Since the beginning of the pandemic, my beer buying has truly been limited almost entirely to supporting local breweries by purchasing directly from their taprooms. As the year has stretched on, and we’ve seen no shortage of craft beer casualties, this remains the most direct and effective way you can help keep the lights on at your favorite breweries. As a result, I’ve had little bandwidth for grabbing unfamiliar, non-local beer off store shelves. But even in this setting, you occasionally run across something so novel or perplexing that you just can’t help yourself.
Nicaragua Craft Beer Co. was one of those odd little mysteries you run into the beer aisle. What was the story behind this Nicaragua-based brewery, I wondered? Why was it sitting on a store shelf in Virginia? Why did its pilsner come packaged in 8 oz cans? Why is its pilsner 6.2% ABV? The hell is going on here? Suffice to say, there were enough lingering questions that I couldn’t help myself—I had to buy a six-pack of this, look up the company and sample the beer. I could not resist this level of idiosyncrasy.
Taking a gander at the NCBC website makes things snap into place—the company was founded by U.S. craft beer geeks Brandan DeBlois and Matt Greenberg, who were regular travelers to Nicaragua for its famous, surfer-friendly beaches. While visiting, they came to believe that the country’s most famous beach town, San Juan del Sur, should have a craft brewpub, and the rest is history. They’ve now been in operation in Nicaragua since 2013, alongside third partner Bobby Hottensen, making a wide variety of styles such as The Bloom IPA and Popoyo passionfruit ale.
Only one makes the trip back up to the U.S., however: Panga Drops Keller Pils. This brand is clearly meant to be a volume seller in the U.S., now apparently available in 35 states, and it sets itself apart in a few interesting ways. First there’s the beer itself—an unfiltered pilsner that is a bit stronger than typical at 6.2% ABV. But that aspect is balanced out by the smaller can serving size of just 8 oz, which is apparently intended to allow a beachbound drinker to plow through a can more quickly, while it’s still cold.
“When you’re drinking a beer in the Nicaraguan heat, the last four ounces tend to get warm,” said President and Co-Founder Matt Greenberg. “So, we moved those ounces to the next can to keep them cold. The 8-ounce squat cans chill faster to help keep you cool and refreshed.”
Makes sense to us. And personally, the 8 oz can is something I’ve been in support of for years—yes, for high-gravity styles and barrel-aged beers, but for basic styles as well. Small serving sizes are a great option for those who are prioritizing novelty or trying to control their alcohol intake more closely, and I would very much welcome seeing more cans like this in the market.
With all that said, then, the only thing left to do is actually sample Panga Drops and see what “Nicaraguan pilsner” might be like in practice.
Poured into the glass, there’s a few things one immediately notes here. First, the relatively darker color that one does occasionally see in German-made pilsner—this is a dark gold, almost into light orange. That impression is only amplified by the almost total opacity, to the point that it makes me wonder if simply being “unfiltered” could even result in a beer this opaque. Did they enhance its cloudiness, perhaps? Hard to say, but if you saw it completely blind I’m thinking you’d peg it as an American pale ale.
Regardless, the nose on Panga Drops initially reads with crisp grain, bready/doughy notes, wheatgrass, lemon citrus and florals. This is a very classically German pilsner nose indeed, at least on the malt side of the spectrum, and it has that delicately musty/slightly oxidized quality that many imported German pilsners in the U.S. seem to possess. I also get some very subtle spice notes that are more like anise or fennel.
On the palate, Panga Drops is actually a bit more malt-forward than I was expecting, especially after drinking an initial one straight from the can. Unsurprisingly, it’s easier to taste from a proper glass, and it accentuates flavors of crisp but slightly musty grain and something slightly like toasted oats with light spice. Hop notes are subtle, with light florals and lemon citrus, but this is really more of a malt-driven pils, and slightly more substantial in stature than most, likely thanks to the higher ABV. Bitterness is very delicate and light. Could I perhaps use a bit more of a charge of floral hops? Yeah, but I tend to like my pilsners as noble hop showcases. Regardless, this is a perfectly valid way to make one, although I’m surprised the ABV isn’t a little lower if it’s intended as a beach crusher.
As a total package, though? Hard not to love these little “drops,” with their perfectly refreshing 8 oz delivery system. It’s like a beer you’d throw in a cold pack and bring on a picnic, or crush in a single long gulp while hiking. Again, I reiterate: I want to see more of this. And if you’re in the market for some tiny cans of surprisingly authentic German pils, keep an eye out for these ones.
Brewery: Nicaragua Craft Beer Co.
City: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Style: German keller pilsner
Availability: 6-packs, 8 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.