Archive for March 2015

Travelling global, drinking local

March 23, 2015

Although Elaine & I are usually pretty stoic about winter, this past season had an especially vicious bite — week after week of record-cold temperatures, dark overcast skies and seemingly endless snow. Although we do not regularly flee south, this winter proved to be too much for us.

Old San Juan

The narrow but colourful streets of Old San Juan.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, we found ourselves having breakfast on the rooftop of the Hotel Milano in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The modern city of San Juan is a bustling urban centre of over two million people. But right in the middle of the city, on a narrow peninsula lying between the busy commercial harbour and the Atlantic Ocean, lies historic Old San Juan. It’s tiny by any standards, covering an area of only seven blocks by seven blocks. Anyone, at a slow stroll, can cross from one side of OSJ to the other in under thirty minutes. But there’s five centuries of history packed into that small area, including the oldest fortifications and the oldest churches in the New World. Even the ground has a historic overlay — the narrow streets are covered with blue-glazed cobblestones from Spain, a relic of the ballast stones left behind by Spanish galleons to make room for Aztec gold and Incan silver.

Blue-glazed cobblestones

Blue-glazed cobblestones

So there we were at breakfast, chatting with our server about things to do when somehow — and this seems to happen a lot with me — the conversation turned to beer.

Now I confess that my expectations of beer in the Caribbean are not high. If you overlook St. John Brewers, a craft brewery in the U.S. Virgin Islands that makes a killer mango pale ale, the predominant style throughout the Caribbean is yellow American lager, served icy cold.

Almost every island takes pride in creating their own brand of this style:

  • Jamaica: Red Stripe
  • Barbados: Banks
  • Antigua: Wadadli
  • St. Lucia: Piton
  • Dominica: Kubuli
  • Turks & Caicos: Island Lager
  • Puerto Rico: Magna, and the lite version, Medalla

(Yes, on some of the islands with British history, strong stout is still brewed, notably Jamaica’s Dragon Stout, a curiously heavy drink for such a hot climate.)

On a previous visit to San Juan, we had stopped in at the Old Harbour Brewery, a brewpub featuring several ho-hum beers that I found to be, well, okay, I guess. By coincidence, it turned out that our breakfast server had actually worked at Old Harbour for a time. “However,” she confided in us, “if you are looking for really good beer, there is a new a bar in Old San Juan called La Taberna Lúpulo. It has over a hundred beers imported from United States and Europe.”

My ears perked up — lúpulo is the Spanish word for hops. How could any self-respecting bar call itself “The Tavern of Hops” and not have interesting beers?

Of course, there was one small obstacle to overcome: the server couldn’t remember exactly where it was, and there are A LOT of bars in Old San Juan. However solving problems like these only adds to the sense of accomplishment, right?

So it was that a few hours later, at noon, we were standing on Calle San Sebastiano, outside Taberna Lúpulo. The reason we were standing outside was because it was closed. In retrospect, the chances of the bar being open by noon were slight — Old San Juan is a late night party place that rocks on until just before dawn. Most shops don’t open until after 10 am, and bars only get going at sunset.

So it was back out into the narrow streets of OSJ for a few more hours of sight-seeing.

Taberna Lupulo

Five minutes after opening, the locals are already arriving. Ten minutes later, there is not a seat to be had.

But at 6 pm, as the sun was meandering down to the horizon, we found ourselves back at Taberna Lúpulo, and this time, the doors and windows were wide open. And it’s a good thing we got there just as it opened, because not only did we get a nice table by one of the open windows, but ten minutes later, there was not a seat to be had — it’s clearly a favourite with locals.

Taps

Up to 48 beers on tap, including a few I didn’t recognize

As promised, there were a lot of beers available, up to 48 on tap and another 100 in bottles. The taps were mainly imports from the States (Smuttynose, Victory, Harpoon, Stone, Abita, Founders) as well as a few European imports like La Chouffe and Moretti. The bottle menu also featured a mix of well-known American names and some prominent Belgian breweries.

Barlovento IPA

Blue cobblestones, open window, Barlovento Golden Ale

However, I didn’t recognize some of the names. “Hopera?” Over the noise, the barmaid shouted a name at me several times. I finally made out what she was saying: “Hopera Golden Ale by Barlovento. Puerto Rican craft brewery” she yelled.

It took me a moment to comprehend that phrase — “Puerto Rico” and “craft brewery” are not normally two phrases that you hear in the same sentence.

Turns out Barlovento is brewing beer in the Puerto Rican town of Manati, (30 mi) west of San Juan. This was good news to me — I didn’t even realize there were craft breweries in Puerto Rico.

Seconds later, I was sitting by our open window, contemplating a pint the colour of aged amber, with a wonderful grapefruity citrus nose. The body was light, but firmed up by a good assertive bitterness. Dang, Barlovento hit this one out of the park.

Dacay Chocolate Blueberry Stout

Dacay Chocolate Blueberry Stout

Hopera unfortunately had an extremely High Evaporation Rate, and before I knew it, my glass was empty. I wandered over to the bar to look at the list of taps, this time deliberately looking for tap names I didn’t recognize.

Dacay Blueberry Chocolate Stout? My life score of Puerto Rico craft beer sightings immediately doubled from one to two. Yep, turns out that Dacay is another Puerto Rican craft brewery, this one in a San Juan suburb.

And this stout, a seasonal from Dacay, really was very excellent — light in body, but with a rich smooth fruity chocolate flavour — perfectly in tune with the rapidly darkening streets of San Juan. I was really getting to like the craft beer scene in Puerto Rico.

Taberna Lupulo

Outside Taberna Lúpulo, sadly contemplating an evening without Old Rasputin

However, all too soon, my glass was again empty, and it was time to go. My only regret was, that as we were leaving, I noticed the name the barmaid was writing over a new tap: North Coast Old Rasputin.

Old Rasputin on tap?? Seriously?? Dang!!

Alas, the tropical night — and dinner — called.

But I’ll be back, Taberna Lúpulo, looking for more Puerto Rican craft beer. And keep a keg of Old Rasputin ready too.

Advertisements

My Post-Apocalyptic Life

The world has ended, but movies and games live on.

Married to Beer

Seeing the humour in a spouse who loves suds!

Ruminations of a Canadian Geek

The thoughts and ruminations of a university chemistry and roleplaying geek

Madly Off In All Directions

A blog about whatever strikes my fancy...

It's what's on tap...

Brewing, mostly.