Why the island's beer is better than ever.

Ocean Lab Brewing Co.
Ocean Lab Brewing Co. was "born on the beach" in 2017.
| Credit: Courtesy of Ocean Lab Brewing Co.

Medalla used to be the king of beers in Puerto Rico. For decades, if you craved a local cold one, there were few options besides the ubiquitous (very, very light) cerveza.

Today, beer lovers can enjoy a much wider variety of local brews thanks to an unprecedented boom in craft brewing. “There has been a growth of breweries on the island,” says Rafael J. Marquez, a craft beer enthusiast from Hatillo, who runs the Instagram account @RoadtoCraftBeer. “And the established ones are expanding their distribution and providing more variety in styles and flavors.”

Zalika Guillory Liman, proprietor of La Taberna Lúpulo — San Juan’s leading craft beer bar — says she was recently “shocked” when she realized that 19 out of the bar's 34 draft beers were brewed in PR. “When I bought the bar two-and-a-half years ago, I struggled to keep four locals on."

Both Liman and Marquez note that the trend is driven by demand. As Liman points out, “people on the island are taking cues from the US craft beer scene,” which she says is at its saturation point. “There is much more room for growth in Puerto Rico. And beer drinkers here now want a variety of beer styles, which is causing island brewers to ramp up production and experiment more. As a result, they are making better beer.”

Echoing a sentiment that we've heard from creatives and business-owners around the Caribbean, Liman also says that hurricanes Irma and Maria caused a “weird reset” in the brewing industry. “There was an energy that came from the devastation. Since the hurricanes, there has been a sort of entrepreneurial spirit and desire to invest more in what is going on in the island,” she says. “I'm finding that my customers — locals and tourists — are gravitating toward local beer and supporting the local economy as an effort to help Puerto Rico recover.”

Several new breweries have opened in the wake of the hurricane, including Del Oeste in Mayaguez, on the west coast, which is impressing locals with its coconut-and-honey scented Bucanera whiskey bock. Pura Vida, Puerto Rico’s first women-owned-and-operated brewery, in Cabo Rojo, is beloved for its honey-brewed Hyggelig amber ale — so much so they are ramping up production capacity from 10 to 1,343 gallons per month. The newest brewer on the block, The Aviator’s Brewery, just opened in San Lorenzo in the east-central part of the island, and is getting attention for its fruit Zapote-ton Witbier.

Pura Vida Brewery Puerto Rico
The Hyggelig Amber Ale from Pura Vida Brewery.
| Credit: Courtesy of Pura Vida Brewery

The Beers

We asked Liman, a certified cicerone, and Marquez, who runs craft beer seminars around the island, for their favorite Puerto Rican breweries. Here are their top picks:

One of the most widely distributed craft beers on the island was “born on the beach,” as the owners say, just two years ago. (Ocean Lab, attached to the stylish Vivo Beach Club, fronts the Atlantic Ocean.) This brewery holds the distinction of being the first in Puerto Rico to launch a cask ale, which is real beer-geek beer: unfiltered, lightly carbonated, and re-fermented. A deep, rich flavor comes through in their Boricask, a dry IPA. “Their line-up tends to be easy drinking with really clean flavors,” Liman says. Ocean Lab is currently producing 13 beers. Hop Diver double IPA is a popular favorite, and they use locally grown coffee beans for the Baraka coffee stout. Try them on a brewery tour, one of the few offered on the island.

This brewery favors German and Belgian styles. “I love that Juan Carlos, the brewer at Zurc, doesn’t pay attention to beer trends. He just makes what he likes,” Liman says, highlighting his Kolonia kölsch, the first of its kind brewed on the island, as her favorite. Marquez cites La Kabra Maya maibock lager as a winner. Recently, Zurc collaborated with California-based Stone Brewing Co. to release Ráfaga IPL, an India pale lager; it’s the first time an island brewery has partnered with a major mainland brewer.

Two popular craft brands merged last year to create a powerhouse brewery and one of the best tap rooms on Puerto Rico's west coast. “They are really expanding and constantly improving their quality,” Liman says. Marquez recommends the Sol Invicto Belgian pale ale; the Cocotero, a milk stout with toasted coconut, is the perfect fairing for a beach breeze.

Rebl, Utuado

Liman is a fan of this brewery’s Cassava IPA, which, for a while, was the only beer they made. Their “radical experimental brewing lab” is now turning heads with its Hogaza beer, crafted with bread from local bakeries. In an effort to reduce food waste, the brewers toast leftover bread and incorporate it into the barley to make what they call “liquid bread.”

Established in 2013, Ponce’s first brewery produces El Polvorín, a smoked beer that both Liman and Marquez are wild about. “It’s smoky and lovely and it sells like crazy even when it’s hot outside,” Liman says of the hearty pour. Señorial is also known for a sour beer made with quenepas, a tangy local fruit.

Dragon Stone Abbey Brewery, Caguas

Specializing in experimental Belgian-style ales, Dragon Stone aims to be “as close to an actual Belgian brewery as possible.” Marquez hails the Ghost Sour Project sour ale as a “don’t miss” and their Belgian strong golden ale, La Prémiere, as a favorite.

One of the veteran small-batch breweries on the island, Boquerón brews are notable for their freshness. Crash Boat IPA is a widely-distributed crowd pleaser; Marquez especially likes the Gripiñas Coffee Porter.

La Taberna Lupolo, Puerto Rico
The courtyard of La Taberna Lúpulo in Old San Juan.
| Credit: Courtesy of La Taberna Lupulo

The Bars

The Puerto Rico Beer Guide website has maps of breweries and beer bars. Here are our favorite spots around the island to enjoy local brews:

La Taberna Lúpulo, Old San Juan

This divey-cool Old San Juan beer bar always has 50 beers on tap — and another 150 by bottle or can. It's a fun stop for beer lovers, whether you're taking a break from touring the historic cobblestone streets or grabbing a pre-dinner draft.

At this business district favorite, the main draws are the lush back garden, live music, and a beer list that's 300 brews long.

El Tap, San Juan

46 taps flow at this spot on trendy Loiza Street. Beer pairing dinners and “meet the brewer” events are especially popular with locals.

With over 200 beers on offer, there’s truly something for everyone at Dylan's — and it's a great spot to watch the soccer match, too.

Al Lado, Arecibo

A new hotspot on the north coast, Al Lado features 20 beers on tap. Hipsters love the “tranquilo” vibe here.

This is where the surfing-and-cerveza set belly up to the bar — or linger the evening away at the sidewalk tables, telling tales of catching tasty waves. Check the chalkboard for popular local offerings (there's beer brewed right on the premises, too).

Rock & Go, Cabo Rojo

With a selection of over 100 beer styles (bottled, canned, and on draft, with three dozen local offerings), this beer and burger joint has won a solid following. Their playlist is well-loved, too: only the classics.

El Grifo, Caguas

While it's best known as one of Puerto Rico’s leading plant-based restaurants, the beer list within this bright, Colonial-style building should not be overlooked. Keep an eye out for craft beer specials, like two-for-one “Hoppy Fridays” and “Dark Beer Takeover” nights.

Birriola, Ponce

This cozy wood-paneled spot is worth visiting for its flights and tapas — ropa vieja sliders, fish tacos, bacalao fritters — which are as refreshing as the all-tap beer list. There’s live music on occasion, too.