Can't drink to this: Venezuelans could be facing severe beer shortage

As Venezuela suffers from a severe economic crisis, many locals have been commiserating in bars across the country overflowing with a wide variety of frothy beers.

“Beer is the best beverage there is to enjoy a chat with friends,” Alfredo Ramírez, 29, told Fox News Latino with a beer in hand at El León, a popular bar in the east of Caracas that at one time sold about 300 cases a week.

Venezuelans have had reason to drown their sorrows after dealing with a slew of shortages – including milk, toilet paper, diapers, medicine and basic beauty products. But now, they are trying to figure out how to deal with the country’s newest crisis: a dearth of beer.

“I travel a lot for work, and in the last two weeks I haven’t found beer in many bars of Aragua, Guárico (states in the center of the country) and Caracas,” Ramírez said. “That upsets me, because beer is the No. 1 drink in Venezuela.”

The country’s largest beer distributor, Empresas Polar, has been battling with union workers with close ties to the government who have been demanding higher wages. Union workers at the company, which distributes about 70 percent of the nation’s beer, have shut down breweries and distributors to try to force the company to approve a new contract – a move that has threatened to deplete the country’s beer supply.

The company has said the union’s actions are “political.”

Local beer makers have been unable to buy basic staples like barley and malt, and aluminum needed for cans is in very short supply. Inflation has also been nearing triple-digit levels, prompting the country to spiral into an ever-worsening crisis.

Daniel De Souza, manager of El León, said the bar is already having a difficult time trying to find certain types of beer. He said distributors have told him that by the end of July the shipments, which have already started to slow down, might stop.

“In the past we only sold beer in bottles, now we offer cans or whatever options we can find to satisfy clients,” De Souza said. “Distributors treat us better because we have been in this business for years, but other bars and restaurants already ran out of beer.”

People have been trying to adapt to the situation, and some are making light of it. A common joke people tell: “If the beer runs out in this country, the government will be overthrown.”

Other beverages, like whiskey, are also difficult to find but much more expensive. A bottle of Scotch can cost up to 12,000 Bolivars, or about $1,700 at the official exchange rate. Prices are expected to increase in the coming months because of new taxes imposed on alcohol sales.

Given the high cost, the Venezuelan Federation of Liquor Stores (Federación Venezolana de Licorerías y Afines) said whiskey consumption dropped last year, while cheaper beverages, like beer, increased dramatically.

But now that option seems to be slipping away.

“Last year we received more than 60 cases of beer weekly. Now we're getting between 20 and 30. This week we didn’t get anything,” said Jorge Arabia, who works at the Líder Liquor Store in Caracas.

Aurelio De Freitas, owner of a liquor store and a bar in Los Palos Grandes, in the east of Caracas, is facing the same problem.

“I am receiving 20 percent of the merchandise that I used to get in the past,” he said. “The situation is worst with pilsner beer, which is the most popular, and now you can’t find it.”

To deal with the situation, stores are beginning to ration their sales. Arabia said that Líder is only allowing customers to buy two six-packs, while De Freitas, whose store is also an official Polar distributor that sells to small restaurants, is selling a maximum of 10 cases to each costumer.

“In the past, we used to sell around 150 to 200,” De Freitas said.

For now, Venezuelans are trying to make do.

“If they don’t have the beer I like, I order another. If they don’t have any, I drink sangria. Other alcoholic beverages are really expensive right now,” said Gilberto Rivero, while holding a beer at another Caracas bar, La California.

But others argue that beer is “irreplaceable.” Miguel Castillo, 25, who was drinking at El León with a friend, said the beer shortage will likely disrupt social gatherings.

He brought up the joke about the shortage of beer threatening the country's Chavista regime.

“This is what we have been waiting for,” he said. “When the beer runs out, let's see what happens with the government.”

But supporters of the government were more optimistic. Carlos García, 29, who was drinking at El León, believes that beer won't run out, “because we are Venezuelans and revolutionaries.”