One Man’s Quest for Cuban Beer

Article and photos by Miguel Machado  

As I make my way through El Sauce, an open-air Cuban nightclub on the outskirts of Havana, cigar smoke fills the air. Sunday is disco night and couples dance to Bomba and 1970’s Top 40 hits. Many of the young men and women are dressed in the latest fashions from Miami. Older men are wearing guayaberas. On my way to the bar, I pass a man in his 20’s wearing a blazer and cowboy hat.

I don’t usually drink, but I decided to commemorate my first night in Cuba with a local Cuban beer, Bucanero. But at the bar I find a refrigerator with the Bucanero logo is dark and empty. Cristal, a Peruvian beer, is the only one available.

While Bucanero is advertised widely in Cuba, the beer is only available in upscale locations that cater to tourists.

And so, during my stay, Bucanero became my white whale.

Local beer in Cuba, I learned, is in scarce supply. Bucanero is only available at hotels and paladares, privately run restaurants, places that most local Cubans cannot afford. Bucanero has become synonymous with privileged tourists.

Under new, more flexible regulations on small Cuban businesses that went into effect in 2011, the brewing of beer is not technically illegal, but for now Cuban regulations make it very difficult for a cuentapropista – a self-employed Cuban entrepreneur – to establish a microbrewery. For one thing, the brewing equipment, especially heavy fermentation vats, are difficult, if not impossible, to purchase in Cuba or to import under even the more lenient small business regulations.

Cuba remains heavily reliant on government imports, with as much as 90 percent of food coming from abroad, but the government prevents cuentapropistas from importing more than what they can carry through customs. Foreign beers like the Dutch Heineken, Spanish beer Mahou, and Peruvian Cristal are comparatively easy to find. It is not uncommon to see cases of imported beer in some otherwise sparsely stocked mini markets. But no Bucanero.

Halved cans of Bucanero are used to hold the shape of food
Halved cans of Bucanero are used as food molds, contrasting its upscale marketing.

Beer has always been important in Cuba, so much so that during the country’s so-called Special Period, the post-Soviet era of exceptional economic hardship, young Cuban couples were said to have married because the government offered newlyweds cases of beer.

Old Havana plazas are plastered with advertisements for Bucanero, as are the display windows of local markets, but I couldn’t find the beer on the markets’ shelves.

Three restaurants I visited, all paladares, served Bucanero. One upscale hotel restaurant served Bucanero in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic forms. And on a Friday night, at Havana’s famous jazz club, La Zorra Y El Cuervo, I sipped a cold Bucanero as jazz band Michel Herrera y Joven Jazz performed.

Even as Bucanero has become monopolized by the foreign tourist trade, I couldn’t help but marvel at the surprising ways the cans pop up in everyday Cuban life. At a farm just outside Havana, farmer Fernando Funes grows his seedlings in cans of Bucanero, cut in half and filled with soil, before planting them in his fields. The proprietress of the casa particular, a Cuban version of a bed and breakfast where I stayed, also cuts the cans in half to hold the shape of flan she prepares for dessert.

This repurposing of Bucanero beer cans is a testament not only to Cuban ingenuity, but also to the country’s ubiquitous shortages.

I thought about these circumstances as I sit in a paladar on a recent Saturday afternoon with the rain-soaked streets to my back. Outside, the sky over Matanzas is one looming cloud, grey and opaque. Though the rain has stopped, water drains from rooftop gutters, cascading down worn facades. In Cuba, where every town is marked by urban decay, rain has a way of making everything feel much more run-down. But I sit inside, protected from the weather, watching music videos on a flat screen TV, sipping my last beer in Cuba, a Bucanero.