A brilliant sociologist made a study of what all cultures have in common. Guess what he came up with? First, all children have a mother and a father, whether known or unknown. Duh. Second, every culture has something to drink or eat that elevates the mood. Usually, something fermented. To drink. Like beer.
In Russia, they brew vodka from potatoes. In Scotland, malted barley turns into scotch. In Kentucky, corn transforms into bourbon. I can’t vouch for what’s in Panamanian beer, but the men here love it. And it’s cheap – some places you can get a bottle for 35 cents. Others, it’s a shocking 50 cents. Sometimes, it’s as high as 65 cents! On the other hand, if you are in a gringo bar there’s no telling how much you’ll pay.
I seldom drink beer (because it makes you fat and I have enough other things to help me with that), but I know the most popular brands here are Panama, Soberana, Atlas and Balboa. It’s difficult not to know that, if you ever buy groceries, walk past an open air bar, or go to any of the fiestas on holidays.
One thing I observed shortly after moving here is that the local men always stop drinking from a bottle when it has about half an inch left. Sometimes they leave a third of the bottle. While this seems to me a very expansive, hey-big-spender way to do things, I can understand the urge to do that. But I suspected there was another reason for it.
Sure enough, a local expat who owns a bar filled me in: up until a few years ago, local beer was bottled unfiltered. As the brew settled, a sort of sludge would accumulate in the bottom of the bottle. Dregs. About half an inch of it.
Now that the beer is filtered, he told me, the local men still hold onto the custom of leaving that last half inch or so in the bottle.
So the other day, I was walking past an outdoor bar when two of my Panamanian neighbors waved me over to say hi. I sat for a bit while we chatted about ships and shoes and sealing wax and how difficult it is for this pitiful gringa to understand the local accent. When their bottles approached the inch mark, they ordered another round and asked politely if I would care to join them. They seemed surprised when I accepted, which, in turn, mildly surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have. I have observed that the local, more traditional, older women here don’t seem to drink beer, even at family fiestas.
We were drinking Soberana, which comes in a clear bottle. The beer is a lovely, light golden color and has very little bite. I was thirsty and very much enjoying the experience of having a cold beer with friends. Then I was down to about an inch in the bottom. As I lifted the bottle to my lips, the sun was perfect for me to see the beer itself. And in it, dancing like tiny, translucent imps, small particles of …something… swirled.
And so I joined the hey-big-spender club that day and left an inch of beer in the bottom of my bottle.