As I write this review (September, 2002), I’ve just recently returned from a vacation in Costa Rica–an amazing country of rain and cloud forests, volcanoes, howler monkeys, toucans, the biggest bugs you’ve ever seen, and a beer called Imperial that I almost immediately befriended.
Before departing, I carefully consulted my Lonely Planet travel guide about the usual things a traveler needs to know before heading abroad, and in my case this included the beer scene. I learned that Costa Rica has a single brewery (or “Cerveceria”) that brews several different brands, the most popular of which is Imperial. Armed with this knowledge and the ability to request up to 100 beers in Spanish (I had a phrase book with me if I wanted more), I departed with great enthusiasm to Central America.
We landed in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, but immediately left the city for the much greener environs of Arenal, land of the country’s most famous (and still active) volcano. The ride in a small van would take between 3 and 4 hours, not so much because of distance but rather due to the incredibly bad conditions of Costa Rican roads. (Picture New York State with just the Thruway running from NYC to Buffalo, and everything other road is basically dirt or gravel.)
At about the midpoint in our journey through some of the greenest, hilliest, and beautifully cloudy landscape I’ve ever seen, our driver informed us that we would make a brief rest stop. To my great surprise, we stopped at a little shack set into the hillside of nowhere in particular. However, the view was incredible, and since the driver’s English was only a little better than my Spanish, I was exhausted from our pidgin communication and was ready to put my beer knowledge to work. “Cerveza, por favor—Imperial.” A very good first impression on the bartender. I laid down a bright red bill and received my beer and some over-sized coins in return. The beer cost only about a buck.
My first Imperial could not have been more satisfying. I poured it into a glass and was impressed by its deep golden color, and it produced a modest foamy white head. It was nice and cold—perfect for the humid tropical climate—with a refreshing yet appropriate level of carbonation. It went down very smoothly. I noticed that it had the smoothness of Corona, but with a bolder, hoppier flavor. The aftertaste was light and clean, and as the beer began to warm up it retained its positive characteristics. I was already impressed with Costa Rica.
Now, there is something important to keep in mind here—the phenomenon known as “situational beer adoration syndrome,” in which one’s beer quality judgment is greatly altered by the circumstances and environment in which a beer is consumed. For example, when I was in Jamaica a number of years ago, Red Stripe seemed for a time to be the ultimate reggae-boogie ganja-huffing good time summer beer. I now find it mediocre at best. So I was mindful that the syndrome might once again have been influencing me.
However, the more I drank Imperial, the more I liked it. I drank it in bottles, cans and on tap. I drank it with food and without. I drank it at a variety of times during the day and night (although I resisted the breakfast beer). Perhaps most important of all, I tried a different beer by the same brewer as a point of comparison. It was called Pilsen, presumably the local pilsner, and I did not enjoy it. As pilsners generally do, it had a bite to it. But instead of the delightful clean bite of Pilsner Urquell, this bite gave the impression that a touch of Tylenol had been added to the beer. All these factors convinced me that my good beer sense was still intact.
Costa Rica’s national slogan is “La Pura Vida,” which translates literally to “the pure life,” but really implies more the enjoyment of a good, happy and fulfilling life. And I always found myself looking forward to a cold Imperial after numerous Pura Vida experiences—hiking through the rain forest, flying through the cloud forest canopy on a zip-line tour, or rafting on the Rio Pacuare, ranked among the world’s top 5 whitewater rivers. (Have a look at some of these rafting photos—that’s me in the front with the square- jawed, determined, and thirsty look on my face.)
Costa Rica most definitely does not rank among the world’s top culinary nations. Two words can sum up the bulk of the Costa Rican diet: rice and beans. They are literally eaten with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fortunately, Imperial goes well with this fare, so I recommend trying it with Bobby Guapo’s Arroz con Frijoles. Costa Ricans also eat a lot of meat, so Imperial should lend itself nicely to many of the other recipes in the Belly.
I have not yet seen Imperial in the US, but I imagine at the very least it must be available in one of those “beers-of-all-nations-A-to-Z” bars. I’ll keep you updated on my own findings, and please let us know if you come across it. As for cost, in Costa Rica I saw it priced as low as 65 cents a bottle, and never more than $2.00, even in good restaurants. US cost remains anyone’s guess at this point.
It’s a beer worth looking for, however. Enjoy La Pura Vida!