Risk-Takers and Experimenters:
The Pioneers of Costa Rica’s Craft Beer Industry
Over the past decade, craft breweries have introduced competition to the country’s national beers.
The room echoes with the din of machinery. Giant, space-age looking stainless steel fermenters take center stage. These machines pump out more than 400,000 liters of beer each year, or almost 1 million pints.
Ten years ago, this operation was unimaginable, so today, Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company has much to be proud of. The brewery pioneered the craft brewing industry in Costa Rica, a field that has disseminated from the suburbs of San José to other cities.
Perhaps it seems unnatural that beer industry would exist in Costa Rica. Most of the ingredients necessary for brewing—hops, barley, malt—are not produced in Central America. In fact, water is the only ingredient Costa Rican brewers don’t have to import.
However, beer is the only alcoholic playground available in Costa Rica. Grapes don’t grow in the country’s tropical climate, so winemaking is out of the question, and the government controls all liquor distillation. So brewing it is.
Mary Clay Kline
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Mary Clay Kline
In addition to Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company’s five flagship beers, brewers craft seasonal beers that incorporate local flavors, like hibiscus. Benjamín Chaverri López is the brewery’s marketing director. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter | Mary Clay Kline
Before Costa Rican craft brewing came into play, there were the national beers. Until a little over a decade ago, the beer market was saturated with the mass-produced lagers Pilsen and Imperial, and there were few other options. But after the craft brewing renaissance happened in the United States, American expats in Costa Rica craved the beers they could enjoy when visiting home.
This is how Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company came to be. Founders Peter Gilman and Brandon Nappy conceptualized the brewery while on a Costa Rican beach, craving the flavorful beer their adopted country lacked.
Libertas, a quaffable golden ale, and Segua, a flavorful, malty red ale, were the two flagship beers Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company released in 2011. Libertas is the Latin word for liberty, said Benjamín Chaverri Lopez, CRCBC’s marketing director.
“Basically, we named that beer because we broke that monopoly that Florida [Ice & Farm, which produces Imperial] or that anyone had on the country that wanted to produce beer here, so libertas, or liberty or freedom, was our way of saying that we have freedom to brew and freedom of choice for the market,” Chaverri said. “It’s super evident that when you put them side-by-side and you would drink our Libertas and you would drink a mass-produced beer, the mass-produced beer would taste like it’s been watered down.”
Segua was named after a Costa Rican legend in which Segua is a Medusa-like woman who moonlights as a seductress. When Segua reveals her true self, she scares men from their flirtatious manners.
“Like the legend that sends men away from their womanizing ways, we thought of Segua as like that beer that sets your palate away from lesser beers,” Chaverri said. “So once you like Segua, you would never go back to mass-produced beers because you have a new standard for what you want flavor-wise.”
With these two beers and others CRCBC has developed over time, the brewery truly has set the standard for quality beer. The brewery uses Costa Rican fruits, such as mango or cás, a local sour guava, to impart sweet or citrusy notes into some of their seasonal beers. The brewery has 10 on-site taps and ships kegs and bottles across the country.
The fermenters at CRCBC hold 30 liters, or three batches, of beer. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Unfortunately, some brewers aren’t able to achieve all that CRCBC has.
Uriel Ronen founded Santa Elena’s Monteverde Beer House in 2014 after experimenting with brewing at home. The beer house opened with two of Ronen’s brews at the forefront, but four years later, the restaurant only serves beers brewed by others.
Ronen is a civil engineer and businessman by trade, and his love for food and drink is an asset.
“I think it’s a great culture. It’s fun. To brew, to have different tastes, to have diversity is great,” Ronen said. “We have only two, Pilsen and Imperial, which are lagers that are light lagers are very good for the beach, for the heat, but not for Monteverde. It’s totally different here.”
Ronen said heavy, dark beers are more appropriate for the mountainous Monteverde climate, and he said he hopes to start brewing this style of beers again soon. But as Ronen has learned, brewing can be tough. Chaverri said that liquor laws require Costa Rican brewers to pay 47 percent of their profits in taxes. In addition, alcohol cannot be sold less than 400 meters (about a quarter mile) from schools and churches. This is an issue Ronen has run into while opening his latest ventures, The Open Kitchen and Tap Room.
"we thought of Segua as like that beer that sets your palate away from lesser beers."
-Benjamín Chaverri López
Monteverde Beer House provides a variety of brews in Santa Elena. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell | Sam MacDonald
Fortunately for other budding brewers, craft beer is a relatively new field, and the community is close-knit. Those who have seemingly mastered the trade are quick to give advice to those who are just starting out.
Katie Clark and her husband Danny opened Puddle Fish Brewery in Jacó about a year ago. Clark said that brewers at Costa Rica’s Craft Brewery as well as at Treintaycinco, another brewery near San Jose, were key players in helping Puddle Fish find success. The expat restaurateurs were grateful for the advice.
“And for us, it’s exciting because in the restaurant industry, it’s more competition. You know, there’s not as many people sharing things,” Clark said. “But in the brewing industry, it’s a totally different thing.”
For Clark, Jacó was the ideal place to open a brewery, not just because the beach has been her home for the past eight years, but because of the scenery.
“We want it to be a casual gathering place where, I don’t know, people that appreciate the sea and the ocean and things that we love can feel really comfortable here,” Clark said.
Perhaps more importantly than producing hip, climate-appropriate lagers or giving national beers some competition, the craft brewing industry has allowed brewers in Costa Rica to develop a passion for their work. Even though Chaverri’s job doesn’t involve actually brewing beer, he has read countless books on the subject of brewing, and he aims to learn as much as possible about the process because he loves the intricacies.
“When it becomes something more than just a job, when you believe in what you do and, I mean, blindfoldingly believe in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and you kind of share the same beliefs that the company shares, it’s kind of different,” Chaverri said. “You don’t necessarily feel like you’re doing your job. It’s like you’re doing something that you've been called to do.”