Michigan beer lovers vacationing in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico, can get their fix by visiting a former Michigander’s craft beer haven, La Taberna Lúpulo. Situated between two famous forts in the heart of the colonial section of the city, this oasis serves Founders and Bell’s goodness to local residents as well as tourists looking for refreshment. The building has an inviting open air atmosphere that allows for an occasional visit from one of the city’s many friendly wandering cats while you enjoy your beverage and the island breezes.
Getting there is easy, it’s accessible by foot from many sightseeing origins and destinations including the cruise ship port on the southern shore. If your timing is right, you may be able to save a few steps by catching one of the free local trolleys that circle the perimeter of the neighborhood and stops nearby.
La Taberna is partly owned by General Manager Milton Soto, who was born and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan and is now living in Puerto Rico.
“I came down to study and just stayed. Fell in love with Puerto Rico. Never thought in a million years I would be here almost twelve years later,” he said. “I think my friends thought I was insane. My dad is Puerto Rican and my mother is Cuban but I came on my own and figured it out on my own. Now everybody wants to move down here,” he said. Visit his part of paradise and you’ll begin to understand why.
Soto has been working diligently to develop the seven year old bar into a craft beer destination. They’ve carried Michigan brews for over five of those years. He says he has partially convinced brewery representatives to get on board with his ideas by escorting them around the main island and encouraging them to feel the pulse of the vibrant territory. There is much to love about the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s varied topography of beaches, mountains, dry desert-like areas, and rainforests. Soto speaks highly of time spent showing folks from Founders around his adopted home. “Jeremy’s a hoot. We had a good time in the rainforest!” Soto said of Jeremy Kosmicki, Head Brewer at Founders, who visited to check out the scene. It paid off for both companies.
During this writer’s visit in December a good chunk of the Bartender Favorites board had Founders listed. “We don’t force anybody to like Founders, those bartender favorites are literally what they like — and people love Founders,” Soto said, accounting for the brewery’s presence on eleven of the fifty taps. “Our local brews are good but they’re still up and coming, they’re still starting,” he said. “Here in Puerto Rico the craft beer market is really only 6 or 7 years old. We were the ones that started this movement,” he added.
Of the many bars and restaurants competing for customer attention, La Taberna was “the first one to have a tap system in Puerto Rico, and we started as a small, hole in the wall bar”, Soto claims. It progressed rapidly to its current popular status and larger space. “People love good beer, and we get so many great people coming through here all the time.” Puerto Rico is “a small place but we know how to drink, we definitely know how to drink!” he laughed.
“The Puerto Rican palate, in the last six years, has gone through an extreme array of changes. Traditionally we were used to pilsner lager type beers, going into more amber, pale ales, wheat beers then IPAs, then to the point where you have people drinking stouts in the middle of summer like it’s going out of business. It’s like ‘wow it’s kind of warm for that’ but they love it here. A lot of Puerto Ricans grew up with this drink called Malta which is a malt beverage and it almost tastes like a stout but it’s non-alcoholic,” Soto said. Malta is brewed with barley, hops, and water and resembles beer that hasn’t been fermented. Kids take it to school in their lunches and it is widely enjoyed in social gatherings. Soto thinks this could be a contributing factor to the immense popularity of Bell’s Kalamazoo and Expedition stouts and Founders Imperial Stout and Porter in the bar in spite of the tropical temperatures.
IPAs are also appreciated there, cans of Founders Centennial and All Day IPA are sold as fast they can be stocked. On tap you might find such gems as Devil Dancer when it’s in season. “Because we’re the main craft beer bar in Puerto Rico we get all the special releases allocated to us,” Soto said, including Bell’s Hopslam when it hit distribution recently.
The list of Michigan breweries Soto dreams he’ll eventually have on tap in the future is topped by Witch’s Hat, not only because he considers them one of the up and coming Michigan breweries to watch, but also due to his friendship with the company’s founders and owners Ryan and Erin Cottingim. “I moved out to South Lyon right after high school and that’s when I met both of them,” he said. “They’ve always been fucking amazing people and that’s what makes amazing beer,” he added.
“I think New Holland would be a contender. Shorts would be awesome, I would cry if I could get them,” Soto said frankly. Jolly Pumpkin previously had a presence in Puerto Rico some time ago but has since exited the market. Soto believes they may have a better reception now that consumers have opened their minds a little more to the idea of sour beer. “Every time I go home I’m in Ann Arbor drinking Jolly Pumpkin, I’d love to see it come back,” he said.
“Michigan is super important down here. We have a lot of people from the midwest that live here,” he added. Soto sees similarities in the cultural attitudes of midwestern mainland USA and the island territory, especially the willingness of people to go out of their way to be helpful and pleasant. The team at La Taberna Lúpulo takes care to exemplify those values. Perhaps our mutual love of Michigan beer has something to do with that joviality. Go visit them and experience it for yourself. Tell them MittenBrew.com sent you.