CARTAGO – As state-run communication and insurance monopolies are slowly opening their markets to competition, one microbrewery is set to tap into the domestic beer industry that historically has been controlled by Costa Rica’s largest public company.
But don’t expect the ubiquitous Imperial signs in the country’s bars and restaurants to fade away anytime soon.
Cervecería K&S will initially bottle only 1,000 liters of beer a day – a drop in the bucket compared to Cervecería Costa Rica’s annual production of 150 million liters of beer under the popular labels Imperial, Pilsen, Bavaria and Heineken.
“We don’t try to and we are never going to be able to compete with Cervecería Costa Rica,” says Gabe Wilson, K&S’s master brewer.
“We’re just trying to provide a niche product, a bit of variety.”
The Peters family, a German clan determined to spread Germanic beer-drinking culture in a country weaned on light lagers, opened Cervecería K&S as a brewpub in 1997. When Wilson moved to Costa Rica from California two years ago with his wife and dreams of opening and operating a microbrewery, K&S was still a bustling restaurant-bar in Plaza Cristal in the eastern San José suburb of Curridabat.
Yet the family was ready to focus more on beer and less on food. Christian Peters, K&S president, proposed this transition to Rodrigo Arias – then an avid home brewer and staple patron at the brewpub. Arias signed on as an investing partner and became the marketing manager, and the two found Wilson. Next week, just over a year after shutting down the restaurant in Curridabat, K&S will begin bottling batches of Chivo Blanco and K&S Lager by hand in a small brewery in an industrial corner of Cartago.
The beer, true to the Peters family’s ambitions, is distinctly German in style. The Chivo Blanco is a bock-style lager – high in alcohol and rich in caramelized, malty flavors. The K&S Lager is lighter. Later, they plan to bottle a dunkel, a darker beer.
Draft beer is yet to make a splash in Costa Rica. According to Arias, a draft system costs $1,000, typically incurred by bars in the U.S., where, in some regions, it is common to find a half-dozen, locally made beers on tap at any given watering hole. Here, where there is no such beer infrastructure, K&S will initially focus on distributing its product in bottles to eateries and taverns.
“We are going to compete with imports,” says Wilson, noting the beers will be priced between ¢1,500 ($2.70) and ¢2,000 ($3.65) in restaurants and bars.
Two 1,000-liter, copper-plated tanks stand in the middle of brewery. Along the adjacent wall, two air-conditioned rooms house stainless steel tanks that cool the unfinished beer as it ferments and conditions.
Empty beer bottles stacked on pallets crowd the third wall. Bags of hops and malted barley, imported from the U.S., are piled near the glass.
“You need long days of sunlight to grow hops, and this doesn’t exist in Costa Rica,” says Arias. “So we have to import.”
“We’ve got the ability to expand,” says Wilson, pointing at the space taken up by the bottles. “We’re playing with the idea of also introducing some ales to Costa Rica.”
At the Timeout Tavern in Escazú, west of San José, the bartender pours Chivo Blanco directly from a five-gallon soda keg that sits on ice in a bucket behind the bar.
Thanks to more functioning relics from the original brewpub, K&S is currently on tap in Timeout and three other bars in Costa Rica – the Black Sheep Pub in Nosara in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and Stan’s Irish Pub and La Rochela in San José.