The challenge, quench the thirsts of hundreds of thousands of Caribbean islanders. The obstacle, no drinkable ground water. The solution, let them drink seawater. But first desalinate it and use it to brew Amstel Lager beer. The Amstel Brewery in Curaçao's capital city of Willemstad claims to be the only brewery in the world using 100 percent of its water distilled from seawater. Located on Emanapadie Boulevard on the shores of one of Willemstad's many inland bays, the towering grain elevators and outdoor storage tanks look right at home in this industrial neighborhood only a few kilometers away from the American fast food joints serving up the finished product. Formal tours are given for tourists every Tuesday and Thursday while locals get to visit on Wednesdays, phone 612944 for information. Be there no later than 9:30 or you won't get past the gate guard. Groups of up to 75 are common and the languages of Dutch, English, Papiamento, and Spanish are accommodated. After viewing a slightly outdated videotape while sipping coffee, tea or Amstel Lager the guides split the group by language and head off.
The classic copper vessels have been replaced by four 6000 gallon stainless steel tanks, two mash, one lauter and one boil. The lager malt is imported from Germany, Belgium, France and Great Britain. The special rice comes from Surinam while the hop extract is from Hungary. The corporate yeast strain is Dutch and the caramel syrup American. The process starts with the malt bouncing back and forth between the two mash tuns. Rather than being the Dutch version of decoction mashing this step is required to incorporate the rice starches produced in the second mash tun, since rice makes up 30% of the grain bill. The hop extract is added during the five hour boil while the caramel syrup addition is required for the final golden color. When the non-alcoholic Malta is brewed the recipe gets sugar from the Dominican Republic and a lot more caramel syrup. The wort chiller uses only water and the fermenters get a blast of oxygen to get things going. The CO2 produced is scrubbed and used later in the kegging operation. Two weeks of lagering takes place in the outdoor storage tanks. The 125 employees run the brewhouse in three shifts and the bottling line in two. The bottling line now cranks out a maximum of 54,000 bottles per hour. The shocking news is that the bottles hold but 9 ounces! The official excuse for this is that the previously used 12 ounce bottles allowed the beer to become warm while being served and for some reason customers failed to appreciate their beer as much when warm. Funny, I've never heard of any full-flavored beers having this problem. From ground level of the brewery you can pass below the brewhouse and fermenters and walk amid the fixed and flexible plumbing. Some portions of the floor drain better than others and the smell of caustic solution can get overpowering during cleaning operations. Employment opportunities abound in the brewing process, assembling the cardboard containers for the cases of tiny bottles keeps three people busy all day. Outside, a hopper containing spent grains stands ready for local farmers who buy it for cattle feed. A diesel generator is sometimes called upon to provide backup power for critical processes while waste water receives treatment before being passed on from the local holding pond to the nearby bay.
Business seems good for this Amstel brewery, which is actually owned by Heineken, but local tastes must be closely watched. Many local draft accounts are finding that they can't even sell a 30 liter keg while it's fresh and they are now removing their fancy Dutch ceramic taps. Amstel Light and Amstel Donker (Dark) must still be imported from the Netherlands. While the brown bottles used are routinely recycled by everyone on the island, the cruise-ship industry demands green non-recyclable bottles. It seems that they have no problem disposing of the empties! Amstel has become an integral part of the community throughout the Netherlands Antilles and countries such as Curaçao have found that strictly enforcing their minimum drinking age of 14 helps keep the Amstel/community relationship a healthy and positive one.
Although Amstel Lager dominates the beer scene of the Dutch Caribbean there are a few hidden treasures and a few best left buried. At the Downtown Terrace Restaurant, Gomez Plaza in Willemstad, telephone 616722, you can find a bottled beer menu with 15 choices ranging from Buckler NA beer to Bellevue Kriek, Gueze and Grand Cru at $8 a bottle. The Cristal from Cervecería Backus y Jackson, Lima, Peru was a hazy light gold with a very thin body and a very light hop flavor and aftertaste. The Bavaria Pilsner Beer from Bierbrouwerij Lieshout Holland tasted like a Heineken Lager clone but much sweeter. The Bavaria 8.6, 8.6% alcohol by volume (ABV), came in tiny 25cl. (9 oz.) bottles and was labeled "Super Strength Dutch Lager" and had a freshness date one month away. The clarity was abysmal with the hazy amber color clouded by serious floating particles. The intense malty aroma was accompanied by a medium body and an alcoholic sweet flavor. With beer prices starting at 4.50 NAF (approx. $2.50) this might not be the ideal happy hour spot but the two dozen outdoor tables in the heart of the Punda shopping district make it a great place to people watch while enjoying a non-light beer.
Nestled between the alleys off Punda's Wind St. lies the Hard Rock Society Café. One step ahead of the trademark police this small bar boasts loud Rock music from CDs, an outdoor patio, a small full bar, compact kitchen and two upstairs pool tables. Once pronounced correctly for the Dutch bartender, a Hoegaarden Wit was received and sampled. The 33cl (12 oz.) bottle yielded a hazy, slightly sweet, very light gold-colored liquid at 5% ABV, with a tangy, light hop flavor. The label proclaims, in three languages, how to properly pour this bottle-conditioned beer and warns of the expected yeast sediment. More consumer information reveals the "best before" date, the proper serving temperature (4°C) and a reminder to recycle, all for just over 4 NAF. A word of caution when ordering just a "Bavaria," the bartenders have no qualms about serving up a Bavaria SIN Malta Espumoso without warning. The SIN comes from the fine print saying "Sin Alcohol 0,0%" and meaning "without alcohol." The malty aroma and golden color were at first appealing enough but the coarse malty flavor lacked complexity as well as any other redeeming values. Although the 5:30 to 7:30 happy hour does not apply to beers, the atmosphere is generally friendly with the beers ranging from Miller Lite to Grolch, 650 ml Heinekens and a ceiling adorned with electric guitars and U.S. Coast Guard service caps. Upon leaving you can always purchase a souvenir T-Shirt or a can of Amsterdam Mariner beer to go for $3.
Along the banks of Willemstad's canal-like Sint Annabaai entrance to the inland harbor lies the Café du Port. Here, it's easy to relax listening to the French music, munching on the baguette sandwiches and going through the beer list. The Brahma Choppwas listed as originating from Brazil but when the 25cl can arrived the fine print admitted that it was brewed under license in Venezuela. This "Pilsen Type" brew was indeed a light lager, gold in color and medium-bodied but the hops were too subdued and it lacked the crisp character of its Czech namesakes. The popular Polar beer from Venezuela is easily recognizable with its silk-screened white polar bear on the small brown bottles. The beer itself had a very light body and an evenly-balanced flavor. Apparently, well-suited for this 85ºF year-round climate.
A few minutes north of the Punda in the more middle class Salinja district lies the Royal Red Pool Lounge at Caracasbaaiweg 55, telephone 615767. Unlike the more upscale The Pub nearby, this laid back bar features ten pool tables, two big-screen televisions with satellite receivers, a CD sound system, one electric dartboard and a full bar. Most notable however is their European bottled beer selection. The Amstel Donker Bier Oud Bruin was a nice change of pace. The 30cl bottle brought forth an opaque liquid of medium body with a malty aroma matched with a slightly sweet malty flavor and a lingering malty sweet finish. Besides revealing a past due expiration date the label proclaimed this 2.5% ABV beverage's ingredients as water, gerstemout, hop, gezoet met suiker and kleurstof caramel. No Reinheitsgebot to worry about here. At the other end of the color spectrum was Solera Cerveza Premium from Cervecería Polar in Venezuela. The very light gold color and serious carbonation were well-suited to the very light hop aroma, medium hop flavor, pleasant mouthfeel and crisp finish. Ingredients were listed as cebada malteada (malted barley), cereales, lupulo (hops) and estabilizantes (preservatives). The small 250ml bottles had coded freshness dates and were returnable but I wonder if the deposit was enough to get the bottles back to their home country. The Leffe Blonde called itself a Bière d'abbaye (Abbey Beer) and was brewed by Mont St. Guibert for the Abbaye de Leffe. With a gold color, malty/spicy aroma, effervescent mouthfeel and spicy flavor, this beer finished with a slightly sour aftertaste. The polyglot label on this 33 cl bottle described the 6.6 % ABV Belgian product as top fermented with a fruity aroma. Another available Belgian favorite was the classic Duvel, hazy gold in color, with spicy aromatics and a balance on the sour side, this 8.5% ABV brew leaves quite an impression. The 33cl bottle had a freshness date two years into the future! The label warned of the bottle conditioning "REFERMENTEE EN BOUTEILLE" and described itself as "BIERE DE LUXE SUR LIE BRASSEE EN BELGIQUE AVEC LES MALT ET HOUBLONS LES PLUS FIN ET SANS PRODUITS CHIMIQUE". Although not labeled a Lambic, De Verboden Vrucht (The Forbidden Fruit) from Hoegaarden had the characteristics; malty/spicy aroma, hazy brown color and a flavor balanced between tart and malty sweet. The label's text mentions the bottle conditioning, "bier op gist", but the colorful artwork grabs your attention with the poses of Adam and Eve, sipping from wide-mouthed glasses and wearing only their smiles. The Belgian label police need to consult with their American counterparts at the ATF to realize the havoc such uncensored graphics will reek on society. The 33cl bottles of FAXE Premium Danish Lager Beer from FAXE Bryggeri, Denmark had a little more flavor than their more common canned versions. Lacking aroma, the light-bodied lager was clean and yielded a light hop flavor. Even if you're not going to play pool, the friendly Dutch-speaking crowd and the great beer selection make the Royal Red worth visiting both during their 5 to 8 happy hour and afterwards.
Fifteen minutes flying time west of Curaçao lies the island of Aruba, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles but now a member of the Dutch Caribbean. While the Americanized resort hotels are all bragging about their Bud, Coors, and Miller light beer selections it's still possible to locate beers with flavor on the island. Attached to the Roma di Notte Restaurant at Palm Beach 17A is the Colosseum Garden Restaurant & Sports Bar, telephone 65163. Resisting the temptation to order a 7 ounce can of Bud or even a similar-sized draft Amstel you have the opportunity to taste a malty Löwenbräu Hell from München, no longer imported into the U.S. thanks to Miller Brewing Company. The colorful label of Ancla Cerveza Premium boldly proclaims "Aruba" and touts sailing ships, a setting sun and the native Divi Divi tree but the fine print reveals "Producido por Cervecería Ancla S.A., Columbia." The light gold color seems innocuous enough but the sharp hop flavor is a bit unexpected for the accompanying light body and the slightly coarse finish takes a bit of getting used to. The flavors of this 4.8% ABV beer make it stand out from the light beer crowd while the Ancla drink coasters stand out for their great graphics which even include the phone and fax number of the brewery. Too bad these foam coasters are non-absorbent and generally useless.
If the tourist prices, lack of holiday accommodations, mandatory gratuity on all bills and "poco-poco" service that makes the Land of Mañana look fast-paced doesn't deter you, then pay a visit to the beautiful Dutch Caribbean. The weather is consistently great, the people genuinely friendly and quality beer obtainable. For more detailed information pay a visit to the following Web sites: www.dcwww.com/curacao, www.olmco.com/aruba, www.interknowledge.com/curacao and www.interknowledge.com/bonaire. Salú.
Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri, January 1995