I enjoy contributing Boak & Bailey’s calls for Beerylongreads because it’s a chance to exercise literary self-discipline and push myself to be a better writer, so I was thinking of saving this for the November 29th edition, but to be honest, it seems a bit time-oriented and might be a bit stale in seven weeks.

A couple days ago, I was reading Vox’s very illuminating “#GamerGate: Here’s why everybody in the video game world is fighting” (isn’t everything they write illuminating?), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that you could replace key words and characters in the article with parallel players from the North America craft beer world and this could be an eerily prophetic analysis of a very possible set of conflicts among said community. For that matter, some of the present conflicts represented by #GamerGate are perhaps on the cusp of outrage in North American craft beer. (I’m using craft beer as shorthand here, I’m not making an argument about what is or isn’t craft.)

I’m not going to explain #GamerGate in depth because Vox and Stephen Colbert do it much better and more concisely than I’ll ever be able to, so read Vox’s explanation for background, because I’m jumping right in.

Vox summarizes #GamerGate down into two basic conflicts (the second is more interesting to me, so bear with…), the first of which is:

1) The treatment of women in gaming: The start of the story (which is actually the latest permutation of a long-evolving firestorm) came in late August after indie game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian were both horribly, horribly harassed online. The same harassment was later lobbed at award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. Both Frank and Brice say they will no longer write about games. The FBI is looking into harassment of game developers.

Craft beer has some pretty obvious weaknesses regarding the role of women, although it’s not even in the same hemisphere as the kind of uncivility that would require the FBI’s attention. And, there’s been improvement through groups like the Pink Boots Society and the increasing attention that female brewmasters command (especially coming from Europe). Still, the use of cartoonish, big-busted women as a selling tool is still too common. (And seemingly universal, I might add. The liquor ads here in Bolivia leave little to the imagination.) I doubt that the level of harrassment present in #GamerGate would erupt with such ferocity over beer, but I’m pessimistic enough to see how it could be a possibility.

The second conflict in #GamerGate rages over:

2) Ethics in games journalism: Some argue that the focus on harassment distracts from the real issue, which is that indie game developers and the online gaming press have gotten too cozy. There’s also a substantial, vocal movement that believes the generally left-leaning online gaming press focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of games. [Emphasis added]

Sound familiar? The coziness described here echoes Jeff Alworth’s third point in What We Write About When We Write About Beer, when he called on beer writers to

  • Be more critical. Critics rightly fault writers for fawning over breweries, but we do it subtly and inadvertently.  Many of the articles we write begin with the narrative as brewers would tell it, and then unfold from their point of view.  We select a topic, go interview a bunch of people, and then write what they say.  This is reportage, but it’s not great reportage.  As writers, we need to figure out a way to write about beer so that it’s not just a kind of soft promotion.

I think it’s fair to say that the positive attitude that goes along with the collaborative, fraternal good feelings of North American craft brewing is susceptible to cases of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours journalism. My amateurish “attempts” at it are probably worthy of Alworth’s critique. A key difference is that in beer journalism the coziness is not with a particular critical school of thought so much as with swathes of the industry as a whole. So instead of critical pieces dominating, or at least threatening the hegemony of the overall discourse to the chagrin of the majority, it’s more that any critical piece is seen as being an affront to the spirit of “craft.” You can’t really say that there is a “generally left-leaning online [beer] press [that] focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of [beer].” Really, beer appreciation seems to span a pretty admirable swathe of political views and ages, something the polarized US could use more of. As a relatively neutral cultural artifact, it’s probably better that beer avoid politicization.

Coming back to #GamerGate, Vox poses a few basic and seemingly obvious questions that also have some easily connected counterparts in beer:

  • The counterpart to “What is a gamer?” might be who is the craft beer drinker? While many involved in craft beer-related cultural institutions such as the AHA, GABF, BJCP, BA, and so on target a general audience, pictures like this one of the judges at the 2013 GABF indicate that in terms of diversity, craft beer looks quite Caucasian (by my count, there are two people in that picture who aren’t; although I will say that the male:female ratio is probably better than that of the crowd that self-identifies as “gamer,” but that’s a massive assumption on my part and not in any way backed by data). This isn’t to drop accusations of discrimination or conscious exclusion, but it does broach the question: what will happen when power eventually shifts away from the thus-far default demographics? (Let me throw in a positive bone here: the beer appreciation crowd seems command a lot of diversity in terms of age.) And will that transition be as painful as the one evidenced by #GamerGate? I’d argue that the fundamentally physical act of consuming beer is actually a good sign by comparison with #GamerGate: beer festivals and bars force consumers into situations where interacting with somebody different makes it harder to dehumanize them because they are physically present and thus perhaps avoids some of the keyboard cowardice of an anonymous Twitter feud.
  • “What is journalism?” is a great question that needs little elucidating because it applies directly to those who are indeed beer journalists and those of us who might harbor aspirations to the title. Frankly, reading the Vox article brought up a number of questions about my own attempts at writing about Bolivian craft beer. Is it even worth writing with a veneer of journalistic intent given that many of the people I write about share their beer with me and we hang out when we have time? Indeed, the actual constructive aspects of #GamerGate really focus in on the need to firm up journalistic integrity:

A large part of #GamerGate stems from a fundamental disconnect between what those who read gaming media believe journalism to be and what it actually is. Put simply: cultural journalism (which includes video game journalism) is bound by the same strictures as traditional journalism — get the facts right, don’t plagiarize, don’t write glowing stories about friends or family, etc. — but at the same time, its very existence denotes a kind of built-in critical judgment. Put bluntly: if a cultural journalist writes about a game or movie or book, the implicit assumption is that this is worth you knowing about on some level.

What strikes me as most interesting, though, is when beer journalism moves past being pretty pictures and captions plus a rehashing of the subject brewery’s “About Us” blurb or the technical specs of the sampled beer into actual kind of story territory that requires Alworth’s “great reportage?” Latching onto that last quote, the next sentence is, “But when that springs up around nontraditional games, it leads to a disconnect between the primary audience of gaming publications and those who write about games.”

What will happen when beer-related journalism begins to push past neutral territory and begins to yield a disconnect between its primary audience and an increasingly diverse subject matter? To be fair, the craft beer periodical audience strikes me as a somewhat interested crowd, so I doubt this will be the real issue long-term, but there might begin to be pushback against pieces that offend the fraternal, we’re all-in-this-together sensibility. Something like this might come up:

…[I]t’s also led to more and more articles about the poor relationship individual titles and the industry as a whole have with women and minorities. These articles are often poorly received by the core audience. This has slowly but surely widened a divide between those who might just want to hear about how video games are awesome and those who want forthright coverage of problems within the industry.

Beer’s outright poor relationships could include women (albeit probably not to the extent of the gaming industry), but even more likely, good labor practices. Rogue shot down a union a few years ago. Workplace safety is gaining more attention as a problem, and one of the larger beer magazines featured a story on it as well (I cannot for the life of me find it after a week of searching). Both of these topics might represent issues that the average consumer might not want to read about when they’d prefer tasting notes of that rad new sessionable whatever. It seems a fair assertion to make since the content of many publications are often written for “those who might just want to hear about how [craft beer is] awesome.” Obviously there’s a need to seek a balance.

  • “What is a video game?” has two potential parellels. First, it could be applied to “what is beer?” when thinking about how to incorporate ciders, “indigenous” beers like chicha, and so on into the overall conversation, but thus far the holders of cultural power have demonstrated a generous openness to taking it all in. (Which is a bit humorous, because calling chicha “fermented corn beer” is a real stretch once you’ve had a good bit of it.) So, little conflict seems likely here. However, the second parellel to this question might be, “what is craft beer?” and touches the nerve of the debate over the ownership of the term or identity of “craft.” Obviously this is already a bit of battlefield within the beer-consuming world, as evidenced by the fact that while the “craft vs. crafty” firestorm of 2012 seems to mostly have died down, some people are certainly still rattling their sabers on the issue. But as we’ve seen, it was and is an ugly fight. Certainly it was fought with a more civil and (at worst), passive-aggressive, tone than some of the fodder spewed by #GamerGate supporters, which was enough to drive multiple journalists out of covering gaming at all.

But, it’s easy to get the sense that the current push for quality control–while objectively not objectionable-might also be a smokescreen for larger, more established craft breweries (I’m referring to the category that is now establishing their second brewing facility across a country or an ocean) as a means for differentiation. The key contrast with the prior conflict is that whereas craft vs. crafty was about smaller breweries trying to differentiate upwards against larger and massive breweries, you get the feeling that quality control might be a cover for mid-sized craft breweries differentiating downward against small start-ups. The former enemy that was going to ruin it for the rest of craft beer were the wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing Blue Moon, et. al; now, the enemy is a legion of small, amateur nobodies with delusions of grandeur, poised to ruin it for the rest of craft beer. This was a thought that occurred to me while reading about #GamerGate, but Craig at drinkdrank this week minced no words in making the point even more directly.

Granted, that’s not a very generous reading of the overall dynamic, especially given that improvements in quality control would benefit the industry as a whole. On the other hand, isn’t that critical element what Alworth is calling for? Personally, I think this is only adding an element of suspicion to Stan Hieronymous’ recent comments: “Wait, so now quality isn’t enough? It must be of the highest quality? And aren’t there times when a beer that does not demand to be memorable, and duly entered in Untappd, better aids and abets memorable conversations or experiences?”

At this point I sense myself entering a vortex of metacognitive self-doubt: Am I being unfair? Wait, why do I think I have an obligation to generosity and the benefit of the doubt? What is fairness in this case? Is it just that I’m completely out of my depth? Perhaps the salient conclusion in this case is to recognize the value of an editor, a gatekeeper of some kind for the press. It’s the Achilles Heel of blogging. Yes, I have a voice, but is it one worth listening to given that I’m commenting on trends in a craft beer movement a continent away that I am only attached to via my RSS reader? I guess that’s up to the reader to decide.

The conflicts in beer seem primarily to erupt out of dents in profits and competitiveness, which makes sense since brewing is a business, after all. Larger scale means more efficiency to the detriment of the small guys, while poor quality dents the overall reputation of everyone. The possible future conflict that’s actually interesting to me might emerge when countries with nascent-but-strong craft beer movements like Brazil and Argentina actually come to the point of competing with their Northern counterparts for shelf space and–the interesting part–influence over beer-related cultural institutions, i.e. style guidelines and definitions.

I’d say the economic side of that conflict is a long way off, but cultural conflict is already rearing its head as people push back on excessively-parsed out and delimited styles that bear little resemblance to the mess that is history. If reading Ron Pattinson’s work for the last few years has made anything clear, it’s that differentiating between stout and porter using historical evidence is a bit of a fool’s errand. And yet there are myriad subcategories of stout and porter in both the dominant sets of style guidelines. Add to that last year’s kerfluffle over the content of the BA’s Grätzer definition, and you see evidence that there is increasing pushback against a cultural institution that wields influence in the beer world. Of course, that’s north-to-north, but it’s an example of the pushback you might see. Which broaches another question: could the BA be considered as having hegemonic status over American beer, or does the presence of another schematic of definitions from the BJCP push back enough to at least define it as a duopoly? Sounds like a topic for an anthropology master’s thesis.

I don’t think anyone’s hoping to see the craft beer world devolve into an ugly mire of insults, threats and online libel, and I doubt it’ll come to that. (Although with the rise of the celebrity brewer, how long until we at least have a beer-dedicated tabloid leaking shots of middle-aged bearded brewers on the beach? Surely there’s a Tumblr for that by now.) And my point is certainly not to ascribe discriminatory intent to anyone. But, as the profile of craft beer grows, there most certainly will be growing pains, and  #GamerGate is the warning shot across the bow of changes gone ugly. The parellels are not quite direct between #GamerGate and craft beer’s internal conflicts, and gaming’s dirty laundry is probably magnitudes worse than the beer’s, but it’s worth paying attention to if only as a cautionary tale.

Drive into Sucre, and there’s half a chance you’ll pass one of many life-sized statues of dinosaurs. Read about Sucre, you’ll see it called “the white city” (for the color of its old center). Fly into Sucre, and your descent into the uncluttered Andes will suddenly be interrupted by a city located on a seemingly random amalgamation of hills before your plane hits the runway hard and slams on the brakes in the thin air (they’re building a newer, bigger, international airport further outside the city). Eat in Sucre, and you must try its famously spiced sausage. Drink beer in Sucre, and you’re likely to be drinking barley malted and beer brewed right there.

Sureña (literally: “southern”) is one of those local-centric Bolivian breweries that doesn’t fit into the binary craft/not craft categories. Producing a line of three pale lagers whose differences only are measured in terms of alcohol strength and the percentage of cracked rice used as an adjunct, as well as prune juice-sweet stout, Sureña is not quite big enough to be considered macro, but not quite diverse enough to warrant a place among the “cerveza artesanal” crowd.

Founded by the Alvarez family in 1951 after the closing of the Cerveceria Sucre vacated a market where beer was much in demand. Why didn’t one of the larger breweries, such as the now AB-InBev-owned Cerveceria Nacional Boliviana (CBN), step in to fill the gap? Presumably it’s a matter of logistics. Bolivia’s development has been one of the slower in the hemisphere, and even to the present day, Sucre–the judicial capital–still isn’t fully connected to the rest of the country by paved roads. This makes bussing or trucking there a bit less-than-pleasant. The upside, of course, is that it favors the development of local capacities–in this case, a maltster and brewery.

Most importantly to many of the more craft-oriented/micro-breweries in Bolivia, Sureña is a consistent producer of domestic pilsner malt. It’s not the most refined or characterful malt, but it’s a cheap base malt that doesn’t have to pass through the notoriously difficult customs system. A chocolate malt is also available, although the lack of a proper roasting kiln means that it’s not a particularly uniform looking specialty malt. Most of the smaller craft breweries in Bolivia rely on Sureña to provide their base malts, while sourcing specialty malts requieres a bit more creativity (e.g., the do it yourself approach of Brewcraft) or imports. Lacking a hop grower in Bolivia means that everyone has to import their lupulus sources, and Sureña’s come from Germany.

For the most part, Sureña is consumed in the department of Chuquisaca, of which Sucre is also the capital. Bolivians, like many people, often appreciate the sense of ownership that comes with something local, and this is the foundation of Sureña’s approach to competing with behemoths like CBN. Playing up that sense of something ours, you’ll often see the slogan Asi somos, somos Chuquis ["It's how we are, we're Chuquis"] plastered underneath Sureña logos. Tapping into that pride has been key for Sureña, especially as their consuming base is very much a Bolivian one, in contrast to the craft breweries which primarily target novelty/tourist drinkers. In the past, Sureña experimented a bit with a wheat beer, but the results didn’t yield the expected response from the average Chuquisaqeño drinker. Nonetheless, as their marketing director showed me around the brewer located inside and around a preserved colonial house whose rooms cannot be changed, it was obvious that an opportunity presents itself. A regular brewery tour would easily find an audience among the crowds of foreigners who flock to Sucre, following the advice of Lonely Planets and Rough Guides, and a bar in the beautifully preserved living room at the end that could offer more than pilsners and a sweet stout would be welcome, to say the least. It would require a cultural shift, but becoming a bridge between those two heretofore very distinct markets would represent an innovation in Bolivia.

I leave you with a few photos from Sureña:

This past week I had the chance to take in Santa Cruz’s annual state fair/trade show/import-export exhibition that manages to enthrall the entire city for ten days around the celebration of the city’s founding on September 24th. The Fexpo convention center is completely taken over by exhibitors ranging from car dealers to Chinese steel companies to local artisan handicraft makers to put on EXPOCRUZ.

We got there right on time to beat the crowds, and had our pick of the samples, including quinoa frozen yogurt, fresh cinnamon bark shaved right off a branch, licor de piña (the spontaneity of its fermentation unmistakeable), sacha inchi (Incan peanut), lots of overly sweet artisan wines, and so on.

Notably, at one of the winery booths, they were serving their sweet red out of a small 5 gallon or so oak barrel, apparently produced by artisans in Camargo, Chuquisaca, which would represent the first source of barrels I’ve found in Bolivia. I picked up a card and brochure listing the contact information for the IG Valle de Cinti Association, which has a website here. Their representative in Santa Cruz is May Lee Naomi Mendieta Molina, (cel. 78428362, tel. 3241316). For anyone looking to start a barrel aging program here in Bolivia, this might be the place to start.

We ended the night in the Reineke Fuchs beer garden, which was nice to have, but half a liter of their draft dunkel was hard to get down when it was clearly infected with lacto. Not a pleasant experience.

This post is a response to Boak & Bailey’s call to “go long” on August 30th.

Do you know what 11,000 feet of altitude feels like? Not just conceptually, but the feelings and effects you discover as your blood struggles to deliver precious oxygen to your pounding brain and nauseous stomach, or as you find yourself gasping for breath while walking at your normal pace? Do you know what to expect? Most likely one would imagine mountains, snow, majestic views, perhaps a cliff or two, and so on.

Of course, pretty much the last thing you rationally expect to encounter is an urban area upwards of a million people. Then you come to La Paz-El Alto.

Arriving to the city of Nuestra Señora de La Paz, cramped into a bowl of a valley, demands traversing through Bolivia’s third-biggest (and youngest) city, El Alto, before cresting the edge of the high plain (altiplano) that runs the length of the country and down into the valley through mountainside eucalyptus forests (“to clean the air,” they say), submerging into the busy collection of drab Lego brick-like houses that creep their way like boxy ivy up the valley walls. Inevitably it invokes vague feelings associated with epiphanies. All the more so when you descend at dawn with the sun peeking over Mt. Illimani’s shoulder in the distance and into your face and bleaching out your view.

Such was my first time coming to La Paz, albeit prefaced by a disheveling 16 hour overnight bus ride up the Andes in the largest and most reclined seat I’ve ever traveled in, and my neighbor vomiting from a potent combination of altitude and the self-imposed dehydration that comes with a locked bus toilet. That particular trip was hardly the smoothest (it gets better with experience); we started in the lowland, tropical city of Santa Cruz in short sleeves and a muggy evening in February, killing time at the bus station with thousands of other travelers hoping that the blockades paralyzing the country’s main roads at that moment would lift in time to leave during the evening. Nobody was particularly worried–you see, Carnaval started the next day, and with it a universal truce that seemingly transcends all social conflicts.

Carnaval is not to be trifled with here; Bolivia has lost wars because their neighbors took advantage of everyone’s inebriation celebration, and Santa Cruz recently inaugurated a five-kilometer long “cambodrome” up a radial in the northeastern side of the city for the sole purpose of Carnaval float parades[1]. That night we killed time waiting out the blockades being offended by the backpacker who latched onto us and had nothing but contempt for Bolivia after the two days he’d been there. Eventually the call went out that the blockades had lifted and everything got under way. By the time we passed the fourth ring of the city, most people were asleep in the slow heat of the night.

Bus travel through the Andes is a multi-faceted experience. After years of living here, I still haven’t actually been awake for any significant part of the trip because almost all long distance road travel takes place overnight, which means that a midnight mudslide in the valleys can cause 12-kilometer long traffic jams until sunrise allows the nearest bulldozer to meander down and clear a path. It’s odd to think that a small city’s worth of people can suddenly cluster around heretofore relatively uninhabited stretches of dark, winding highway. Then the sun does come up and suddenly you’re reveling in a view straight out of Romancing the Stone, when Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner go tumbling down mud chutes into thick jungle after a shootout with a mustachioed colonel. Of course, this prompts the secondary thought that perhaps the real reason buses drive through the night is that their passengers would spend 16 hours mortally afraid from their second-story viewpoint overlooking sheer cliffs.

Somewhere in that winding route up the Andean valleys, around two a.m. or so, you wake up from sleep to find the windows fogged over with all the hot air from 40 sleeping passengers and you realize you’re freezing, and it’s time to layer on all the clothes you brought with you in your carry-on bag. (Still, that’s better than the return trip, when you wake up drenched in sweat under three layers too many of fleece.) Half an hour later, you’ve just dozed off again when the bus pulls into a gravel parking lot filled with other double-decker buses in the middle of who-knows-where, the lights flicker on and an attendant yells something about 30 minutes. All the Bolivians get up and wander off and you’re left wondering why everyone’s taking a walk at three a.m.

It turns out it’s a bathroom break: pay a boliviano and receive a wad of TP that would take you days to actually use up, but you can also grab a snack of fried chicken, juice, or fresh fruit. Just don’t miss your bus. Eventually you fall asleep again and wake up perhaps to daylight, a barren, brownish-gray plain with a few modest mountains lining the horizon, and the inability to take a satisfyingly full breath of air. Welcome to the altiplano.

But I’m getting off track. My first arrival to La Paz made for a weird epiphany, but a revelation nonetheless. Of course, head-pounding and dehydrated is not quite a state of mind that screams for beer. Nonetheless, we headed for what to any beer-minded person was the promisingly-named Adventure Brew Hostel, although the cranky oldhead lurking in me was a tad wary. The Adventure Brew promises a free draft beer every night, free breakfast, and the best view of La Paz from the balcony of their rooftop bar. That’s mostly spot-on; although once you arrive to La Paz you realize that a good view is plausibly claimed just about anywhere from 15° up the valley and on.

The free beer indeed exists, and flows well. On tap in the rooftop bar are the Dorado (a Kölsch), Ambar (American Pale Ale), frequently the Negra (Dunkel Bock), and sometimes seasonal brews. Of course, drinking beer anywhere in La Paz is an experience unto itself as well. After your first day at 11,000 feet, huffing and puffing to slog up a half-flight of stairs, wondering if every half-queasy feeling that washes over you is altitude sickness, and pounding the dank, vegetal coca tea because it’s supposed to help, a nice cold one is really not the first thing that one craves. Although perhaps that’s why they put the bar four flights of stairs up, to ease any  guilt over caloric intake.  The altitude factor is even worse when coming from balmy Santa Cruz and you end up spending your time in La Paz with hands gloved and firmly pocketed. In these moments a scotch-spiked hot cocoa or a Jägertea sounds appetizing, little else.

So that first taste of the Ambar was memorable mostly for the chill it set off down my spine and never let up the rest of the night. That, and the biker who invited himself to sit down and see if anyone was up for riding with him to Lima. He and a buddy had started a few weeks before in Buenos Aires, but the friend had to take pit or vomit stops every five kilometers up the Andes and jumped on the first plane to Miami once they got to La Paz. Anyone up for a ride to Lima?

These are the kinds of people that seem to pass through La Paz, but it’s an isolated segment of the city. Muy gringo. But Saya Beer, the brewers connected to the Adventure Brew Hostel, as well as most small breweries in Bolivia, probably makes most of their money off foreigners like this. It’s a population with a more open palette for different beer styles, but most of these small Bolivian breweries know how to keep things accessible to the Bolivians for whom “craft” is not a known category or label.

This is why Saya’s flagship Dorado Kölsch is such a good beer. To begin with, it’s beautifully pale with a billowing head. Smooth and mellow, the malt comes through at the end; it is inoffensive but still notably different from the lagers and weak pilsners that Bolivians know as beer. If what most people think of here as beer were milk chocolate, the Dorado would be akin to 45% dark chocolate–a subtle shift in a new direction, not a leap. Ready to move up, and mirroring the path I took to appreciating beer, the Ambar starts to push things a bit more, with a memorable aroma of green apples or tart fruits, and then a more malty taste that’s a tad sweeter and with more body.

Not that I picked much of that up the first time I sat down with these. No, I was cold, the beer was cold, the view was nice but cold, and you know…it was cold. And that’s perhaps a fundamental irony when it comes to interesting beer in Bolivia. Almost all of the smaller, artisan breweries in Bolivia are located in the highlands or valleys that attract most tourists, who are a boon for the market. Unfortunately, most Bolivia buildings are constructed with cement and rebar—no insulation—which means that when it’s cold, you do not escape the cold until you’re snugly under the covers in your bed. In North America, it might be 40° F outside, but inside with the heater on it’s a comfortable 67°. Not so much here in Bolivia; you never really escape the cold until you’re tucked away under 10 pounds of wool blankets at night. So the thought of sitting down with a winter warmer is great, provided there’s a fireplace nearby to complement the heat going down your esophagus.

By your second day in La Paz, things are usually better; and really, it’s only the first visit when you spend your second day miserable in bed, gulping down ever more coca tea and wishing that the wisp of nausea would commit to vomit or lay off. But once you’ve overcome that first introduction to altitude discomfort, your mind strengthens and no longer are you beset by such pains. To quote Mates of State, “it’s aaaa-aaaa-aaaall in your head!

I’ve been to that city many times since, for work and for play. One of the more enduring memories involved finding dinner after a conference, hosted by some gracious colleagues. La Paz is a city divided between north and south, as well as up and down. The general rule of thumb is an inverse relationship between location and wealth: the further south and physically lower you are, the richer you are, while those in the north and pushing up the valley rims are poorer. La Paz’s wealth is concentrated in the Zona Sur, an enclave almost cut off from the rest of the city by impressive and stark geographic features of compacted mud that invoke something between alien landscapes and the Dakotan badlands[2].

Weaving your way from El Alto down to the Zona Sur is a journey up the economic ladder, starting among the plain brick and cement facades of the valley walls, into the tourism-centric historic districts, a brief jaunt past skyscraping hotels and the remnants of old money—German and Swiss-style alpine houses now home to various embassies, before dipping down into a long stretch beneath canyon-spanning bridges and cable cars before arriving.

Not that the Zona Sur is a spectacle of wealth and conspicuous consumption to the tune of an oil-rich Gulf state; it pretty much just looks like the suburbs of Lima or a more walled-in Southern California. But really, no one at that meeting actually remained in the Zona Sur. As soon as the symposiums wrapped up we all trekked back up to the main city for dinner, drinks, and bed. It was the end of one of those conference days when I was taken along for dinner at the nondescript Club 16 de julio restaurant. We were meeting El Profesor, the co-worker and former university professor of a colleague—in the Bolivian professional world, everyone has either worked with or gone to university with pretty much everyone else. In a country of 10.5 million people, it’s always a very small world.

Club 16 de julio won’t show up in any guidebook, ever, and finding it is nigh impossible, given its location on the sixth floor of one of any of the anonymous office buildings located on the Prado and the rickety, old, life-evaluation-inducing elevator that takes you up there. Smokey, dingy, and with about three food choices on the menu,  it’s where I first tried Huari, a flagship lager of the AB-InBev-owned Cerveceria Nacional Boliviana that El Profesor and a fair chunk of Bolivians swear up and down is the best beer ever.

What makes Huari special is the water of Oruro, where it’s brewed[3].  For the life of me, I’m not sure what exactly is special about the water; given the proliferation of mines and the attendant pollution from their tailings, boiling it might kill the microbes, but the minerals surely remain. Maybe that’s the key: Oruro is Bolivia’s Burton-on-Trent. In fact, it’s probably related to some local history of the purity and beauty of the mountain spring water.

Of course, Bolivians—nay, South Americans—are oddly devoted to the water of their native home. In Santa Cruz, you drink the tap water, they say it’s the best on the continent, but that you should never drink it anywhere else in the country. In Sucre, they talk about how terrible the tap water tastes in Santa Cruz and how we should never drink the water there, but isn’t it lovely and smooth here? Go to Bogota, go to Lima, go to Santiago, they’ll tell you to drink the tap water, it’s the best in South America! Quickly a comical pattern develops, but it’s a pattern to celebrate: potable tap water is always a good thing. If the best water is your water, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Anyway, CBN isn’t exactly forthcoming with detailed recipe information on formulation of their products, and asking most Bolivian consumers what exactly makes Huari the best yields something along the lines of, “it just is…” To be fair, the taste tests I’ve participated in mostly confirm Huari as Bolivia’s premier light lager, crisp and clean and with a whiff of noble hops, among many similar peers. A perfect pairing to the quintessential Bolivian dinner of pique a lo macho. A good pique is a dish to share: a heaping plate of fried meat strips, sliced onions, french fries, sausages, tomatoes and mouth-searing locoto peppers. Huari is there to cool you off and wash it down.

With their water, as with their food: ask any Bolivian where pique macho is from and if you’re in Santa Cruz they’ll say, “Santa Cruz, of course.” In Cochabamba, “Cochabamba, of course,” and so on. Bolivians are very committed to place. Each department does in fact have dishes original to them, but there’s obviously disagreement over pique. For my part, it seems pretty suspiciously like a Peruvian lomo saltado; then I encountered the Chilean curanto al hoyo (the seafood riff on the dish), and at that point, you realize that maybe just cooking a conglomeration of meat, starch, and some vegetable in a pot/frying pan/hole in the ground is just a continental institution.

CBN puts out a number of other beers with what I’d say is slightly-more-than-average diversity for beer in a country not known for it’s plethora of diverse beer offerings. But still, their 7% Bock is malty and leaning towards sweet, even if it’s popularly known as “that really strong beer,” and the dark, cloying, malty, 3.5% Bi-Cervecina El inca is a baffling part of a well-rounded Bolivian breakfast shake. CBN is everywhere in this country.

But pretty much everywhere in Bolivia, CBN also faces an upstart local brewery (or faced one before they were bought up, such as is the case with Cochabamba’s Taquiña and Santa Cruz’s Ducal, among others). Potosí has Potosina, Sucre has Sureña, and their strength is customer loyalty to their beer. The drink of their place. Sureña told me as much directly. How long these will be able to compete, especially since their lineups are virtually identical (one to four pale lagers and a sweet dark beer), is another question.

Coming back to La Paz, it’s a city that hosts many tourists, and with it their tastes. And their tastes in beer often provides a market for the more interesting breweries to tap into. Besides Saya, La Paz’s most recent addition to the beer market with reference points to “craft” is Cerveceria Kushaav. Based in the Zona Sur and little more than a garage, Kushaav is putting out some extremely high quality, delicious beer that I first encountered in the especially cold lobby of the Lion Palace Hostel. Coqueta, a porter, is all malt and chocolate, and more importantly: balanced. No candied raisins to be found anywhere, immediately making unique among Bolivian-brewed dark beers (for the moment). El Salar gave me pause given its name and billing as a quinoa beer—gimmicks rarely turn out well—but blew me away by how surprisingly dry it is, with hints of apples and pears, and a delicate-yet-harsh mouthfeel that brings to mind farmhouses.

But Aleksandra (named for their head brewer?) is the real star of Kushaav’s show, and easily the best pale ale in Bolivia. Again, balanced, with a honey-like malt backbone highlighted by unmistakably citrusy hops. Ask brewers in Bolivia about bitter beers and IPAs, and they’ll tell you that Bolivians hate bitterness and if not’s malty, it should be sweet. This is a remarkably one-dimensional understanding of what hops have to offer. Sure, the average drinker isn’t going to jump headlong into a DIPA, but then who among us started drinking interesting beer with a tongue-stripping dank brew (and actually enjoyed it)? Aleksandra hits a unique chord—distinctly hoppy, yet balanced enough to add something new without being too exotic or offending too many palettes. This is a first step on a road that eventually leads to “bolder” as one eventual destination.

But Bolivian brewers will do well to look within for inspiration as much as to the outside. This is a country with rich culinary and gastronomic traditions whose surface is only beginning to be scratched and discovered. Breweries like Kushaav and Saya are signs that Bolivian brewers can not only produce consistently high quality beer, but also approach it with an inventive spirit that does not simply default to dominant motifs of North American-driven creativity: “bolder!” “more bitter!” “sourer!” Over time, and as more Bolivians discover the creative possibilities offered by beer, it will be fascinating to see how the identity of this country expresses itself through drink.

Just as arriving in La Paz requires a descent, the only way to leave La Paz is to go up. Up through the valleys out to the Cumbre (summit) of the “death road” or up through El Alto and back onto the Altiplano. Or, up and out of El Alto on a plane, where you’re treated to an incredible view of the stark geographic contrasts below, along with odd hexagonal, seemingly spider web-inspired urban planning under the glaciers of a nearby Cordillera range. Up into the ever thinner air, but always worth the journey.

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[1] No joke, it takes a solid five minutes of driving time to get from one end to the other, and that’s without stoplights.
[2] Hence the appropriately named park of the Zona Sur, Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). It’s worth a visit.
[3] On the one occasion I did visit the CBN brewery down in Santa Cruz, they mentioned that the only brew Huari at the Oruro brewery, so in a wistful way there is some kind of commitment to sort of terroir, though no one would call it that.
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