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Article: Volcano Beer Returns to the Beach

Originally published in the Tico Times on June 4, 2014, Click here to read online

By Suzanna Lourie

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – This summer, taking a six-pack of Imperial to the beach may not be the only option for surfers and sunbathers hitting the sand for a day of fun in the waves.

Beer lovers in Tamarindo and its surrounding beach towns can thank Joe Walsh, longtime resident and owner of Witch’s Rock Surf Camp, for broadening beer selection in the Guanacaste region.

“First and foremost, I’m a surfer,” he said over the phone between sets on a surf trip in the Osa Peninsla. “I’m a brewery owner second.”

Volcano Brewing Company has returned from Lake Arenal to Tamarindo/ Suzanna Lourie/

But this diehard surfer and California native knows a thing or two about the beer industry.

After establishing Witch’s Rock in 2001 – a company that started out of the school bus Walsh drove from California as he surfed his way through Central America to land in Tamarindo – he spent the next 10 years building his brand. In 2011, Witch’s Rock was a thriving business, but something still didn’t feel right.

“I started Witch’s because I felt like it was the thing missing at the time,” Walsh recalled. “That’s sort of what happened with Volcano Brewing Company – I always joked this place would be perfect if only they had pale ale, but good beer was really still nonexistent.”

In the 2000s, Walsh and countless other nostalgic expats watched the microbrew industry explode across the U.S. and Canada. Bars donned row upon row of taps pouring artisanal brews from across the globe. Costa Ricans, however, continued to happily swig Imperial and Pilsen – craft beer wasn’t on their radar.

Years passed. Sick of waiting for that magical pale ale to suddenly show up on the supermarket shelves, Walsh decided to take matters into his own hands.

In 2011, he became one of the pioneers in Costa Rica’s budding microbrew industry by opening the doors of Volcano Brewing Co., a combination hotel and pub brewery on the shores of Lake Arenal in the Northern Zone. Good beer, it seemed, was the only thing that could tear Walsh away from the waves – just for a little bit.

“I’m not really into the whole driving away from the waves to the mountains kind of thing. It’s beautiful up there – don’t get me wrong. But it was temporary. The goal was always to get back to the beach,” he said.

Finally, after three years of mountain-beach travel, Walsh was ready to bring Volcano Brewing Co. back home to Tamarindo, where is it now housed under the Witch’s Rock umbrella.

“Everything takes longer than it should, … especially in Costa Rica, but we’re excited to finally be back at the beach and have everything in one place,” Walsh said.

Suzanna Lourie / The Tico Times

Moving to Tamarindo also meant closing the Arenal Hotel, a sad, but necessary move that allows Walsh more time to focus more on his two passions – beer and surfing – while getting back to his original vision for Volcano Brewing Co.

When he started the company three years ago, craft-brewing equipment was scarce in Costa Rica. So in 2011 when Walsh received an offer to take over the lease to a hotel with built-in brew facilities, he jumped at the chance. The out-of-the-way location on the far shore of Lake Arenal kept the operation small, allowing the company ample time and space to master the brewing process and work out any kinks before expanding.

Up to this point, the beer has only been served only at the onsite Arenal brewpub and Eat at Joe’s and El Vaquero in Tamarindo. But next week, Volcano Brewing Co. will celebrate an important milestone when Sharky’s Sports Bar in downtown Tamarindo becomes the first non-Witch’s Rock venue to sell Gato Negro Dark Ale and Witch’s Rock Pale Ale on tap.

Sharky’s is the first step of a plan to bring Volcano brews to the area. Over the next few months, distribution will begin in Tamarindo, starting with restaurants and bars that already have a tap system, such as Pangas Beach Club in Tamarindo and Lola’s in Playa Avellanas. From there, distribution will continue throughout Guanacaste in upscale hotels such as the Four Seasons in Papagayo and nearby towns like Playas Flamingo and Potrero.

“We actually don’t even have enough to serve everyone who wants to buy it right now, but it’s awesome to be growing in that direction,” Walsh said. “It’s a huge honor to know people want to sell our beer.”

As the company expands, Walsh says Volcano Brewing will begin the canning process – a novel idea in the craft beer industry, but something Walsh feels is essential for a beach beer. Glass isn’t ideal for tossing in the cooler or the back of a pick-up truck, Walsh explained.

“Cans aren’t necessarily the main packaging for a high-end beer, but that’s starting to change,” he added. “People are realizing quality beer can come in a can.”

Another reason to can is the ease of distribution, particularly to bars that do not yet have tap systems in place. “There have definitely been hurdles,” Walsh says, “but it’s exciting to be part of an industry that is still in its infancy in this country.”

He will also stay loyal to the surf world with Volcano Brewing’s planned distribution route – a path mirroring a traditional Costa Rican surf road trip beginning in northern Guanacaste and running down the Inter-American Highway all the way to the Panamanian border.

“That’s basically our mission – to grow from Tamarindo, down the Coast and in San Jose as well,” Walsh said. “We’re a Tamarindo brand at heart, but there are a lot of thirsty surfers (and non-surfers) up and down the coast.”

To stock Volcano brews in beach bars spanning over 500 kilometers from Witch’s Rock to Pavones, Walsh realizes Volcano Brewing still has a ways to go. Future plans include additional facilities, although the Tamarindo brew house will remain the Volcano Brewing Co’s showpiece at Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo.

As things move forward, Wash and his 80-plus team at Witch’s Rock expect to refine the Tamarindo facilities even further – opening up the brewery to connect to El Vaquero, add a third beer-focused bar and add a large thatched-roof rancho to shade large event groups and parties.

“It’s happening in a couple of steps, but getting back to Tamarindo was the major part,” Walsh said. “We need to stay true to what we’re all about and that’s the beach.”

Article: Tamarindo Airport to Reopen, but Questions Linger

Originally published in the Tico Times on June 7, 2014. Click here to read online. 

By SUZANNA LOURIE

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – Two weeks ago, Tamarindo Airport was shut down by Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority due to runway safety concerns. Now the company that owns the land – Hotel Diria Beach Resort Group – has stated that it will “continue with its aeronautical operation once everything is resolved.”

“Everything” includes working with consultants and construction companies to come up with quotes and alternatives solutions for repairing and reopening the runway, according to Diria Director Manuel Rockbran

The comments came after two weeks of radio silence from the Diria following the airport shutdown, which caused local residents and business owners to fear they were losing their airport for good. Without it, the town’s tourism-drive economy would take a hit, residents said.

While the Diria’s recent statements cleared up some of the misconceptions and put minds at ease, important questions about the airport’s future remain.

The Tamarindo airstrip lies on a large piece of the Diria’s privately owned land; land that is home to a driving range and may become a full-scale golf course. With signs, billboards and the recent completion of a model home advertising a future residential golf community, it’s no secret that the Diria has plans for the area.

According to a statement made by Civil Aviation at a recent meeting, its authorities first began sending safety reports to the Diria in 2009, informing the administration the runway needed attention. Five years passed and more memos were sent, but no one from the Diria responded.

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The Tamarindo Diria Airport Sign – Airport still closed.

So when the airport was temporarily shut down, some local residents feared the worst. One of them was Guido Scheidt, a pilot and area resident whose company, Auto Gyro America, has flown scenic gyrocopter flights from the Tamarindo Airport for over five years. He organized community fundraising to fix the runway, but once he heard the Diria’s statements, Scheidt admits the effort may have been premature.

“The Diria said they are not looking for help,” he said. “They don’t need financial help to rebuild the runway.”

Diria representatives told the group they remained silent until now because they had been negotiating with construction companies and contractors to determine a budget for runway repairs.

When it comes to Diria’s long-term plans for the airport, Rockbrand and other Diria representatives have declined to comment.

The uncertainty over the airport’s future has created frustration for Tamarindo businesses – particularly three real estate conglomerates reportedly interested in donating land for a new public airport. Those projects include Reserva Conchal in Flamingo, Hacienda Pinilla in Avellanas and a group in Tempate.

Once a location is chosen, the project could take up to three years to complete. Business owners say they are eager to get started and disappointed with lack of information coming out of the Diria. For a new runway to succeed in this region, it would rely on the service of regional airlines Sansa and Nature Air – both of which seem unlikely to add a new route so close to Tamarindo’s airstrip, should it remain open.

As for an exact date for the reopening of the airport, Rockbrand didn’t know. But the public can expect an announcement soon, he said.

 

Article: Tamarindo Airport Closed Due to Safety Concerns

Originally published in the Tico Times on May 18, 2014. Click here to read online.

By Suzanna Lourie

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – Air traffic to and from the Guanacaste beach town of Tamarindo has been temporarily suspended due to growing safety concerns regarding the condition of the runway.

In a notice released Friday, May 16, Costa Rica’s Civil Aviation Authority announced the airport will close immediately through June 30, at which point the runway will be inspected again.

Photo by Suzanna Lourie

Photo by Suzanna Lourie

For the tourism-based community of Tamarindo and its neighboring beach towns, the airport closure is a blow to the local economy, locals residents and business owners say.

“It’s not just my business – Nature Air and Sansa can’t fly – it hurts everybody,” said Guido Scheidt, owner of Auto Gyro America, which offers gyrocopter flights and classes out of the Tamarindo Airport. “The whole town – restaurants, hotels – we will all suffer if we can’t come up with the money to fix the safety issues to at least get the runway reopened temporarily.”

Scheidt called upon local businesses to come together and start a fund to fix the immediate problems with the runway – namely potholes and other debris cluttering the airstrip.

“I don’t think it will take a ton of money to repair it, just enough to get up to code,” Scheidt said. “What I’m trying to do is get the community involved to raise money and create a fund to reopen the airport for the transition period before we can move to a new runway, owned and run by the government.”

According to Scheidt, there is an ongoing, two-year discussion with Reserva Conchal, a large real estate conglomerate in the Flamingo area (15-minutes from Tamarindo), about donating a piece of their land to the government to open a public airport for the Tamarindo area.

“If Conchal donates the land, then the aviation authorities can build a new runway,” Scheidt said. “The authorities have the money to build a very nice airport, however, they can’t do this on private land – they need to own it – due to a legal issue.”

Land rights were also involved in the recent decision to temporarily close the Tamarindo Airport.

Currently, the airstrip is located on private land owned by the Grupo Diria – land the hotel group plans to eventually transform into a full-size golf course with residences for sale.

The privately owned runway generates little income, and according to Scheidt, with no one else helping to raise funds, it would make no sense for Diria to shell out money for reparations when there are long-term plans to move the airport.

“The government said the runway needed to be fixed so it no longer had any safety concerns, but since no one else is donating money to fix it and it doesn’t make any money for the Diria, they had to let the government close the runway until the community can come up with the money.”

Scheidt hopes that with the support of the community, local business owners will generate funds to quickly fix the runway to the point where Diria will allow the government to reinstate air traffic for the interim period until a new airport is complete – something he estimates could take at least two to three years, if not more.

But there is good news – Civil Aviation’s specific safety concerns include minor issues such as potholes and rocks obstructing the runway – all problems Scheidt believes can be fixed at a reasonable cost.

“Our goal is to come together and find enough money to reopen the runway and keep it safe and running until the new airport is built,” he added. “Everyone has an interest in this.”

As of Saturday, May 17, Civil Aviation had not yet published an official notice about the closing on its website (http://www.dgac.go.cr/). However, officials at the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia – the next closest airport to Tamarindo – did tell Scheidt the announcement should be up early next week.

A call to Grupo Diria for comment had not been returned as of Saturday. The Tico Times will update this story as more information becomes available.

 

 

Article: Big Changes for Guanacaste School

Originally Published in the Tico Times, May 30, 2013. Click here to read online. 

By SUZANNA LOURIE

BRASILITO, Guanacaste – Although the students will soon vacate the halls and trade their textbooks for surfboards, the activity at Country Day School Guanacaste is just getting started for summer.

With the help of parents and community members, Country Day School’s Guanacaste campus stands poised to transition from a privately owned, for-profit business to a community-owned, nonprofit school.

 

Middle school students will return to their classrooms next year at Country Day School Guanacaste thanks to a community effort to keep the school open. Courtesy of Country Day School Guanacaste

Middle school students will return to their classrooms next year at Country Day School Guanacaste thanks to a community effort to keep the school open. Courtesy of Country Day School Guanacaste

“Country Day School Guanacaste (CDSG) was founded as a satellite school to a much larger campus in San José,” explained Bruce McKillican, Country Day parent and member of the school’s transition board.

“After years of falling short on making the Guanacaste school a business success, Country Day’s Escazú headquarters decided to consolidate their resources in Escazú,” McKillican said.

Early this year, several parents were approached by the school’s owners and were given the opportunity to take over the campus in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and recreate the school’s image as a community-based nonprofit.

Faced with the frightening prospect of their beloved school closing and leaving their children’s educational future in limbo, a group of parents came together to form the CDSG Transition Board, charged with adapting the new ownership structure.

“The families that have children in the school realized that a change in leadership could be an incredible opportunity – a chance to focus on the local issues and make decisions for the school based on the needs and desires of this community, while still maintaining the strong K-12 academic standards that Country Day has become famous for,” McKillican said.

But seizing the opportunity was no easy task. It took community outreach, in addition to support and dedication from the parents and the newly formed Transition Board to begin the process of remodeling Country Day’s ownership structure from private to not-for-profit.

In addition to raising money and solving teacher contracts, McKillican and the transition board had to vigilantly research other nonprofit school board models and consult with academic professionals to learn what was necessary to succeed under such a model.

“We couldn’t let the school close. As a parent, this school represents an educational pathway for children to any university on earth,” McKillican said.

“Without this pathway, so many families would be denied the ability to live here, including my own.”

Luckily, under the new ownership, the parents and students won’t have to forego what makes Country Day – both in Escazú and Guanacaste – a unique academic institution. Specifically, the school will retain its U.S. accreditation as well as Costa Rican Education Ministry status and continue to fill the role of one of the region’s few international, U.S. college preparatory schools.

Not only will the school maintain its defining characteristics, but it will also take on several new elements in the 2013-2014 school year, including reduced tuition rates that will allow more students the opportunity to study at CDSG.

“There’s nothing wrong with the educational program at Country Day and we want to maintain it. We’re happy with the school, but under a community-based ownership structure, we will be able to see it better reflect our values and interests,” McKillican said.

The new school board leadership will allow current boards and future members to create an environment that reflects the dynamic and changing interests of the community.

According to McKillican, these interests will be expressed in the coming year through an increased emphasis on extracurricular sports and heightened focus on the school’s Spanish program.

“We recently started a surf team, which is becoming more popular by the day and we’re developing additional golf, tennis and equestrian programs to add to our existing extracurricular options,” he added.

Next school year, English will remain the school’s official language, but more courses will be taught in Spanish in order to emphasize the local connection and focus on Costa Rican cultural immersion.

“We hope the renewed focus on the Spanish program will be one of many key elements in attracting foreign students to the school’s boarding and homestay programs,” McKillican said.

Country Day School Guanacaste features a boarding program where international students can study abroad in Costa Rica for a semester or a full year and live either in on-campus housing or in a homestay with a local family.

Re-energized and ready to seize new academic and extracurricular opportunities, the CDSG Transition Team recently announced its plan to the community. The news was met with an outpouring of local endorsement and support.

“We’ve achieved record high enrollments for the 2013-2014 school year,” McKillican said. “We’re looking at this transformation as an opportunity – we’re in a fortunate position where we can take all that was good with the school and better align it with the local community to make it thrive.”

Country Day School Guanacaste is still accepting applications for the fall in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as their newly developed play care program for younger children. For general information and to learn more about the new, reduced tuition rates, visit www.cdsgte.com.