This is to be the first of possibly 2-3 very important posts regarding beer and hot sauce in C.A. Of the utmost importance really. Both beer and hot sauce seem to be fairly dependent on region and, more importantly, country. Some beer that is the go-to-standard in one country may never make it over the border, so drink up before you miss out (as I did on a few)! Also, brace yourselves as I’m going to get a bit elitist and turn on the critic in me (maybe you don’t need a warning there…).
I’ll start with beer. The beer down here is…passable shall we say. If I have ever talked to beer with you you know that I am not the biggest fan of lagers, Mexican-style beers, or really anything that isn’t either dark or, better yet, unbelievably hoppy. However, I am not one to shy away from the opportunity to at least try a new beer (if “beer” it can be called, as opposed to “water.” I’m talking to you PBR, Rolling Rock, Budweiser etc.). So coming down here I was expecting many sad Corona-esque brewing attempts, but I am happy to say that overall the beer fits the climate in C.A. beautifully and while falling short of spectacular, manages to beat out the aforementioned American swill. Now for a break-down:
Belikin: The national beer of Belize, which is incidentally the very first business one sees when flying into Belize City as its brewery is located less than 50 yards from the tarmac. Belikin makes 3 variants: classic, lighthouse (specifically working at being a lager), and stout. Prices in a grocery are around $1.50 US and up to $2.50 in a restaurant. We both had a classic with lobster while staying on Caye Caulker and I would say this is my second favorite beer thus far. It manages to stay light and barely citrusy (i.e. very island lager as opposed to Mexican or Latin style lagers that have lots of citrus flavor or are served, in America at least, with a lime wedge) but still has good flavor and definitely avoids the “water” classification. I believe it would be called a light ale but if it walks like a lager and quacks like a lager… After the classic I decided I needed to have the stout, which I would say is stout compared to the classic (or really any lager) but that is where it ends. It’s dark because they use toasted grains, but not dark enough. I would say Belikin stout is best compared to Guinness but with a slightly more nutty side. I did not have a lighthouse before we left Belize (couldn’t find one in San Ignacio) and thus I was introduced to the almost Berlin Wall effect that borders have on beer. Not in Belize? No Belikin for you!
Gallo: The rooster is the beer of Guatemala and it is every bit as ubiquitous there as Belikin is in Belize. While the 12 oz bottle advertises a price of Q7 (under $1 US) you typically pay anywhere from Q15 to Q25 at a bar/restaurant (for a liter about Q20 in a tienda and Q30 in bars). This is a perfectly stereotypical beer of C.A. that is great to drink in the hot weather. With a bit more oomph than Corona, but otherwise almost the same, Gallo is the solution for someone who wants acceptable beer for cheap (ALL the backpackers drink Gallo). It was even mild enough that Heather liked it!
Cabro: The ram is the best beer I’ve found down here and is usually only a few Q more than Gallo. Cabro is simply stronger with more malt and hop flavors but still falls well within the lager regime. It’s worth the extra ~$0.35 US.
Moza: This bock beer is made by the same guys who make the rooster and is only marginally more expensive — on par with Cabro. It is definitely more malty and slightly darker as you would expect but not spectacularly better than Gallo (I’m betting they just let Gallo lager longer and voila! Moza!). My money is still on the ram while in Guatemala.
Ok, so now for the hot sauce. The hot sauce is the other side of the coin, where it’s expectedly far better than that found in the US. I especially like that the Belizians and Guatemalans basically just laugh and sneer at jalapenos. Their pepper of choice is the ever-tastier habanero and, as can be expected with habanero-based as opposed to jalapeno-based, makes for hot sauces that come closer to knocking my socks off on the heat side of things. I asked a Belizean why habaneros are such a big deal in Belize and he looked at me as if I asked why water was wet. They just are. And I love that.
Marie Sharp’s: this is the equivalent of Tabasco in actually both Belize and Guatemala as you can find it on any table, in any store, in multiple varieties, and for low prices. MS is made in Belize but we continued to see it until we got pretty close to the border with Honduras. Of special note would be the grapefruit version that piqued Heather’s interest, but all have great habanero flavor and middling heat levels (for me). Oh and it isn’t watery which I like because it helps you taste the hot sauce more and keep it out of your shirt.
Erva’s Restaurant Special Sauce: this is the best hot sauce I have ever had. Ever. Homemade in Erva’s Restaurant in San Ignacio, Belize, this carrot-based, ranch dressing consistency, habanero sauce is beyond amazing. It has more habanero flavor than any hot sauce I have ever had, is about two ticks below being too spicy for me to smother my burrito in, and if we hadn’t been backpacking for another 2 months after being there you would see me coming home with 2 mason jars full of the stuff. It (along with the fact that Erva’s is a charming local restaurant with good, fresh, cheap food and super nice and helpful waiters) is the main reason I insisted we go there twice for lunch. Life-changingly good.
Theresita’s tomatillo salsa: Theresita, the main cook at our homestay in Antigua, made a delicious tomatillo-based hot sauce every third or fourth day while we were there. It used some small green pepper that I’m not familiar with and my spanish isn’t good enough to get its official name. But it was good! And if not for Erva’s would top my list.
Don Julio’s: Again we see the border effect in play as as soon as we entered Honduras we said goodbye to MS and hello to Don Julio’s. This is my first real disappointment with hot sauce down here and I think it can be laid at the feet of the pepper it is made with: the so-called “red pepper,” a bland pepper whose official name is…the Tabasco pepper (womp womp). DJ’s is almost a direct recreation of the dreaded McIlhenny stuff: just as runny, only slightly spicier, and with as little flavor. Have no fears though, I’ll live. Everyone and their mother’s dog down here knows how to make a kick butt, homemade, fresh salsa. Gotta love those Latin American cooks!