Criterion #2 Unique, local ingredients(s)

This is probably the easiest category for innovation and developing a local flavor, but by extension also the weakest for making an argument that it represents a style. Likewise, I see two starting points to approach the application of this criterion to what Bolivia has to offer:

  1. Bolivian ingredients used to interpret existing styles
  2. Brew religiously to the style guidelines utilizing local ingredients

Let me give a quick example of each of these, and then dive straight into a more in depth examination of each.

  1. Saison racked onto a bunch of achachairu (a fruit native to Bolivia, that has only in the last couple years been cultivated elsewhere)
  2. Belgian Golden Strong brewed with yucca starch as the OG boosting component

Bolivia’s wealth of biomes and ecological diversity mean that there are so, so many ways to approach this. So, instead of trying to be exhaustive (because it would be exhausting for all involved), I’ll take a look at each of these approaches to application (A and B) and explore a few possibilities each. Then I’ll make some kind of attempt to wrap this essay up.

Ingredient Approach A: Use Bolivian Ingredients to Interpret Existing Styles

The example used above to demonstrate this style is a Saison racked onto achachairu, a fruit that actually has a very strong case for being uniquely and originally Bolivian. The key to this approach is using the style guidelines as starting points, and then throwing in a local flair, or making something standard and adding that one secret ingredient that sets it apart. For example, Bolivian honey is rarely identified by the plant blooming in proximity to the bees, and more frequently by the geographic source, such as Villamontes, the Chaco, Villa Tunari, etc. So in a recipe or style that calls for honey, utilizing the honey locally available adds a geographically-linked component to the final product.

Achachairu: indigenous to Bolivia.

But I’m aiming for something a tad more ambitious with this: beer, like any aspect of culture, is a social construction and thus claiming uniqueness based on ingredients alone and excluding method, combination, myth, whatever, leaves you with an argument based more on the terroir of a place rather than of, say, a people. I’m aiming for social construction here, not (just) documentation of certain place at a certain time (although there is definitely a place for that, and there are signs that beer brewing is moving that direction).

Fermentables

Bolivia has a number of grains or fermentable carbohydrate sources that originated here, or at least have a long history of traditional use. I’m thinking especially of quinoa, amaranth, potatoes, and maize. Maize can obviously be used, but it lacks character, a similar difficulty with potatoes. However, quinoa and amaranth both bring some unusual character to beers, and can easily be utilized in place of similar malt additions. I have a bunch of recently-toasted quinoa sitting out and resting so that it can be incorporated into future brews, as well as some amaranth [Edit: They’re in the fermenter as of 11 February]. These will add a certain (hopefully distinct) character to the final product.

Fruit

Fruit in general offers an immense bounty if you utilize this approach, even more so if you follow seasonal availability patterns.[1] Bolivia is in the sweet spot of South American agriculture because it can grow pretty much anything to begin with and import the rest from its neighbors. Mango season is starting to wane a bit, but during that season you can find five separate varieties of locally grown mangoes available. Why not brew with them? There are myriad options when it comes to utilizing these in fruit-friendly beers, and the sour categories offer a huge space for creativity. If you even just take what’s available today (at the time of writing) in my local market, you can choose from the following local fruit: strawberries, pomegranate, four kinds of peaches, apricots, three kinds of grapes, avocadoes, pineapple, achachairu, all sorts of citrus, watermelon, and surely I’m forgetting much more.

Hops

Moving to hops, you have exactly zero publically available options at the moment (as far I’ve been able to find, and I’ve looked and asked quite a bit). However, you have the many herbal and spice options that have already been discussed a bit in this series. I would highlight a couple that have not yet been covered that are widely used here: fresh chamomile, oregano (Bolivia exports the most in South America, most grown up in Chuquisaca and Oruro), and eucalyptus (hardly unique to Bolivia, but widely used). Or, the wide variety of chiles available and used here offer a potential starting point. For example, aji chuquisaqueña is a specific kind of chile pepper used to give the chorizo chuquisaqueño its distinct flavor. Perhaps mixing and matching the various kinds of chile de arbol that are available in multiple varieties at the markets. These might be considered as a way to augment the complexity of the few styles that actually call for herbal or spice additions.

Aji Chuquisaqeña

Yeast

Yeast is a more difficult consideration because I’m not a microbiologist. There is a Fleischmann’s yeast plant north of Santa Cruz, but I’m pretty sure they just make the baker’s yeast that you also get on the shelves in North America. Hardly unique or local. I’d have to do research into where some of the microbreweries like Ted’s, Saya or Stier are getting their yeast to see if they started and have maintained their own stock, or if they regularly buy yeast from a supplier. Over generations, they might end up with their own distinct yeast, but it’s a weak argument for a Bolivian style.

The strongest argument for a Bolivian yeast would probably be in isolating palatable and well-performing strains from chicherias (chicha producers). Honestly, I know basically nothing about chicherias except that when they run the white flag up the pole, it means the chicha’s fresh and ready. But, perhaps some have developed particularly robust and reliable yeast cultures that they maintain from batch to batch. Of course, I’m pretty sure the majority of chicha is made in private homes like, you know, beer in the middle ages (at least insofar as the prevailing romanticized mythology goes).

A second approach that is not a uniquely Bolivian method, but will give native yeasts would start by isolating wild yeast varieties and selecting for the best characteristics, a project a bit too ambitious for me to try at this point in time. I suppose the closest thing to this would be the sour starter I have going strong right now (at the time of writing), but a wild lactobacillus culture is not likely to be pure nor will it deliver the complexity of Brett and Pedio needed to hit some of the sour styles. But, maybe it works as a starting point.

One could always consider one of the widespread approaches to cultivating a yeast culture from the skins of particular fruits. Again, looping back to the discussion on the diversity of fruit, you might find a diversity of yeast cultures. Two problems arise here: again, I’m not a microbiologist nor do I have the equipment to get into isolation of individual yeast strains. There probably are people who are and do. Second problem, and this is just seasonal and geographic: it’s the middle of a long summer here at the moment and generally the best time to cultivate airborne or wild yeasts is during cooler months…which are not often harvest periods. Still, it’s a doable possibility.

Combining for strength

Generally, I think that to make the strongest argument for this approach, you will need a combination of multiple traditionally Bolivian ingredients. For example, how about an Andean Brown ale brewed with toasted quinoa for color and complexity, and “dry-hopped” with coca, or flavored with some coca extract? Or, a Chaqueño Pale Ale with mate for aroma and maybe some honey for fermentables? The key to making the stronger argument is a combination of ingredients that are regionally derived. Otherwise, a pale ale with mate might pertain to almost all of the Southern cone countries, or a brown ale with quinoa could be from anywhere in the Andes range (well, I suppose that it still is that way with coca, but it’s a start). Creating ingredient combinations that better represent a region or country make a stronger—if not watertight—argument for a style.


[1] I would argue that if you are an environmentally-conscious brewery, one of the greatest differentiators you could utilize is an exclusively seasonal focus to your brewing scheme, such that your brews follow what is locally and presently available.


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