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San José, Costa Rica, first published Monday, Aug. 5, 2002, in Vol. 2, No. 153
Most of the process is controlled from afar
Bottling machine's speed blurs the photo
Brewery fills nearly all of the national market
By Christian Burnham
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A visit to a foreign country sets off a multitude of uncertainties in oneís mind. After frantically researching currency exchange rates, vaccinations and passport requirements, the big question eventually floats to the top. So, whatís the beer situation?

Beer-loving newcomers to San Jose may let out a sigh of relief. For a small country, Costa Rica takes its beer drinking very seriously, serving up seven national brands. Most of the beers on tap are lagers, light in color and taste, making them ideal beverages for the hot, tropical climate.

The beer manufacturing industry is dominated by Florida Bebidas, a massive beverage company located in San Jose. Florida Bebidas owns the Cervecería Costa Rica that has a virtual monopoly of the brew in Costa Rica. Their brewery, located in Alejuela, produces all seven of the nationís brands, including the two closest to Ticosí hearts, Imperial and Pilsen. The brewery also makes the three beers of the Bavaria family, Rock Ice, and Kaiser, a non-alcoholic product.
 
Photos courtesy 
of Florida Bebidas

"Such a big industry demands a tremendous infrastructure," said Carlos Francisco Echeverría, director of public relations for Florida Bebidas. "In such a small market, thereís no room for two breweries. The beer market here is completely covered by our brands. They are so well established because weíve been here for 100 years."

The companyís stranglehold on the market dates back to 1908 when the Jamaican brothers, the Lindo Morales, formed the Florida Ice & Farm Co. Located on the Pacuare River outside Colon, the company originally sent manufactured ice and other products via the railroad line to the Caribbean coast.

At that time, one of the most poplar beers of the day was Traube Pilsen, brewed by the Cevecería Traube, a brewery founded by a German settler, Jose Traube. The Florida Ice & Farm Co. bought out the Cervecería Traube in 1912 and started manufacturing its signature beer under the shortened name, Pilsen.

Since then, the beverage conglomerate has barreled over its rivals, assuring its reign as the king of Costa Rican beers. In 1958, the company merged with its biggest competitor Ortega, a Spanish brewery.

Then, the firm bought out another competitor, the Tropical brewery, located directly across the street from its corporate office in San José, and converted it into the popular juice company in 1972. In addition to fruit juice, the Tropical plant puts out Cristal, the countryís best-selling bottled water.

Cervecería Costa Rica currently produces 14 million cases of brew (336,000,000 bottles) annually. All the beers are classified as lagers, counterparts to North American brands like Budweiser and Miller. Cervecería Costa Rica uses tropical rain forest water collected by aqueducts located in Barva, north of San José in Heredia.

Imperial is by far the Costa Ricanís most famous brand, enjoying a market share of over 60 percent, said Echeverría. According to Cervecería Costa Rica,

Mash is cooked here

its well-rounded, neutral taste makes it more universally attractive to the overall population. Next in line is Pilsen with a 25 percent market share.

Due to the brewing process, Pilsen is more bitter and has more of a hops taste than Imperial. Its stronger, more malted taste attracts a rougher-edge type of beer-swiller. "Pilsen is traditionally associated with the tough guy, macho types," said Echeverría.

Included in its premium quality category is the Bavaria line, which has roots to European formulas. Bavaria is available in Gold, Dark, and Light. Cerveceria Costa Rica also offers Kaiser, one of the first non-alcoholic beers manufactured in Latin America.

The companyís newest brand to hit the market is Rock Ice. As indicated by its name, it undergoes a special ice-brewing process that extracts the bitter and sweet flavors and gives it the highest alcohol content (4.7 percent). Packaged in a clear bottle, Rock Ice is marketing to the younger generation, said the brewing company official. 

With the little elbowroom afforded by the beverage conglomerate, even large foreign breweries have been unable to break into the Tico market. Unlike other countries where the market is flooded with foreign imports, Costa Ricans remain loyal to their local brews.

Other than its seven national brands, Cerveceria Costa Rica has been producing Heineken since 1985. It is the first brewery to be granted the special licensing required from the brewery in Holland. 

Regular visits from their brew  masters ensure their quality requirements are met. Cervecería Costa Rica also distributes Budweiser from the U.S. and the Mexican favorite Corona. These brands are marketed to the expat community living here at prices up to 1,000 colons a bottle at tourist bars ($2.75).

Regardless of the watering hole, beer is most commonly served ice cold and drunk straight out of the bottle. More sophisticated drinkers will opt for a glass, while others take it "con hielo," on the rocks, perhaps with a piece of lime. A popular variation is to order a "cerveza michelada" which is your favorite beer in a glass packed with ice, four ounces of limejuice and topped with a brim of salt.

On average, a bottle of beer goes for 600 colons a pop (about $1.65). Though, for those brave enough to enter, some of the cantinas on Avenida 1 offer 2 for 500 colon specials. Tipping is rare here but most establishments add a 10 percent service charge to the bill.


 
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