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.
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.
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.
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.