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The beer revolution comes to Costa Rica

It’s 9 p.m. on a Tuesday at Stan’s Irish Pub in Zapote. A crowd of about 30 has gathered in the back room, an extensive space resembling a lesser German beer hall. Electric beer signs and posters advertising brands like Paulaner, Grolsch and Guinness are displayed throughout the room. In the center, nine small, wooden tables are arranged in rows of three, each with a cooler of beer bottles on top and a Tico seated behind.

Being at a bar in Costa Rica, one would expect those bottles to have the classic Imperial or Pilsen label on them, but not tonight. In fact, none of the bottles have labels. These beers are crafted by local brewers for Stan’s first home brewer’s competition. Though the crowd is small, the event is indicative of a fledgling craft beer industry is gaining momentum in Costa Rica.

Revolutionary roots

With the arrival of craft brewing has come more options, new tastes and a new culture. Hops, grains and yeast are staples of the movement; community, creativity and flavor the unifying ideas.

The movement arrived via the U.S. and the U.K., where craft beer has become popular in recent years. According to the Brewers Association website, as of July 1, 2012, a total of 2,126 breweries have opened in the U.S., with 2,075 of those being craft breweries. The Campaign for Real Ale, an independent organization dedicated to the craft, reported that 158 breweries opened in the U.K. last year, bringing the total to more than 1,000.

Many Ticos have had the chance to experience craft beer while traveling abroad, and they’ve brought their passion for brewing back Costa Rica. Ignacio Castro is one of those people; he traveled to England and tasted what the taps had to offer, then returned home with a newfound love for the craft of beermaking.

Today, he is one of the four owners of TreintayCinco, a budding microbrewery based in San José that recently received the O.K. from the Health Ministry to start brewing and selling beer. The group participated in the home brewers competition at Stan’s Irish Pub and took first place. “I think it’s a sort of revolution in this country,” Castro said. “Costa Rica is starving for new experiences.”

Spearheading the movement

Forty-five minutes east of San José, nestled among the farms and fields of vegetables in the mountains of Cartago, lies Costa Rica’s only microbrewery. The warehouse is unassuming, with a simple exterior that exemplifies the of the no-frills nature of the brewery.

Peter Gilman, along with Brandon Nappy and brew master Chris Derrick, started Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company in August 2010, laying a foundation for a craft beer movement in the country. Today, they produce approximately 1,200 liters of craft beer with their 10-barrel brew house, and are currently the only microbrewery licensed to produce and distribute beer.

In true craft beer spirit, the duo has focused on giving people options. “Part of our pitch is that this isn’t better than an Imperial, it’s just different; it’s another option,” Gilman says. This idea is central to beer culture throughout the world; it’s not about who has the best-tasting beer, it’s about enjoying different flavors that are a result of hard work and creativity. In other words, there is no such thing as the “best beer.” Instead, beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.

“There’s a beer for every different moment, and it’s about sharing that moment with people, sharing the drink and talking about it,” says Allan Beer, a biologist who works for Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company.

Allan is a Tico who was raised in Turrialba, east of San José. His English father was an original member of the Campaign for the Real Ale and his mixed heritage has given him unique insight into the beer world. “Costa Rica is such a beautiful country,” he said. “All it’s missing is more of a variety of beers to enjoy.”

Beer University?

The concepts of alternative beer and brewing know-how are new to many Ticos, and “it’s kind of like ignorance is bliss,” says Gilman. “If you’ve never experienced difference, you don’t know.”

For the beer revolution to move forward, Gilman believes education must come first. Without an understanding of the product, there won’t be an appreciation for it. “It’s about teaching people … this is the crux of our company,” he says.

Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company is not alone in its mission to spread the news of craft beer throughout the country. Luis Arce, originally from Costa Rica, lived and worked in England from 2008 to 2009. He was at a friend’s party when he was invited to try a beer a friend had brewed. “At first I didn’t believe that he had made it,” he recalls. “Mainly I was surprised that the flavor of the beer was so much more intense than the beers I had bought in the supermarket.”

His friend later taught him how to brew, a hobby he brought back to Costa Rica, much like Ignacio Castro. When he returned, Arce found it very difficult to track down the ingredients and equipment for his new pursuit; the climate here isn’t conducive to growing hops and the equipment is either nonexistent or costs double what it would in the U.S.

Arce scoured the Internet for ways to get what he needed, and he found that he wasn’t the only one. “On a lot of Internet forums, there were Ticos asking where they could buy the ingredients and how to make beer … this was how the idea was born to create TicoBirra,” the first store in the country to offer ingredients and equipment for craft beer. It took almost a year for Arce to put together all the necessary paperwork to start importing the ingredients and equipment.

In 2011, he met 55-year-old David Lockshin, a Canton, Ohio, native who worked as a beer distributor for breweries like Sierra Nevada, Blue Moon and Sam Adams before the craft beer movement took off in the U.S. Upon finding they had a mutual love for craft beer, Lockshin and Arce partnered and opened TicoBirra in March of 2012.

Today, TicoBirra offers everything a home brewer could want. From classes on the history of beer to courses on ingredients and equipment, the organization wants to give Ticos the opportunity to learn the craft. “The goal is 100 percent educational,” says Arce. “I would like to see Ticos really appreciating beer for quality and not quantity.”

Since the shop opened, sales at TicoBirra have been 250 times higher than expected, with the clientele being about 95 percent Tico, according to Lockshin. This is indicative of how craft beer has been received, even though Costa Rica may be late to the game. “There isn’t a beer revolution in the country. There is a beer revolution in the world. It simply arrived a lot later in Costa Rica,” says Arce.

Organizing the movement

So is craft beer another fleeting trend, or are those foamy, hoppy concoctions here to stay? Some say it will dependon on promotion and a support structure.

The Brewers Association in the United States promotes and protects the ever-growing community of U.S. brewers and brewing buffs. And The Campaign for the Real Ale does the same in the U.K. Brewers say that Costa Rica needs a similar organization to help them navigate the red tape and help create an environment conducive to brewing.

On July 22, 2011, a group of brewing enthusiasts came together to do just that. Arce and Lockshin, along with Joe Walsh, owner of Volcano Brewing Company in Arenal, José Chema Mora, the owner of Pavas specialty brewing store Chema Bodega, and the owners of Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company, signed a document to create Costa Rica’s first craft brewing association.

Revolution roadblocks

The pressure is on for Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Association membership. The head of the organization, Arce, has the momentous task of guiding the revolution through uncharted territory. Since this movement is new to Costa Rica, the government does not have the infrastructure or personnel to deal with home brewers and microbreweries.

Ask JT Ficociello and Mike Blackoicz, the owners of an upstart operation called Bri Bri Springs and run out of Ficocillo’s hotel in Puerto Viejo. As of now, the business is small and operates with handmade equipment. The duo is only allowed to produce and sell beer at the hotel, and when they wanted to expand their operation, they weren’t sure how to proceed. Their municipality had no precedent for a beer brewing business, Ficocillo said.

The lack of infrastructure and laws coupled with bureaucracy aren’t the only problems brewers face. In addition, the permits are costly and a lawyer is necessary to help navigate red tape. Importing ingredients and equipment from places like the U.S. drives up the prices of these products. Add it all together, and brewing becomes a pricy venture.

Another challenge to the movement is the beverage giant Florida Ice and Farm Co. S.A. The company has a virtual monopoly over the beer industry in Costa Rica, with its two highest selling beers, Imperial and Pilsen, dominating the market. In October, Cerveceria Costa Rica S.A. (CCR), a subsidiary of Florida Ice and Farm, purchased North American Breweries Holdings, LLC (NAB), one of the largest independently owned beer companies in the U.S. This move makes Florida Ice and Farm an even bigger problem for the craft beer revolution here, as it now faces an industrial opponent comparable to that which U.S. microbreweries are up against.

The revolution’s future

As the craft beer movement continues to grow, and Ticos are turned onto brewing, Arce and the members of the Craft Brewing Association say they aim to provide a support system. The association will also work with the local government to help solidify regulations and taxes, and provide education on the laws, history and process of brewing.

Back at Stan’s Irish Pub, one of the four owners of TreintayCinco presents his beer to the judges for the competition. The other contestants wait their turn to share their hoppy  creations – new alternatives in Costa Rica’s beer market. While the judges sample the beer, Castro leans over the table and says, “In this country, like any other, options are a good thing … Options are a symbol of freedom.”

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