Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Puerto Rican Beer

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.




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Last month Bottom Shelf research director Emily and I took our honeymoon to San Juan. It was the best week of my very good life, and I can't wait to go back. Although my next view of Puerto Rico won't have the benefit of newlywed-colored glasses, I'm sure I'll still love it, because I'll still be with my gorgeous wife and without my hideous laptop. Plus the beaches will still be there, along with the casinos and the mofongo and the delightfully bilingual top-40 radio that bounces back and forth between Latin American pop and the English-language stylings of mainland gym-and-mall staples such as Rhianna Swift and Katy Bieber. Rum everywhere, too.

Which reminds me that my return to San Juan is guaranteed to be triumphant because I'll be off the best behavior that kept me from drinking all day last time around. It wasn't uncommon for me to spend up to three consecutive waking hours without a drink, which seems extreme but is a reasonable way to inaugurate a marriage to someone whose company you fear losing within the no-questions-asked annulment window the law allows for much-better halves to come to their senses. Em surely expected me to eat and drink like a pig every waking moment of the trip, and I was determined to make sure she was only three-quarters correct by washing down each morning's first few fistfuls of chicharon with tap water and virgin coffee.

Then lunchtime would finally rumble around and I'd join my bride in a cup of rum and pineapple juice before switching over to beer for the rest of the day. I didn't want to hammer the hard stuff all afternoon because I didn't have much pain to drink away, didn't want to repulse my wife too soon before dinner, and also didn't care for many of the cocktail options I saw. I'm not qualified to malign the entire Puerto Rican cocktail culture, because we didn't stray more than a couple miles away from our resort and the touristy Old Town areas, but we made it into enough locals-heavy roadside hooch huts to realize that my drinking agenda would be best accommodated by the local beer.

That's not to be taken as a blanket endorsement of the ubiquitous Medalla Light. I loved each of the 50-odd cans I had over the course of the week, but I can't in good faith recommend it to any landlocked soul not trying to recapture a fond memory or ease cheaply and gently out of one hangover and into the next. But if you find yourself funnin' around Puerto Rico—or see some in Florida and want to remember the good times—then Medalla Light will treat you right. Or at least righter than what passes for the local competition, the boring and Busch-reminiscent Silver Key. (The other big Puerto Rican beer I kept seeing was the higher-end Magna, which aspires to taste like Heineken and tragically succeeds.)

Medalla Light's main attributes are that it's cheap and superficially exotic. You'll pay up to $4 a can at a resort, but you can score an ML for less than $2 at the scruffier bars just outside the main tourist zone. Bottles are marginally more expensive than cans, which seems strange until you notice that they're larger: 12 ounces for bottles versus 10 for cans. My favorite bartender, Tony at El Alambique, told me it's because cans are allowed on the beach, where they'll heat up faster, thus the smaller size. In addition to their beach-friendly packaging and guzzle-friendly price, cans of Medalla Light weigh in at a delicate 83 calories and 4% ABV per pop.

As for the superficial exoticity: Medalla Light is one of the few beers brewed on the island, and since it's the cheapest thing at most bars, it's the favored after-work drink of blue collar Puerto Ricans. That makes me feel both hipper and more frugal than I would paying a dollar more for a Presidente or a Coors Light. The taste, however, is nothing you haven't had from a dozen different low-end American brands. There's a benign caramel maltiness followed by a rush of water, with no hint of hops or ambition. Which is to say, Medalla Light, taken as directed, is the perfect beer.