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by Dave McBride

Beer snobs scorn Budweiser and Miller, but it’s a fact the best selling beers in the USA are Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite. And so it is in Panama, where most everybody beats the heat of the tropics with light yellow beers ferociously chilled.

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Panama is the second biggest beer-consuming country in Latin America. The first is Brazil.

Round about the halfway point of the U.S. Panama Canal build, five Panama City businessmen pooled their balboas (one balboa = one U.S. dollar) to create the Panama Brewing and Refrigerating Company and began selling buckets of beer to the canal workers. It was 1909, and they called their first beer Balboa Lager, still one of the biggest sellers in Panama. Balboa is a light lager in the tradition of Bud or Pabst or Miller. It is 4.8% alcohol by volume.

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As the Panama Canal was opening for business in 1914, a second beer company called the Atlantic Brewering and Refrigeration Company was formed at the other end of the Canal on the Caribbean side and it created Atlas Beer, today the best-selling beer in Panama, proving the rule that Panama likes it light. Atlas is only 3.8% ABV.

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The breweries merged and today both Balboa and Atlas are brewed by Cerveceria Nacional. Balboa in recent years was marketed to men as the bolder brew, and Balboa Ice was created to target younger Panamanians.

After decades of near-monopoly by the makers of Balboa and Atlas, a brewery called Cerveceria Del Baru Panama created the uber-popular Panama-brand lager, which also appealed to a younger demographic. Panama is the most vigorous marketer, with branded merchandise and Panama Beer t-shirts littering Latin-America. Some compare Panama to Heineken. 4.8% ABV.

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Soberana, which means Sovereign, is also a popular and established brand but beer fansites rank it low and describe it as weak and bland.

Beer is cheap in Panama. A single can is about 50 cents at a store. At the high-end resorts the Panamanian beers average $3.75 (Balboa, Panama, Atlas, Soberana) and imports (think Corona, Heineken, Miller Lite) are $5. Do not tell a Panamanian you once paid $29 for a bottle of 32% ABV Brewdog Imperial Stout. They think we are nuts as it is.

Fun fact: You will find German rathskellers and Irish pubs with the customary beers, but the Guinness and the Warsteiner served in Panama is brewed in Panama.

Despite the national inclination toward a light, mild beer, there is evidence of an awakening of a more discerning beer palate among Panama’s beer-drinkers.

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507 Premium Red Lager is an artisanal beer named for the telephone country-code for Panama. It is 4.6% ABV.  It blends caramelized malts and three European hops with a fuller flavor and a slightly bitter finish. It is produced by the same venerable Cerveceria Nacional that produces Balboa and Atlas. Consider it the Panamanian cousin of Sam Adams. Good stuff.

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Craft beer is catching on in Panama. In Panama City, there is La Rana Dorada (The Golden Frog) brewpub, which offers four different flavors of brews at its Casco Viejo location: a pale ale, a premium pils, a blanche/Belgian and a Porter.

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Another popular craft brewery is the Istmo (Isthmus) Brewpub in the downtown Cangrejo neighborhood.

And a microbrewery in the Panama City industrial park of Costa Del Este is now exporting to Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Casa Bruja translates to “Witch House,” and brews a variety of beers called Brujeria, which means “Witchcraft.” One of its most popular beers is Chivoperro IPA, an inside joke, named for the pet goat of one of the brewery business partners that is fond of eating dog food. Chivoperro means Goat-Dog, and Chivoperro now has its own Twitter page and Instagram account. #woofwoofbeeh.

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Veteran Newsman Dave McBride is an award-winning news radio reporter, anchor and program director and creator of fan-favorite Dave’s Raves. Dave has received the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Writing for Radio/Large Market and the 2010 and 2011 Murrow for continuing news coverage. He was awarded the New York Festivals World Gold Medal for Best Writing for Radio. In his first year in Florida he received the Florida AP award for Best Long Light Feature in both first and second place. Dave is currently based in South Florida.