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Homebrewing

I had a very fascinating conversation recently with an agronomist who has spent a few years living in the Peruvian Amazon. We were talking about native beers of South America, and having seen references to a few that involve yucca, I asked if he knew of any. Turns out that the people of the area where he lived in Peru brewed with yucca (also known as mandioc, cassava, tapioca root, etc.).

However, you can’t malt yucca, nor does it have any conversion power, so how did they get the abundant starches to convert to fermentable sugars? Turns out they (ingeniously) used purple yams, which are a source of alpha-amylase enzymes.

The process starts with peel, washing, and boiling up the yucca roots in huge pots. Once they’re soft and hot, you mash up the yucca in an oversized mortar and pestle. Purple yams (camote morado) are peeled and chewed up (although the chewing was an afterthought, so I suspect that this was a traditional method that was phased out when graters were introduced) and mixed up well into the mashed yucca (think mashed potatoes). Boiled water was thrown over the mixture and mixed well and left to convert and then ferment spontaneously for a couple days. The resulting drink came out a shade of lavender from the yams and was called masato de yucca.

Really interesting stuff.

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This past week I had the chance to take in Santa Cruz’s annual state fair/trade show/import-export exhibition that manages to enthrall the entire city for ten days around the celebration of the city’s founding on September 24th. The Fexpo convention center is completely taken over by exhibitors ranging from car dealers to Chinese steel companies to local artisan handicraft makers to put on EXPOCRUZ.

We got there right on time to beat the crowds, and had our pick of the samples, including quinoa frozen yogurt, fresh cinnamon bark shaved right off a branch, licor de piña (the spontaneity of its fermentation unmistakeable), sacha inchi (Incan peanut), lots of overly sweet artisan wines, and so on.

Notably, at one of the winery booths, they were serving their sweet red out of a small 5 gallon or so oak barrel, apparently produced by artisans in Camargo, Chuquisaca, which would represent the first source of barrels I’ve found in Bolivia. I picked up a card and brochure listing the contact information for the IG Valle de Cinti Association, which has a website here. Their representative in Santa Cruz is May Lee Naomi Mendieta Molina, (cel. 78428362, tel. 3241316). For anyone looking to start a barrel aging program here in Bolivia, this might be the place to start.

We ended the night in the Reineke Fuchs beer garden, which was nice to have, but half a liter of their draft dunkel was hard to get down when it was clearly infected with lacto. Not a pleasant experience.

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.

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Brewpot and mash tun. Courtesy of Tyler Wilson.

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.

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Three-tier mashing scheme, albeit still under construction. Courtesy of Tyler Wilson.

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.

Brewcraft's current lineup. Tasting notes to come later...

Brewcraft’s current lineup. 

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.

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Bottles being prepped. Courtesy of Tyler Wilson.

For awhile now I’ve mulled over the idea of making a potato beer, which is nothing innovative (sweet potato beers are common enough), and the idea itself came out of a Ron Pattinson post on German Broyhan brewed with potatoes. Bolivia being the land of potatoes, I’ve had my eye on using oca for this beer, a skinny tuber about the length and width of fat thumb and absolutely delicious when sliced lengthwise and thrown right on the grill–sweet and soft inside, with a nice crunch on the outside. And not to forget, they are a beautiful potato to look at. The downside, of course, is that it is also highly seasonal. So, when oca finally showed up at the end of April in the local markets, I immediately took home a kilo and drew up a quick recipe riffing on the historical Broyhan recipe.

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A kilo of oca brought home from the market.

At the time, Munton and Fison Ale Yeast was the most neutral strain I had on hand, so that’s what I went with. This was a very lackadaisical brewday by my own standards, doing a 4 liter brew-in-a-bag, “milling” 650g of pilsner malt in a food processor, shredding 400g of oca by hand, and adding a pinch of Cluster hops at 60 minutes into the boil. A kind of rainy day project.

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Shredded oca in the pot, ready for gelatinization.

First I boiled the shredded oca for 10 minutes to ensure full gelatinization and then diluted with cooler tap water and a squeeze of lemon (tap water is extremely hard and alkaline here) and mashed in at 66° C and held it for an hour. The mash being full of shredded potato, I put the bag in a colander and rinsed the mash to pull off as much residual sugar as possible. Again, I still don’t have a way to measure gravity at home, so this should have been around 1.045, but I’ll never really know.

Trying to pay some tribute to the English ale yeast influence, after two weeks in primary I racked the beer to a 5 L mini-keg and one small 330 mL bottle. The mini-keg yields somewhat flat beer with a massive head fairly consistently, so it looks great and tastes a bit more watery than I’d prefer. Here’s what the results looked like coming out the bottle.

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Oca “Broyhan”

In the end, a deliciously mild session ale. Lightly sweet, herbal and spicy on the tongue from those Clusters, the character of this beer deepens as it warms. Pear flavors and aroma jump out, especially when this beer was very fresh.

I’m not sure what the logistics of brewing with shredded potatoes would look like, but this would make for a great cream or blonde ale within a brewery trying to pay tribute to Bolivian culinary traditions without letting novelty get in the way of quality. Certainly calling it a “Broyhan” is a stretch, but perhaps with a Kölsch yeast and some other tweaks one might at least reference the historical beer without it being complete imaginary leap.