To make a longer story short, there are two large breweries here in Panama: Cervecería Nacional and Cervecería Barú Panamá. Just like in the United States, there are three main macro beers here (all light lagers) that just about everyone drinks.
Cervecería Nacional (which on some days I can actually smell brewing from my bedroom) was recently acquired by SABMiller. It produces two of Panama's "big three" macro brands, Atlas and Balboa, which sell for about 50 cents a can at my local supermarket. Cervecería Nacional also makes Miller Lite, Corona, and a number of soft drinks.
Cervecería Barú Panamá was acquired in 2002 by Heineken, "the world's most international brewer," and produces the country's third major label, called Panama. Barú Panamá brews Heineken, a couple minor brands called Soberana and Cristal, and Budweiser. They also distribute Guinness, Paulaner, and Tecate.
Now one may say, "Wow, look at all those great international options!" but closer investigation reveals that what we have going on here is actually a big, incestuous corporate love-fest. Bear with me a moment while I explain. Guinness is owned by Diageo (Smirnoff, Bailey's, Johnnie Walker, Jose Cuervo, etc.) and Paulaner is 49.9% owned by Heineken. Tecate is also owned by Heineken and Budweiser is part of AB-InBev (Beck's, Stella Artois, Leffe, Hoegaarden, Bass, and dozens more). Warsteiner is actually privately held, but with products available in over 60 countries they're no small player.
Before anyone's brains start spinning too fast, let's get back to our "big three" brands. I did a taste test last night with a friend to try to differentiate between them:
Atlas (Cervecería Nacional): Atlas is the lightest of the three lagers, both in alcohol content (3.8%) and flavor. I detected a bit of corn in the taste, which many large breweries use as an adjunct to try to save some money (it's cheaper than barley). Not a whole lot going on here, but I can see how an ice cold Atlas could be very refreshing in the 100 degree heat of Carnaval.
Balboa (Cervecería Nacional): Balboa is kind of like Atlas's big brother. It's marketed to the young and adventurous as a more "hardcore" option. Balboa has a very similar flavor profile as Atlas, but with just a hint more pale malt flavor and less watered-down. The alcohol content is stronger as well at 4.8%.
Panama (Barú Panamá): Panama (4.8% ABV) is pretty decisively the most well-balanced of the three. There is a touch of spice in the nose, and unlike the other two, we get the slightest bit of hops flavor and bitterness. As far as I can tell from the packaging, Panama does not use any adjuncts. (There's something to be said for Reiheitsgebot.) Panama has also received three consecutive Grand Gold Medals from the Belgium-based quality control group Monde Selection.
Awards aside, Panama is my favorite of the bunch. At the end of the day though, it's still a light lager. Stay tuned for a run down of some of the other beers available in Panama in "Part 2: The Imports (or Are They?)."