Stier is owned and run by three expats from Chile, France, and Germany, who all married Cochabambinas and stayed. Splitting the difference between La Paz and Santa Cruz, Cochabamba is a dominant city for trade and agriculture in the valleys region. Sometimes referred to as a “city of eternal spring,” it hosts many headquarters of various foreign organizations for the same reason. And as such, there’s a small critical mass of beer interest to provide a market.

I exchanged a few emails with Rodrigo Cadiz, the Chilean brewer in researching a magazine article and came out with a few tidbits that didn’t fit. Cadiz said, “We’re influenced by all schools–we try to take the styles that can be adapted to have the most impact in the Bolivian market. We estimate that half of our market is Bolivian and the other half foreign tourists in Bolivia.”

Currently producing 1500-2000 liters (13-17 bbl) a month (which comes out to around 200 bbl annually), they don’t modify their water. Their honey and strawberry beers have particularly eye-catching labels that are innovative for the Bolivian context: “We have two label designers; one who focuses on traditional styles that are more rigid, and on the other hand, we have another designer who works with the more novel beers without a defined style. For example, on our latest honey beer we worked with some Cochabambino artists associated with the Arte Urquidi Cultural Center.” The IPA label also was drawn up in collaboration with Arte Urquidi.

I picked up the first four of these bottles of Stier at the Spitting Llama in Cochabamba. They all spent some time on an overnight bus through the Chapare, so their clarity may have been somewhat affected. I’d previously tried the strong ale, honey beer and weizen, the latter two of which I’d probably say are Stier’s best offerings, especially the latter. I went through these in a few sessions. 

Session I:

Frutilla: This bottle wasn’t properly capped, so it leaked a bit in transit and probably screwed around with the final product. Apparently brewed with strawberry, it’s a turbid color of ruby red grapefruit flesh. Definitely a “girl beer.” Strong strawberry flavor, but feels like a Mineragua–i.e. a seltzer that evokes soda pop beer–and has a background of raw green beans. To be fair, that’s kind of what strawberries often taste like here. So, not great, and disturbingly pink. My wife loves the label, which oddly features no ingredient list. 6% ABV.

Pilsener: Yellow, pale, a bit opaque (probably the fault of the transportation again), 5.8%, and is carbonated like the priming sugar didn’t get mixed in all that well. While the label says it has citric notes from the German hops, I get more herbal and a bit of tartness and again with the unexpected seltzer feeling. More interesting than your run-of-the-mill industrial pilsener, but I’m not sure I’d be able to differentiate this from a blonde ale.

Session II:

This was taken back in 2012 or so, but the impression remains consistent a few year later.

This was taken back in 2012 or so, but the impression remains consistent a few year later.

Strong Ale: Between dark copper and light brown, translucent, with a nice white head that lingers on a bit around the edges. Aroma is fruity, sweet and just a bit of malt. Sweet on the finish, some malt–not overbearing–is there a hint of meat in there? Better than the first time I tried this. A light body; I think I’ll let this warm a bit. Oomph, at 7.2% ABV, perhaps I should have had something to eat before, and it’s a hot afternoon. I feel like this Strong Ale illustrates a prime challenge for Bolivian brewers: the only malt commercially available here is pilsner malt from Sureña, and it lacks the character demanded by malty ales; crystal malts can contribute some character in there, but without a good base malt, you lose a layer of potential. I did find out from Ted’s Cerveceria recently that Potosina has their own internal malting operations, but that lack of a maltster is currently either a huge gap and/or opportunity in the growing artisanal beer market for Bolivia. Take heed, someone.

Warming helps. The malt comes out a bit more. That meatiness I thought I detected declines and is replaced by malt. The body is still light.

Wow, this is way better warmer. Still not a world-beater, but a nice entrant.

Session III:

Stout: 8.2% ABV means this is one of, if not the strongest beer brewed commercially in Bolivia at the moment. And at that strength, it seems fair think it might impose itself onto “Imperial” territory. I’ll just be honest that before I start this, my points of reference are memories of sipping Old Rasputin next to a big juicy hamburger. So, the framework of expectations calling for bitter and thick might color this a little bit. At the pour, Stier’s Stout smells of roast, coffee, and chocolate. Jet black, just the slightest bit translucent on the sides and a tan head. That’s a good start. I start drinking and It’s sweet and the body is medium. There’s some little bit of cherry and malt, and it’s more thin than I’d hoped. Ugh, my previous expectations aren’t helping this. I know that I was hoping for the perpection of about 40 more IBUs and a milkshake texture, but I should know better. Nobody’s going to buy or drink that profile here (just yet). But Bolivians will understand this, even appreciate it.

The IPA wasn’t ready when I happened to be in Cochabamba, but I was able to buy a few bottles from Stier once it was ready. Again, overnight bus delivery down the Andes = inevitable sloshing. 

Session IV:

IPA: Well, in the interest of keeping it constructive, I’ll say this is much more of an English golden ale or something like a cream ale. Pale, lightly carbonated, fruity, with a slight whiff of hops; I’m keeping in mind that a bitter IPA is not going get much traction at the moment in Bolivia. Still, it’s disappointing to crack it open and not even have much of a nose to greet you. I’d say this has some refining to go. To be honest, it’s a bit less hoppy (in terms of aroma, taste, etc.) than Kushaav’s Aleksandra golden ale.

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Passion fruit flower of the lowlands. So named because the flowers reminded early Catholic missionaries of the crown on Christ’s head during his “passion.” 

Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s largest city and a magnet for people all over the country. The city’s population of 1.5 million people is grew the most in absolute terms during 2001-2012, and Bolivians flock here for its cosmopolitan feel (relative to Bolivia, of course), economic opportunities, and tranquilo lifestyle. I asked some folks who work with miners in Potosi’s Cerro Rico about what the options are for young people there and they replied, “University, the mines, or the sugar cane fields of Santa Cruz.”

Those cane fields are prolific, yielding three harvests a year and keeping the massive sugar processing factory off the fourth ring road (of around 12, depending on who you ask and where you look) busy and piping off steam and pungent aromatics, presumably from whatever comes after molasses. “Help wanted” signs are common enough, although the disconnect between the number of university graduates and professional jobs is still wide.

The rift between population growth, perceptions of possibility and actual opportunity leaves Santa Cruz in a tenuous position, at the bottom of a narrative familiar to most Latin American cities experiencing the effects of continental trends towards urbanization. As Bolivia–a heretofore dominantly rural nation, and even more importantly, a culture dictated by the assumptions of campo life–shifts to a predominantly urban context, the transition brings growing pains along with it. Any time I take a taxi ride in the cities of the altiplano or valleys, the conversation inevitably includes the driver commenting on how dangerous (and hot) Santa Cruz is.

And it’s true: crime rates in Santa Cruz have been rising steadily and dominate the headlines. But two massive caveats have to be mentioned: 1) the baselines from which those rates are growing are exceedingly small (especially by any comparison with similar-sized cities in neighboring countries), and 2) the actual crimes that grab headlines are often quite petty. That’s not to minimize the pain or hurt that attend these tragedies and perversion of human will, it’s just to try and put in context. That context being, it’s a lot worse elsewhere. And I say that with a day job aimed at trying to prevent those levels of violence from spiraling.

So, the great ringed city of the eastern lowlands promises opportunity to many Bolivians; the experience of whether or not it delivers will undoubtedly be the inspiration for Bolivia’s next generation of novelists and artists.[1]

On the other hand, until recently foreign tourists really couldn’t have cared less about this city. Granted, Santa Cruz lacks the same proportion of preserved historic architecture and adventure tourism as the other large cities in Bolivia, and as such, gets little love from guidebooks. In fact, most dedicate as much space to describing the city as they do to Samaipata, a small tourist haven two and half hours up into the foothills of the Andes.[2]

Samaipata translates to “a resting place” in Quechua, and is also quickly growing as Cruceños make it a preferred weekend and holiday destination. With hiking, good coffee and restaurants, and even a UNESCO World Heritage pre-Inca archaeological site to boot, Samaipata is more akin to the “experience” most foreigners come to associate with Bolivia as a whole. And where there are tourists, good beer often follows.

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A view outside of Samaipata. 

For a few years now, there have been reports of an Austrian expatriate in Samaipata brewing a blonde beer of some kind called “El Fuerte,” named after the aforementioned ancient fort located on a nearby mountaintop, although most reviews have been less than positive. (I’ve never managed to track it down, but neither have I ever heard a positive review.) Likewise, the Belgian-inspired beers of Ted’s Cerveceria are usually on offer in the Oveja Negra restaurant. Not a lot if your standards for access to interesting beer is 30+ taps and an extensive bottle list, but that’s actually kind of substantial for the current Bolivian context.

So when Marcin Piekut and his wife Andrea arrived in Samaipata last year, opening a microbrewery to serve the area and tap into the almost wholly untouched Santa Cruz market seemed like a good idea. Tentatively called “Camino Viejo,” their brewery references Samaipata’s location on the “old road” between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. Previously the main axle between the economic engines on this side of the country, the opening of a new, fully-paved road through the Chapare to the north has shifted much of the transport traffic away from Samaipata, but freed up the road to more leisure traffic. Now months into in the project and coming ever closer to opening, I had a chance to meet up with Marcin and Andrea recently and hear a bit about their plans.

Why come to Bolivia in the first place? “Besides cost of living, I’d consider Bolivia to be relatively safe and friendly place, no barbed wire on every home like Peru, for instance. I also love the wilderness and diversity and Bolivia has plenty to offer,” explains Piekut. Situated next to the Parque Nacional Amboro and its record for the highest density avian species, Samaipata is tough to beat in terms of location. Standard outings from Samaipata include a morning at the local animal refuge, playing with the monkeys, or a hike up the valleys to see condors.

Piekut notes, “I really wanted to be close to the tropics but not in tropics directly. We tried Thailand and it’s great place, but just too damn hot and also you can’t own land or become citizen or even permanent resident.” Samaipata offers the advantages of altitude and ecology: a few thousand feet above Santa Cruz, it can be stiflingly hot or musty and cold in the lowlands, but go up to Samaipata and you’re all-but-guaranteed a pleasant, sunny day.

Having purchased land with a spring on it, they the Piekuts recently sent a water sample to the laboratory and are waiting on analysis.

“Actually, you want to try some?” and they hand me a two liter bottle. I drink the tap water here in the city, anyway, so why not? “It’s so sweet and refreshing, and the spring is located in a cloud forest.” Indeed it is, and I’m curious to know how the chemistry turns out, given how carbonate-heavy and hard the aquifer water is down here in the lowlands. Water is the pride of most communities in the country–brewers at Sureña, Brewcraft, Corsa and Huari have all bragged about the beauty of their water.

When I first communicated with Piekut last year, he was excited to work on a coca leaf-infused IPA, although the bland, vegetal, savory flavor of coca leaf would require hops to take a back (or is it bittering?) seat to let the coca come out. Perfecting a palatable beer with coca in it would be quite an accomplishment, given that the best compliment a coca-driven beer could probably hope for beyond novelty is “dank to an extreme.”[3]

Now Marcin’s main focus is to design a set of four main offerings and a fifth rotating seasonal beer. “I’d love to focus on Belgian styles and West Coast IPAs,” but the market imposes certain restraints. Situated next to tropical Santa Cruz, he’s focusing on easy drinking, refreshing ales. “I might not be proud of such ‘bland’ beers, but I have to make a living, you know,” he points out.

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Some of the bluffs on the old road.

It’s probably not as bad as he thinks, and he’s planning to start with an accessible pale ale, red ale, and hefeweizen. The market is already primed to know what a red beer is, given the massive CBN’s occasional rollout of Paceña Roja, and Paulaner and Erdinger’s hefeweizens are fairly standard on the menus of the nicer restaurants throughout Bolivia. There are bigger challenges, though.

It’s easy enough to source pilsner malt through Sureña’s malting arm, but specialty malts, hops, and yeasts are another challenge unto themselves. Looking south, Piekut is developing relationships in Argentina to draw on the hop farms of Patagonia as sources of Cascade, Nugget, and the native Mapuche hops, among others. This is a feasible enough goal, although the current state of Argentina’s economy combined with the existence of a black market “blue dollar” exchange rate (which at times of late has differed from the official government rate to the tune of 40%) poses its own kind of challenges. Namely, how to purchase hops at a decent exchange rate and then get them across the border in a timely manner.

Specialty malts are perhaps the bigger challenge and might demand the DIY approach of Brewcraft. Equipment likewise is a challenge, but having made connections with a couple stainless steel fabricators in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, Piekut is blazing a trail not yet taken by Bolivia’s craft brewers, most of whom have imported their brewing setup. If Piekut can commission a full brewing setup and kegs domestically, it could prove a boon to the next generation of Bolivian craft brewers.

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One of the hotels in Samaipata.

Indeed, finding a way to address the lack of kegs in Bolivia would knock out the single biggest obstacle to the growth of craft beer’s accessibility in Bolivia. While CBN maintains a monopoly on most taps outside of the few that Ted’s, Stier, Reineke Brau, and Saya themselves have installed on a microscale in their local areas, getting beer efficiently to consumers will remain significant challenge.

If all goes to plan, early 2015 will see a yet another new craft brewer in the Santa Cruz department, although inevitably that’s a big if. Nonetheless, this year bodes well for beer in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and the rest of Bolivia as well if Piekut can succeed in a project that is steeped in ambition and a realistic understanding of what to expect from Bolivian beer drinkers (at first).

—–
[1] Also, I might add, it offers an opportunity for external immigrants here trying to get away from the economic black hole that is currently Argentina, but that’s for another time.
[2] So bear with me as I dedicate a bit of space to the city before heading on up to Samaipata.
[3] The Ch’ama coca-infused golden ale of Sucre’s Cerveceria Vicos lacks almost any perceptible coca character. It leaves you wondering if you’re just imagining you can taste coca or not. On the other hand, after trying the coca butter at Gustu which smelled of rosemary, but tasted distinctly of coca , perhaps there’s more possibilities to the coca leaf than I’d thought.

Megan McCardle just posted a delightfully insightful article called “Keep Calm and Put Down the Sriracha.” It’s worth your time to quickly read through. Her thesis in a nutshell:

But somewhere along the way, too many people seem to have gotten the idea that if exotic foods are good, that must mean that the boring old domestic varieties are bad.

 

This echoes much written recently in the beer blogosphere with the glut of reactions to the Jim Koch profile that echo his lament about mouth-assaulting IPAs and the demand for novelty at the expense of, say, baseline and accessible quality. McCardle points out It’s not just a beer thing, it’s very much a gastronomic shift of sorts. To boot,

I’m not saying that you have to like every available food. I dislike tripe, most cooked fish, liver and kale. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with foie gras or salmon mousse; it just means that I don’t care for them. Almost anything I do like, however, is as good prepared simply as it is in your triple-braised habanero short rib stew. Complicated dishes highlight the interplay of ingredients, but basic recipes allow your ingredients to shine. And without all that capsaicin numbing your taste buds or salted caramel overwhelming your palate, you can taste their full, delicate flavor. [emphasis added]

 

Let me re-rewite one sentence of that paragraph: “Almost any [beer] I do like, however, is as good prepared simply as it is in your triple-[dry hopped] habanero [imperial stout]. Complicated dishes highlight the interplay of ingredients, but basic recipes allow your ingredients to shine.”

And I’d say there’s absolutely no need to rewrite the bold sentences to pertain to beer.

One last parody of her final paragraph:

To get the most out of [drinking beer], you should be prepared to like as many [beers] as possible, including the old favorites that now seem a bit passe. You can broaden your horizons to enjoy the deliciously [bold and adventurous beers] of the [West Coast] and [more esoteric Belgian-inspired beers] without looking down on the equally delicious [classic] marvels that are right there at your feet. [Pilsner], [pale ale] and, yes, [boring brown bitters] have just as much place in our culinary canon as [double dry-hopped/barrel-aged/hopback/etc. beer].

 

Some acquaintances came through to visit and brought with them bottles from the Southern Cone. Some I’d tried, but others are new. Both Chile and Argentina have loads of old world European influence based on centuries of immigration, and while the former also draws a lot of influence from the poorer parts of the British Isles (case in point: O’Higgins was a naval hero and now a widely used name), the latter boasts some of the most progressive open immigration legislation in the world.

I was recently tasked with providing some other folks with some recommendations for a couple relatively obscure towns in Argentina. Even with minimal research, I was blown away by just how much variety there is, even in rural areas that mostly cater to outdoor expeditions of various sorts. I’m already relatively familiar with what Chile can offer based on travel there, but Argentina was and is a revelation. And that’s not even to mention the hop fields in El Bolson, Argentina. I only regret I haven’t had a chance to try the Mapuche hops of Argentina just yet. Some day, perhaps.

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Cervecería Austral Lager: Brewed in Patagonia of Chile, this is very golden, and tastes a bit of vanilla and honey spread over toasted whole wheat bread. Crisp, but quite filling and I’m done after one. 4.6% ABV.

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Kuntsmann Lager: Brewed in Valdivia, Chile, this is more copper-colored to match the caramel malts, but unfortunately it’s less dynamic of a taste. More caramel in the aroma and some to match in the taste, along with some woody hops, but not quite as interesting to drink as the former. Lighter, though. And at 4.3% ABV I could drink three of these before getting bored. Eminently crushable, as they say.

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Kuntsmann Torobayo Pale Ale: [Somehow I lost the notes on this. If for whatever reason you really care that much, you can read my comments on it from last year. I mean if you think of it as the Blue Moon of Chile, it’s pretty good.]

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Cerveza Cape Horn Pilsener: 4.8% ABV and certainly one of the better pilseners I’ve had in South America. Golden and a little turbid, it tastes of honey on toast chased by a really nice woody bitterness.  A really floral bouquet in the nose, maybe even some banana? Brewed with wheat and (surprisingly?) sugar in the very southerly city of Ushuaia on the Argentine part of Tierra del Fuego. (Looking at the place of sugar in the ingredients list, I wonder if that was for priming since this is bottle conditioned.) Tasty.

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Cerveza Artesanal Antares Altbier: A bit past its drink-by date. Smells of slightly stale bread and maybe some peaches? Tastes of caramel, whole wheat bread, balanced, and leaves a nice lingering bitterness. A pretty reddish copper. Somewhat thin, however, and a bit watery. I tell you what, though, I think most Bolivians would enjoy this 5.5% beer.

These last two were the real treat, though, brought all the way from Easter Island, technically a Chilean possession, but really quite distinct culturally speaking. So, I suppose this isn’t Southern Cone beer either, except on the basis of nationality. Oh well. These were shared among friends, hence the small pours.

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Cerveceria Rapa Nui Mahina Pale Ale: Tastes of delicious bread, and chewy to boot. Drinking this is an exercise in understanding how much your base malt can influence the outcome of a beer, and this clearly was not made with pilsner malt. There’s some banana aroma, it’s snappy and soft all at once, with a background hint of something meaty or savory. I enjoyed this at 4.8%; almost disappointed to share it.

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Cerveceria Rapa Nui Mahina Porter: Red highlights on a dark brown body and tan head. It’s 6.8% and smells of fresh cut wood and whipped cream. It tastes very clearly of a sweet, light chocolate, a bit of roasted barley, and then creamy at the end. Everyone liked this one.

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