Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Beer Cruise: Puerto Rico

If I sound a little sharp in this entry, it's probably because I just watched my beloved Golden Gopher basketball team again look completely inept against a very average Michigan team. So there's that. And then there's this: I took in the game at Joe Senser's, a Twin Cities sports bar chain that fits a small, but widespread niche: dozens of wall-sized TVs and sporting events, greasy food and mass appeal beer. Not a favorite destination of mine, but it works well for a guys night out to eat.

Here's my beef. We arrived shortly before happy hour ended, and the $2.50 domestic tap special piqued my interest, only because Grain Belt Premium was on the (unpublished) tap list. After some minor inquiries, the waitress informed me that Premo did not fall under the "domestic" category, though it is brewed less than 100 miles away, in New Ulm, MN. Sure, Golden, Colorado is domestic, but classic Minnesota beer? Sorry. I ordered a Sierra Nevada and didn't bother asking whether the California-brewed cerveza counted as domestic. "That's not on special," the waitress made sure I knew. I nodded. "Yeah, I figured you knew that."

I sense a little beer snob oozing out of me. Most of the places I frequent these days offer coast-to-coast draughts, what one might call 'domestic,' and have a handful (if not more) of across the pond imports as well. Maybe it's too much to ask Senser's to change their happy hour wording from 'domestic' to 'garbage' for clarity's sake. I doubt their clientele demands the distinction.

Which leads me to Puerto Rico. If, hypothetically, a beer bar carried a Puerto Rican beer, would that qualify as domestic? I doubt it. I didn't plan on this segue, and it's a pretty rough one, so I'll end all attempts at a smooth transition here.

We arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at about 5 pm of the second night of our cruise. I'd done some very brief research on the number of local beers produced at each of our destinations prior to departure, and wasn't expecting much of any of them. So when the only local beer offered at our first three stops was Medalla Light, I wasn't surprised. Call me crazy, but I gave it slightly higher marks than my peers at RateBeer, calling it "as drinkable, if not more so, than any domestic lite." It's important to note that no matter the integrity of a beer drinker, the circumstances under which a beer is consumed can make a difference. A Medalla Light on a cold February Minneapolis night probably would guarantee a spot on the year-end worst list. A Medalla Light in a courtyard cafe on a beautiful Puerto Rican evening rates a little better. I gave it a star and a half. It's clearly a terrible beer, but it tastes better in 80 degrees.

As we meandered back toward the ship, however, we stumbled upon a local brewery, Old Harbor Brewery. They offered five craft beers; the four staples included a light lager, pilsner, pale ale and stout, and the seasonal "taina" beer was a nut brown. I sampled all five, and when the bartender noticed me jotting down specifics and notes on a napkin, offered to send me home with some literature about the beers and brewery.

The Santo Viejo Pilsner was voted best pilsner of the south at the 2008 United States Beer Tasting Championships, and was quite nice. It was much sweeter than any pilsner I've had, and as one who isn't a huge fan of the typical pilsner hop, I enjoyed the contrast.

The Coqui Golden Lager was obviously their attempt to hit the modest needs of most social beer drinkers and I'm sure would do nicely in that regard.

Their signature beer, the Old Harbor Brew Pale Ale, was my favorite of the five. A delicate beer, one that required focused swigs to pick up the flavors. I do enjoy beers that have in-your-face flavor, but subtlety is almost more impressive when it's pulled off. This beer had a balance of floral fruitiness and mouth-sticking dryness, but didn't knock you over with either. It didn't blow your taste buds away; it required them to work a bit.

The Kolfresi Stout is the highest rated of the four standards on RateBeer, and it's not hard to see why. It has the depth that many serious beer drinkers need, but isn't a test of one's commitment to a task. You can drink a pint of it no problem. It struck me as a pretty standard stout, one you wouldn't necessarily tell stories of to your grandkids, but one I would have no problem drinking consistently.

The seasonal beer had been available for about a week when we visited, and is still unrated on RateBeer...I could be the first, which would be fun. I like nut browns, especially because they aren't easy to find. Yes, there's Newcastle, but the style does not have a lot of mass popularity. Maybe we'll see a boom in them in the next couple years, as craft breweries seem to latch on to the styles that are going unproduced at a particular moment in time. What I especially loved about this one was its smoothness. This was a beer that I think even the most casual beer drinkers could guzzle, because it doesn't overwhelm you with unfamiliar pop and it doesn't kill you on the back end. It isn't as complex as the meatiest brews, but if I wasn't in the mood for a hop bomb or a juicy stout, I think a few creamy nut browns would suffice.

It was a pleasant way to spend an hour in San Juan, and though I'll probably never return, I won't soon forget the experience of trying the best of what Puerto Rico had to offer.

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