Beer shortage and heatwave spells misery for Cubans

HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba has been hit by a severe beer shortage during one of its hottest summers on record, sparking hoarding and driving thirsty drinkers to pay greatly inflated prices.

A sharp fall in production at the island's main brewery, Bucanero, at the beginning of the year has trickled its way down the supply chain at the worst possible time: the third-hottest summer since 1951.

That has caused many consumers and the communist country's newly legalized private restaurants, or "paladares," to stock all they can.

Bucanero makes four brands of beer: Bucanero, Cristal, Cacique and Mayabe. The company has a virtual monopoly in Cuba, though some imported beers are also available, albeit at a large mark-up.

"It was an odyssey to find beers for a going-away party Tuesday," one Chilean expatriate told AFP.

"I covered half of Havana going to supermarkets, gas stations and liquor stores before I finally had to buy them at a restaurant" - where he had to pay 15 per cent higher prices, he said.

Cuban media said the problem was caused by delayed imports of malted barley in the first four months of the year.

That hit production at Bucanero, a joint venture between the Cuban state and brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, and reached consumers just as summer set in.

"Now in the summer more than ever, you go to look for a cold beer at this moment when you needed it the most, and you can't find any," said an agonizing islander interviewed on local TV.

Cuba has registered average temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius this summer, according to the national meteorological institute.

Media reports said the beer problem had been exacerbated by hoarding by consumers and the "paladares" that have flourished since the introduction of economic reforms by President Raul Castro, who took over from his 88-year-old brother Fidel, the father of the Cuban Revolution, eight years ago.