For a Homemade Beer in Cuba

Yenisel Rodríguez Pérez

The two main Cuban beers sold in hard currency.
The two main Cuban beers sold in hard currency.  Photo:

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.

6 thoughts on “For a Homemade Beer in Cuba

  • Have you heard about kveik? A Norwegian yeast that likes heat? Try to get hold of it and you will get fast beer in a hot climate!

  • Hola Yenisel, como and a la vida?
    Any luck with your home brewing yet?
    Do you have access to malted cereals in Cuba? What about hops? I am pretty sure you can get the right temperature for fermentation, at least for an Ale, in a sufficiently deep basement in Havana, even more so in the winter…

  • Griffin is right – as a long time homebrewer, I agree, fermentation at the correct temperature for the type of yeast you’re using is key to a decent product.

    Lots of good resources on the subject. is a great one. If you have the time and attention to detail, and the right ingredients, you can produce beers at home better than most big breweries make.

    If you’re hard up for decent dried yeast or hops, reply and let me know – I’m sure our group of homebrewers up here in Canada may be able to help you out!

  • The brewery in Holguin which produces Bucanero is run by the Canadian brewery firm, Labatts.

    …now if Yenisel knows anybody who has a cousin who works at the brewery, he might be able to find a typically Cuban “resolver” for this problem. ; )

  • You would need water, barley or rice, yeast and hops. Great quality water is essential to beer, but in Cuba “hops” (lúpulo cervecero) is the hardest to find ingredient, the plant can’t grow in tropical climate, it used to be imported for Hatuey, Polar and the rest of the Cuban breweries from the Czech Republic by airplane to keep it fresh. It gives beer the sour characteristic taste.

  • Beer is certainly made all over Latin America. The Brazilian-Belgian giant AB-InBev is the largest brewing company in the world. Mexico has Corona, a popular light flavoured beer.

    I have made homemade beer in Canada. The only ingredients you need are water, barley, yeast and hops. The trick is in the art, the techniques you use to turn those basic ingredients into a delicious beverage. I recall one bad batch I left to ferment in a room that was too hot. The result was a ghastly brew with a sharp “bready” taste. That will be one challenge for Cuban beer makers: keeping your brew cool enough while it ferments.

    Other than barley, beer can also be made from rice, wheat, rye, oats and sorghum. Corona beer is made from barley malt, rice and/or corn, hops, yeast & water.

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