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Thursday, June 11, 2015


Mike Shess, West Coaster Craft Beer Magazine Founder & Publisher,
on a mission to taste Cuban beer

Photography by Bruce Henderson, April 2015, Trinidad, Cuba
Editor’s note: On a daily basis from June 1 thru June 30, 2015 Pillar to Post online magazine is featuring articles, photos and insights resulting from a recent group tour, an adventure we dubbed: the April 23 Brigade’s Tour of Cuba 2015. 


Pillar to Post interviewed Michael Shess, a California-based beer journalist as to what he liked about Cuban brewed suds.  Here’s what he had to say:

Q.  What were your beer expectations going into Cuba?
A. It wasn't my intention to make it a postman’s holiday so I really didn’t go out of my way to find craft beer in Cuba.  But it happened.  With such high humidity and the tropical sun scorching us at 100 F, I grabbed the first beer I could find.  Turned out it was a Cerveza Cristal.  It’s a refreshing, dry and bright lager that really hit the spot after getting toasted by the sun.

Q: Is Cristal a craft beer?
A: No, it's a macro - meaning it's produced by a larger, commercial brewery vs. a small mom-and-pop operation. It’s made by the Holguin brewery of Cerveceria Bucanero S.A., a Cuban brewery that also produces Cristal’s sister beer Bucanero and Bucanero Max‘s (both darker beer). Bucanero, or "Bucie" as the locals say, had a skunkier metallic flavor that I didn't care for. I never saw Bucanero Max.

Q:  Tell us about the microbrewery you visited in Havana?
A:  Yes, it’s in 19th century building on Plaza Vieja near the older part of Havana.  And, when I mean old we’re talking 500 years.  It’s called Factoria Cerveza Plaza Vieja.  It’s a classy looking place, beer is decent not great and the food is plentiful and cheap.  The ambience is incredible. There’s live music pouring in from the patio on the plaza into the cavernous dining room. The brewhouse is hidden in the back behind glass walls so you can peer in. Pillars, hanging lights and tile make for an art-deco sort of feel.

Q:  So, what did you think?
A:  We have the most sophisticated brewing community in the planet in San Diego, so it's tough to compare. For me it's more about the whole experience and setting. When choosing a beer, I consider the context - what am I trying to accomplish here? After roaming (and roasting) through Havana, I found myself in this classic building where small-batch beer was being created. Brewing is an art form, and I was treated to the Cuban rendition. It's like hearing an awesome cover song of your favorite band. Same song, different take.

Q:  How was the food?
A:  It was wonderful but menus were limited.  Even the best restaurants served pretty much the same.  Plenty of fresh fish.  It’s an island.  I actually got tired of lobster, but the sea bass and salmon were tops.  Delicious.  Black beans, shredded beef or pork, mainly pork, grilled veggies. Lots of bread.  I liked the fact most places gave you a complimentary Mojito as soon as you sat down (rum, mint, sodawater, cane sugar). I wish bars in San Diego offered complimentary tapas, but that’s a story for another day.

Q:  Would you go back to Cuba?
A:  Right now the only legal way is to take the tour I was on, which is called
People to People tours by Gate 1 Travel.  Both governments set up these tours in 2011 but you have to follow an agenda and see what they want you to see.  There’s very little free time on the tour.  Next time, if the embargo is still on, I’d go to Cuba via Mexico: TJ to Mexico City to Havana or Cienfuegos.  Cienfuegos is on the south coast of Cuba.  It really reminds me of the year I spent in Spain going to school.  Also, I really like the Cuban people.  They’re an island of MacGyvers.  They’ll fix anything.  Recycle anything.  Make the best of what little they have. 

Noon lunch on a very hot day and this Cristal tasted muy bueno at the newly refurbished
Hotel America's restaurant in downtown Santa Clara, Cuba.

Photo: Michael Shess
"...Tasted Bucanero, Cristal's darker, moodier sister cerveza at Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos.  For my money I'd stick to the crisper Cristal, especially in the tropics.  It's the perfect beer for Cuba," said Mike Shess, California-based beer journalist.
Cold Cristal goes great with the shredded beef and vegetables at Il Divino
restaurant in Havana
Photo: Michael Shess
Factoria Cerveza Plaza Vieja, Havana Cuba, a government run microbrewery in the Old Havana neighborhood
Interior workings of Factoria Cerveza Plaza Vieja.
Beer here is decent not great and the food is plentiful and cheap.  The ambience is incredible.
Photo: Tom Shess
Sample of Factoria's small-batch dark. 
Michael Shess, is co-founder and publisher of West Coaster, a 5-year-old San Diego-based website and monthly print magazine.  In 2014, Folio Magazine, the New York-based bible of magazine industry, named Mike Shess one of its top magazine executives under 30 years old. 

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