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CARACAS, Venezuela – 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 Ramirez, who navigated a rush of disgruntled customers Thursday behind the counter at a liquor store in posh eastern Caracas. The store has been out of milk and bottled water for months, but the beer shortfall is causing a new wave of irritation.
"People more freaked out about losing beer than water — it shows how distorted our priorities have become here," Ramirez 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 bottles on plastic tables, some of which were otherwise covered with 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, waxing about how 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 Venezuelans could use a little relaxing. A wave of violence has struck food lines this week, and political 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 Polar beer might start flowing again. Industrial engineer Daniela Escobar explained outside one of the shuttered plants that production cannot resume until the government approves foreign currency to import raw materials.
President Nicolas Maduro has so far kept quiet on the issue, but in the past has accused Polar owner Lorenzo Mendoza of hoarding goods to make it seem like 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 that sweeps Venezuela, there's always an upside for someone. In this case, the liquor stores bearing the brunt of customers' anger could become a primary beneficiary as people switch from beer to whiskey or rum, which have higher profit margins. In poorer neighborhoods, people are buying up the remaining cases of Polar beer at government-regulated prices, and illegally selling them at a steep markup.
Venezuelans for now can buy 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 more expensive brew.
"If they're only selling Heineken, they're not selling beer," said college student Jose Vera, who went home to drink rum after failing to find Polar at liquor stores on 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.
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