The maltster of Bolivia: Sureña

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:

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