A personal (and professional) pet peeve is the perpetual singular characterization of Bolivia as poor and underdeveloped. While it’s true that there is much poverty, and it is true that Bolivia’s development (in the Western economic sense) has been somewhat truncated, this paints itself a misleading picture. In the last five years or so, Bolivia’s poverty rate has gone from 63.1% in 2007 to 45.0% in 2011, which is a remarkable drop. And in the past few years, Bolivia’s economic growth has been consistently very strong (albeit on the back of natural gas exports). Nonetheless, Bolivia continues being pigeonholed into those labels. One of the measurements by which “development” is often delineated in academic circles has to do with the percentage of the economy that is brought into the formal sector (i.e. taxed and regulated). Personally I’d lean towards saying that yes, it is a good idea for the government to be regulating its industries with an eye towards consumer protection and institutionalization, but one of the great things I appreciate about Bolivia is the ease with which an entrepreneurial spirit can flourish. Anyone can start a business here. Are you decent at making empanadas? Can you make juice? Just buy the necessary implements and set up a stand on your street and the next day you’re in business. (Granted, of course, it’s not “formal” until you get a business license, although that’s variably enforced.)

The two men behind BrewCraft in Sucre embody this attitude of something-from-nothing. Tyler Wilson and Dave Hartley only started homebrewing a couple years ago after learning how to from a triangulation of online homebrew forums, videos, and fellow expatriate Ted (of Ted’s Cerveceria). Missing the hops and bitterness of the US American styles, they picked up some locally available pilsner and dark malts, imported hops and yeast, and put together a semblance of a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone. Wilson explained that at first he was worried about going too far off recipes, but with time they’ve loosened up from the rigidity of their first stovetop brews and Hartley, who designs most of the recipes, has branched out into more styles and such.

After toying with the idea of opening a brewery, they let it germinate and decided to start small…very small. Brewing once a week on the patio of a first-floor apartment that they share with an artisanal chocolatier, their current usual output is a 10 gal/38 L brewday once a week. Pretty much the closest you can get to making a claim to “brewery” status without just being a high-volume homebrewer. But as I said, it’s a philosophy based on starting small: returns and profits are invested in the business and growth takes place within means. It’s a distinct contrast to the baseline for new breweries in North America, as Hartley noted, where you’ll need a minimum of half-to-a-million dollars investment up front to purchase all brewing equipment at an established entry level of capacity. In Sucre, BrewCraft is working quite literally from the ground up.

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Brewpot and mash tun. Courtesy of Tyler Wilson.

Again, the entrepreneurial streak runs deep. Malt comes from the one Bolivian maltster (happily located in Sucre), specialty malts are cooked and baked in their own kitchen, bottles are sourced from a friend whose restaurant moves a decent volume of imported 500 mL bottles of hefeweizen, while hops and yeast come via USPS or tag along with friends coming back from North America (although they’re exploring alternatives available on this continent). The mash tuns are 5 gallon food-grade buckets ingeniously assembled with home-made false bottoms that generally yield 70% efficiency, while the boil pots are around 20 gallons mounted onto a locally-commissioned three-tier boiler setup, with a handmade copper tubing chiller on hand to cool the wort. Two of the fermenters are beautiful antique glass carboys, the rest 20 L plastic water bottles, all stored under the apartment stairwell at around 60 F.

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Three-tier mashing scheme, albeit still under construction. Courtesy of Tyler Wilson.

For the moment, the current BrewCraft lineup is an American IPA, Belgian Wheat, and Vanilla Porter, all clocking in around 5.5-6.0% ABV. Hartley and Wilson readily admit that those designations themselves are somewhat rife with irony. They’ve found they prefer the “American” IPA in its English yeast iteration, albeit hopped with American hops. Likewise, the American ale-yeasted Belgian wheat drew negative feedback from one of their main sellers when spiced with coriander and citrus peels, so the decision was made to go without. In general, most Bolivians aren’t quite sure how to interpret an IPA on the palette or even linguistically, really (it’s generally referred to as that “EEE-pah” beer), but in tourist-rich Sucre, foreigners jump at the sight of hoppy beer and the first keg kicked in less than a week. And really, the IPA is hopped at bitterness levels much more reminiscent of pale ales. Thus foreigners try it and complain, “it’s not bitter enough,” while most Bolivians grimace, “too bitter!” Similarly, trying the porter, most Bolivians expect something akin to the malty-cloying-light Bicervecina El Inca or Paceña Black, so a well-balanced dark ale comes across unfulfilling.

Brewcraft's current lineup. Tasting notes to come later...

Brewcraft’s current lineup. 

To be fair, the way to develop a market for such a “foreign” product is to provide context, understanding, and some kind of vocabulary to better understand how it relates to what people know here as “beer.” Remembering way back to the first time I tried a SNPA when all I knew before was Bud Light, the sensations on my tongue were most definitely in the category of a revelation, but it was still a shock to my palette. Throwing an IPA at similar expectations without a good bit of background and expecting a better result isn’t going to go far. The big, bold, in-your-face approaches of the American school of brewing don’t quite meet Bolivian expectations, and an appreciation for the old world classics might be helpful when it comes to wooing the actual local drinker. There is a need to meet in the middle, and it will take time, explanation, and a gradual development of palette to arrive there. In the meantime, there are plenty of foreign beer drinkers who’ll jump at any chance to have an IPA–mouth-bracing or not.

For the moment, BrewCraft occupies a tap at Florin (co-owned by the same aforementioned Ted) and is available in bottles at Abis Patio, which is about right for the amount they brew. Hartley estimates that if they were to brew 1200 L a month–roughly 8x their current output–it would be enough for them to brew full time. That will inevitably require either a decent upgrade in equipment, or perhaps brewing a lot more frequently, but for now the road ahead clear: keep building, brewing, creating, crafting one step at a time.

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Bottles being prepped. Courtesy of Tyler Wilson.

I was in Sucre recently and made it a point to stop by the nascent Brewcraft brewers and also made it to the well-established Sureña brewery and maltster, and mostly just drank a lot of highly decent Bolivian beers. With that, I’ve updated the List of Bolivian breweries page with three (!) new entries for Sucre, and have a few posts on Sucre in the pipeline as such, including a look at Sureña malting facilities and beautiful copper mash tuns.

Now to continue hoping that someone opens a beer-centric bar in Santa Cruz…

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.)

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