CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuelans are facing the prospect of a heat wave without their favorite beer, the latest indignity in a country that has seen shortages of everything from disposable diapers to light bulbs.
Cerveceria Polar, which distributes 80 percent of the beer in the socialist South American country, began shutting down breweries this week because of a lack of barley, hops and other raw materials, and has halted deliveries to Caracas liquor stores.
"This is never-never land," said Yefferson Ramírez, who navigated a rush of disgruntled customers Thursday behind the counter at a corner store in posh eastern Caracas. The shop has been out of milk and bottled water for months, but the beer shortfall is provoking a new level of irritation.
"People more freaked out about losing beer than water — it shows how distorted our priorities have become here," Ramírez said.
Some of the customers walking away empty-handed headed a few blocks down to El Tigre, a prime showcase of the country's beer culture, where people while away balmy nights with a steady stream of light beer that comes in undersized bottles to ensure it never gets warm. Waiters ran around the bar's outdoor plaza plopping down fresh drinks on plastic tables covered with dozens of empty bottles.
El Tigre has kept going during a heat wave that has seen temperatures soar as high as 30 C (86 F) in a month that averages 23 C (about 73 F) by buying up all the Polar beer its waiters can find at supermarkets and selling the bottles for 200 bolivars rather than the normal 150, in violation of government price controls.
Angel Padra was arranging his empty bottles into concentric circles Thursday night, lamenting that Venezuela wouldn't be the same without the dark version of the popular beer, Polar negra.
"I started drinking 'negra' when I was 13," he said. "This is our religion. Take away beer and things get risky."
The shortage comes at a time when Venezuelans could use a little relaxing. Tensions are running high ahead of an election that the ruling party is expected to lose badly. A supermarket looting last week left one man dead, and in July, the head of Venezuela's Liquor Store Association was arrested for unexplained reasons after denouncing the shortages of beer making materials.
It's unclear when the national beer might start flowing again. Production cannot resume until the government approves foreign currency to import raw materials, according to Polar industrial engineer Daniela Escobar.
President Nicolás Maduro has so far kept quiet on the issue, but in the past has accused Polar owner Lorenzo Mendoza of hoarding goods to create the impression that Venezuela's economy is in chaos. In February he delivered the ultimatum, "Help our country or get out!"
As with every new wave of shortages here, there's always an upside for someone. In this case, the liquor stores bearing the brunt of customers' anger could ultimately benefit as people switch from beer to whiskey or rum, which have higher profit margins. In poorer neighborhoods, resellers are buying up the remaining cases of Polar beer at government-regulated prices, and illegally selling them at a steep markup.
Venezuelans can still opt for one of the imported or locally-made artisanal beers still found in liquor stores. But with Heineken going for more than five times the price of Polar, it doesn't seem likely many will switch to a posher alternative.
"If they're only selling Heineken, they're not selling beer," said college student José Vera, who went home to drink rum after failing to find Polar at liquor stores Thursday.
Even though he kicked off the weekend beer-free, Vera didn't seem too worried.
"Elections are coming and they'll figure it out. No one is going to risk their office over this," he said.