Guest Post: Decolonization and the Idea of a Bolivian Beer Style

I sent the series on Developing a Bolivian Style of Brewing to a group of my fellow brewers here in Santa Cruz, and one of them–an anthropologist–weighed in with this feedback.

By Drew J-G

Like you shared, it is really impossible to make a “Bolivian” beer simply because of the huge geographic and ecological and cultural diversity inside these borders. A regional beer would be more appropriate. As far as marketability, doing a quinoa and coca beer would probably be considered as the most “Bolivian” but that is only because the world’s image of Bolivia is the Andes and Altiplano. For the rest of the country chafing under a government that wants to make Aymara and Quechua culture ubiquitous, it would seem neocolonial to call it “Bolivian.”

The truth is, going a little further in the aside about chicha, Beer itself is colonial. Rather than argue that chicha is the South American answer to Europe’s beer, we must also recognize that beer is not really from around here. It is the Coca-Cola of alcoholic beverages on this continent. The reason Argentina might have more tradition in microbrews is that they have a lot more migrants from Northern and Western Europe, they historically displaced(/killed) the indigenous population, and they have the climate to grow the ingredients. Even then, Argentina’s mass beer consumption is less diverse even than Bolivia’s (or it was when I was there eight years ago).

I guess I wonder, with the criteria that you gave in this series, if part of the historic and geographic roots needed to create a new type of beer would also mean that all the ingredients should be cultivated where the beer is brewed. Just like chicha is made of local products, beer is (was) too when it was invented and the tradition reflected in that list of types reflects the origin not just of the beer, but of its ingredients. So, would adding a Chaco honey or achachairu really make it a regional beer if the other ingredients had to be brought from somewhere else? Would that mean that the only fully Bolivian beer could come from the valleys and mountains where all the key ingredients to traditional beer can be and are produced? I am a little ignorant on this. I am really just thinking out loud.

I know that today you can get anything just about anywhere, which is the part that makes this discussion so interesting. At some point, though, I guess we have to recognize that a Bolivian beer will be a beer with influences and accents from all over the world, and that doesn’t make it any less Bolivian. Like you said, the end product is more what counts in the classification rather than how you got there.

This reminds me of an example: Early American anthropology at the turn of the 20th century was mostly concerned with recording and studying the few remaining Native American tribes that lived “traditionally.” Their concern was that with the rapidly changing world around them that these groups and their lifestyles and cultures would “disappear.” So they would go to these villages and instead of asking the people about their lives, they would ask about how their grandparents lived because they believed that the previous generations had lived “authentic” lives while the current generation, due to the influence of modern technology and global economic and dominant Euro-American cultural forces, no longer lived authentic lives.

Of course today, anthropologists recognize that you can’t go up to a Sioux family living in South Chicago and say “you aren’t authentic Sioux because you don’t live the way your ancestors did, you don’t hunt bison and you live in a huge city.” Cultures change constantly in reaction and in interaction with the many social, ecological, and cultural forces around them (and the differing levels of power in each of those relationships). So, those things have an effect on what “Bolivian” means as you explore in this series. I just say that to say you shouldn’t try to split hairs about Bolivian-ness when it is buried under so many layers, as is the history of beer and its global conquest.

This doesn’t end up sounding much like a conversation about beer, so much as anthropology. If I had to design a Bolivian style of beer, I’d say stick with the quinoa for sure. Try to spice it up with aji chuquisaqueño. It is the special spice they use is those delicious sausages and empanadas in Sucre. You can find it dried at the market, or sometimes in powder form, although most people from Sucre that I know swear buying it here in Santa Cruz just isn’t the same as bringing it from Chuquisaca. And also, the trimate blend might be a nice herbal touch with a little more something that just straight coca.

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