Costa Rican Craft Beer in 2018

Costa Rican craft beer just wasn’t a thing during my first visit nearly 15 years ago. That’s changed, with a wide variety of breweries stretching beyond the ubiquitous Imperial lager. But how good is Costa Rican craft beer?

Well, most of it is good enough to finish. But none of it is good enough to make Costa Rica a beer destination. For now, Curitiba, Brazil, retains its rank as my Latin American beer capitol. Of course, I was in a generous and festive mood during my visit. So I probably added ¾ of a star to every Untappd review. And I found that stouts were the best of the Costa Rican craft beer I tried. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take a step back to talk about the different brews and places where we enjoyed them.

costa rican craft beer
A nice and varied Costa Rican craft beer menu at Stiefel Pub.

Stiefel Pub

I was particularly excited about Stiefel. It was close to our hotel, too. It’s more of a locals’ sort of place. Laid back with decent food (casados) and a good selection of Costa Rican beers. The beer list rotates. The staff is patient with those of us who are kind of crappy at speaking Spanish.

I was shocked to see that they had a mead on tap – not a hard-hitting Game of Thrones sort of offering, but a nice sparkling beverage that tasted more like a radler or shandy.

costa rican craft beer
I really wanted to love the Costa Rica Beer Factory, but the beer and service didn’t quite match the atmosphere.

Costa Rica Beer Factory

We had this one pegged as the pioneering local trying hard to be the Big Thing. First the good stuff: It’s such a cool building – a great place to hang out. The extensive craft beer menu set my expectations high.

But when they’re out of most of the selections that interested me the most, that’s kind of a letdown. The server didn’t seemed to know his stuff beer-wise (he didn’t realize that half pints were on the menu, tried to get me to order fruit beers after the IPAs I wanted were out).

On the other hand, the food was solid: bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates for the wife and me, chicken fingers and fries for the little person. So go for the food and the atmosphere … and hope they sort their beer problems out before your visit.

costa rican craft beer
Wilk Craft Beer nails it all – food, atmosphere, service, beer. It sets the standard for Costa Rican craft beer. Don’t miss it when you’re in San Jose!

Wilk Craft Beer

This place killed ‘em all like a Metallica album -- by far my favorite Costa Rican craft beer bar that we found in San Jose. The tap list is extensive and weighted heavily toward regional craft labels. It also encompasses a wide variety of styles from stout to mead. The tacos are also delicious, and they play a decent variety of music at a low enough volume to allow you to chat with your drinking companions.

And hey, there’s a place to grab ice cream next door. A perfect place for craft beer! They also have some foreign selections.

We also visited a place called Lupulus Beer Shop. We didn’t have anything special there. It has dark, relaxed environment that might go better with patrons that don’t have a squirmy 3-year-old with them.

OK, now onto a few of the specific beers. I’m not going to list them all – just the standouts. If you want to know more, you can also visit my Untappd profile.

A Sampling of Costa Rican Craft Beer

Puerto Viejo Stout (Costa Rica Beer Factory)

More on the bitter dark chocolate side, which I prefer. Heavy body to it for its percentage.

Talingo Stout (Casa Bruja Brewing Company)

Best Costa Rican stout I’ve had. Sweet and viscous.

Barba Peluda (Primate)

A solid stout with plenty of chocolate.

costa rican craft beer
Here’s the beer list at Wilk.

None of these will make me book a ticket back to San Jose for more Costa Rican craft beer. But it’s nice to know that it’s not all lightweight lagers now. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to get a hold of a nice hazy IPA. And maybe some of those awesome spices that grow in Costa Rica will find their way into the beers – I’m particularly thinking that cinnamon could be used to good effect.

Traveling with Kids? Go See the Museo de los Niños in Costa Rica

My wife did a pretty awesome job selecting our hotels for the Costa Rica trip. Our final base in San Jose had its quirks – namely, allowing smokers to stink up the air in the courtyard of a nonsmoking hotel. But it had an awesome location that was close to the Museo de los Niños. Anneka loves museums, so we knew this would be a great way to while away the hours. Of course, we hit up a coffee establishment to fortify ourselves beforehand.

Rather than tell you EVERY exhaustive detail about the Museo de los Niños in San Jose, I’ll let these photos do most of the talking. I will say that the museum’s content was refreshingly frank – even delving into addiction and AIDS while also allowing anatomically correct mannequins. It was also super-cheap, as in less than $10 per person. Some of the exhibits were either well-worn or undergoing renovation, but it was still a great place to spend the morning and some of the afternoon. Oh, and it’s apparently built in an old prison that’s been remodeled. Super cool!

Just a word to the wise: The next post will be a roundup of the Costa Rican craft beer scene!

Museo de los Niños
I told Anneka that the pilot goofed up, and they just left his plane at the Museo de los Niños. This is arguably why I am barely qualified to be a parent.
Museo de los Niños
A cool view from the second floor. The dinosaurs are a great way to tie the museum together.
Museo de los Niños
The second I saw this, I was like “Who did the art in this museum, the dudes from The Family Guy?” #Giggity
Museo de los Niños
A cool old helicopter. Some of its maintenance doors are still operable, so I got right in there!
Museo de los Niños
Anneka wanted no part of this T-Rex at first. But she was proud of herself for getting brave and going up to it.
Museo de los Niños
“Who’s this little donkey and why is he photobombing me?” That look on her face is AMAZING.
Museo de los Niños
Another look at the dinosaurs.
Museo de los Niños
Another nifty little vintage flying machine at the Museo de los Niños. There’s also an old electric train and a double-decker bus.

Flying to Costa Rica Kind of Stinks

I love a good long flight. Put me in an economy class seat on a decent airline for 14 hours, and I’m perfectly happy to pass the hours watching movies and devouring books on my Kindle.

Notice the key phrase: a decent airline.

Decent airlines are scarce in the U.S., with an avalanche of nickel-and-diming paired with increasingly cramped airplanes. Then put that on a route that just long enough to be international, but not quite long enough for U.S. based airlines to consider bringing their A Game.

Our recent trip to Costa Rica really brings that into focus: We flew there on two of the three big U.S. legacy carriers – American Airlines and United Airlines. Both flights arrived safely and relatively on-time. At this point, that seems to be the only aim, with on-time more than negotiable.

So what exactly is the problem?

takeoff sky harbor
Takeoff from Sky Harbor

First of all, we live in Phoenix. That means that direct flights to Costa Rica are seasonal, and our flight wasn’t scheduled for the right season. We connected in Dallas via American Airlines. Connections always make things a bit tricky. Fortunately, nothing ran late.

But let’s talk a bit about the seats: The first flight was an Airbus A320, with the second let being a Boeing 737. Both had slimline seats that were absolutely jammed into the seat in front. I’d guess a 30-inch seat pitch. Fortunately, my wife and I had a 3-year-old passenger between us, so we were able to steal her legroom. The seats on the United planes – a 737 from San Jose and an A320 from Houston – were slightly better.

Then there’s the baggage fees. I’ve never flown on an international flight that charged for checked baggage. These "short international" flights seem to get treated like domestic flights, which is really odd to me.

Then there’s the cabin service. American Airlines came out way ahead of United by providing a cold sandwich on the flight from Dallas to San Jose. United had buy on board options on their menu. But apparently they’d sold out on the previous flight. We shrugged it off at the time: Houston has some great food options in the concourse, and we allowed just enough time to pick something up. But, no: An aircraft that was late to push back from our scheduled gate cost us at least 15 minutes. That piled on top of having to go through Immigration and re-check out baggage. We arrived at our gate seven minutes before pushback. And even though there was a grab-and-go restaurant right next to the gate, the gate agents waved us onto the plane as if we were the last ones who would board (we were actually far from it). Fortunately, a brewery near our house was still serving pizza once we got out of the airport (Thank you, McFate, for always being awesome!). Oh, and did I mention that United managed to leave my wife’s backpack in Houston?

Second leg on American Airlines – the night flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As for the flight attendants, they varied from flight to flight. The first United crew seemed entirely disinterested in their self-loading cargo. The second was far better, with one flight attendant getting some water to our thirsty 3-year-old before the beverage service (we didn’t have a chance to fill bottles on the mad sprint through the terminal).

What’s to be done about this? My hope is that carriers like JetBlue or even foreign carriers start putting the screws to airlines like American and United. I’m perfectly happy to pay slightly more for airlines that don’t charge for checked luggage on international flights, that have good schedules and that offer decent, consistent service in the cabin (that last one is possible – I’ve seen it in airlines abroad).

It would be nice to see a U.S. airline say "air travel can be awesome, and we’re going to make it so."

It’s a long shot, which is why I always try to book international flights on foreign carriers (Asiana is amazing, with Qantas, SAS and Lufthansa also being pretty solid). Foreign flag carriers seem to realize that they’re often a visitor’s first impression of our country, or a resident’s welcome home. It would be awesome to see an US-based airline make it their mission to act accordingly. Flying can be fun, but our country’s legacy carriers seem determined to make it a drag.

Costa Rica Coffee in 2018

costa rica coffee
Some Costa Rica coffee turned into tasty beverages at Cafe del Barista in Arenjuez.

You’ve probably heard that Costa Rica coffee is ridiculously good. That’s true to a certain extent: You can walk into just about any establishment, pour yourself a mug of brewed coffee that’s been sitting around for hours, and still not need to put any cream or sugar into it.

Espresso is another story, and espresso-based drinks are my bag. I judge establishments by their ability to make a cappuccino – and I like the new-fangled style that has latte-style microfoam and arrives in your hand at drinking temperature. This sort of thing is pretty rare in Costa Rica. Most of the caps I had were too hot, which made them bitter. Many of the baristas nailed the foam pretty well.

Anyway, let’s take a stroll through the places where I drank some coffee and espresso. (Note: I usually only drink coffee four days a week. But I seriously indulged myself for all 10 days of my trip.)

Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio

Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio and Quepos is well-known. It’s not just a coffeehouse, but a full-service restaurant that keeps going well past dark. It’s a great place to grab a fish sandwich.

costa rica coffee
A cappuccino at Cafe Milagro

They also serve a tasty brewed coffee, probably my favorite of the type that I drank in Costa Rica. Their cappuccinos are so-so.

The short craft beer – or cervezas artisenal – list, is a nice feature for visits later in the day. Not extensive, but still a good start.

Downtown Coffee Roasters, San Jose

Downtown Coffee Roasters is in a pedestrians-only section of San Jose. And it is by far the best place to get espresso. Their cappuccino is absolutely perfect – right temperature, foam and taste. They also do a fine nitro cold brew -- I actually drank both on the same day, and you can imagine the result of that much caffeine. But I regret nothing. Would do again, 12/10.

I know this is a shorter write-up than some of the others. But Downtown Coffee Roasters was my favorite, and there are only so many ways I can say that. 

Doka Estate, Alajuela

I was a little skeptical of a coffee plantation tour. It sounded like boredom to me. But we wanted something to do that afternoon, so I went along with it. And I was proven wrong.

costa rica coffee
My not-so-inner 12-year-old couldn’t stop laughing at this statue.

It was very cool to see the amount of care and energy that goes into a drink so many of us love. There’s also a good bit of innovation. Ray, our tour guide, was engaging and knowledgeable -- and he let us try some of the tasks. Hands-on activities are always good! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I’ll say that it’s worth your time, even if you think you know coffee.

Speaking of which, the tour included samples of four different types of brewed coffee. And I plunked down an extra $3 for a shot of espresso. It was a good shot – nice crema, which is always a good indicator. The Doka plantation is too far away to drop in for a casual morning cup, but it was still a nice place to sample some drinks.

Cafe del Barista, San Jose (Aranjuez)

I had some high expectations from the vibe at Cafe fel Barista. I expected them to be as good as Central Coffee Roasters. They were not. They were a cut above Cafe Milagro, though. Be careful if your Spanish is rusty: They serve spiked coffee drinks, too, at all times of day. That’s how the wife wound up with her crazy concoction.

costa rica coffee
The menu at Cafe del Barista

The cappuccino was pretty good, definitely more of a modern style with the latte-style foam. For me, it was a bit too hot and a bubbly. Still one of the better ones I had in Costa Rica, but not a match for Downtown Coffee Roasters.