Words by Ben Starkey
Microbreweries have changed the British beer drinking landscape dramatically in recent years. It seems like only yesterday that every pub served the same half a dozen mass produced lagers; the craft beer revolution has changed all of this.
The United Kingdom currently has around 1,700 breweries, its highest number since before the Second World War. Artisanal lagers, ales and porters have permeated the country, broadening the horizons of those who love a pint.
It's not just the UK that is experiencing a rise in delicious, small batch beers. While Central America attracts travellers with stunning beaches, ancient ruins and virgin rainforest, it's probably not somewhere you'd expect to get hold of a nice pint of IPA. But craft beer is on the rise here too. La Rana Dorada in Panama City, Panama and D&D Brewery in the small Honduran village of Los Naranjos are brewing up a storm.
La Rana Dorada, Spanish for The Golden Frog, has two branches in Panama City. One, a pub just off Via Argentina in the downtown area, opened in 2010; the other is the Cerveceria, a bar and brewery combination opened the following year and located on the edge of the picturesque colonial old town, Casco Viejo.
Inside, the Cerveceria is part saloon, part industrial-chic brewery. A dark wood bar occupies one wall, lined with high stools. This rustic look is offset by the huge windows opposite the bar, through which drinkers can see the metal fermentation vats. The fact that this is a working brewery is further emphasised by the balcony stocked with sacks of ingredients perched above the seating area. Tours of the brewery run on Fridays and Saturdays for those wanting to learn about the brewing process.
Four craft beers are produced and served at La Rana, encompassing a variety of inspiration, style and taste. Available on draught are pale ale, premium pilsner, Belgian white beer and porter.
La Rana's pale ale is a reddish colour, fermented for fifteen days to create an English pub beer. Dry and easy to drink, you can't go wrong with the hefty 5% pilsner, matured for thirty days using German hops. La Rana Blanche, the Belgian white beer, slightly lighter at 4% is brewed using large quantities of malted wheat and complemented by some unexpected ingredients. In addition to the traditional hops, La Rana add coriander and dried orange and lemon peels; the result is the punters' most popular beer. A personal favourite of mine is the London style porter, a deep black coloured and delicious drink. If you're not sure which to try first, the barman is more than happy to pour out a tasting tray of samples to help with the decision.
Although situated on the edge of colonial centre Casco Viejo, the Cerveceria is no tourist bar; this is a local place where Panamanians come to drink. Behind the bar are wooden shelves filled with personalised tankards. Some regulars have their own metal-topped glass engraved with the drinker's name. Such a glass is paid for by the customer but provides discounts on the menu.
Aside from craft beer, the Cerveceria serves food and shows televised sport. Out front is a beer garden overlooking the boat filled seafront of Panama City, the pastel coloured Casco Viejo to the right and the high-rise skyline of the new town to the left.
On La Rana's doorstep, the historic centre of Casco Viejo sits on a small peninsula and is dotted with Spanish colonial churches and pretty plazas. Restoration of the area has created a combination of the elegant and the crumbling. A sweeping ring road juts out into the sea, circling Casco Viejo; a walk around this perimeter provides panoramic views of the old town, with a backdrop of the new high rises.
As if a decent pale ale was not reason enough to visit Panama City, the capital is a convenient base from which to visit some of the world's most idyllic tropical archipelagos. Whilst Bocas del Toro is a well known and lusted after destination (and just an overnight bus away), the San Blas Islands, or Guna Yala to use their indigenous name, are less developed and offer a wilder beauty. Here, a perfect chain of sandy specks pepper the Caribbean Sea; some 360 islands make up the San Blas, only a handful of which are inhabited.
The region is semi-autonomous, with only the indigenous Guna people permitted to reside or operate businesses on the islands. Hence, a limited number of tour companies are able to welcome those wishing to visit. Tours to the San Blas can be arranged through agencies, hotels and hostels in Panama City, including day, overnight and multi-day trips, either returning to the city or sailing south to Colombia. Stays on the islands are a rustic affair: think wooden huts metres from the seashore with beer and rum from a generator-powered fridge in the communal dining room. Luxury hotels and quirky ecolodges this is not, but a trip to the San Blas is virtually unparalleled for unspoilt beauty and cultural experience.
Honduras is not the most visited country on the Central American isthmus; it has a reputation for drugs and gang related violence that deters some and creates a certain edge. Despite this, it is a fun and exciting place to travel, with many unique attractions, ranging from natural wonders and ancient ruins to pioneering tourist experiences.
Chief among these experiences is D&D Brewery, which has almost single-handedly changed the backpacking route of Honduras and, to some extent, Central America on the whole. Many visitors to Honduras will stick to the idyllic Bay Islands and the Mayan ruins of Copan. But D&D has put the village of Los Naranjos on the map. Many travellers now head to the area specifically to drink and stay at D&D and, as a result, explore the surrounding delights, including Lake Yojoa.
Ran by American Bobby Durrette, D&D combines a brewery and bar with a lodge and restaurant. D&D brews adventurous beers on site and guests can see the process at work inside a metal haulage-style container located just across the swimming pool from the bar.
On tap are some expected fares, a pale ale and a porter, albeit with interesting influences, but also unique fruit beers. On the full-time menu are Raspberry Rigiosa and blueberry infused True Blue. Occasional cameos are made by an apricot ale and by other, seasonal brews. These fruit drinks are perfect after a day out on the lake, super refreshing in the tropical heat. As at La Rana Dorada, taster trays are offered for those unsure whether to stick with a familiar taste or try something new.
For the traditionalist, the Peña Blanca Pale Ale, Meámbar Ale and Porter Cafetero anchor the beer menu in more conventional tastes. However, Latin American influences shine through here too; the porter is infused with coffee and chocolate.
Aside from the in house beers, D&D serves a host of craft ales and speciality beers from around the world and also concocts its own homemade sodas.
Adjoining the bar is D&D's lodge, offering a variety of accommodation, including private cabins, private rooms, dormitories and camping pitches. Add to that the restaurant menu and D&D has all bases covered. Organised tours of local beauty spots is also possible, providing customers with the opportunity to experience the spectacular natural Honduras.
D&D is located off the paved road in the sleepy village of Los Naranjos, close to the banks of Lake Yojoa. It is not the easiest place to get to, but the reward is well worth the effort. The lake is a great spot for bird watching, with visitors taking tours on the water with eagle-eyed guides or renting a rowing boat or kayak to head out solo in search of wildlife and tranquillity. Aside from the lake, the region also offers marshlands, coffee plantations, caves, hiking and the Pulhapanzak waterfall, which hosts a zip line.
Lake Yojoa is a perfect stopping point for those travelling through Central America. To the north are Honduras' main attractions, Copan and the Bay Islands, while travellers can head south to the capital, Tegucigalpa, or on to Nicaragua, within a few hours.
The Mayan ruins at Copan include spectacular structures and intricate detail to rival any in Central America, but without the crowds of those in neighbouring Guatemala or Mexico. Here it is possible to stroll the ancient city almost alone, imagining life in the Mayan world.
The Bay Islands of Utila and Roatán offer powdery beaches, world class diving and Caribbean culture. Diving on part of the world's second largest reef network is a huge draw here, with the sea around the islands dotted with snorkelling and dive sites and prices possibly the lowest in the world at around US$30 per dive. The coral and plant life on show is extraordinary, supporting an array of tropical marine life including, for the fortunate, the possibility of spotting whale sharks. And what better way to relax after an afternoon beneath the water than to sit outside a beach bar watching the sun set over a cold beer.
Adventure, wildlife, nature, lounging on tropical beaches, scuba diving, climbing volcanoes and playing Indiana Jones at ancient temples are all in a day's travel in Central America. Thanks to the rise of the microbrewery, it is possible to reflect on such experiences over an exciting selection of craft beer.