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Craft Beer Boom in Panamá

A few years back, talk about craft beer was rarely heard in Panama. It is now fashionable, and craft beer production and consumption have risen in the blink of an eye, like a head of foam. How and when did this happen? Read about the history and the pioneers behind this boom.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez and Roberto Quintero

The place was packed. More than 5,000 people had shown up to attend the third Micro Brew Fest, a festival promoting the production and consumption of craft beers in Panama. For the first time, people were turned away at the door because the event sold out. The number may not seem like much, but never before had the event been so popular, and it confirms the enormous success craft beers are currently experiencing in Panama; the event, when first held in 2013, attracted only 1,500 people.

This is just one indicator. The other day I stepped into a liquor store to buy some wine and on my way past the cooler I stumbled upon a guy, thirty-something and dressed like a skater, ecstatically pronouncing the names of all the craft beers before him, as if trying to convince himself, and those with him, that the beer on offer exceeded their expectations. And yes, from one minute to the next it seems, liquor stores, supermarkets, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs began serving craft beers from around the world.

How did this happen? In an attempt to understand the phenomenon I called Noel Sánchez de Obaldía, publicist, rock guitarist, and self-confessed beer fanatic. It was this fascination with beer that led to the creation of Buenas Pintas: Panama’s first program promoting beer culture, which he hosts with his friends José Carlos Blanco Estévez and Eduardo Ortega. The program is just a year old and airs only on the internet (www.buenaspintas.com), but it has become so popular that many speak of it as the definitive guide on the subject, providing still more proof of a boom. Noel explains that this golden age of craft beers is taking place all over the world, especially in the United States, where production and consumption of craft beers has grown rapidly in recent years. This trend is influencing Panama, especially after the first Micro Brew Fest proved that, although small, there was a niche to exploit. “The Fest invited breweries unknown in Panama at the time, given the many limitations they faced. At the same time, new distributors entered the field and began supplying products that people found increasingly interesting,” says Noel, who announces that he and his partners will be opening a retail store this year to supply Panamanian consumers with their favorite brands.

While the boom provides a good excuse to discuss craft beers, the fact is that the beers began showing up on these coasts close to ten years ago, and not exactly via importers. This story would not be complete without mentioning several crazy adventurers who decided to brew craft beers while they were still relatively unknown and no boom loomed on the horizon.

Camilo González, the original pioneer, arrived in Panama from Bogotá in 2005, on the lookout for an investment. An architect with extensive experience in the restaurant business, he didn’t have the slightest idea about brewing beer. But he forged ahead on a hunch. “Craft beers were already gaining in popularity in Bogotá and I wanted to see if there was a future for the business here, realizing there were no micro-breweries in a country that was one of the largest beer consumers in America.”

And so the Istmo Brew Pub opened in November of that year. For those unfamiliar with the term, a brewpub is a bar or restaurant that brews beer on the premises. In fact, Camilo had quite a lot of educating to do at first. “Beer culture had to be taught, because Panamanians had little experience with craft beers. They didn’t believe it was possible to brew on a small scale so we had to explain to people how it was done, and show them the tanks we used in the back. We explained the virtues of craft beer, compared to industrial brews. People kind of rejected the idea at first, because they were used to industrial brews and their palates weren’t prepared for the taste of craft beers, which is quite different.”

He was a novice too, after all, and ended up paying for his inexperience: he was given bad advice and purchased bad equipment, and he confesses that he nearly went bankrupt; but he didn’t give up. In 2006, he changed brewmasters, reinvested in new equipment, and took the business in a new direction. Ten years later, his difficult start is nothing more than a battle scar that Camilo displays proudly. Istmo Brew Pub now has two locations: El Cangrejo (Calle Eusebio A. Morales) and San Francisco (Vía Israel and Calle 76), both of which are always packed. In search of new horizons, he took the brewery out of the bar in November last year and moved it to larger premises in the Llano Bonito Industrial Park. He plans to open a new pub this year.

Because the name of the pub is a Panamanian reference, the beers served there, four in all and all lagers, are christened with the names of Panamanian provinces.  Colón is a light and refreshing blonde with 5% alcohol, made with special yeast that gives it a crisp taste. Chiriquí is made with caramel malt, has a more “roasted” flavor, a coffee-like taste, and contains a certain amount of caramel sugar, which gives it a slightly smoky flavor and its amber color. It also contains 5% alcohol. Coclé is a dark beer made with malted chocolate and Pilsner malt, in just the right proportions for the Panamanian climate. With 5.5% alcohol, it’s a pleasant beer with chocolate and coffee overtones. Lastly, Veraguas is a blend of the Colón and Coclé brews. And although the blonde is the most popular, says Camilo, I highly recommend trying the Chiriquí.

In 2010, Jacky Yaffe, another Colombian native, launched La Rana Dorada. “La Rana,” as he affectionately refers to it, started as a pub in El Cangrejo (Via Argentina and Calle Arturo Motta, diagonally across from La Cabeza de Einstein). They hadn’t yet begun crafting beer, but quickly made a name selling the best imports available in the country. “We couldn’t venture into the market without first understanding it, but we’d always had the idea of opening a microbrewery and focusing on producing our home brew.” The problem was, they still lacked the equipment and the location. So they began by brewing in Colombia, at a brewery with which they were working at that time (Bogotá Beer Company), until, in 2011, La Rana Dorada in a bottle was born: an extremely smooth and refreshing blonde ale with hints of honey and 4% alcohol. The result was a success: “We’d brewed enough beer for six months and it was gone in three.”

Based on this success, they opened a second location in February 2012, in the Casco Viejo (Avenida Eloy Alfaro and Calle 11th) and set up a factory there. Then, onto the scene came Brad Kraus, a brewmaster with over thirty years of experience and nearly twenty years of consulting for Latin American breweries. Like any good brewmaster, he’s an affable man. Born in Wyoming (USA), he’s a chemist and found in beer his true profession and passion, which becomes immediately apparent when you listen to him describe the different recipes he’s created. “I started by contemplating the different styles of beer I thought might work in Panama, given the climate and people’s tastes. And because it’s very hot, I wanted something refreshing and very flavorful, but not heavy. “

As a result, Brad conceived of four different types. La Rana Pale Ale: Typical of ales served in English pubs, it’s reddish and quite hoppy, with a fruity flavor and 5% alcohol. La Rana Premium Pils: A drier, more traditional German Pilsner with 5% alcohol. La Rana Blanche: A light, refreshing Belgian-style wheat beer with 4% alcohol made with dried orange and lemon peels. And La Rana Porter: A London-style stout with 5% alcohol made from a variety of dark roasted malts that define its flavor.

The brewmaster assures us that La Rana Blanche is the most popular, but I’d just like to say that the Pale Ale and Premium Pils are delightful. And, from time to time they introduce a seasonal beer, which is not always the same. If you’re lucky enough to be there just after they’ve brewed some India Pale Ale (IPA), don’t hesitate to order one! It’s the pride of the house, having just last year won a gold medal at the Copa Cervezas de América in Chile. “It was amazing. We competed against 550 breweries from across the Americas, large breweries in México, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and the United States, and we won! Besides the award, we’re also very pleased with the way people have taken to the beer,” says Jacky, laughing heartily.

Also recognized during this event, and in the same category (American IPA), are the boys of Casa Bruja brewery, whose Chivoperro took the silver medal. They proudly display the certificate at the entrance to the brewery located in the Costa del Este Industrial Park. The atmosphere here is very different from other microbreweries, as there is no bar or customers drinking to anyone’s health, only people helping bottle and pack the bottles into crates as quickly as possible. The atmosphere is nonetheless very festive. Everyone working there is young and enjoys the work, especially Jonathan Pragnell and Richo Fernández, General Manager and Director of Marketing and Communications, respectively.

They’re both Panamanian, thirty-one years old, and aside from being partners, are lifelong friends. They’re happy, and their happiness shows. Children of the boom, Casa Bruja was introduced to the public at Micro Brew Fest (a platform which they created with other partners), while production was still very limited and homespun. Until, in what seemed the blink of an eye, they went from an “underground” home brewery to one of Panama’s most popular brands. So much so that only months after the factory opened in late 2013, they were forced to expand, reinvesting in more machinery and a bottling process to keep up with demand. And all this thanks only to “word of mouth,” because they had no sales team at the time. “Bottles revolutionized our business. We’re the first Panamanian craft brewery to bottle. Kegs were convenient for us, but not for our customers. Customers wanted bottles, and the brand as well. Luckily, we understood this, and were lucky enough to be able to attack the problem just six months after launching the business. As the factory grew, so did our client base,” says Richo.

In addition to the quality of their beers, much of Casa Bruja’s success is due to the names chosen for each brew, and the product’s attractive design. Fula Rx (which in Panama means “bottle” blonde) is a smooth, light blonde ale with a good body, made from 100% malted barley, with 4.7% alcohol. Chivoperro (the name comes from a dog food-eating goat at Richo’s country house in Portobelo, Colón) is a slightly more bitter India Pale Ale with more body and a hint of caramelized barley, passion fruit, and mango and 6.1% alcohol. Sir Francis (named after the pirate Drake, whose body, according to legend, was laid to rest on the shores of Portobelo) is a less bitter, fruitier red ale, with a touch of nut and melon and 5.5% alcohol. And, finally, Talingo (named after the ubiquitous Panamanian blackbird), is a chocolate milk stout with a heavy chocolate aroma owing to the bits of Bocas del Toro cacao and milk sugars used to give it its sweet flavor, and 8.1% alcohol.

Most people prefer Fula Rx and Chivoperro. But, as we say in Panama, Sir Francis “es la que es” (is the one). All of them are readily available in liquor stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and bars throughout the Panamanian capital. You can also visit the brewery on Saturdays for a guided tour and, believe me, for beer lovers, it’s like going to an amusement park.

So what’s next in this story? More and more people are producing on a smaller scale and carving out niches on the local scene. One such brewer is Pedro Icaza, of Cervecería Legítima, whose Vicio Oculto (a Russian imperial stout with 10% alcohol) was the talk of the recent Micro Brew Fest. His current production is limited and he only produces for specific events, but he’ll open his own brewpub this year, which will also serve Panamanian food prepared by his partner Carlos Ossa. And he’s not alone: other brewmasters are leaving their homes to go hunting for loyal followers. So it seems that Panama’s craft beer boom is here to stay. Cheers!