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Costa Rican Moonshine

Clandestine Still

Clandestine Still

 By Jack Ewing

I haven’t had a drop to drink, of any alcoholic beverage, since May 17, 1977. I quit drinking because I figured that I had already drunk enough to last me a lifetime, and it wasn’t necessary to drink any more. Prior to that date, I was quite an expert on all things relating to alcoholic beverages including Costa Rican moonshine, known locally as guaro contrabando.

Hacienda Baru

My first taste of guaro contrabando came about a week after my arrival in Costa Rica in the year 1970. With only a rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language, I asked one of my fellow workers, a man named Luís, where I could get a bottle something to drink. The only kind of liquor I knew how to say in Spanish was ron meaning rum and pronounced like the word “roan” rather than the abbreviation for Ronald. Luís took me to a pulpería — a small, family-owned, neighborhood, general store, which has unfortunately faded from the Costa Rican tradition, only to be replaced by the mini super market. The pulpería sold everything from sewing machine needles and saddle parts to rubber boots, food stuffs and guaro, both the legal stuff and the contrabando. Luís and the owner of the pulpería highly recommended this latter. At the time, I didn’t quite understand that what I was buying was illegal, but I had a pretty good idea that “mas fuerte” meant that it was stronger. That’s what I bought. I remember that it was so cheap that I thought they must have made a mistake and undercharged me. I also remember that it packed quite a whalop, but was pretty tasteless.

As I built my Spanish vocabulary I rapidly learned those words common to all regular drinkers, enabling me to acquire exactly the kind of liquor that I wanted. I still bought a bottle of contrabando once in a while, but I always got it at a pulpería or a cantina where I was known. Most places wouldn’t sell it to a stranger.

Prior to 1940, before there were any roads into the Dominical area, homemade stills, known as sacas, were the only source of liquor, and there were lots of them. Nobody was secretive about them, because there really wasn’t a law that clearly established that a saca was illegal. Bringing liquor or beer into the area on pack horses was not practical and didn’t make sense when people could easily make hard liquor for themselves. Someone in every village had a saca for making moonshine, and supplied everybody in the neighborhood. There was competition between the different moonshiners over who had the best product.

By the time I arrived in Costa Rica in 1970, homemade stills were definitely against the law. There was a high tax on imported liquors making them too expensive for most drinkers. The products manufactured nationally were reasonably good quality and were priced considerably less than the imported brands. Nevertheless, the National Distillery had a monopoly, and they took advantage of the lack of  competition and priced their ron, ginebra and guaro high enough to leave them a substantial profit margin. It also priced them out of the market for many working class people. Those were the golden years for the contrabandistas, who found a ready market for their  guaro contrabando. Its manufacture and sale was a thriving business. As the years passed, import taxes were reduced on many products including liquors and wines, and this tended to drive down the prices of the products from the National Distillery making them affordable for blue-collar workers. At the same time the quality of the national products improved to the point that many of the Costa Rican liquors are today nearly indistinguishable from the imported competition. This of course was bad news for contrabandistas and most went out of business. There are still a few sacas operating in remote places, but the business today doesn’t leave much profit, at least not enough to make it worth the risk of getting caught.

Out in the country, stories of moonshiners outwitting the police abound. To listen to them you would think that nobody ever got caught, but I’m sure that was not the case. It is more fun to tell the story when the contrabandista comes out smiling and the policeman ends up looking like a fool. A moonshiner I once knew, named Memo, left a small tree with a big wasp nest in the middle of the trail that went to his still. Some branches from another tree blocked the view of nest, shrouding it from the eyes of the unwary. Memo, the saca owner, was always careful not to touch the tree when he went past, but uninvited visitors weren’t aware of the nest and usually bumped the flimsy trunk on their way down the path, shaking the nest and inciting the wrath of the angry wasps. Few uninvited visitors made it past that point. One day the local constable and a couple of deputies showed up at Memo’s house and started nosing around.

“Whadaya think yer doin’ Miguel,” asked Memo. “This is private property. I got rights. Ya can’t just come ta my place and start snooping around.”

“Whadaya think wer doin’ Memo,” came the reply. “Wer lookin’ fer yer saca. Everyone knows ya got one, an I’m gonna find it.”

“There ain’t no saca on this land Miguel. Why don’ you guys just leave. Go bother someone else.”

“Hey Miguel,” shouted one of the other policemen. “There’s a trail over here goin’ back into the jungle. Ya wanna see where it leads? I betcha its gonna take us ta the saca.”

“You kin follow it if ya want,” said Memo. “That’s just an old huntin’ trail. Don’t go nowhere. Jus ta the jungle.”

All three policeman started off on the trail, confident that they were going to find the clandestine distillery. It wasn’t long before they returned in a big hurry.

“I told ya there ain’t nothing on that trail,” called Memo. “But ya wouldn’t listen ta me.”

The three guards hurriedly got in the pickup and left.

Memo laughed like crazy when he told the story. According to him, Miguel had stopped to urinate almost directly under the wasp nest and leaned against the tree. I’m sure you can guess the first place he got stung.

Back in the early 1970s I worked on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. I got to be pretty good friends with a campesino named Javier, who owned a small farm and a few cattle. We became big drinking buddies. He told me all about guaro contrabando, how it is made, and all the particulars. He even showed me a diagram of a saca done by a nephew for a science project at the local high school. Javier told me that the first guaro that flowed out of the still, called the cabeza or head, was the best. He claimed that the first drops of liquid to drip from the tube were so high powered that if you collected half a shot glass and threw it into the air, it would just go poof and disappear. Though pure contrabando was nothing more than alcohol and water, the moonshiners sometimes did certain things to embellish the product. Some would add nance fruit to the finished guaro giving it a slightly sweet taste that took away the bite. Another way to modify the guaro was to add an equal amount of coconut cream and a lesser amount of condensed milk. This product, called leche de burra or burro’s milk, was very sweet. I was still curious and asked Javier to explain exactly how the contrabando was made. Javier went one step farther and offered to take me to see his uncle’s saca out in the jungle near where he lived.

We rode to a pulpería in a rural settlement called La Alegría, and there we left our horses. Javier’s uncle Guido was a little distrustful at first, but Javier vouched for me and assured him that I was very tight lipped. Guido led the way into the jungle, where we walked for almost an hour until we came to a small, crystal clear stream, and there was the still. I remember thinking I could never find the place again if my life depended on it.

“There she is,” commented Guido. “Ain’t much to it.”

I surveyed the scene and tried to make sense of what I was looking at. There was a wooden trough that could have been used for watering livestock. It appeared to be fashioned from a dug-out log about two meters long and 40 cm. wide. It looked like it would hold around 30 gallons. The trough was covered with a piece of galvanized tin, and from it emanated a smell of fermentation. Guido explained that it contained a mixture of corn, water and crude cane sugar called tapa dulce. It had been fermenting for about three days and was ready to be cooked. He said that some contrabandistas would substitute sorghum or oats for the corn, but other than that, there wasn’t much difference. The fermented mixture inside the trough was called chicha and could be drunk in that state. I sampled the chicha and guessed that its alcohol content was about the same as a sweet wine. It tasted a little like home brew beer but stronger.

Right next to the trough was a hearth. On top of the hearth was a tank made from half of a galvanized, 55 gallon drum. The cover over the drum had a narrower cylindrical part sticking up in the middle. A bronze tube, was inserted into this narrow cylinder. The other end of the tube went over to and through a smaller trough that had a constant stream of cold water flowing through it.

Guido went and got a bucket from a hiding place within the buttress roots of a fig tree and began scooping the liquid out of the trough and pouring it into the drum. The last of the liquid that Guido scooped out of the trough was pretty cloudy. He left the thick soupy solids in the bottom, explaining that it would help get the fermentation started on the next batch.

While Guido was transferring the chicha from the trough to the drum, Javier began gathering fire wood and started a fire in the hearth. After about ten minutes a trace of vapor began to rise from the drum. The two men put the lid on top so that the only way for the vapor to escape was through the bronze tube. Guido placed a glass bottle at the end of the tube. Soon a clear liquid began to drip into the bottle. The drip gradually increased to a dribble and then a weak stream. Remembering my high school science classes, I figured out that the steam that came off of the boiling chicha escaped through the bronze tube. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so the first steam was almost pure, vaporized alcohol. In the cold water trough the steam cooled, condensed into a liquid with a high alcohol content and drained out the end of the tube. This was the principal of the homemade distillery. We sat down to wait.

While we were waiting, Guido told us a story about a new recruit to the local police. The chief sent him off on foot to deliver a summons to somebody who lived about a two hours from the police station. As he was walking along, the rookie policeman noticed a trail going off into the jungle. Curious and a little suspicious, he followed the trail which eventually led to a saca, and caught the moonshiner with a fire going under the still and guaro contrabando dripping out of the tube.

“ Well it looks like ya caught me red handed,” exclaimed the contrabandista. “I suppose yer gonna haf ta take me in. This batch is just about finished. Why doncha jus sit down and let me collect the last few drops and shut the whole thing down. I ain’t gonna put up a fight. I’ll go along with ya in a few minutes.”

The policeman remembers feeling a thump on his head, and everything went black. When he regained consciousness he was in the same place, but everything was gone, the tanks, the trough, the still and everything. His clothing was all wet and stank of chicha. Somebody had dumped the dregs from the trough all over him. When he returned to the station with a splitting headache and smelling like chicha, the chief didn’t believe his story and berated him for not completing the task he had been sent to do. The moonshiners laid low for a while and then set up the still in another location.

By the time Guido finished the story, the first bottle was full. Guido replaced it with another and put a cork in the end of the bottle of crystal clear liquid. “Pura cabeza,” he said, with a grin.  Javier and I went off to explore the jungle, while Guido tended the still. Several hours later, when we returned, he had five a gallon container almost full. Javier hefted the five gallon container to his shoulder, and we left. Guido stayed to finish the job. He figured there was another five gallons to go.

Javier told me that another uncle of his had almost been caught. The police stumbled onto his still, but couldn’t prove that it was his. They destroyed the still and confiscated five gallons of guaro contrabando that was stored there. I asked if anyone ever went to jail for operating a still. He said that he had never heard of anyone going to jail. He said that most people just bribed the police, who in addition to the payoff confiscated all the guaro. It was Javier’s opinion that the police never turned the moonshine in, but either drank or sold it.

I recently asked around about sacas and guaro contrabando in the area around Dominical. It appears that there are a few operating stills around the countryside, but these days they are few and far between. It is no longer the thriving business that it once was. Nevertheless, it will long be remembered as an integral part of the rural Costa Rican tradition.






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