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Deep in the Honduran Jungle, an Unexpected Brewery Awaits

June 21, 2018

By Christen Kadkhodai, June 21, 2018

It had been a harrowing four days for this “gringo,” who a few months earlier acquired a lodge and brewery in the then “murder capital of the world.” With only a handful of customers, little money and on the verge of opening his brewery with no beer, Robert Durrette, who prefers Bobby, used airline miles and $100 to fly to Mexico City in pursuit of yeast. He was not interested in tacos and world-class tequila, but in the twelve-hour layover in Houston where an old college friend procured a brick of yeast and passed it off to him in the airport terminal. He needed the lively microscopic fungus for his first small batch of beer.

Of course, Mexican customs officials wanted to know why Durrette was bringing fifty pounds of white powder into the country. “Cerveza,” Durrette said.

The customs agent raised his eyebrows.

“Levadura,” Durrette said in Spanish. “Yeast for…cerveza. Cerveza…homebrew!”

The official shrugged and asked, “Cerveza artesanal?”

Durrette nodded and the official waved him through.

“In four days my business was saved,” Durrette recounts.

Nahun Rodriguez

Had I been Durrette’s entrepreneurship professor during his time at University of Mary Washington in Virginia, I would have flunked this idea to purchase D&D Brewery in rural Honduras. Durrette barely had any brewing experience, and to make matters worse, microbrews were not exactly welcome in Honduras. Like most Central Americans, Hondurans take special pride in their national beers: Cheap, uninspiring light ales served ice-cold with napkins twirled around their bottlenecks. None use 100% malt, but all are 100% nostalgia.  

None of this stopped Hondurans from bestowing Durrette—a bald, six-foot-two Virginian—with the honorific, “Don Robert,” upon arrival in 2011. Don’t be fooled by his slick head and all that white powder talk, Durrette is a do-gooder. It takes about two seconds to figure that out once you have ventured out to his middle-of-nowhere brewery in Lago Yojoa, Honduras.

"The brewery was really run down when I bought it,” Durrette says. “But I just had this gut feeling. I said, ‘I think I could make this into a really neat place to come and explore Honduras—to prove people wrong.’”

There’s that do-gooder Durrette, again, putting words like “neat place” together with zero irony. But how did he get here? Durrette became somewhat of a regular at D&D before he became owner. At the time, he was working in San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial center and most violent city. He would escape to Lago Yojoa on the weekends to hike, after which he liked to pop by D&D “mostly for the quesadillas” and not for what he describes as “weird, cloudy homebrew.” One day there was a sign that read: “Brewery for sale, owner wants to retire,” Durrette says, and so he bought it for a pittance. In just a couple of years, he turned D&D into the country’s first microbrewery, a respite for backpackers tramping the “Gringo Trail” from the Bay Islands to Nicaragua, and a destination unto itself.

The beers are crafted start to finish by Honduran hands, a fact Durrette reiterates several times during our conversations. He relays tales about his baptism by fire learning the art of brewing in a place without the necessary ingredients: "Brewers want to tell you about their best pale ale, with coriander shavings and all that, but most won't tell you the errors they make and how many things go wrong in the process,” he says. “Even if you’re strict about your method, every now and then you crank out a beer and it tastes awful.”  

Nahun Rodriguez

My first distinct memory of D&D is sitting under lantern-light at one of the lodge’s wooden tables sipping crisp pale ale. The grounds of the lodge are covered with plants I have seen only manicured and decorating sunrooms in polite pots. Tubed Christmas lights snake up the rafters, and a cozy illuminated swimming pool glows just twenty yards away. Beyond the pool lies matte black jungle darkness. I hear what the waiter informs me are possums scuttling across the roof overhead.

Suddenly, the roar of oversized raindrops slapping the metal roof replaces the sound of possums. Durrette calls this surrounding tropical density “a microclimate all its own,” absorbing up to seven inches of precipitation in an hour, a “terrifying” pace, he says. But, as a guest, there is something strangely peaceful about getting caught in the middle of a rainstorm at Lago Yojoa, the country’s largest lake. The young Hondurans next to me slam their fists on tabletops, laughing at jokes seamlessly told in English and Spanish. Their tables are crowded with beer mugs, cell phones with no reception and a Honduran favorite: Steaming pots of Anafre—pureed, spiced refried beans with thick-cut tortilla chips. Even with a backdrop of brooding jungle and the windless deluge splattering into the outdoor dining area, the mood is festive and light.

Does it sound like I’m drinking the Bobby Durrette Kool-Aid? The answer is yes, and it was a 4.1% pale ale called Peña Blanca. Other styles on tap include Meámbar Ale, a 4.5% American amber; Porter Cafetero, a stronger 5.3% chocolate coffee porter; True Blue Ale and Raspberry Rigiosa, a 4.5% fruity blueberry and raspberry ale; and Rambutan Pale Ale, a 4.2% ale made seasonally from the hairy rambutan fruits.

After a round or two of beers, guests can retreat to the lodge, which consists of twenty-one rustic rooms. This isn’t “glamping.” No one’s pinning shots of these rooms on Pinterest, but they’re clean and comfortable with basic furniture, patterned textiles and a few pieces of Honduran art dotting the walls. The nightly campfires draw all the guests, from chatty gaggles of missionaries in matching t-shirts to stoned backpackers, together. All of them sit side-by-side in Adirondack chairs, watching the fire crackle and the smoke waft up into the leafy canopy. At first, the “Gringo Trail,” on which D&D is a stopover, brought mostly tourists, but demographics have shifted through the years. Today, Hondurans make up over half of Durrette’s guests, a more dependable clientele for a country enduring its fair share of political vicissitudes, violence and just plain bad press.

Nahun Rodriguez

Durrette’s initial yeast crisis was just one of many hitches along the way of establishing his brewery, some of them rookie business and brewing mistakes, others hazards endemic to working in a developing country. Durrette knew what he was getting into. He wasn’t the clueless graduate stumbling upon D&D during some gnarly backpacking journey. He worked for an NGO in Honduras for two years before he bought D&D. That experience changed his philosophy. He talks about installing a water tower in a remote village, only to find it defunct just a couple of years later. The village lacked the money and know-how to replace or repair the faulty pump.

Quoting a local farmer Durrette says, “At the end of the day, a bad result is the same as no result at all.” He adds, “Why do we continue to put so much development aid into a country where per capita income has not risen by more than $1,000 in fifty years?”

It’s the first time in our interview Durrette gets animated and stops using the word “neat.”

“I don’t think Honduras gets a fair shake. Sure, there are structural problems with the economy, but people need to give the country and its people a chance. After working for an NGO, I wanted to see what kind of impact I could make on people’s lives as an entrepreneur. Everyone thought I was crazy to buy the brewery, but I wanted to prove them wrong. I love to prove people wrong.”

Seven years later, Durrette has not only proved people wrong he has changed the course of tourism in this corner of Honduras, pumping roughly $100,000 into the local economy with his business, creating sustainable jobs in tourism that impart skills beyond service.    

Nahun Rodriguez

Everyone who works at D&D lives in the village of Los Naranjos, ten miles down the road. Blanca, who chose to remain anonymous in this article, started working for Durrette a few years ago. “I won’t be working for you for long,” she informed him in Spanish shortly after she started.

Durrette told me he smiled and said, “I don't want you to work here forever either.”

Blanca was one of Durrette’s best employees. For three years she pulled extra shifts at the brewery. She didn’t have a cell phone and didn’t go out with colleagues after work. She lived away from her husband, paying his tuition for an Electrical Engineering program at the local university and slowly built her own home in Los Naranjos. With every paycheck, Durrette saw her add another modest element to her house. First she got the concrete blocks. Then she bought doors. Finally she purchased windows, modeling them after the ones at D&D. Once she completed her house and her husband completed his program and gained employment, she promptly gave notice and quit.

Durrette loves Blanca’s story, one of many he relates over a frosty mug of D&D beer. He’s already onto his next project, kick-starting Farmer’s First, a coffee company that compensates farmers four times what they make with fair trade schemes. And just like that, Don Robert the do-gooder is at it again, making Honduras a better place one sip at a time.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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