When bartender Minelis Mendez-Vargas sits down with me at La Taberna Lúpulo in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, to chat about the island’s ever-growing craft beer scene, she has a taster glass filled with R.E.B.L. Brewery Kasiri in her hand to share with me. I’ve had it before—in fact, it’s hard sometimes to get myself to drink anything other than the IPA from this Utuado-based brewery. It’s made with a base of cassava (a.k.a. yuca), a starchy root vegetable that has been locally cultivated since the time of the native Taínos and is often served fried, mashed, in escabeche, or replacing plantain in the staple dish mofongo. To have turned it into beer was a stroke of genius. The result is smooth, with mellow hops, and the kind of beer I could drink every day for an afternoon reprieve.
Mendez has been working in the craft beer industry here since 2010—from educating customers to now serving as a sales representative for Leatherback Brewing from the nearby island of St. Croix—and she has witnessed the massive growth of the industry first-hand.. “I remember when we opened many years ago, people only knew about Abita’s Purple Haze, because it was the first beer that they saw in shops,” she tells me.
Here on the island, the most popular brew is Medalla Light, a mass-produced lager that goes down especially well on the beach, and so, Mendez is quick to say, beer has never been a new concept for Puerto Rico. But craft beer has started new conversations and converts. “They ask for any commercial beer, but then they're open,” she says of Lúpulo’s customers, who could choose to go not far down the block and get three cans of that Medalla for only $5. But the bar is perpetually packed with tourists and locals alike, and the craft selections are especially popular.
“We are an island, so we’re limited,” says Mendez, in terms of availability of ingredients. Every three months or so, though, she sees that new styles are coming out from Puerto Rican brewers.
And then, of course, there are the staples such as the Kasiri, which comes off as tailor-made for hot-weather palates without being simplistic. And its innovative use of a local ingredient is characteristic of the approach of local brewers, from the foundational Boquerón Brewing Co. to the up-and-coming Boxlab. Local fruits such as passion fruit, guava, grapefruit, and quenepa are common adjuncts, and each brewer expresses their roots to the island in a different way, whether in naming, branding, or collaborations with nearby farmers.
Whether east, west, south, central, or right outside the San Juan metropolitan area, there is a craft brewery nearby—and only more to come. Lúpulo has reigned as the most high-profile, but El Tap in Santurce and Rincón Beer Company in the surfer-heavy west have been pushing both local selections and exciting beers from around the world. Puerto Rico’s flourishing brewing scene proves that beer can make a small island feel very, very big.
The Aviators Brewery, San Lorenzo
This brewery opened in January 2019 in the eastern part of the island that focuses on German styles, but it’s the Gallo Pinto red ale made mainly with fruity Mosaic hops that has proven to be its most widely available and popular.
Boquerón Brewing, Cabo Rojo
This brewery from the southwest has maybe the most famous canned craft beer on the island: Crash Boat IPA, named for a nearby beach. It produces a wide swath of styles with a heavy focus on pale ales, and the names tend to pay homage to the island’s resources, from the rainforest of El Yunque to the uninhabited island Caja de Muertos. When the season is right, Boquerón makes one of the few pumpkin beers worth drinking.
Boxlab Brewing Company, Aguadilla
Boxlab has emerged as a favorite on the island, and with some of the most stylish branding, to boot. Its Mejunje, flavored with lemongrass, ginger, lemon peel, and honey, inspired by a local cough remedy; the hazy, citrusy Lumen IPA; and a hop-flavored non-alcoholic sparkling water.
Dragon Stone Abbey, Caguas
Outside of Dragon Stone’s tasting room, you’re most likely to find its Saphira farmhouse ale at restaurants and bars, a somewhat tart session beer. But you should nevertheless visit the taproom, called Brew!!! Taller Experimental, in Río Grande for more of this Belgian-style brewery.
F.O.K. Brewing, Caguas
As one of the first craft breweries to emerge in Puerto Rico, F.O.K.’s bombastic labeling reflects its cheeky name. The brewery has made mango-habanero and guava-pineapple IPAs, as well as one of the few sours being produced on the island, but its 1.2 Blond Ale is a staple.
Ocean Lab Brewing Co., Carolina
Ocean Lab’s presence on the island now almost rivals that of Medalla, and its tasting room is one of the most fun and accessible, with a full food menu and view of the beach. The hazy Mambo tastes like pure passion fruit, tart and refreshing, and Hop Diver IPA marries grapefruit with other local citrus flavors for a beer that tastes exactly like Ocean Lab’s tagline: “born on the beach.”
Old Harbor Brewery, Carolina
Back in 1996, Old Harbor opened up in Old San Juan overlooking the area where the cruise ships dock. Now located a bit outside the metro area with a new tasting room, it has maintained a focus on German styles. The Coquí, a lager named for a ubiquitous local frog, is a light, refreshing nod to the tropical locale.
Pura Vida Brewery, Cabo Rojo
Pura Vida is a woman-owned-and-operated brewery in a town on the southwest coast of the island. Founded in 2018, it expanded its production in 2019. Pura Vida’s Hyggelig Amber Ale is medium-bodied and slightly sweet from the use of local honey.
R.E.B.L. Brewery, Utuado
R.E.B.L. is one of the most exciting craft breweries on the island. From the popular Kasiri to REBlución (a local-coffee-fueled “tropical stout”) to Fusión Boricua-Chilena (the first collaboration between a Puerto Rican and foreign brewery) R.E.B.L. is pushing the limits of what is possible with local ingredients.
Señorial Brewing Co., Ponce
While there’s no shortage of IPAs in Puerto Rico, Señorial’s fruity La Ceiba, named for a local tree, could be among the best. This brewery in the island’s second-biggest city has also put out a smoked porter, an oatmeal stout, and a sour made with the seasonal, super-tart quenepa fruit.
ZURC Brähaus Craft Beers, Coamo
ZURC has produced the most sour beers on the island, like the Guava PHreak, which is aged with real guava, but the brewery is at its best with its coffee-packed Aeterna Schwarzbier, a dark lager that doesn’t make sense for the climate until its dry, bold flavor takes hold on the tongue.
Illustration by Sunny Eckerle.