Welcome friends, family, random internet readers who I have never met, to the second installment of the Central American beer and hot sauce review. We have actually finished our trip and the delay in this post was admittedly just having too much fun with our friend Chelsea. Last time we ended with Guatemalan beer so we will pick up with Honduras, but before we do I should mention that the so-called “Berlin Wall” effect of borders seems to have relaxed the farther south we go, at least in terms of a few major brands. This has proven to be both a blessing and a curse as we were subjected to the dominance of Don Julio’s, with a few good homemade hot sauces intermingled, all the way until Costa Rica. However, it is actually possible to get Tona beer in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but more on that in the breakdown:
Barena: Before I dive into specifics I need to make one general comment about The state of Honduran beer: unfortunately all four major makes are far from good. That being said, Barena, the first Honduran beer I tried, was the worst yet but sadly not the worst of the trip (see Port Royal Export below). I picked one of these up in a tienda in Copan Ruinas and my first sip jerked me rudely back to the one time I took a poorly advised swig of Keystone Light. Not quite as bad as KL, Barena still falls completely flat with the only tangible flavor being that of stale, almost sour malt. Not good, and definitely not recommended.
Imperial (Honduras): There was some considerable confusion as to whether there were actually two different “Imperials” in C.A. as when I was witting this we had just entered Costa Rica and noticed another beer going by the same name but we have determined, especially after sampling both, that they are indeed two distinct beers. Anyway, Imperial, which we both drank a few of on Utila, advertises itself as a lager but I would place it firmly under the jurisdiction of the patron saint of wheat beer. Imperial is still light and flavorful, and if not for my extreme aversion to wheat beers in general (reserving a choice few German beers), would be good, but as it stands is “drinkable” but not enjoyable.
Salva Vida: Far from being a lifesaver, Salva manages to be the best beer in Honduras. Mostly just a regular, unassuming lager costing about 20-30 lempira, Salva was our go-to beer in Honduras but we didn’t really enjoy drinking it as much as you should. Still, it lacks the in-your-face wheat flavors that Imperial sports and so is the winner for me.
Port Royal Export: Everyone say hello to the saddest beer I have had since coming to C.A. Port Royal Export is best described as a watered down version of Barena. Sad, I know. If the best comparison comes in the form of a Keystone Light doppelgänger then life is indeed, bleak. One thing I will say for Port Royal Export is that is does actually have less flavor than Barena. Call that a pro or a con, up to you.
Toña: The national beer of Nicaragua is, in short, astoundingly good. Given the somewhat uninspiring beerquest we have had so far in C.A., I was totally blindsided by Tona. The great thing about Tona is its integrity, it is a lager and it tastes like a lager — and a good one at that. Where most of the lagers down here are flavorful enough to be drinkable, you can’t taste the period of cold fermentation that makes true lagers so good in almost any but Tona where is very present. If I were to compare it to a Colorado beer (as that is where I hail) I would say it is most similar to Upslope’s craft lager. Definitely the most refreshing, properly made, and tasty beer in C.A. so far, with the added benefit of being ~$0.80 each, Tona takes the gold medal of beers in my book. For any readers who read the six week post this is the reason for our consumption of 25 of them in a period of 10 days.
Victoria: The other major beer in Nicaragua comes in a regular and a light version, neither of which is anything to write home about, even though I’m doing that now. Put them both on par with Salva Vida (it is impressive that the light version isn’t noticeably less tasty though). Ordinarily that would be passable but Victoria walks in the shadow of Tona so don’t bother.
Imperial (Costa Rica): The other beer of this name, El Cerveza Costa Rica, is quite a bit better than the Honduran rendition in my opinion. The main reason for this is that it lacks the harsh, overpowering wheat flavor present in Honduras’ Imperial, but I’m willing to accept that some people like a lot of wheat in their beer and would thus disagree with my rankings. To put the new Imperial in the context of C.A. beer, it tastes almost exactly like a Gallo and actually costs basically the same (if you buy in a grocery store, there’s a pretty huge markup for beer sold in other businesses here) do I would recommend having a few if in Costa Rica. However, you can buy Tona in Costa Rica for the same price! Woooo!
Bavaria Dark: The last beer that I drank was bought by a very nice Costa Rican in Santa Elena. This is essentially the only attempt at brewing a “dark” beer since Belikin stout and is definitely on par with the Belizean beer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a truly dark beer as the flavor you would expect to come from using toasted grains is largely absent and what you end up drinking is something like a darker amber. That being said, Bavaria Dark is far from unenjoyable and while running you about an extra 10-20% over Imperial, is worth the cost for my palate.
Well, that wraps it up for the beer breakdown and unfortunately I can’t really do a hot sauce breakdown as apart from Don Julio’s there really aren’t any major hot sauce labels in Nicaragua or Costa Rica. There is a smattering of various Tabasco pepper hot sauces that I haven’t felt the urge to try, and the brand changes from place to place. What I can do, is tell you dear readers about something near and dear to my heart: homemade habanero salsa with preposterous volumes of diced onions. Mmmmmm…oh, and vinegar… Anyway, the first instance of such a salsa was when we had “quesillos” in Leon (just a tortilla with soft white cheese melted on top, we would call them a quesadilla with no tortilla on top) and we saw more in Samara, Costa Rica and Monteverde. In Samara I decided to ask the waitress if there was name for the hot sauce that was mostly just diced habaneros and onions in vinegar and water (I basically just scoop the peppers and onions out, which of course retain the nice spicy vinegar combo, and pile them high), and she gave me weird look and said “salsa picante”. Derp. I felt kinda stupid but encouraged that it was commonplace enough to her that there was no name for it, hopefully that means we will see it most places until the end of the trip.
Oh and I should mention that the hottest salsa I experienced down here was found at a food court in a mall in San Jose, Costa Rica. Go figure.