Beers of Panama, Part I: Balboa, Atlas, and Their Sibling Brews from Cerveceria Nacional

Mar 28, 2004

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The Bottom Line When in Panama, do as the Panamanians do---drink LOTS of ICE COLD domestic beers, like those brewed by Cerveceria Nacional...

If you ever get a chance to visit Panama, don't hesitate, don't hem and haw. Just DO IT! Panama is a beautiful country with some standout destinations, a well-developed tourist infrastructure, and a generally safe, stable climate with good people and good vibes. Gustatory pleasures abound throughout Panama, and the pleasures extend to the beers as well.

While most of the beers found in Panama are light, inoffensive pale lagers, there are exceptions, and even among the mainstream beers, when the mercury starts climbing along with the midday sun, there's really no refreshment on Earth quite as good as an ice cold light pale lager beer. Its a pleasure that Panamanian brewers long ago mastered magnificently...

I'm a lazy reviewer at heart and don't feel like posting 10 reviews with comments on each of the beers that I tasted in Panama, but I would like to share a few thoughts on each since these are truly "hard to find" beers -- at least they are if you're outside of Panama.

Beers in Panama...
Of all the countries in Central America, Panama almost certainly has the widest range of domestic brands, not to mention at least a handful of imported brands and the occasional contract-brewed beer. There's a half-dozen strong national marquees, plus some offshoots and a few foreign labels.

Far and away, the dominant style is the same ubiquitous light pale American style lager that dominates the beer market of every country in the Americas. Pick up a bottle of almost any Panamanian beer, and you'll get something thats not much different from the dull, mainstream beers of the U.S. But explore around the fringes, and you'll find some differences here and there, plus the occasional surprise.

There's two breweries in Panama, both located in Panama City: Cerveceria Nacional is the oldest and largest of the two, having been established in 1909 and accounting for roughly 70 percent of the Panamanian beer market. Cerveceria Baru is the up-and-coming challenger, with about 30 percent of the market.

Cerveceria Nacional...

I like the straightforward painted label bottle, but thats really as far as my praise for Balboa is going to go. Its generally a very light, very direct, uninteresting pale lager with something of a grainy edge to it with some sulfuric corniness. The balance tilts toward the sweet and the beer cries out for a heavier hand on the hops to give it some character. At 3.8 percent alcohol, its going to take quite a few of these to tip you towards tipsy.

Rating: 2 stars

Balboa Ice
As a rule, I avoid any beer with the word "ice" on its label. U.S. brewers tend to use it as a synonym for "worst swill in the house" (well, next to the worst anyway, since "light" usually means absolute rock bottom).

Given my natural bias against anything labeled "ice", Balboa Ice was actually quite a pleasant surprise. In fact, I liked it quite a bit better than the standard Balboa.

Balboa Ice is a stronger beer than its namesake, coming in with an alcohol level of 4.8 percent as opposed to the 3.8 percent of a Balboa. The surprising part though is that the beer isn't just stronger in the buzz department, its also more assertive and well rounded in the flavor department. Side by side with Balboa, its apparent that Balboa Ice is the beer with the more substantial body and more malt character. The differences aren't enormous, but they are noticeable. Hops are light, the beer is generally smooth and refreshing, and with what I consider "normal" alcohol for the style, its a pretty decent brew on the whole.

Rating: 3 stars

There's not a lot of difference between Balboa and Atlas, aside from image that is. Locals told me that Atlas had something of an image as a "man's beer", but I don't know why. Maybe for the same reason as Bud in the U.S. -- advertising, not substance. Like Bud, Atlas is a pretty lame beer. Light, bland, and overly direct. Its also got a bit of a sulfury corn edge to the flavor. The beer has a generally soft, lady-like character with a somewhat sweet flavor. Not a favorite of mine.

Rating: 2 stars

H.B. caught me off a guard a bit. When I was told that it was a dark beer (cerveza oscura), I expected something along the lines of a tropical foreign style stout, along the lines of Lion or even the Guinness that's contract brewed in Panama by Baru -- instead, what I got was a light amber colored lager that loosely resembled Texas favorite, Shiner Bock, or more accurately perhaps, New York favorite, Genesee Bock.

At just 3.6 percent alcohol by volume, H.B. is a beer thats well suited to the warm climate of Panama -- a beer that could be quaffed in quantity without knocking a drinker on his back. Its light bodied with a direct sweet malt flavor with just the slightest edge of caramel for complexity. Lightly hopped, its a smooth, light beer that will probably stun few critical palates.

Rating: 3 stars

Bottom Line...
I'm not generally impressed by the beers coming out of Cerveceria Nacional. They are all magnificent warm weather, good-time brews when you're out in the sun and have an absolutely ice-cold bottle in your hand, but they don't stand up well to critical evaluation. Most are too light to be interesting with inadequate hopping levels and the occasional flash of harshness. Ingredients are usually listed on bottles in Panama, and none of these beers indicate the presence of adjunct cereal grains, but the flavor does not back up any assertions as to their supposedly all-malt heritage.

Balboa Ice is the best of Cerveceria Nacional's lineup of domestic beers. If you push the product line to include beers that they brew under foreign contract or import under foreign contract, then their best product is the locally brewed Lowenbrau, which does taste like its got a solid all-malt base and a decent hand on the hop pocket.

Until next time, see you on the beach. I'll be drinking whatever the local beers might be, and chances are, I'll be lovin' every sip!


Coming Soon...
Beers of Panama Part 2: Panama, Sobrerana, and their Siblings from Cerveceria Baru

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