When in Panama, I have a hard time finding local beer that satisfies my usual standards. When choosing a beer, I favor those with plenty of flavor and complexity: porters, stouts, and IPAs — unfortunately, none of these are produced locally in Panama. The country does produce a total of four beers, which is rather impressive given how tiny Panama is (slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina and with under 4 million inhabitants), but to my taste buds, Panama’s beers (all of them lagers) taste the same, and that sameness is not very good.
About three months ago, I taste-tested Budweiser and one of Panama’s beers side-by-side, and was surprised: I expected them to taste the same, but in fact the Panamanian beer was clearly and markedly better than Bud. That said, drawing comparisons between Panamanian beer and the most prevalent lagers in the US – Budweiser, Coors, Busch – is not unjustified. When in the US, I take advantage of the wide selection of high-quality craft and imported beers, but when in Panama, I put the weak local lagers to good use in a couple of drinks we invented to make Panama beer more palatable to serious beer-drinkers. We may lament the isthmus’ limited beer selection, but it has inspired some pretty refreshing beer cocktail recipes (beertails?) if we do say so ourselves, and we’re proud to serve them in the restaurants and bars at our Panama resort.
Before I introduce you to two of our favorite beer cocktail recipes, let’s do a quick Panama beer flight to familiarize you with the 4 lagers we have to work with in Panama.
Panama-Made Beers, Ranked for Flavor
- Balboa (made by Cerveceria Nacional) – named for the Spanish explorer who “discovered” Panama, Balboa beer has the strongest flavor of the four, but only by a hair.
- Soberana (made by Cervecerias Baru) – the second most interesting beer made in Panama; while very weak, it tastes subtly of citrus, which we like to amplify in our refreshing Soberana Shandy (see below). Unfortunately, Soberana seems to be the lowest-selling beer in the country, and you’ll rarely find it at a restaurant or bar.
- Panama (made by Cervecerias Baru) – one of the biggest sellers in Panama; tastes the same as Atlas.
- Atlas (made by Cerveceria Nacional) – along with Panama, Atlas is a standby in Panamanian restaurants and bars.
At Isla Palenque, we serve Balboa, Panama, and Soberana, along with a few “stronger-tasting” beers for those with specific cravings (stout, Belgian ale, and an IPA). We do not, however, serve Corona – go to Mexico if you want that; it tastes no better than the Panamanian beers anyway.
Beer Cocktails on Isla Palenque
The beer cocktail is a useful application for any beer that doesn’t merit savoring on its own, whether you’re in Panama or somewhere else without a craft beer to be found, and our beer cocktails are perfect for Panama travelers keen to sample the local beer offerings who also require a certain amount of flavor from their brews. Before you decide to ignore the Panama beer list, give them a try in the beertails we’ve created – they’re both very refreshing for warm climates.
The Panilada was inspired by the Michelada (itself a Mexican variation on the Bloody Mary, substituting beer for the vodka), and an early version of it was composed in a restaurant one evening by myself and a few other Isla Palenque employees. It involves the addition of some lime, salt, and hot sauce to a basic beer – all available for free at any restaurant in Panama, by the way — giving one of Panama’s weak lagers the little extra kick it needs to please a more evolved beer-drinker’s palate. If you like a good dry Martini with olives or a classic Bloody Mary, you’ll probably like this drink. The hot sauce is essential to the Panilada, but that’s not to suggest you need to douse your beer with it — personally, I add just enough for a hint of heat, allowing the hot sauce to lightly enhance the naturally savory combination of salt and beer, without making the drink overtly spicy.
To make a Panilada:
- 12 ounces of beer (of the four Panama beers, Balboa works best, but Panama is good in this as well)
- 1/4 to 1/2 of a small lime
- Salt, to taste (probably about 1/8 teaspoon)
- Hot sauce, to taste (we make our own habanero-flavored sauce on Isla Palenque, based on the local favorite D’Elidas, but use whatever hot sauce you like best)
Squeeze the lime juice into a highball glass and throw at least one or two spent wedges in; pour in your salt and hot sauce, along with about one ounce of beer. Be careful not to pour all of the beer in at once, as the salt will cause it to foam up considerably. Stir until all the salt is dissolved and the foaming stops; then, add plenty of ice and pour in the rest of the beer.
The Soberana Shandy
The “summer shandy” (a simple mixture of beer and soda) has been around since the late 1800s and is an incredibly refreshing drink with lots of delicious permutations. Our version takes advantage of Soberana’s slight citrus flavor to turn this light lager into the perfect refresher after a long hike or while just soaking up the sun on one of our island’s beaches.
To make a Soberana Shandy:
- 6 ounces of Soberana (you could use another beer, but then it wouldn’t have the same name, now, would it?)
- 6 ounces of Sprite (7-Up would probably work as well, but Sprite is more available in Panama, so we haven’t tried the alternative)
- One lime wedge
Squeeze the lime wedge into a large glass and toss the spent wedge in. Pour in the Soberana, followed by the Sprite, and fill the rest of the glass with ice cubes.
Epilogue: Can I Get an Ale???
We celebrate the fact that Panama makes a truly excellent rum (Abuelo) in many of our island cocktails, but there’s no getting around the fact that the country’s beer selection is rather pathetic. (Seriously, four lagers? Why can’t one of the companies at least make an ale?) I don’t mean to put the country down by saying its beer isn’t very good – truth be told, I don’t know of any tropical country that produces especially good beer: I think there is something about the climate that makes people less concerned with taste – as long as it’s cold, who cares how bland it is? I will admit: sometimes after a really long, hot day in Panama, one of their lagers is exactly what you want when you finally get to sit down and relax. But I’ve worked hard to develop my palate for alcoholic drinks, experimenting with countless cocktail recipes, learning about various spirits, and honing my skills as a self-taught mixologist. In the process, I’ve discovered one of life’s great pleasures – and I’ll be damned if I’m going to have a beer that fails to provide the enjoyment I’ve come to expect from my drinks. So when I’m looking to quench something more than simple thirst, I’ll fix one of our beer cocktails, and I recommend you do the same when in Panama.