Yenisel Rodríguez Pérez
HAVANA TIMES – The economic crisis of the 1990s led Cubans to produce a broad variety of alcoholic beverages through traditional and innovative methods. Many of these survive in the popular imaginary, be it because of a nostalgic recollection of those difficult years or simply because they are a means of producing an alternative product at a low cost.
Unique forms of rum, aguardiente, wine and liquor were produced at the time using home distillation and fermentation techniques. Many of these were given creative and suggestive names, such as chispa e’ tren (“train spark”), azuquin, “bubbly wine”, “take-yer-panties-off” and many others.
The production of these homemade beverages has decreased over time. There are many reasons for this, but none has anything to do with a decrease in the price of industrially-produced alcoholic beverages.
Having a drink in Cuba continues to be more of a luxury than a popular habit. A sad exception to this rule is offered by the “ration-store rum”, sold at an affordable price by the State, a product which leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality and purity. There’s also the traditional, homemade wine that some enthusiasts continue to produce, despite the high price of cane sugar.
Any mention of the precarious situation surrounding drinking in Cuba must include an alcoholic beverage that has acquired an almost mythical status among Cubans over the past twenty or so years: our much celebrated beer.
Beer is the pricy beverage par excellence in Cuba (yet another detail that sets us apart as a nation internationally).
Here, popular culture again plays an important role, but in the negative sense, for, as we are devoid of any tradition when it comes to making beer at home (not so with the other alcoholic beverages mentioned above), the demand for this product builds up without a viable “escape route” in sight.
Here is where the question comes up: why don’t Cubans have a tradition of making beer through traditional means?
Is it a purely historical matter, stemming from the preponderance of wine-drinking cultures in Latin America and the strong predilection for rum that characterizes the Caribbean?
Perhaps it’s because the malting process, essential to beer production, consists in the germination of soft cereals, a procedure foreign to Latin American wisdom, as maize (our cereal) does not require malting to produce alcohol.
In Cuba, cereals are for the most part considered a form of food. The alcohol for our homemade rice “wine”, in fact, is obtained through the fermentation of cane sugar, and the rice grain is merely used for flavor.
The seriousness of our predicament, however, demands that we think outside the box. There is perhaps no other Latin American country whose citizens have been denied beer as Cubans have for decades. In our case, therefore, need must prevail over tradition.
In keeping with this conclusion, some friends of mine and I have set out to produce a homemade Cuban beer, working with the materials we have here and tracking down any recorded experience that may exist or may have existed in the country (a tradition that never took root for a given reason).
I would be grateful to anyone who knows of attempts at producing these alcoholic beverages in Latin America or elsewhere if they would share their experience with us, so that we may find a way to produce homemade beer in Cuba.