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Bolivian breweries

Let’s call this part one of a series on Southeast Asian beers.

Back in Bolivia, the concept of a sampler flight hasn’t quite caught on just yet. Then again, neither have brewery tours or the notion of breweries as destinations, or institutions that somehow contribute to or reflect the culture of the place they reside.

A week after leaving Bolivia, I was sitting down to my first sampler flight in the three and half years since I’d left the US, albeit this time in the strange, vaguely unsettling city-state that is Singapore. Brewerkz Restaurant and Microbrewery is one of numerous small-time outfits in the vibrant Singapore beer scene, operating a few other spots around the city.

To put this in a bit of context, we had arrived in Singapore almost directly from Bolivia (apart from a quick half-week visit in the US) and met up with my parents for a couple weeks of Southeast Asia travel before heading onward with them to China.

Two icons of architecture among many in Singapore.

Two icons of architecture among many.

As I said, Singapore is a very interesting beast in its own right, and couldn’t have felt much different from Bolivia. You’ll see minimal advertising in Singapore–no massive billboards, hardly anything posted on public transit, and even the storefront signs are dramatically pruned. The exception to this are the abundant PSAs featuring hokey slogans warning of the dangers of ID theft and “rioting,” which is vaguely defined and can include basically any non-pre-approved political gathering. Huh. On the other hand, protesting is practically a national pastime in Bolivia and advertising regulations seem to existent most prominently in La Paz, where the municipality plasters public fines onto signage that juts out above the street.

The vast majority of residential housing in Singapore is 20+ storey apartment buildings arranged very deliberately, grouped together in islands divided by vast tracts of open green space. It’s beautiful, a marvel of urban planning, and its cleanliness lives up to the legendary status Singapore has attained for its anal hygiene laws. Everything feels as though it has a assigned, planned and established place it belongs.

This pretty well sums up the overall sentiment.

But it also leaves you with a weird feeling that you’ve been dropped into a modern Downton Abbey set where there must be something pretty sad going on beneath the stairs. In other words, the wealth of nations is too often built on the backs of the poor, who in Singapore are pretty well invisible to the passing eye.

Don't riot in Singapore because it only achieves caning and imprisonment.

Don’t riot in Singapore because it only achieves caning and imprisonment.

If you look deeper, there are indeed some pretty upsetting things going on. This is especially true with imported labor, to the tune of New York and its nail salons. For example, maids–often Filipinas–are brought in under a special visa that prohibits them from having a significant other, getting pregnant, having family there, etc., and will get them deported if they lose their job. Likewise, imported laborers in the construction industries come from elsewhere in the region, such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc., and work under similar restrictions. I realize this is not a new story–I lived in Saudi Arabia as a child where it’s nearly a mirror image and probably worse when it comes to workers’ rights, but it doesn’t excuse turning a blind eye. Granted, we were only there for four days, so this was a fleeting glance at best–better to spare the holy judgment and try to see the positives.

Singapore is an incredibly easy city to be in, navigate and enjoy. Signs are in English, Tamil, and Malay. The island is deceptively large, and it can quite literally take hours to circumnavigate it on the MRT (again, because of size rather than efficiency).

And, of course, the beer is excellent.

The first flight in three years, at Brewerkz.

The first flight in three years, at Brewerkz.

At Brewerkz we worked our way through the Pilsner (5.0%), Wheat (a hefeweizen at 5.0%), IPA (6.0%), Golden Ale (4.5%), XIPA (a 7.5% take on the IPA), Hopback Ale (cask conditioned bitter at 4.5%), and Mad Honey Bee Ale (brewed with Thai wildflower honey, 6.0%). Of those, really only the Pilsner and Hopback stood out, the former for its notable hoppiness overlaying the crisp malt and the latter for the welcome tartness that lit up the orange marmalade flavors and made it stand out against everything else. There’s a clear North American influence on Brewerkz’s offerings, and their website even acknowledges as much while describing the founders, “who initially modeled it after similar concepts in the USA and Canada.”

But pervading the entire time, sitting next to a canal on an island in Southeast Asia, a couple degrees north of the equator, drinking some very decent beers of styles I’ve not had access to for the past three years, it came with an unexpected sense of melancholy. Because here I was drinking a beer at its source and while being so far physically removed from North America, without the physical context to remind me where I was I’m not sure anyone could tell that these beers were anything but brewed in North America. Not only stylistically speaking, but ingredient-wise as well: the marketing boasts of malts and hops all imported from abroad.

Let’s be fair: Singapore basically imports absolutely everything. So it’s not like they can source locally for much more than the water (and even then the bulk of it comes from Malaysia). Likewise, Brewerkz is obviously an American-style brewpub catering to American tastes in a community that has a lot of Americans. So on the one hand, my attitude could be a great compliment, if the goal has always been to replicate the American beer experience as closely as possible.

However, my disappointment–fair or not–is the lack of anything distinctly Singaporean about the beer. It’s great beer; it just seems utterly disconnected from its geography. I think this reflects some of the observations lately regarding London from Boak and Bailey, where people are noting the explosion of breweries there that basically just replicate American styles and approaches to the point where you’d never actually know it’s from London.

Obviously, there’s a place for places like Brewerkz where tastes and demand exists for those styles of beer (I think of Brewcraft in Bolivia as addressing a similar market). Heck, if someone had been brewing even something so obviously other as a hefeweizen or IPA when I was back in Santa Cruz, I’d have undoubtedly been a faithful customer. But I do think that striving to connect beer to its place of production in more than just dumping in some token “local” ingredients for novelty’s sake is a worthwhile aspiration.

And that was the downer for me. Sure, I enjoyed Brewerkz’s beers. But it lacked that extra element of place and story to connect it to the physical experience of being in Singapore. It whisked my mouth away to San Diego, perhaps, but I was hoping it would somehow clarify or enhance a physical sense of being in a place so foreign to what I know. We can so easily travel from one place to another today, that it’s almost vulgar to consider it a journey. (I suspect this is why my mother dreams so frequently of taking a trip on a freighter–on a ship you cannot escape the sacrifice of time required to cross a long distance, and it would be a nice coda to echo the three weeks she spent as a young girl on a dramatic TransPacific crossing.)

So, in the midst of so many opportunities to see so much, I find myself looking for chances for embodiment in a place, and food and drink often can be those things. I didn’t find that corporeal moment in Singapore.

Singapore: very concerned with cleanliness. Probably not Sandor Katz's favorite place ever.

Singapore: very concerned with cleanliness. Probably not Sandor Katz’s favorite place ever.

Stier is owned and run by three expats from Chile, France, and Germany, who all married Cochabambinas and stayed. Splitting the difference between La Paz and Santa Cruz, Cochabamba is a dominant city for trade and agriculture in the valleys region. Sometimes referred to as a “city of eternal spring,” it hosts many headquarters of various foreign organizations for the same reason. And as such, there’s a small critical mass of beer interest to provide a market.

I exchanged a few emails with Rodrigo Cadiz, the Chilean brewer in researching a magazine article and came out with a few tidbits that didn’t fit. Cadiz said, “We’re influenced by all schools–we try to take the styles that can be adapted to have the most impact in the Bolivian market. We estimate that half of our market is Bolivian and the other half foreign tourists in Bolivia.”

Currently producing 1500-2000 liters (13-17 bbl) a month (which comes out to around 200 bbl annually), they don’t modify their water. Their honey and strawberry beers have particularly eye-catching labels that are innovative for the Bolivian context: “We have two label designers; one who focuses on traditional styles that are more rigid, and on the other hand, we have another designer who works with the more novel beers without a defined style. For example, on our latest honey beer we worked with some Cochabambino artists associated with the Arte Urquidi Cultural Center.” The IPA label also was drawn up in collaboration with Arte Urquidi.

I picked up the first four of these bottles of Stier at the Spitting Llama in Cochabamba. They all spent some time on an overnight bus through the Chapare, so their clarity may have been somewhat affected. I’d previously tried the strong ale, honey beer and weizen, the latter two of which I’d probably say are Stier’s best offerings, especially the latter. I went through these in a few sessions. 

Session I:

Frutilla: This bottle wasn’t properly capped, so it leaked a bit in transit and probably screwed around with the final product. Apparently brewed with strawberry, it’s a turbid color of ruby red grapefruit flesh. Definitely a “girl beer.” Strong strawberry flavor, but feels like a Mineragua–i.e. a seltzer that evokes soda pop beer–and has a background of raw green beans. To be fair, that’s kind of what strawberries often taste like here. So, not great, and disturbingly pink. My wife loves the label, which oddly features no ingredient list. 6% ABV.

Pilsener: Yellow, pale, a bit opaque (probably the fault of the transportation again), 5.8%, and is carbonated like the priming sugar didn’t get mixed in all that well. While the label says it has citric notes from the German hops, I get more herbal and a bit of tartness and again with the unexpected seltzer feeling. More interesting than your run-of-the-mill industrial pilsener, but I’m not sure I’d be able to differentiate this from a blonde ale.

Session II:

This was taken back in 2012 or so, but the impression remains consistent a few year later.

This was taken back in 2012 or so, but the impression remains consistent a few year later.

Strong Ale: Between dark copper and light brown, translucent, with a nice white head that lingers on a bit around the edges. Aroma is fruity, sweet and just a bit of malt. Sweet on the finish, some malt–not overbearing–is there a hint of meat in there? Better than the first time I tried this. A light body; I think I’ll let this warm a bit. Oomph, at 7.2% ABV, perhaps I should have had something to eat before, and it’s a hot afternoon. I feel like this Strong Ale illustrates a prime challenge for Bolivian brewers: the only malt commercially available here is pilsner malt from Sureña, and it lacks the character demanded by malty ales; crystal malts can contribute some character in there, but without a good base malt, you lose a layer of potential. I did find out from Ted’s Cerveceria recently that Potosina has their own internal malting operations, but that lack of a maltster is currently either a huge gap and/or opportunity in the growing artisanal beer market for Bolivia. Take heed, someone.

Warming helps. The malt comes out a bit more. That meatiness I thought I detected declines and is replaced by malt. The body is still light.

Wow, this is way better warmer. Still not a world-beater, but a nice entrant.

Session III:

Stout: 8.2% ABV means this is one of, if not the strongest beer brewed commercially in Bolivia at the moment. And at that strength, it seems fair think it might impose itself onto “Imperial” territory. I’ll just be honest that before I start this, my points of reference are memories of sipping Old Rasputin next to a big juicy hamburger. So, the framework of expectations calling for bitter and thick might color this a little bit. At the pour, Stier’s Stout smells of roast, coffee, and chocolate. Jet black, just the slightest bit translucent on the sides and a tan head. That’s a good start. I start drinking and It’s sweet and the body is medium. There’s some little bit of cherry and malt, and it’s more thin than I’d hoped. Ugh, my previous expectations aren’t helping this. I know that I was hoping for the perpection of about 40 more IBUs and a milkshake texture, but I should know better. Nobody’s going to buy or drink that profile here (just yet). But Bolivians will understand this, even appreciate it.

The IPA wasn’t ready when I happened to be in Cochabamba, but I was able to buy a few bottles from Stier once it was ready. Again, overnight bus delivery down the Andes = inevitable sloshing. 

Session IV:

IPA: Well, in the interest of keeping it constructive, I’ll say this is much more of an English golden ale or something like a cream ale. Pale, lightly carbonated, fruity, with a slight whiff of hops; I’m keeping in mind that a bitter IPA is not going get much traction at the moment in Bolivia. Still, it’s disappointing to crack it open and not even have much of a nose to greet you. I’d say this has some refining to go. To be honest, it’s a bit less hoppy (in terms of aroma, taste, etc.) than Kushaav’s Aleksandra golden ale.

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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.

I finally got my hands on some of the Cochabamba-based Blumental’s ales made from amaranth (red ale) and quinoa (golden ale), both clocking in at 5% ABV. Both list their specialty grain as the final ingredient, so that’s a hint at how much character they actually add to the final result

Side-by-side, they are visually distinct, with the Amaranth Red Ale being a light copper hue, clear, and with a lasting head. The Quinoa Golden Ale is very blonde, even white and just a bit cloudy, hinting at the high protein levels of quinoa. On the other hand, the actual taste and aroma differences are–at best–subtle. The amaranth is just the slightest bit more malty, while the quinoa tastes a tiny bit tangier and fruitier in the aroma. That’s disappointingly it.

If you’re looking to try a Bolivian beer with a “supergrain”, I’d still go with Kushaav’s El Salaar.