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This is an exciting time to be interested in microbreweries and beer in Bolivia. It’s a time when new microbreweries seem to be sprouting up right and left, and the annual beer fests are tagged with “3rd annual” or less.

The first microbrewery in Santa Cruz (at this point, anyway–I’m woefully ignorant of whether or not anyone else has brewed in this city, and there seems be evidence of a defunct brewpub), Corsa was founded in 2010 and released their two flagship beers in late 2012, a Lager and a Dunkel, both in bottles, unfiltered, and unpasteurized. Corsa has the capacity to brew up to 400 HL (340 bbl) per month, or 480 HL (4080 bbl) per year. Bottling capacity is about 120,000 bottles (330 mL each), all done by hand on the manual bottling setup. The initial investment for the brewery has been reported in numerous outlets as US $2 million, which seems substantially high for a brewery in an economy with relatively low labor and material costs, and some others I’ve talked to suggest this might be an exaggeration.

Corsa invited us to an open house for a brewery tour, tastings, and lunch. If the crucified roast pig is what you can hope for in a future tasting room, we're all in for a treat.

Corsa invited us to an open house for a brewery tour, tastings, and lunch. If the crucified roast pig is what you can hope for in a future tasting room, we’re all in for a treat.

Both clock in at 16 IBUs and 4.8% ABV, with malt from Chile and hops imported from the Czech Republic and Germany. The Lager is considered a Kellerbier (which is not necessarily a style connotation as it is a description of how it’s made–i.e., both of these could be considered Kellerbier since they’re unpasteurized) but probably would fit into the Vienna Lager category, made with 3% crystal malt and pilsner malt. The Dunkel is self-designating, and is a dark brown color in the glass, and yields better head retention than the Lager. Both beers lager for six weeks before they are bottled. An Altbier has already been pilot-brewed and is gearing up for release in 2014, and one of Corsa’s associates mentioned that they’re working on a lager aimed at the “feminine” market, with a slightly higher alcohol content and reddish hue.

In the brewery, Corsa (Cervecería del Oriente Sociedad Autonoma) has ten 2200 L conical fermenters, one mash tun and two boilers, and they reported brewing about two fermenters per week. They do not treat the water at all, which is largely why they located themselves 11 km outside of Santa Cruz proper, in the zone of Mapaiso. Santa Cruz water is extremely hard and alkaline (the tap water’s pH is around 8.0), but apparently the water they draw from their own well does not require treatment. There’s a tradeoff there because the directions to finding the brewery are something along the lines of, “around kilometer 11, take the first left after the Fridosa factory, go to the first bend in the road and it’s on the right (albeit unmarked)”. That said, Corsa has a bit of marketing and significant work to do before it builds a tasting room or flagship brewpub in which to highlight their beers. One of the partners mentioned that their long term plans include building a tasting room, but that’s years down the line (along with developing a line of 5 L party-size kegs).

The upside of not having to treat the water is that Corsa can market its beers as “all natural” and “unpasteurized,” which to foreign ears may seem a tad gimmicky, but not having artificial additives of any kind is something to differentiate it from the mass market lagers on offer.

Corsa generally sees itself as a brand in competition with imported premium lagers like Stella Artois, Heineken and Budweiser, although it’s worth pointing out that Corsa’s beers bring much more character and taste to table. This past year, the Lager won a Silver medal at the South Beer Cup in Argentina entered in the “Experimental” Category, primarily because Kellerbier did not have its own category. Feedback there noted that it had very little effervescence, similar to a cask ale.

Early on, the Lager especially lacked significant head retention, but Corsa recently made the switch from green to brown bottles with Corsa branded on them. In a side by side test, these were the results:

Brown bottle Green bottle
Drier, more bitter, malty aftertaste, better head, hops bring to mind peaches and mint Lots of caramel, sweeter, almost has a Scottish character to it

Granted, it’s not a scientific comparison given that factors like age and serving temperature weren’t controlled, but there was a notable difference when tasted next to each other, with positive or negative results primarily based on personal preferences.

A side by side comparison of Corsa's Lager coming out of the newer brown bottle and previous green bottle

A side by side comparison of Corsa’s Lager coming out of the newer brown bottle and previous green bottle

Personally, it was great to see Santa Cruz have its own entry into a nascent microbrewery scene in Bolivia, and I’m glad to see it making inroads on the menus and supermarket shelves here and throughout the country. Hopefully they’ll be able to open up their offerings and selections, although given that the spirit of the brewery isn’t quite the go-for-broke creativity in the global microbrewery zeitgeist, perhaps we have what the Brewers Associations likes to call a “regional craft brewery” within the context of Bolivia. It certainly won’t hurt.

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Last week I had the chance to finally stop in and try the beer of Reineke Bräu at the Reineke Fuchs in Sopcachi in La Paz. It was a Wednesday night and I was in the city for work, so I didn’t have a lot of time to savor the visit. Alas, my companions in the establishment were a solitary foreigner sipping a Leffe Brune (!) whilst reading, and the four (based on their English and affinity for Sam Adams, North Americans in university) study abroad students discussing craft beer over German food. I have to compliment the young lady who was dominating the discussion on beer with spot-on knowledge about how temperature affects the taste of beer, style expectations and history, and so on. Kudos to her.

Anyway, between the altitude of La Paz and all the travel I decided to only have one drink, so I went with the house Pilsner on tap, advertised as more bitter than the Lager, at 30 IBUs. Also on tap was the Amber. I have to admit I got pretty excited when I noticed the mash tun and boil pot at the end of the bar, making this a proper brewpub. I asked my waiter if I could take a look (sorry, no camera on me!), and he said they were 550 L apiece, and that they brew 5-6 times a month. I forgot to ask how many fermenters were located below, but alas. This setup supplies both the La Paz location and their restaurant outside of Santa Cruz.

This being a rather packed work trip, there was no way I was going to be able join in as they were set to brew the next day starting around 4 am and going for a good 10 hours. The bags of Weyermann malt indicate that obviously they import their malt. The waitstaff didn’t know what kind of hops they used, so perhaps that’s for another days to find out. Apparently they brew a specialty beer each month, such as the aforementioned amber, but also stouts, kölsch, and others I have since forgotten.

To return to the Pilsner, in their branded short-stem tulip, it pours clear with a lovely, rocky white head over a golden color. The aroma starts with a brief whiff of noble hops before moving quickly to malt. The taste was quite straightforward, grainy with a slight lingering bitterness over a light body that goes down easily. All in all, it was a tad hard to belief this is 30 IBUs bitter. It is more bitter than the usual pilsner available here, but it certainly was not “hoppy.” A bit disappointing, but then I’m from the West Coast of N. America and my tastes are skewed anyway.

Saturday’s Primera Feria de la Cerveza yielded less people than organizers had hoped, and the people we talked to generally blamed it on the elevated entrance fees. I’m inclined to agree, especially given that there was a general lack of diversity among the offerings, but it’s better than nothing! Together with my usual brewing friend, Ben O, and another new friend, we sampled a variety of beers from Saya, Sureña, and the imports at the Bitbürger stand.

We started the night with the La Paz-based Saya‘s four tap offerings, taking in their Dorada (5% Kölsch), pours with a beautiful, large, billowy, white head that sticks around forever. Translucent and blonde in appearance, it’s difficult to pick up a very notable aroma in the setting. Tastewise it is very mellow, smooth, inoffensive, and delivers a hint of malt at the end. A perfect introductory ale for Bolivia, where ales are still a novelty item. Next up was the Oktoberfest (6%) and while October falls during the spring months in Bolivia, this seasonal brew is perhaps a bit off, but it’s the spirit of the season that motivates this brew more than the weather anyway. On tap, it pours a clear amber approaching copper, retains an off-white head, and yields an aroma of caramel and malts. Not particularly bitter, its flavor is dominated by the obvious crystal malts and attendant caramel taste, with malt throughout.

In the same vein, the Ambar (6% American Amber/Pale Ale) is a clear amber color with billowy off-white head that dissipates slowly as you enjoy it. The aroma jumps out with green apples and sweet tart fruits, while it gives a medium body mouthfeel. Tends a little more towards the sweet, but only a little bit while a hop presence is discernible if not specific nor dominant. Most certainly an amber ale. We ended with the Negra (7% dunkel bock); dark brown and clear, with a dark head. Perhaps the batch wasn’t the greatest, but the aroma gave off some kind of skunk and among the three of us sampling, it won none of us over by its aroma. The flavor is dominated by roasted barley with little malt or hops present, and it was medium-bodied at most. A tad unbalanced for the preferences of those present.

Moving next door to Sucre-based Sureña, we got one of everything: three pale lagers and a “porter stout”. Bicentenario (5.5% international style lager) was sweet, Sesquicentenario (6% export lager) was almost peppery, dry, and smooth, and the clear-bottled Sureña 33 (5.5% international style lager) ended up the preferred pale lager from Sureña, with its smooth malty flavor, which surprised us, but given that in a previous tasting Paceña Ice came out on top of its other brethren, perhaps we ought not be so taken. Finally, we took in Chanchito (4.8% “porter stout”), which while promising some kind of complexity given its ingredient bill that included “malta torrefactada” (I think that’s roasted malt), syrup, and caramelized sugar. The roasty aroma did not deceive, although it’s a very, very sweet beer with pretty obvious notes of raisin present in a full body. Okay, but filling.

Finally, I ended the night at the tent primarily serving up Bitburger imports. First up was Benediktiner Weissbier (5%), which I’d never had before. It was hard to grab much of an aroma, but the mouthfeel was full-bodied with a spicy taste dominated by cloves–very little of the expected banana presence, but it did not take away from the overall experience and still quite refreshing. I’d drink it again. Next was the Bitburger Premium Pils (4.8%), refreshing and a lovely contrast to all the international style lagers of the festival. The biggest noticeable difference was the dryness delivered by more present hops and a grainy aftertaste. No fruitiness whatsoever. IT was my second time trying this, and while I might have preferred it out of the bottle versus in a can, it was still a welcome contrast to the barely pilsners available here. Last up, was Köstritzer Schwarzbier (4.8%): oh, so delicious and beautiful. Held up to the light, it yields a lovely red hue in the glass while retaining its head throughout the entire session. The smell yields malt and roast, and the taste is dry and roasted, with malt to follow. Little obvious presence of hops, but this yields a very well-balanced, easy drinking and savor-able dark beer that appeals. I could drink this every day.

One of the unusual things most people don’t realize about the city of Santa Cruz–and to be fair, Bolivia in general–is its lengthy German heritage and the subsequent oddities that come out of it. Take for example, the Cementerio General on the first ring in SCZ–the main entrance leads to a large cemetery full of crypts and such, but just off to the right of the main entrance is the Cementerio Alemán (German Cemetery), complete with an endowed chapel that gives mass every day in German.

On top of it, you can usually find pretty decent German food (insofar as one might consider German food something to actively seek out), and our favorite locale is the pleasant and charmingly decorated Bistro La Casona on Arenales between Beni and Murillo. Mostly it’s the best sandwich place in town that we’ve found as well as boasting the best beer menu, with a variety of Erdinger and Paulaner imports on offer, along with Paceña on tap and Corsa available as well.

Likewise, scanning the small selection of available imported beers in the grocery stores, and you’ll usually find some staples from the Bitbürger lineup, a couple Bolivian micros (if any), and a smattering of other random options. In a word, German styles are more available than most.

Hence, whereas in the US I’d opt for English, American, or Belgian styles, here I find myself happily forced to explore the German styles. Hence I’ve tried more pilsners, bocks, dunkels, and schwarzbiers than I’d normally go for, and it’s been a good experience. Hailing from North America, I inherit the the tastes and preferences–you might say prejudices and biases–that come with it (except for a commitment to bitterness; frankly, I could care less about IPAs). I’m prone to novelty, flashiness, and extremities. So, it’s a good exercise to have to tone it back and appreciate the fundamentals and self-imposed limitations that are often associated with the German brewing traditions. I recommend it as a exercise.