The landscape of beer in Puerto Rico is just beginning to switch over from the mass market light lagers to something with more cojones. The market on the island has been dominated by Medalla (local light lager), Corona, Heineken and a few other light lagers but with the explosion of craft beers in the American market, palates are changing on the island as well. So this past weekend I had the fortune of speaking to Juan Torres Monllor, Owner and Brew Master at Boqueron Brewing Company in Boquerón Puerto Rico.
In my last visit to the island I had such a hard time finding any craft beers that I ended up at the only two locations on the island I could find Old Harbor Brewery and Las Palmas Station. Needless to say the craft beer situation was a little bleak but I made the best of it and enjoyed my stay mainly with rum. The tides a’ turnin’ and now local craft beer is beginning to chip away at the market and new craft breweries are beginning to sprout up, like Boqueron Brewery that started in 2011. During this time they had a small half barrel system handling only four clients on the west coast of the island. But the demand was so great they upgraded their equipment in 2013 to a five barrel system now and the operation is no longer just a one man show. Juan remembers how it was at the beginning saying “We did about 8 cases of beer a week (in 2011) and if we sent 2 kegs to a client on a Thursday by Saturday it would be gone.”
Spending 12 years in New Hampshire, Juan developed a knowledge of home brewing in college and brought that knowledge with him to the island. So why a brewery in Puerto Rico, “I didn’t want to leave the island” but he wanted quality brews that he had not only in New Hampshire but also through local distributors on the island selling craft beer at restaurant prices. “Things went bad in the economy and I was in San Francisco interviewing and came across a Sabco system” the rest is history. ” I didn’t know that equipment existed … when I was brewing, it was either a 5 gallon system or a half of a million dollar system” now they are brewing on a five barrel system.
On Changing Culture
The beer market of Puerto Rico mainly consists of light lagers that are refreshing to drink and allow one to beat the heat on an island that sees year round temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Educating the population of Puerto Rico on craft beer and how to embrace it, seems to be a major hurdle. “Drinking a beer here at 40 degrees is hot” Juan comments. “People here rather drink beer from a bottle then on draft” which is a stark contrast to the idea of kegged beer “beer on tap” is fresher than beer in a bottle. Draft beer in Puerto Rico barely exists and breaking down that stigma to embrace somthing new might be another challenge for Puerto Ricans. “We have tried to compare beers with wine because wine is something that is fairly big here and we use that as leverage … who wants to drink a red wine on a beach with some pork rinds? No one! But a nice IPA goes well to beat the heat and pork rinds”
With the changing of beer culture also comes tailoring of some beers to the palates and the climate of Puerto Rico. “We made a milk stout on the lighter side to make it more refreshing” they have also had success using local ingredients like local Cafe Gripiñas coffee for their coffee porter. Juan defines this tailoring of beers as the Caribe Ale Experience “brewing a flavorful beer with a kick” his kick is tailoring those beer to the market and making them lighter and more refreshing not heavy in body or with unfamiliar ingredients. This approach allows him to appeal to Puerto Ricans by giving them what they like and want in a beer without them writing off the beer before they even try it.
On Brewing in Puerto Rico
Something that seems foreign to homebrewers and something we take for granted are the availability of ingredients for small brewers, not in the states. Their main challenge is hops and with so many craft breweries here in the United States, he finds it hard to secure hops because of hop contracts and overall demand. “the exponential growth in the states is hurting us because we can not find all the hops we could a few years ago. The production is being pre-sold. So crops for 2015 are already sold.”
Along with the education and supply issues, the tax on beer on the island is very high, so the profit for small breweries is difficult “we are taxed $2.55 on every gallon of beer.” Hopefully with the invested interest and the immersion of Puerto Rico in craft beers, that might change. For now they still have to contend with those challenges and continue to produce quality beers and educating Puerto Ricans on the craft market.
Boqueron Brewery and Puerto Rico
I look forward to the continued success of Boqueron Brewery, they have really set the bar high. They not only started to chisel away at the prevailing beer culture but they are also educating the population on what quality beer means and that quality doesn’t have to mean flavorless and super cold. With brewers like Juan I know that the island I call the motherland, is in good hands and the brew revolution is here and will continue to succeed! Support the local craft scene and if you are in Puerto Rico looking to grab some local craft beer, swing over to Boqueron Brewery or find them at one of their west coast locations! Salud!