Frank Zappa once claimed that you can’t call yourself a real country unless you have your own beer. Today, it’s hard to think of any country that doesn’t have a singular offering dominating local barrooms, billboards and television commercials.
Have you heard of Snow? It’s literally the best-selling beer in the world, and it’s only sold within China, usually in liter form. Or how about Baltika #3, a Russian lager that comes in plastic bottles à la Mountain Dew. There is Toña in Nicaragua, Mythos in Greece, Kalik in the Bahamas—even teeny tiny Monaco has its own beer, fittingly called Pils de Monaco.
Of course, in many cases this nationalistic beer fame is based more on what’s on the bottle than in it. These beers sport labels with iconography or typography that is now indelible—the silkscreened Blackletter font of Corona, Imperial’s emblematic eagle, Singha’s royal Garuda—so recognizable they’ve become powerful symbols of national identity, not to mention a source of outsider nostalgia. How many times have you heard a friend come back from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, eager to share a story about pounding Medalla or Presidente all week long? That’s why they are mementos in and of themselves—fond reminders of both a certain time in your life and an aspirational wanderlust for a place you’d rather be.
The great irony is that, nowadays, most of these “local” beers are seemingly indistinguishable offerings owned by the likes of AB InBev, SABMiller, Diageo and Heineken; you could easily dismiss them as “Bud in different bottles.” They’re generally all corn- and rice-packed lagers brewed to be as inoffensive as possible, not to mention highly drinkable, mainly thanks to their meager ABVs. These are light beers essentially designed as local bastardizations of classic German and Czech pilsners—often a result of those countries’ immigrants having spread across the world in the last century.
But I couldn’t help but wonder: Did each of these national beers have a truly local character before they were bought up by the multinationals? And how exactly did they first come to be?
Slogan: “A cerveja que desce redondo” (The beer that goes down round)
Started in 1959 in Great Britain (where a 2.8 percent ABV version of the lager remains popular), a series of brewery mergers soon led to Skol landing in Allied Breweries’ Canadian, Belgian and Swedish-owned hands. (The name Skol was derived from the Scandinavian toast “skål.”) Soon after, the company began brewing the beer in several European countries, as well as Africa and Brazil. An immediate hit in Brazil, Skol was snapped up in 1980 by its main Brazilian rival, Brahma, which then merged with Antarctica in 2000 to form AmBev, which then merged with Belgium’s Interbrew in 2004 to become AB InBev. Improbably, this well-traveled lager is now the most popular beer in Brazil and is most closely identified with that country, despite the fact it is still brewed the world over.
Slogan: “El sabor del encuentro” (The flavor of getting together)
With packaging that resembles the country’s tri-band flag, Quilmes, too, serves as a national symbol. But Quilmes was actually started by a German immigrant, Otto Bemberg, who, in 1890, began brewing the beers of his homeland, Quilmes, a city within the province of Buenos Aires. But in 1953, during a period of strong anti-Semitism, former Argentinian president Juan Perón seized Quilmes and ran the Bembergs out of Argentina. The brewery was eventually returned to the Bembergs, and their German-style offering now accounts for an astonishing 75 percent of the country’s market share. Quilmes’ brewery Cervecería y Maltería Quilmes is currently owned by a Luxembourg-based holding company that is controlled by AmBev (InBev’s Brazilian subsidiary).
Presidente (Dominican Republic)
Slogan: “The true taste of the Caribbean”
There’s surely no other national beer named in honor of its country’s most ruthless dictator. First released in 1935 courtesy of Cervecería Nacional Dominicana (which was sold to a local cigar company in the 1980s and then AmBev just a few years back), this pale pilsner honors Rafael “El Jefe” Trujillo. The original incarnation of Presidente, put forth by an opportunistic American industrialist named Charles H. Wanzer, was actually a dark German-style schwarzbier. Unfortunately, that beer was too “heavy” for local tastes and didn’t sell very well. Following Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, Presidente became the light beer we know today.
Imperial (Costa Rica)
Slogan: “La cerveza de Costa Rica”
“Imperial” typically means big and bold—often double or triple the strength and flavor of a standard beer—but not here. This light lager’s name actually refers to the iconic imperial eagle of the Roman Empire that adorns bottles, cans and countless billboards throughout the country (the beer is colloquially known as “Aguilita”—or “Little Eagle”). The beer has been manufactured since 1924 by the oddly named Florida Ice and Farm Company—a public Costa Rican food and beverage company—whose Ortega Brewery was aiming to make a German-like offering for the isthmus nation.
Corona Extra (Mexico)
Slogan: “La cerveza mas fina” (The most refined beer)
Mexico is fervently devoted to pale lagers: Sol, Tecate, Pacífico, Modelo, Dos Equis and, of course, the most iconic vacation beer of them all, Corona. This fizzy pilsner first appeared in 1925 courtesy of the country’s Grupo Modelo, long the biggest brewery in Mexico. From the beginning the beer was packaged in clear longnecks, but nonetheless became an immediate hit despite its high propensity for “skunking.” First imported to the U.S. in the late 1970s, “Corona-mania” became a thing in the ’80s. The brand is now America’s best-selling foreign import and a staple of male tank top-wearers. Acquired fully by AB InBev in 2012, Grupo Modelo is owned by Constellation Brands in America due to anti-trust legislation. In fact, pretty much any Mexican beer you’d ever find yourself drinking is owned by InBev and Heineken.
Red Stripe (Jamaica)
Slogan: “Hooray beer!”
Those popular commercials are so damn gimmicky, it’s hard to believe Red Stripe is anything but faux-Jamaican. Indeed, a recent lawsuit was filed in U.S. federal court alleging the brewery uses deceptive phrasing—the “Jamaican Style Lager” claims it contains the “taste of Jamaica” on every bottle—to cover-up the fact that stateside Stripes come from a brewery in Pennsylvania. Amazingly, though, at one time Red Stripe really was a Jamaican beer—sort of. Desnoes & Geddes (D&G) was incorporated in Jamaica in 1918 as company that manufactured soft drinks, among other products. In 1928, one of the founder’s sons, Paul Geddes, decided to move to Chicago to learn how to brew, and by 1938 his Kingston-based Surrey Brewery was producing Red Stripe lager. Diageo purchased the brand in 1993, and Heineken acquired it in 2015.
Mahou Clásica (Spain)
Slogan: “The original taste”
Created by the offspring of a Frenchman, the unwieldily-named Hijos de Casimiro Mahou, Fábrica de Hielo y Cerveza (The Sons of Casimiro Mahou, Dedicated to the Production of Ice and Beer) opened in Madrid in 1890. They label their flagship beer a “National Standard” stylistically—it’s just a no-frills pale lager—and changed its name from Mahou to Mahou Clásica in 1993 as more brands were introduced. Mahou has long battled it out with Estrella Damm and Cruzcampo as the country’s best-selling beer—though the former has become more of an international success and the latter, a Heineken International product, mainly dominates within Andalusia. In 2000, Mahou acquired a Filipino brewery to form the Spanish-owned conglomerate Mahou-San Miguel. They now own a portion of one of America’s finest craft breweries: Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Slogan: “The real Thai beer”
After doing extensive research into the operations behind German breweries, Boonrawd Srethabutra opened Boon Rawd Brewery, Thailand’s first, in 1929. By 1933, he was ready to release bottles of Singha to the public, each with an official depiction of the holy Garuda on the neck. That symbol is rarely issued, as it’s only granted to companies that have long been of service to the royal court—thus, in a way, Singha was royally blessed by King Rama VII. Compared with most of the other lagers mentioned here, Singha was for years a fairly flavorful six percent ABV offering. But, in 2007, the ABV was dropped to five percent, putting it in line with most every other country’s best-selling brew. The brewery still retains its Thai ownership, and even exported Singha is brewed in Thailand.
Slogan: “The most famous Hellenic beer”
This “authentic” Greek beer actually has its roots with a local importer of German beer. That original company, Henninger Hellas S.A., after decades of bringing in Deutschland’s finest fizzy lagers, finally decided to start producing their own. The Northern Greece Brewery introduced Mythos in 1997, hoping to create a genuine national product. The gambit worked, and Mythos quickly became the country’s most prominent beer. In fact, the brand’s rise was so meteoric that within ten years it was acquired by Denmark’s Carlsberg Group.
Medalla Light (Puerto Rico)
Slogan: “El sabor que nos mueve” (The flavor that moves us)
You’d think because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, you’d find its beach bars full of classic American swill. They’re not; canned Medalla Light is the beer of choice here (and if you’re wondering if there’s a “heavy” version, there isn’t). Produced by one of only two breweries on the island, The Compañía Cervecera de Puerto Rico was founded in 1937 by Puerto Rican-born, Manhattan-raised industrialist brothers. The brewery’s second most successful product, Malta India, is a non-alcoholic barley soda. The company remains privately held.
Peroni Nastro Azzurro (Italy)
Slogan: “Birra superiore d’Italia” (The top beer of Italy)
While its ubiquity in American pizza parlors might raise a few red flags, Peroni actually has a legitimate Italian heritage. Founded by the Peroni family in 1846, the company has been operating in Rome since 1864—six years before that city had even become the capital. Their most famous offering, “Nastro Azzuro”—a salute to a blue ribbon-winning Italian ocean liner that had once crossed the Atlantic fastest than any other ship—wasn’t released until 1963. The refreshing lager, which uses locally-grown corn, is not just Italy’s best-selling beer, but is sold the world over, owing to SABMiller taking control of the brand in 2003.
Carib (Trinidad & Tobago and other Caribbean countries)
Slogan: “Real beer is Carib”
Somehow, Carib has become the beer of ubiquity when you’re in any country where the term “all-inclusive” is guaranteed to come before any meal. A British man, Sir Gerald Wight, established the Caribbean Development Company Limited in Trinidad & Tobago in 1947; today, it remains the only brewer on the entire island. The company has owned satellite breweries on Saint Kitts and Nevis and Grenada since then, further explaining the beer’s island-life omnipresence. Amazingly, even though CDC produces both Heineken and Smirnoff Ice under licenses, the brewery itself is not owned by a foreign conglomerate, but a local Trinidadian company.
Slogan: “Beer of the Bahamas”
You’re relaxing at a resort on Paradise Island, eating some conch fritters and sipping a Kalik. Life is good. But just as Paradise Island itself is artifice—it was actually called Hog Island until luxury resorts starting popping up there in the 1960s—Kalik is hardly a traditional, homespun product, either. Named after the sound a cowbell makes, Kalik emerged in 1988 after Heineken International set out to create a light lager that mimics the “mellowness” of the country’s people.