One interesting thing about craft beer is that while it continues to expand throughout Rhode Island and of course the rest of the United States, its growth has also been developing in other countries. Many European countries might immediately come to mind, especially because of their well-known brewing histories but, depending on your travels, you might be surprised to see microbreweries and brewpubs alike popping up in destinations you might not expect. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico (which, as a reminder, is a US territory), I was pleasantly surprised to find an up and coming variety of craft beers in San Juan, as well as on other parts of the island. One place in particular I came across was called The Beer Box. Run by Jorge Castro, this craft beer destination located in the town of Aguadilla is not only Puerto Rico’s first craft beer store/bottle shop, it is also where you will find Boxlab Brewing Co. Brewed by Jorge himself, you can find his beers on draft alongside some other local selections. On an island most famously known for its Pina Coladas, The Beer Box is setting its own path and paving the way for craft beer enthusiasts.
When I had a chance to speak with Jorge I was curious to find out what initially got him into brewing and opening his business in a country where craft beer isn’t necessarily well known. He explained to me, “For the past five years I’ve owned the beer store/bar called The Beer Box. At first I was quite happy to just sell/introduce good beer to the people but being a creative person for most of my life (a musician for many years), I was soon reading about recipe design and beer and food pairings.” And then there was the moment when the brewing started. “My friends Tim and Amanda own a small local brewpub called Del Barril and invited me to try my hand at designing a recipe and actually home brewing it. So they got me into brewing and I was instantly obsessed.” Not only does Jorge brew beer and have it on draft at The Beer Box, but he also offers plenty of other craft brews from the mainland US to choose from and a delicious menu with a variety of choices to accompany all of it. As he told me, “I used to do a lot of traveling and I realized there were no beer stores in Puerto Rico. Five years later we have become a beer bar, kitchen and all (the store part has been reduced to a small to go section). In 2014 we introduced Boxlab, which is our beer label (and future brewery name).” And from there the rest is history, serving up fresh brews and creative dishes for locals and tourists alike to come and enjoy.
Just like other brewers, Jorge said that when it comes to brewing “Inspiration can come from anywhere, music, food, etc. Usually an idea for a flavor profile pops up in my head and I go to this awesome beer design software called Beersmith, punch it in and see how it might come out. Other times I just think of a beer style, go online to read about how people usually brew those styles, then I change everything around and make it my own.” In regards to current and past beers that have been brewed, he gave a great overview of the wide variety of styles. “We started with Demolicion (an American Strong Ale that weighs in at 10%), right from the start we wanted to make a statement and separate ourselves from the IPA/Blonde/Red formulas most breweries start out with.” From there you can find plenty of different choices that rotate through the portfolio. “An imperial stout called Rompcabeza (translated to Head Breaker), a very dry saison named 20 Hz, a Belgian style quad called Quadrafonico and also Sol Invicto which is our Belgo-American style pale ale brewed with Simcoe and Citra hops.” Jorge added, “I enjoy brewing our saison. Although, I do look forward to us having our own facility and brewing all kinds of crazy one-offs, high gravity beers, weird flavors.” It is truly great to see such creativity and passion for brewing coming from the people creating it for others to enjoy.
Even though Puerto Rico is a US territory, being able to brew on the island can be rewarding but also has its own challenges as well. Just like here on the mainland Jorge shared that “There’s a real sense of community (amongst brewers) even though we are all very small. Even compared to the big local brewery (Cerveria de Puerto Rico), we’re still all the little guy (as they say).” And on the flipside, there are also hurdles that need to be jumped and dealt with as well. “An excise tax of $2.55 per gallon is our biggest problem. Archaic, old fashioned alcohol laws and a general clueless attitude towards the industry from the local government doesn’t help either. Of course, availability of ingredients and freight costs are not far behind.” There are also factors like certain people in power and religious groups that tend to frown upon the industry but the hope is that over time things will continue to change for the positive. Another good sign is that not only local microbreweries are growing but over the past 5 or 6 years, American craft beers have done so as well. “Lots of great breweries like Founders, Oskar Blues, Stone and Lagunitas have entered the market and are doing great. There’s new local breweries popping up, like Ocean Lab in San Juan and the upcoming Del Barril in Aguadilla.” Even at their own bar within The Beer Box you can find many other local microbrews on draft such as Boqueron Brewing Co, F.O.K Brewing Co, REBL Brewing and Dragonstone to name a few. As craft brewing continues to grow, it’s amazing to see the community and collaboration it brings with it, even away from the mainland on the island of Puerto Rico.
With not only personally crafted as well as other regional beers available but also a locally inspired menu available at the Beer Box, there has been a positive reception since the doors first opened. “It’s been fantastic! People appreciate the unique styles we are brewing. We get some really interesting reactions from both the beer geeks and the light lager drinkers. It’s wonderful.” He also added, “My big takeaway is being able to share good beer and to see how people react to the fact that beer can taste as good as a proper Belgian Tripel or a complex Doppelbock. I do not feel comfortable calling myself an expert on anything, so I like to think we’re learning together, as craft beer is a relatively new phenomenon in Puerto Rico.” And what might the future plans be for Boxlab Brewing Co? “In the short term we’d like to open a pilot system here in Aguadilla, a 3 BBL system with a small taproom for daylight hours. This place will also brew what we sell at The Beer Box. Long term goals include a bigger brewhouse and the possibility of exporting our product.” When speaking with Jorge and learning about the rise and growth of this industry, it reminds me a lot about how local craft beer started and has become what it is today in Rhode Island. A small state where the industry started off slow but has continued to grow, with a community of people who not only work tirelessly to create new and exciting brews but also the people who appreciate and look forward to them. If you ever find yourself venturing out of Rhode Island, or wherever you call home, and make your way down to Puerto Rico, take a moment to search out into the local craft beer scene and more specifically, take a trip to Aguadilla and The Beer Box. A very big thank you goes out to Jorge Castro for taking the time to educate me on the craft scene not only in regards to Boxlab Brewing but throughout the rest of Puerto Rico as well. On behalf of Prost Providence, I raise my glass and Prost The Beer Box and Boxlab Brewing!
(You can find and follow them on Twitter (@BeerBoxPR) and check out their Facebook page as well (https://www.facebook.com/beerboxpr/) for more information as well as different events)