- Brewdude wrote:
- I allegedly knew someone who allegedly went some years ago. All this is heresay, but I'll try and dig up his blog on the experience. May take a while and no guarantees if I still have it. So don't hold your breath!
But if I do it's good reading!
OK, so I found the alleged account of the incident. It's about 10 years old now, but is good reading-
Cuba a Granel
(o donde esta la cervesa de pipa)
I have this friend, lets call him Dave who decided, a couple years ago, that he wanted to go to Cuba and have a look around. Dave was lucky enough to arrive in Habana during Carnival, the Latin American celebration that preceeds Lent.
One evening, Dave was traversing Habana in the back of a 1947 Ford taxi. The streets were crowded and the taxi was making a slow go of it. Dave had ample opportunity for observation. There was music playing and people dancing about in the warm night air. As they proceeded down the Paseo Marti he saw a line of people standing in front of this large stainless steel tank on wheels. They were queued up waiting for their chance to procure some kind of liquid that was being dispensed.
Dave, being an inquisitive man as well as a brewer, wanted to know what form of drink would induce people to stop their dancing and stand in line. And so, pointing, he asked the driver Que bibida es ese? From the drivers rapid machine gun fire response Dave was able to glean that it was some sort of local beer. He also gathered that the driver thought that although the beer was mas fuerte it was not worthy of drinking as it did not come from a bottle. But, the bottled beer that Dave had found so far had not impressed him and Cuban draft beer was hitherto for unknown to him. He was determined to get a taste.
He made the driver pull over and wait while he stood in line for a beer. Despite it being evening, it was still rather warm. He perspired and his shirt clung to him as he awaited his turn. As he got closer he saw the beer was being poured out into a metal tub and then being ladled into wax paper cups. He returned to the taxi and got in.
As they drove on Dave smelled the beer. It had promise. No hops to speak of, but a slight sharpness and a wild sort of note to it. He tasted the beer. It was acidic and slightly tart. It had many wild flavors and reminded him of a light Belgian tripple. It was mas fuerte (strong), slightly hot, and he could taste and feel the alcohol. There were a few higher alcohols, but not too many. It was decidedly better than anything he had tasted thus far and he wanted to know more about it. He solicited the driver for more information but all he got was that it was called cervesa a granel and that it was cheap beer not as good as bottled beer.
Over the next several days Dave tried asking for cervesa a granel, but every time he got draft beer (Heineken or Crystal), but not that local beer with those wonderful flavors.
On his last day there he tried to explain to a local street vendor what he was looking for that sharp-tasting beer that came out of the large tank on wheels that they poured at Carnival and for the first time someone seemed to know what he was talking about.
The local guys said ahhh, cervesa de pipa, tu queres cervesa de pipa. He went on to explained that a granel meant on draft and that the large tanks were called pipas and although it too was indeed on draft usually draft beer meant kegs from Europe not the local beer. The street vendor went on to explain that that beer was no good it was for poor Cubans only, not the quality stuff that the tourists should be drinking.
By then it was about time for Dave to grab a mid fifties Desoto to the airport, leaving little time to use his new found knowledge. His quest for that mysterious (and delicious) beer would have to wait until the next time he was in La Habana.
The YAK-42 is cramped, crowded, and made of a metal of questionable origin. I wonder when the last time a shipment of real Soviet parts has made it this far south. I am nervous, the ride is bumpy. Dave does'nt seem to mind. He is excited. He knows what to expect. His Spanish is better than mine. We land without incident and I repeat in my head por favor no celle el passaporte (please don't stamp my passport).
At customs all goes smoothly until I am required to speak. I repeat my memorized phrase. The agent has some objection. I panic. I try to respond, but the fear grips my mind. I think I end up telling him his dog is green. He lets me pass with a look of disgust, my passport unscathed.
Dave wastes no time, on the taxi ride into town (in a modern 1971 Lada). He grills the driver about the local beers. The driver says there are several beers made on the island but none are as good as Heineken. What about the cervesa de pipa Dave asks. The driver tells us that it is a low beer, not for us. He seems put off by the fact that we would even ask about it.
At Habiers house we stash our things. Habier is sitting on the upstairs veranda smoking a small cigar. It is warm, the smoke drifts off on a light tropical breeze. He has had cervesa de pipa but doesnt know where to find it. Besides, we don't want to drink that beer. Its made for the locals. The Mexican beers are better.
We head out into town. We pass a fancy hotel that used to be owned by New York mobsters. We are accosted by street hustlers. Hey, where are you from? Can I show you around? I can show you the best place to eat. You want to buy a real Cuban cigar? We ask each new friend were we might find the Cervesa de pipa. And we get a similar response each time. You don't want that beer. Its low. Lemme show you where to get a good beer just like Budweiser.
We walk towards the harbor along the Malicon, the road that runs along the seafront. Ocean spray rains down on the far side of the street. The buildings here are old, and slowly decomposing. There has been almost no new construction here since the late 1950s.
We move inland a few streets. Kids are playing stickball between the pre-embargo American cars, most of them painted with house paint and looking pretty rough. But there is a beauty to them and their rounded, full-bodied styling. There are no other tourists here, no street vendors, no hustlers asking us to gift them a dollar. We are in a bad part of town.
We round a corner and there is a open-air bar with a big stainless tank out front. It is deserted except for the bartender. Dave gets excited. He asks the bartender - what is the big tank for? Beer? No beer, rum the bartender replies. RUM? Disappointed we leave. On the way out I see a small sign hanging from the tank No Hay Cervesa. I make a mental note to look up Hay.
We head over towards the capitol, maybe there are some good bars over there. It has turned into a warm tropical day. As we get closer to the capitol dome there are more and more people on the street selling various items. We are approached by a teenager selling stamps. Dave starts the questioning again, and again we get the same answer. About to give up, we offer to pay him to introduce us to anyone who will show us where to find this elusive beer. And to our astonishment he says OK.
He walks over to two casually (yet very well) dressed gentlemen and they have a huddle up. He points back at us and they talk some more. This is looking all wrong to me. This looks like a set up. I think I should be worried. The three men come over and we are introduced to Gilberto and Erasmo. They tell us not to worry and to follow them, they know where to find the cervesa de pipa. With eyebrows raised we follow.
As we stroll down the street, it quickly becomes obvious that Gilberto and Erasmo know everyone. They wave, shake hands, and chat with half the people we pass on this busy street. We make small talk. Gilberto tells me he is a black belt in Judo. Three, four, five blocks we go. It is warm and my shirt is sticking to me.
We arrive at a neglected-looking restaurant. There is a huddle up with the maitre de, some discussion (and money exchanged). The maitre de opens a door in the corner and we are told to enter. It looks dark inside, in fact totally black. I am doing a quick head count - three of us, three of them (counting the maitre de). Gilberto says he is a black belt - it looks like an ass kicking to me, probably ours.
Dave gives me a shove and in I go (no really sir, all we wanted was beer). But it is not totally black in here. There is a small red light in the corner, and under it a sign Bar Europa. There is a bartender and a couple making out in the corner booth.
Everyone looks up at us white people - what are they doing in our bar? Then they see our guides. Gilberto and Erasmo huddle up with the bartender. There is whispering and pointing and then the bartender leaves. Erasmo informs us that all is in order. The beer will come soon. We should trust him, and relax. He then explains; This bar is for Cubans, not tourists. They only accept Cuban currency here, which is illegal for non-Cubans to possess. So we will buy the beers, keep track, and at the end of the day you pay us back. The catch is that we give them a buck for each beer, but the beers cost them only 30 cents. It seems like a good deal to me (actually I'm just happy we were not being mugged). I begin to wonder where has the bartender gone? Why is the beer not behind the bar? Where are the beers coming from that the bartender has to leave the bar to get them?
The beer finally arrives. It is in big brown waxed paper cups. I am dubious but the beer is cold and smells lightly floral with a background hint of acidity. It's pale-straw color looks inviting. We drink. There is something wild, it is slightly tart and effervescent. It makes me think of Berliner Wiess and Belgian Triple. The combination seems to work. The tartness is very thirst quenching and leaves one wanting more. Dave immediately orders another round.
After the second round we ask our new friends if we can get this beer at other places (as this place, although very nice, lacks a certain well, je ne cest qua. Besides I think we are bothering the couple in the corner).
We went to three other locals only bars that day. We had a great time and made lots of new friends. We discussed a myriad topics from politics, to beers, cigars to El Jefe. We got back to Habiers house in the wee hours of the morning. The next day we arose with new knowledge. We knew where to find real Cuban beer.
As we wandered on our afternoon walk, in the old section of town, we came upon a great mass of people drinking in the streets. They were spilling out of that same open-air bar we had seen yesterday. They were laughing and talking. They had big brown wax paper cups in their hands. Today, beer was flowing from the stainless steel tank and today I could see the other side of that sign HAY CERVESA!