Located on Lake Arenal just outside the town of Tilarán sits the secluded, eco-friendly Lake Arenal Brewery. It is the oldest continuously operating craft brewery in Costa Rica, although the Lake Arenal Brewery brand are not the original tenets. As mentioned in our Costa Rica Craft Beer Overview one of the two “original” craft breweries of the current generation was Volcano Brewing company, located in the same facility where Lake Arenal Brewery now operates.
Volcano Brewing Co. eventually decided to move their brand out to Tamarindo, and a new brewmaster took over the brewery. In fact the brewing equipment (and the brewmaster) used by Lake Arenal Brewery are the same behind an earlier attempt (in 1998) to get craft beer going in the capital of San José under the “Cabeza Grande” (Big Head in English) brand, which could probably be said to be the true first craft beer brewery in Costa Rica.
I visited the brewery when it was under the Volcano Brewing Co. ownership and was greatly disappointed; thus I was very pleasantly surprised then when I tried the beers from Lake Arenal Brewery. The new owners are much better at making beer than what I had when I visited four years and a different ownership ago. Their website mentions that the brewery is 100% renewable energy powered (solar or bio-diesel), uses only gravity fed natural spring water, and they also practice a variety of other eco-friendly initiatives such as making use of the waste products from brewing to feed farm animals on premise.
At present they’re producing eight different beers ranging from Pale Ales to the first Stout produced in Costa Rica. I was able to try seven of the eight at the La Fortuna Pub–aka the Lake Arenal Brewery Outpost–which I list below in order from what I felt were there strongest/best offerings down to my least favorite.
I was not able to try the Pineapple infused beer (Piña Blonde Ale), but of the other seven I don’t think you could go wrong with any of them. They were all good beers! Update Dec. 2016 I’ve now tried the Pineapple Blonde.
I got to visit the brewery in December 2016 for a brief tour as I was passing through the area. They’ve got a bunch of new equipment there to greatly expand the brewery, they’re now in the process of getting it all installed and running. They’re also looking to adjust how the brewery operates to make it more gravity fed and more efficient. The brewmaster George has some ideas for some different types of beer for the future that they plan to experiment with.
This was my favorite; sadly I only got to have one since we kicked the last keg they had at the Pub. I’m planning to return soon for further sampling. It is described as: “a classic Golden Ale base. We then take Campana chiles straight from the garden, and infuse them. This beer captures the delicate flavor of a spicy chili, without the spiciness. 4.5% ABV 16 IBUs “.
I think that is a good description, you get a bit of spiciness, but it’s more a spicy flavor than a burning spiciness. The beer itself is light, crisp, and refreshing especially given the hot climate in La Fortuna. They claim it’s made with “Campana chiles”, I’m not an expert of horticulture, but I believe it is actually (from the photos they displayed) Panama Peppers which is a close cousin of the Habañero. Campana chile is Spanish for bell peppers, which are not spicy, however often times there will be local names for a plant that isn’t the same as it’s official name. The brewmaster said that on the farm there they call them Campana Chiles but he’s not really sure if they’re different from what is called Panamá Peppers in other parts of the country. Either way whatever pepper they’re using it tastes very good.
Black Ash Stout
Lake Arenal Brewery claims that this is the first stout produced in Costa Rica, all I know is it’s one of the best ones I’ve had. Everyone’s tastes are different, but I’m not a fan of the overly burnt/coffee taste that characterizes a lot of stouts. Then again I also don’t like coffee so I’m probably an outlier here.
The Black Ash Stout is named after the black volcanic soil on the farm surrounding the brewery. The beer also has the distinction of being the only beer I’ve found thus far in Costa Rica that is done on beer gas/nitro (meaning that it is gassed with a mix of about 70/30 Nitrogen/Carbon Dioxide instead of just Carbon Dioxide like most beers).
It is only available at the brewery on Nitro however so I have to wait to try it on Nitro. Even just done with CO2 it has a smooth and creamy feel; it has the strong flavor characteristic of a stout, but at the same time was not overly heavy or in your face. It was creamy, sweet, and pleasant. Definitely a good beer.
Update December 2016: I got to the brewery, the beer is even better on Nitro; smoother, silkier. JP (the owner) tells me he’s either converted over or is converting over all the places he distributes to to support beer gas, so it’ll be coming soon to La Fortuna and the other locations he distributes to.
Of the must haves from Lake Arenal brewery I would list the two beers above. The rest of the beers are good, but not in the elite category in my book.
They describe this as: “A dark Brown Ale Dunkelweizen made with a variety of German malts. The first dark beer we ever brewed, this is an excellent introduction to malt-forward beers. It has a pleasant, smooth finish. 4.7% ABV 21 IBUs“.
I agree with the smooth finish part of the description, and wanted to add my own thoughts on the flavor. The malted grain gives it a flavor profile that between my friend and I who were tasting the beers we best could describe as a watered down whisky. My initial flavor impression was something almost akin to the flavor of raw cookie dough (and as odd as that sounds for a beer, I mean that in a good way), that then quickly transitioned into the taste reminiscent of whisky before fading to a pleasant and smooth finish. It’s a beer with a slight complexity to it, but the flavor changes are very quick as to almost not be noticeable.
Public Service IPA
Firstly I have to give them props for the creative naming, something about that name just sticks with me. This is one of their newest beers, and doesn’t appear on their website yet. As IPA’s go it is not really that bitter, and with it not appearing on their website yet I don’t the the number of IBU’s available to get an idea for where it falls. If I was just blind tasting I probably would have called it a pale ale rather than an IPA.
That said I like the complexity of the beer. The initial flavor is actually sweet rather than bitter, with the bitter coming in the finish of the beer. If you’re a real hop-head it will probably leave you wanting more, but if you like a crisp and complex ale this is a good beer.
Lava Red Ale
This is another one of their newest offerings, it doesn’t even appear on their website yet. It had a simple and crisp flavor and is par for the course for a red ale. It’s nothing exceptional, but it’s good beer nonetheless.
Paradise Pale Ale
I want to start by saying that maybe, just maybe this one should be listed up higher. To me it was a good, flavorful simple Pale Ale. However, the brewers list it as the house favorite and the top rated beer on Untappd in Costa Rica (although I’m not sure the sampling size). Now I do know that having drunk beer with many Costa Ricans not familiar with craft beer they will almost inevitably say that the beer is bitter if there is even the slightest hint of hops; given that this beer is the most similar of the seven to the national domestic beer (Imperial) I think that might be the reason for it’s popularity among many who rate the beer on sites like that.
Now none of that is meant as a criticism or to be taken negatively. It is a good pale ale, and I find it more flavorful than Imperial. It has a fruity flavor, with a just a tiny hint of bitterness. They list it as: “A classic American Pale-Ale…This beer has German malts paired with Cascade and Centennial hops. Bursting with flavor, it has notes of sweetness, citrus, and a floral finish distinctive of Cascade hops. 5% ABV 40 IBUs“.
I don’t want the fact that this is listed so low on the list to be mistaken for a bias against fruit infused beers. In fact one of my top rated beers in the country is infused with blackberries. I also want to say that even at the very bottom of the list I wouldn’t put this beer on the don’t drink this list. In fact the night I was sampling I recommended this beer to someone who preferred something on the lighter and fruity side with no bitterness.
This beer has a subtle mango flavor, and the mouth feel of a dessert wine. It has that smooth almost syrup-like flavor that is common with chilled dessert wines. For those in your group who are not huge beer fans, this might be a good option.