La Cervezeria “La Tropical”, Cuba’s First Brewery by Dr. Max V. Kuensberg
(LETTERS on BREWING – Journal of Hantke’s Brewing School – Journal III 1903)
About 14 years ago the brewing industry obtained solid footing in Cuba, the pearl of the Antilles. In Puentes Grandes, at the outlet of the Almandares, near Havana, there was formally a nail factory which several enterprising Spaniards purchased with the intention of remodeling it into an ice plant and to operate a small brewery in connection to it. The Almandares has always been a popular source of power with manufacturers, hence the nail factory was operated by a turbine. In the remodeled ice and brewing plant, the turbine was also replaced by a 500 horse-power wheel, which furnished sufficient power for both plants. In order to avoid any accidental interruption in the operations, engines were also installed. In a very short while the ice plant was on a paying basis, but not so the brewery. American breweries held all the trade, and even if the public was not exactly spoiled, it was nevertheless necessary to produce a glass of beer at least as good if not better than the American product. The difficulties with which the brewer had to content with can easily be pictured; whoever is acquainted with the political and financial conditions in Cuba during the last 20 years, will readily see that the directors, who were Spaniards, at the same time the ‘enemies’ of the country, and even were in military service, were in a very precarious position. The common people had practically no money; the Cuban and his friends were fighting for freedom in the mountains and forests of the interior.
In spite of all these difficulties, the directors of the brewery succeeded beyond all expectations, for at the present time the brewery bottles 30,000 to 35,000 bottles per day, which is very good for the existing Cuban conditions.
For the present increased output is too small, but on account of the great expense which a new apparatus and also a new brewhouse would occasion, it is not probable that this improvement will be made, because the consumption is as yet not very steady. At the present time the brewery is running to its very fullest extent. The brewing materials are all first class, is imported from Europe in monthly installments. The malt is made from Moravian barley, and is received in zinc lined boxes of 150 kilos each in very excellent condition; 350 to 400 such deliveries are made monthly by the well known malt dealers, Gebr. Briess, in Olmuetz.
The hops are Spalter hops, and is also secured packed. A thick mash, a lauter mash are used in brewing. As has been said, malt and hops only are used, raw materials are not employed. It would be worthless to erect a malting plant, because the barley would have to be imported, or at present corn is the only cereal raised in Cuba. The cultivation of corn is very successful, as three crops can be raised per year.
A general agent has charge of the salt for the interior of Cuba, who has erected several private depots in various sea coast towns. The brewery sells from its main depot only bottled beer direct to private persons, to saloons, restaurants and hotels. Keg beer must be purchased from the general agent. The existing conditions make it necessary to deliver the beer during the day, so that it is exposed to the sun and heat during the entire day. Then also the Cuban wants his beer in a light colored bottles, so that the well known “light taste” is always developed in the beer. Luckily the native born Cuban has no real correct beer taste, so that a defect is not so easily recognized. Many times one can see a native mixing syrup with his beer, in order (as he thinks) to improve the taste, because he does not fancy the taste of the hops in the beer. The sale of keg beer is very limited, and packages containing 15 to 30 liters (one eighth or one quarter barrel) are only handled. Up to last year there were only four restaurants which sold keg beer. This is mostly due to the heavily imported beer, which gained a reputation formerly so that they are still much called for. A glass of beer sells for 10 cents in the restaurants, while the pint bottle is sold for 15 to 20 cents, according to the restaurant. Imported is, of course, correspondingly higher. There is no uniformity in beer prices, every restaurant keeper charges what he pleases or what he can get. The entire consumption is almost entirely confined to the better class, and is only seldom that a laborer can enjoy a cold bottle of beer. The wages of the laborer varies between 1 peso Espagnol and 1 peso 20 centavos (80 cents to $1 US). He must support and clothe himself and family on this pittance, because he alone or possibly also his grown sons work. The Cuban senora plays the grand lady to such an extent that in some cases she does cook the family meals, but prefers to purchase them at a high price from a neighboring greasy Fonda (restaurant).
With the development of the home industries, which is inevitable if the financial condition is improved, improved conditions of labor will also commence, from which the brewing industry will receive its share of benefit. Since the cessation of the Spanish-American war and the commencement of quieter times, the consumption of beer has considerably increased. In the meantime another brewery has been erected on the American plan, and without competing with the Cervezeria Tropical, has already a large number of customers. It has been reported that a third brewery is to be erected in Havana. Just as new ice plants are erected yearly in various sections of the country, although at the present price of $1 per 100 pounds in Havana, it is still a luxury, it is to be expected that in the southern part of the island, where such cities as Santiago de Cuba are situated, breweries will also be erected and successfully operated.