As Lazaro Villalon emerged from a row of mausoleums in Havana’s Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, his smile shone bright.
The gardener at the more than 140-acre cemetery with nearly two million interned saw in us two Americans wandering aimlessly among the stone monuments. Strolling over, he asked in very good English if we had seen the fire fighter tribute. Then, he apologized for his “very bad English,” before taking us to the massive monument we had seen earlier, without realizing its significance.
The 75-foot tall memorial paid tribute to 28 firemen who lost their lives in a historic 1890 blaze, using a variety of symbolic pieces and carved portraits. As we walked to other significant monuments, including one to “the only domino player to ever die playing the game,” Lazaro uttered the most memorable line from the trip, which surpassed even the story about the time he learned English and it had something to do with R Kelly.
“I’m happy you’re here,” our guide said. “I’m glad Americans want to be friends again.”
Articles had warned us of scam artists. Lazaro jumped right into a friendship and offered a very valuable service as a guide to one of the largest cemeteries in the Western Hemisphere. He walked with us, asking us questions and telling us about his life and struggles.
Wearing his 1997 Major League Baseball All Star Game T-shirt, Lazaro was set to walk away from us when we told him we needed to head to lunch. He expected nothing in return for his generosity. We gave him a few CUCs, the Cuban money for tourists, and he flashed his smile again before returning to his work.
Cuba was nowhere as difficult to travel to as nearly every outlet had reported prior to our departure in early February. And the experience was life changing and eye-opening.
I ventured to the island with my long-time girlfriend, Alyssa, mostly to see the culture and historical significance of America’s relative neglect. As a drinks writer, I was of course enthusiastic about the potential for a thriving beverage community. Two microbreweries in Havana quickly joined a beer bar we'd read about on our detailed agenda.
The beer in Cuba is fine, but is far from a draw. Rum is without a doubt the focus for most visitors, even those not normally into spirits. Preferably, do as the locals do, and sip on aged rum neat. It’s cheap and tasty, even the blended Havana Club Anejo Reserva, which can be found for $4 a pint at local grocers.
If straight booze isn’t palatable, Cuba offers an endless array of $3 cocktails at nearly every bar and restaurant, where mojitos are made with a full jigger of rum and a long pour for good measure.
Havana Club has left its mark across Cuba, with every bar offering a multitude of aged options. Nearly every drink is served in tall Havana Club branded glasses.
Despite the prominence of rum, the signs of beer are emerging.
The two ubiquitous brews of Cuba, Bucanero and Cristal, are both brewed by the Cuban state brewery Cerveceria Bucanero, which is owned in part by AB InBev. The beers are about you might expect of a mass-produced state beer.
Cristal was the crisper, cleaner brew of the two. Its green label with white lettering across a red band is the more aesthetically pleasing branding of the two. At 4.9% alcohol by volume, Cristal is refreshing for the lengthy hot days on the island nation.
Bucanero’s red and black pirate branding is relatively cartoonish, but extremely recognizable. The name is strewn across many mediums as one of the country’s most notable brands, much like Budweiser is in the United States.
Cristal is a tad sweeter than its higher alcohol brother Bucanero, which runs 5.4% ABV, and is often the most available. Also heavily distributed across the capital city was Presidente, the Dominican Republic-produced light lager which is very reminiscent of Cristal.
It is clear Cubans are not too experimental in their beer adventures. Sol and Heineken made rare appearances in restaurants and stores, as did Marten. At the large state-owned Hotel Presidente, Miller Lite made the only surfacing of our visit.
As widely distributed as the state-owned beers were, I’m left wondering how and why there are two small breweries in Havana.
The Cuban economy is still heavily restricted and businesses are hard to start, but the myth of bad food in Cuba is shattered by the privately-owned paladars that dot the city. Restaurants now offer superb charcoal-grilled seafood for nothing compared to the same dish in a seaside restaurant in America. El Idilio, right around the corner from our AirBnB, offered a $12 bowl of paella jammed full of flavor which could have easily filled the stomachs of five diners.
Cuba's free education has netted a nearly 100% literacy rate and an over-abundance of doctors and other highly-educated professions, who are paid no more for their work than workers in other roles. Some of the highly-educated resort to tipped jobs. Many of our taxi drivers were either working on the side or had completely abandoned their educated path, like the software engineer who returned us home the first night and spoke at length about Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s decision to remove Jon Lester and replace him with Cuban Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series
Enthusiasm wasn’t derived from the beer itself, but rather the visit President Barack Obama made to the business on his trip to Havana.”
Juan Carlos made 40 CUC on the lengthy drive south of Havana to Ernest Hemingway’s former estate, his wait, and return to trip to Old Havana for us. The cash was quick and more than most Cubans make in a month. He spent four hours with us and told us all about the Cuban culture and his economics education, which he no longer uses.
He dropped us off at the Museum of the Revolution before we made our way to the European-style Plaza de Vieja at the center of Old Havana, where we found Cerveceria Factoria Plaza Vieja.
Tall plastic beer towers filled the patio, signaling to tourists that beer was there. The server described the beers as simply as possible: “light, medium, and dark.” On the menu they read Clara, Obscura, and Negra. Most customers in the bar were drinking the lightest, straw-colored beer, but our server said the medium was the best.
It was hard to tell the beer in our three mugs apart, aside from their color. All three were more malty and sweet than the mass produced beer, but aside from a light and gradual increase in roastiness, very little separated the three when tasted side-by-side.
When asked about breweries, most Cubans were enthusiastic about Cerveceria Antiguo Almacen de la Madera y El Tabaco on the harbor. Enthusiasm wasn’t derived from the beer itself, but rather the visit President Barack Obama made to the business on his trip to Havana.
Like Factoria Plaza Vieja, the brewery in a former tobacco factory offered Blond, Marron, and Negra, served in mugs or tall towers. Old rum barrels lined the front wall of the spacious room, and inspired hope for beer innovation, but there weren't any sours or barrel aged stouts in our future. All three offerings again left much to be desired.
As imagination, resources, and entrepreneurship continues to rise in Cuba, a future visit could yield a more fruitful endeavor for beers. For now, mojitos, Cuba Libres, and pina coladas are the draw, and Havana Club Ron is where it’s at.
The beer served is adequate, anyway, to accompany warm weather, old architecture, and classic cars. Even if there is more Soviet-style architecture and more modern cars than you might anticipate.
Much of the Cuban experience is indescribable. Until you visit, there is no full way to comprehend the sights, sounds, smells, and hospitality that infuse the island.
AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, Zx Ventures