re hot, nothing beats a nice, cold, frosty beer. And typically, when you find yourself in a hot part of the world, that frosty beer is just your run-of-the-mill light lager. That’s fine. I get it.

Cerveza Caguama, from El Salvador, is no exception. Just like Piton , the clear bottle screams at the potential beer drinker: “Look at me! I’m probably boring! But you don’t care because it’s hot out!” Unfortunately, Caguama is not boring. Instead, it is terrible. Corona, also in a clear bottle, has a distinctly and consistently skunky taste to it, which can be attributed to the clear bottle itself: light gets into the beer, a chemical reaction occurs, and it produces a compound that is chemically similar to the stuff that skunks shoot out their butts. I imagine Corona probably tastes tolerable if you drink it straight from the brewery. My Caguama, on the other hand, probably tasted pretty bad before it went skunky.

A screen shot from the American version of Caguama web site, which basically just shows you this, and tells you where you can buy the stuff (big chain grocery stores). Apparently it has won awards. Could've fooled me.

This is too bad, because El Salvador (Spanish for “The Savior”) probably deserves better. Tiny (the size of New Jersey), crowded (but less crowded than New Jersey!), and poor, it has endured decades of military rule and instability, only to somehow find itself rapidly industrializing and improving the lot of many of its citizens in recent years. Still, it’s the type of place that people try to get out of by sneaking into Mexico.  In fact, many of the people that the average, white American see that “look Mexican” are probably Salvadorean (or Guatemalan, or Honduran, or Nicaraguan), in many cases having crossed not one but two borders to get here.

Caguama is the Spanish word for sea turtle. This stuff, from El Salvador, is not to be confused with the Baja California slang for a giant Tecate beer, which they call a caguama.
And insofar as their beer goes, maybe they do get better. The domestic market is dominated by a cleverly named beverage called Pilsener, also brewed by La Constancia, which might in fact not be terrible.  According to La Constancia’s web site(which is entirely in Spanish), Caguama is one of their “export” beers, which if I had to guess is because they want to get rid of it all. So off it went, from Central America to my local Ralph’s, where it sat gleaming under bright fluorescent lights, slowly skunkifying, until someone (me) was brave enough to shell out $5.99 for a six pack. At least by the second one I thought to cram a wedge of lime in the neck, and it wasn’t so bad.

Once you figure out to put a lime in the Caguama it becomes infinitely more tolerable. That is to say, it becomes at all tolerable.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Country #4: Lebanon

Beer: Almaza Pilsener

Brewery: Brasserie Almaza, Beirut, Lebanon

ABV: 4.0 %

A nice, tasty Arabian pilsener.
I have cracked more than a couple jokes about Islam’s disdain for alcohol on this blog. The happy reality is that most Muslims, as well as the governments of most Muslim countries, are far more tolerant of the sauce than the regimes of Iran or Saudi Arabia, even if they abstain from it themselves. Also, most majority-Muslim countries have non-Muslim minorities. And sometimes these minorities make beer. I heard from friends that visited Palestine last year that there is a commercial brewing operation in the West Bank, and I have since learned that even Pakistan produces a domestic beer (big time Chad Award for anyone who finds me one of these).

Given that, it is not too surprising that Lebanon makes beer too.  The home of Hezbollah is actually only 60% Muslim, leaving 1.7 million potential Almaza drinkers in an area smaller than Connecticut. What was surprising, then, is that I was able to find the stuff at a regular corner store in Golden Hill, San Diego, amongst the Heinekens, Stones, and Sierra Nevadas. It was something like $13.99 for a six-pack, but I guess it had come a long way to get to my hand.

No Arabic script on the bottle, though there was some on the six pack itself. In other news, it doesn't get any more metric-y than "33 centiliters."
Almaza is a pilsener, instead of the requisite bland pale lager that seems to come out of most countries not known for their beer (they also make a darker beer called “Pure Malt,” but I don’t know if it makes it to the States). It’s a pretty decent pilsener. It doesn’t quite have that distinct bite that the best pilseners have, but when drinking it, I thought to myself “Yeah! This tastes like beer!” rather than “Hmmm… this tastes like… nothing.” Overall I enjoyed it, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Almaza because I was drinking it during the entire second half of the Super Bowl as the Giants made fools of the Patriots.

"Almaza" is a rough transliteration of the Arabic word for diamond. Learnin'.
The name means “diamond” in Arabic, as evidenced by the design on the bottle and cap; no attempt at making a marketing connection between the product and its place of origin this time. I wonder if this has anything to do with the potential ruffling of feathers that might have resulted in the Muslim community had the brewery used the national symbol of the cedar tree somewhere in its imaging. I couldn’t find too much information about the brewery outside of its web site, which is as snazzy as they come and replete with lots of braggadocio and hokey stories about its origins. I recommend perusing it for a laugh.

A screenshot from the Brasserie Almaza web site. We are talking perfection here.
And finally, no cheeky discussion of beer from Beirut would be complete without a nod to the wonderful drinking game to which it lends its name. Even though most people I know call it “beer pong,” I highly recommend playing a game of Beirut with beer from Beirut, just so you can tell your friends that you did it. So come over with some red cups and ping pong balls. I still have some Almaza in the fridge, and I’ll happily re-rack those cups into an “almaza” formation if necessary.

Just your average game of Beirut. We did something like this in college, though certainly not with Almaza, as it would have gotten a wee bit expensive.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Country #3: Haiti

Beer: Prestige Lager

Brewery: Brasserie Nationale d'Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

ABV: 5.7%

It's a beer! From a Caribbean country! In a stubby bottle!

We’ve probably all had Red Stripe before, but this isn’t Red Stripe, it’s Prestige Lager from Haiti. Red Stripe is popular all over the Caribbean, and has been brewed for almost 100 years, presumably in that squat, brown bottle the entire time. So, when Prestige was introduced in 1976, it probably made sense to try to ride those coattails. The marketing logic, as I imagine it: when you think of Red Stripe, you think of warm weather and leisure, and, if you’ve been to Jamaica, you think of Jamaica. So, if you hold a stubby brown bottle of beer in your hand, even if it says “Prestige” on it instead of “Red Stripe,” you think of warm weather and leisure too, even if you’re drinking it on a windy rooftop deck in Boston in December (as I was).

Here's what the bottle cap looks like. Fortunately, whatever money they are saving on graphic design seems to have been put into making a decent beer.

Insofar as offering warm weather and leisure, Haiti is batting .500. It’s warm, but, as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest and least-developed country (by a wide margin), leisure is hard to come by. The  earthquake that struck the country in 2010 made things more bleak, and after an initial global outpouring of support, relief has died down, and the situation is still bad. Check out the heartbreaking photos of the country, two years later, here.

I showed this map (sans arrow), illustrating Human Development Index per country, in my class on Monday. A hawkeyed student asked what that "one country in the Caribbean is that's red." Now he knows.
Back to the beer: I was surprised to find it at a packy in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I didn’t think Boston had any kind of Haitian community, but it turns out it does. And believe it or not, it’s pretty good! It has a nice, malty flavor to it, certainly more so than the average Crap National Lager. I’d say it tastes just like Red Stripe. In fact, if Red Stripe didn’t print their labels directly on their glass bottles, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this WAS Red Stripe with a different label slapped on the front.

Haitians like it too: it enjoys a 98% market share in its home country. However, the Duvaliers received something like a 98% share of votes when they were in power in Haiti, and I don’t think Haitians liked them too much. So, perhaps there is some kind of trade restriction on importing beer into Haiti. The internet lacks for information on this front.

One of the less-heartbreaking pictures of Port-au-Prince from's excellent "Big Picture" photo essay of Haiti two years after the quake. Note the Prestige sign.
Fortunately, the internet is good for other things, like finding out how to donate to rebuilding Haiti, which still needs all the help it can get. Including pumping a few gourdes into the economy by buying a six pack of Prestige, I just donated a few bucks to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund here. You should too.