The Cervecería Nacional Boliviana (CBN)–an AB-InBev subsidiary–is the largest brewery in Bolivia, and perhaps surprisingly, it actually offers a pretty decent variety of beers to the mass market consumer, including two dark beers, Paceña Black and Bicervecina El Inca. The former is a fairly straightforward black version of the Paceña flagship line of beers, sweetened and darkened with artificial flavoring into a cloying, molasses and raisin juicey beer (that, bizarrely, won an International Taste & Quality Institute crystal star last year).

The latter is ubiquitous in the highlands of Bolivia, and you most often encounter it at fruit juice stands. See below:

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Fruit juice stand in La Paz. You can just make out the Bicervecina El Inca beneath the oranges, to the right of the orange soft drink.

Yup, here in Bolivia you can get a healthy fruit smoothie, made with a fresh assortment of produce to your specifications, whipped up with a pint of dark beer as well. El Inca is a dark, sweet, very malty beer clocking in at a very light 3% ABV, and considered a beer of the campesino–the peasant’s drink. Unbalanced towards sweetness, the low grade of alcohol makes it socially acceptable to have one with lunch in polite company without raising eyebrows (whereas, say, ordering your standard 5% lager might have people thinking you’re a bit of a borracho). Obviously, it’s also perfectly acceptable to have one mixed in with your morning Jamba juice equivalent.

What exactly the “bicervecina” part is, I have no idea. Double-brewed? Back-sweetened? Implying it’s highly malty? I really have no idea.

A couple weeks ago I went on vacation in the altiplano and had the chance to try out a couple new, fairly distinctive Bolivian beers.

First up was Cerveceria Kushaav‘s “El Salar” at Sol y Luna in La Paz (check out their new, finally-launched website). Kushaav’s beers are quickly gaining stock in my book for best commercially available beer currently available in Bolivia. I’ve already had their Coqueta porter and Aleksandra Pale Ale and both were excellent. El Salar is a beer brewed with quinoa, 5% ABV and pale. And it did not disappoint. Pale straw colored, a tad opaque and with a frothy head, it was quite dry on the tongue, with an almost rough mouthfeel and a hint of pear/light fruitiness that might come with an English ale yeast, this evoked a very farmhouse feel to it. Some grassy hops present as well to reinforce the impression. Very much worth your while and expense. (Apparently I forgot to take a picture. Oops.)

A few days later I happened upon a Cerveceria Vico’s “Ch’ama” from Sucre, this being an ale brewed with coca leaves. Coca is the obvious go-to for making a beer “Bolivian,” but in my experiments boiling, blanching, or “dry-hopping” it, it yields neither a favorable flavor nor much character. A 5% ABV ale, Ch’ama does nothing to change my impressions. It came off as a blonde, bland homebrew with only a hint of malt with just a vague hint of coca in the after taste–and even then, I feel like I have to search it out. So I am truly tasting it? or just imagining I taste it? I struggled to finish it.

Drinking Cerveceria Vico's (from Sucre) Ch'ama ale brewed with coca leaves  while in La Paz. Not particularly exciting.

Drinking Cerveceria Vico’s (from Sucre) Ch’ama ale brewed with coca leaves while in La Paz. Not particularly exciting.

Finally, I saw ads for the Potosí-based “Lipeña” quinoa beer while on a Salar de Uyuni four-day tour, so I figured I’d track some down. It proved harder than expected, but I was able to find it in a tourist boutique in Uyuni that specialized in chocolate, quinoa, amaranth and other “specialty” products you’ll find marketed to tourists here. At 3.5% ABV, it’s very, very light in all ways, including character. Quinoa is the primary ingredient, and based on recent spikes in the quinoa price, I’m guessing it starts with a low OG and the “adjunto cervecero” listed on the label is probably rice. Easy to drink, but not much to the experience beyond that. In the end, Kushaav’s “El Salar” is a much, much better way to experience quinoa, even if it’s brewed with malt as the base (or, especially because of that). I brought back a small bottle of this, so perhaps I’ll get a picture up once I drink it.

Well, as Colombia’s 1-0 up against Greece, now is as a good a time as any to mention that while I was in Bogota last week and took the opportunity to try a few Colombian beers. 

The first night a few of us hit an Irish pub and ordered three beers by Cervecezeria Artesanal Colon: Roja, Rubia and Negra, all English ales as best we could tell. The Roja was probably the highlight for me, a fruity-hop forward ale with a nice malt backbone and generally just very well balanced. The Rubia was less malty and thus the bitterness came forward a bit more, okay if not outstanding. And then the Negra was a well executed porter/stout that was all coffee and chocolate–pretty appropriate for Colombia–with an undercurrent of roast and a hint of something savory. 

Now it’s 2-0 for the Cafeteros and I’m reminded that pretty much every block in Bogota had about two different street vendors selling piles upon piles of Colombian jersey. The stadium in Belo Horizonte is packed full of colombianos and I’d love to be there. I regret not buying one of those jerseys, especially given that I called Colombia to win it all on at least two different brackets. Oops. Back to the beer.

One day we took in lunch at El Corral, a chain of burger joints that have 40+ burger options on every menu, and it definitely lived up to its promise. A great burger can be a bit harder to come by in Bolivia. El Corral had 3 Cordilleras on the menu, a Medellin brewery recently featured in Draft magazine. For some reason I opted for the Rose beer described as “a wheat beer with lots of red fruit flavor.” I guess I’d thought it would be made with actual red fruits and didn’t see it for the obvious attempt to appeal to perceived “female tastes” and ended up with a 3.8% ABV wheat beer with artificial flavorings. Think a relatively neutral, soft wheat beer with strawberry perfume dumped into it. Not an experience I’d repeat nor recommend. It had a lovely head at least.

After we got back to the office, one on of our coworkers informed us that it’s popular (conspiratorial?) knowledge that El Corral cultivates worms that are included in their burgers. Apparently this is a pretty widespread notion. Still, though, it was a great burger and the idea of worms in it mostly just makes it more exotic. I’ll take it either way. 

Now, back to Greece desperately trying to claw their way back into this.

For awhile now I’ve mulled over the idea of making a potato beer, which is nothing innovative (sweet potato beers are common enough), and the idea itself came out of a Ron Pattinson post on German Broyhan brewed with potatoes. Bolivia being the land of potatoes, I’ve had my eye on using oca for this beer, a skinny tuber about the length and width of fat thumb and absolutely delicious when sliced lengthwise and thrown right on the grill–sweet and soft inside, with a nice crunch on the outside. And not to forget, they are a beautiful potato to look at. The downside, of course, is that it is also highly seasonal. So, when oca finally showed up at the end of April in the local markets, I immediately took home a kilo and drew up a quick recipe riffing on the historical Broyhan recipe.

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A kilo of oca brought home from the market.

At the time, Munton and Fison Ale Yeast was the most neutral strain I had on hand, so that’s what I went with. This was a very lackadaisical brewday by my own standards, doing a 4 liter brew-in-a-bag, “milling” 650g of pilsner malt in a food processor, shredding 400g of oca by hand, and adding a pinch of Cluster hops at 60 minutes into the boil. A kind of rainy day project.

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Shredded oca in the pot, ready for gelatinization.

First I boiled the shredded oca for 10 minutes to ensure full gelatinization and then diluted with cooler tap water and a squeeze of lemon (tap water is extremely hard and alkaline here) and mashed in at 66° C and held it for an hour. The mash being full of shredded potato, I put the bag in a colander and rinsed the mash to pull off as much residual sugar as possible. Again, I still don’t have a way to measure gravity at home, so this should have been around 1.045, but I’ll never really know.

Trying to pay some tribute to the English ale yeast influence, after two weeks in primary I racked the beer to a 5 L mini-keg and one small 330 mL bottle. The mini-keg yields somewhat flat beer with a massive head fairly consistently, so it looks great and tastes a bit more watery than I’d prefer. Here’s what the results looked like coming out the bottle.

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Oca “Broyhan”

In the end, a deliciously mild session ale. Lightly sweet, herbal and spicy on the tongue from those Clusters, the character of this beer deepens as it warms. Pear flavors and aroma jump out, especially when this beer was very fresh.

I’m not sure what the logistics of brewing with shredded potatoes would look like, but this would make for a great cream or blonde ale within a brewery trying to pay tribute to Bolivian culinary traditions without letting novelty get in the way of quality. Certainly calling it a “Broyhan” is a stretch, but perhaps with a Kölsch yeast and some other tweaks one might at least reference the historical beer without it being complete imaginary leap.

The question(s) in today’s session:
What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

My answer:
I am not a journalist, so I suppose I’m a fanboy or at most a storyteller. In my defense, I live in Bolivia, which probably hosts less than 20 “craft/micro/interesting” breweries, and there’s almost no one writing about them other than the occasional news story in a local newspaper (nothing wrong with that!).

But, much more than that, I write about beer because it’s a topic about which I feel I have some minute level of agency and can contribute something actual to building culture. Beer and its meaning is not static, but cultural, able to be shaped by the discourse surrounding it.

So, even if it’s only 40-something people scattered across the globe who give half a hoot about what I write here, I’ve nonetheless contributed something to the greater discourse about it. And THAT is satisfying: to know that I’ve contributed to something greater than myself in a tangible way.

Which perhaps explains the tendency towards adulation against true criticism. But then, the pond I swim in is mighty small, and truth be told, it’d be pretty disingenuous of me here to go around crapping on what little diversification there is. The day that “craft/micro/interesting” makes up around 7% market share in Bolivia, this conversation certainly ought to shift to something more critical and analytical.

For now, it might as well be northern California in the late 80s or so! (At least insofar as the nostalgic feel of the prevailing narrative makes it sound like.)

We just watched Shaun White miss out on the apparently not-so-inevitable golden threepeat of men’s snowboarding halfpipe, and to preview the event BBC2 did a full interview with White. I’d read the NY Times Magazine’s profile of him a few months ago, which explains the backstory behind why he’s mostly loathed among snowboarding circles even as he’s an American pop culture darling.

But, what struck me was when the interviewer mentioned how Whtie gets no love from snowboarders, and he answered (to paraphrase) that if you ask other snowboarders how things were at the end of the day, they’d just say something like, “oh man, it’s just great to be out here, and I had a great time, etc.” White then made it clear that he’s there to win and it’s a competition, a zero-sum game, so he’s only having a good time if he wins.

Anyway, it struck me as an allegory for craft brewing in North America (and elsewhere): everyone started out homebrewing, sharing ideas and techniques, with a great sense of comraderie, but as things get more and more institutionalized, you need to be a “winner” in order to succeed, and it follows that there are losers. I doubt the beer industry is quite as much of a zero-sum game as an Olympic event with three medals, but it’s still a competition and everyone’s not going to be super buddy-buddy when your paycheck comes down to customers choosing your product at the expense of others’.

All the more reason to stay a homebrewer, I think.

One of the topics I’ve enjoyed exploring on this blog is the notion of what it would mean to develop a fundamentally “Bolivian” beer, such that I wrote a 12-part series on it last year. I have a few more ideas to add to that list. It’s difficult to come up with ideas that represent much more than a novelty, and really only the first one represents a strong idea. Anyway:

  1. Brew a tart wheat beer using a kind of sour mash. The key here is start by brewing a traditional, wild fermented chicha. Chew up the corn (or just mash previously malted corn), leave it out to ferment 3-7 days, then strain off the partially-fermented chicha, which is then used to mash a wheat beer base. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, just blend the chicha with the wheat beer after boiling.
  2. This is another idea for souring the mash or wort. “Cheese” by default in Bolivia usually is a kind of a salty farmer cheese that is best consumed within a week of production. The queserias here use a metal tub that looks a lot like a coolship. You could easily mash in one of these tubs and take advantage of the lacto bugs that are going to be all over it, and leave it for 10 hours-3 days to sour before boiling or pasteurizing or wherever you’d like to take the process. Personally, I think this cheese is wretched after three days and one of my Berliner Weisses smelled a lot like it before carbonation, which was a huge turn-off. But, if you just used it to sour the mash or wort and killed off the residual lacto before it got out of control, it could be great.
  3. Brew a potato broyhan using a historical recipe, but use native Bolivian potatos like oca. I actually intend to do this once they’re back in season, which should be around June.
  4. Brew a gose, and salt it with salt from the Salar de Uyuni. This is pure novelty in the tradition of brewing a coca beer and calling it Bolivian because it has coca leaves in it. But, you could always combine it with one of the first two methods above and it would certainly some improved legitimacy to the argument.

For that matter, now that I think of it, you could brew a beer utilizing all four of those at once. It wouldn’t be called a gose, but it might be something in the vein of it.

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