There was some lively discussion on the topic of “What to drink” around the dinner table before we departed for Panama in May. Champagne, of course! The French drank so much of it during the first canal attempt that streets in Colon were reportedly paved with the bottles. Wine, maybe, but who knows the price or quality. Liquor, the rum drinks are probably pretty well done. Beer, ehh, why waste your money.
As a beer drinker this was a tough blow to take, 2 weeks exploring a country ought to mean sampling whatever local beers that may be found (as frequently as possible). My previous experiences with Caribbean beers was that they were all boring and not-so-pleasant brews, Kalik, Carib, Presidente, Red Stripe. Pale lager is the prevalent style, or as BeerAdvocate calls them, “American Adjunct Lagers“. Their description hits the nail on the head
Light bodied, pale, fizzy lagers made popular by the large macro-breweries (large breweries) of America after prohibition. Low bitterness, thin malts, and moderate alcohol. Focus is less on flavor and more on mass-production and consumption, cutting flavor and sometimes costs with adjunct cereal grains, like rice and corn.
A bit of research indicated that there are four domestic brands, Panama and Soberana which are brewed by Cervecerías Barú-Panama, S.A; and Atlas and Balboa, brewed by Cerveceria Nacional. And yes, these would all be of the Adjunct Lager style, with Panama and Balboa clocking in at 4.8% ABV, and Atlas and Soberana the light offerings, at 3.8% ABV.
The humid tropical heat that hit immediately as the plane doors were opened meant that this northerner would be sweating 24 hours a day. A pale boring lager served ice-cold would be so much better than water in making the heat bearable. I would be trying these beers. Soon. Most restaurants carry domestic beer at $1-2 per bottle (unless you are in a major hotel), so the refreshment to price ratio was destined to be excellent. In terms of taste, rather than trying to dissect each beer I did my best to compare it to a similar American brew.
#1 Balboa: First up was a nice cold Balboa in Panama City, not more than 3 hours after we touched Panamanian soil. Over a dinner of whole fried fish patacones and sauteed shrimp, this beer hit the spot. It remained a favorite the entire trip and in my opinion is the best domestic beer you can buy in Panama. Balboa has more body than the rest of the beers, though it is still light, and unlike the remaining beers, doesn’t have a bitter/funky taste. I was served one luke-warm, and it was a testament to serving beer at proper temperatures, it felt heavy and the carbonation made my stomach upset. For comparison sake, I would rank it close to Budweiser, though with a little more flavor.
#2 Atlas: Atlas was the last domestic beer I sampled in Panama, probably on day 5 at a riverside restaurant/bar run by an American expat in Boquete. We had enjoyed a fun day of zip-lines and touring the city and this place felt very “homey”. They also had a killer falafel platter that was so delicious. Since I had to drive the dark and winding roads back to the hotel, a single light beer seemed to be the perfect pairing with the falafel feast. Atlas was a surprising winner, it wasn’t nearly as smooth as Balboa, but it had a nice balance of flavors and the level of carbonation didn’t leave an awkward taste on my tongue. I wouldn’t have pegged it as a light beer if I hadn’t known beforehand. Overall, our taste assessment was like a Yuengling that had 2-3 sips taken out and replaced with water. I know there is a Yuengling light, but haven’t had it – so maybe that is a fitting corollary.
#3 Panama: On the second day of the trip I decided to branch out to this brand to give it a try, especially since seems as though this would be considered the Bud of Panama given its popularity. Served in the bottle poolside with a plate of local (I mean less than a few thousand feet away) local cheeses, this was a wonderful way to end a relaxing day. Unfortunately Panama beer had some slightly funky taste and the carbonation on my tongue felt like a hurdle for every sip. Taste – I would call it similar to Heineken or maybe Rolling Rock.
#4 Soberana: When I ordered this one it took a while for the server to understand why, and I would not blame that on a language barrier. I think it was a subtle way of saying “Really… nobody orders that, I’ll delay so you can re-think”. The setting should have been perfect, drying off after a dip in the pool on a hot day, getting ready to start reading a new book about cycling (Eat, Sleep, Ride). I was handed this yellowish water in a bottle. Some people call the sorta-junky bikes you can buy at a Wal*Mart or Target “BSOs”, or BIke-Shaped-Objects and all I could think of was that this was a BSO as well, a “Beer Shaped Object”. I wouldn’t call it horrible, there was no taste, no aftertaste, nothing. I wasn’t expecting nirvana in a bottle, but this was pretty bad. Compare to a bottle of Corona Light that has been half emptied, then filled with water.
I should also give honorable mention to a beer that was given to me while staying near Boquete, the chef called it the “best beer in Panama” and I would tend to agree. From Boquete Brewing Company, the Ibex Pale Ale. I can’t find any information to document the existence of this company other than a few mentions on the web, but whoever runs this micro (or nano) brewery in the high mountains of Panama has something good going. The Ibex Pale was a wonderful unfiltered dark amber color, with minimal head. A citrusy hoppy smell and taste (mainly grapefruit) persisted, and a bit is spiciness from the Belgian yeast complimented it well. The hops weren’t too overpowering, the flavor was right on – I wish I could have more!
Secondary Honorable Mention goes to the new Bocas Brewery, S.A. in Bocas del Toro. I understand that they only recently opened, and only one restaurant is carrying their beer. We didn’t get to stop by and taste, but hope we can someday return!