Up the old road: brewing in Samaipata

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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.
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