Note: This article was last updated in January 2015. Because I have since left Bolivia, I will not be able to maintain this up to date, but if I come across new information I will be sure to add it here. I just wanted to note it’s no longer as accurate as it once was.
In my time here, one of the challenges that has made homebrewing that much more enjoyable is just the fact that there are no local homebrew shops (HBS), so you really have to blaze your own trail, which pretty much only appeals to the ego and sense that you’re doing something especially unique. So it’s good to keep everything in perspective, but it would probably be nice to have a set of resources to start things off with as well. This compiles the basics of my experiences here and hopefully can be helpful to somebody trying to learn here as well.
For the beginning brewers, I was told that as of March 2014 that at least in Santa Cruz, malt extract is available for purchase at Farmacia Telchi, Naturalia, and Casa Gourmet. I haven’t confirmed it, but if anyone has, please let me know. (Naturalia is a organic/health food store, so your best bet in other cities would probably be to look in places like this.)
For the all grain brewers like myself, Pilsner malt can be obtained by the 50 kg bag from Sureña, a brewery and maltster in Sucre. If I recall correctly, it cost me around Bs 250 for the bag of malt with shipping including. “Shipping” means they load it onto an overnight bus, text you the encomienda number and you pick it up the next day at the shipping/flota company’s encomienda receiving area. To purchase, you need to contact Sureña (their marketing director is Paola Alvarez, and she’ll get back to you pretty quick), and they’ll tell you the bank account number at the Banco Nacional Boliviano and the amount. You deposit the money and fax or scan and email them the deposit slip, and they’ll get the malt shipped. Easy.
Specialty malts! This is the real challenge of brewing in this country. Luckily there are copious amounts of resources on this on various blogs and forum posts on the interwebs, and here are my favorite posts that I’ve used to much success.
- Barleypopmaker used to have some really detailed posts, but he recently published an eBook on the topic and took down some of that info. You can still see the first post here. Still, it’s a cheap buy, so I’d recommend that too.
- Just search for roasting your own malt on your preferred homebrew forum. Lots of resources and often pictures as well.
Besides just specialty toasted grains, Bolivia hosts a huge number of specialty grains to explore and utilize, including quinoa, amaranth (amaranto), wheat (trigo) of various kinds, and oats (avena). If you’re looking for raw or flaked barley, you can use any of the barley (cebada) in the markets here (though you’ll need to mill it yourself).
In this case, you just need to know your water. Santa Cruz water is potable (I’m no expert on the rest of the country, but we always advise people to drink bottled water anywhere else), but extremely hard. My tests have shown a pH level of 8.4 (!), total alkalinity at 240 ppm, and total hardness at 200 ppm. So if you’re brewing anything light here in Santa Cruz you either need to use distilled water or treat the water. I’ve had a hard time tracking down water treatment additives, but Telchi pharmacy (just north of the Plaza 24 de Septiembre on Calle Libertad) carries lactic acid at Bs 50 by the liter (minimum). Also, kosher salt is pretty tough to find—everything is iodized, so be very careful with salt additions.
As I’ve mentioned in the series on developing a Bolivian style of brewing, I have not found hops publically for sale in this country, and I ask at every brewery I get in touch with. I did once find a Bolivian news article in 2012 highlighting hops for their health benefits, but beyond that…nada. So, anytime you or a friend goes to North America or Cordoba and Buenos Aires, Argentina, be sure to ask them to pack in hops for you. I usually pack it in by the ½ to 1 lb.
I suspect you could probably cultivate backyard hops pretty well if you’re willing to keep it well watered (especially in the highlands), but you’d need to bring in the rhizomes with you. And that could possibly be a bad idea in terms of importation. Nonetheless, I do honestly think somebody needs to get on this and start growing hops here. I’m convinced pretty much anything can grow in this country given how diverse it is.
I’ve not found any liquid yeast providers here in South America and all the Argentine HBSs only seem to carry dried yeasts (according to their websites). However, I successfully pitched a six month old (I’m low budget) Wyeast liquid culture that some friends checked in their baggage and flew here to Santa Cruz during summer. The key is to make a starter before pitching it into a full five gallon batch. If you’re flying into the altiplano you’re likely to have even better ambient temperatures for your luggage and probably be okay.
I’ve not yet tried to beg yeast off microbreweries here, but I have successfully harvested yeast from yeast at the bottom of the Ted’s Cerveceria Chala wit and Ñusta honey ale (the wit is most interesting). Likewise, the Stier bottles are unfiltered and you ought to be able to track down yeast from those, although I’m not sure about La Paz’s Saya. I’ve also harvested the yeast out of a bottle of La Paz’s Lipeña quinoa beer, although that yielded a super-tart ale (is it a lager yeast?).
Also, don’t ignore the imported beer section at (especially) Hipermaxi! Erdinger and Paulaner’s hefeweizens are usually unfiltered, as well as Fuller’s ESB and Chimay samplers were briefly stocked as well. These all offer sources of new kinds of yeast that you can’t import easily. Just remember to make a starter before pitching it.
One last source of yeast that I’ve not tried yet is the ambiguous brewer’s yeast (levadura cervecera) that most health food stores stock. It’s used for a variety of ailments, but it probably can be used for brewing as well. What you get, who knows? But, I see room for exploration!
Here in the land of quinoa, it’s a great place to explore gluten-free brewing, but not something I’ve done myself. Some possibilities to consider:
- Learn to malt quinoa. I’m not sure if quinoa has enough enzymes to achieve a full conversion, so it would be good to import enzymes to do this. Also, contact the brewers of Lipeña (La Paz) and Blumental (CBBA) and see how they brew their quinoa beers.
- Learn to malt sorghum (and amaranth?—I’m not certain this grain is gluten-free) and try to track down sorghum syrup. There’s a fair amount of sorghum grown here in Bolivia, and given the presence of many cane sugar plants and presses, you could always press your own. The miniature sugarcane press is one of those ubiquitous tourist trinkets of the lowlands.
- Look for rice syrup—there’s half a chance you might find this here given that this is a producing country, and there is a decent sized Japanese population here as well.
- Explore sweet potatoes as a fermentable carbohydrate. Again, you’d need enzymes to do this as well.
Being generally so low-budget, I’m not a huge gadget person, so this is where you get creative as you go along.
- Mills (molidor): I use a Corona mill that I picked up for around Bs 160. This means you have to hand mill everything, although I’ve had friends attach both drills and bikes to these for power. Get creative! I know that if you’re on a looser budget, you can probably find higher grade mills—it’s knowing where to look for them that might pose a challenge. I’d suggest asking at your local market where they get their flour and such. I think I once was told that Mercado Abastos here in Santa Cruz has a mill at it, but that’s hearsay.
- Mash tun: these are seriously easy to make by yourself. Big coolers are widely available at supermarkets or street markets, and can probably be found used if you’re on a budget. Then just take a diagram of the mash tun you want to make to your local ferreteria (hardware store) and they should be able to help you out. Mine is made completely from scrounged parts.
- Fermenters: I prefer brewing 1 gallon at a time, and I use the 4-5 liter wine jugs you can find around for that. If you brew a full 5 gallons, grab a big water-cooler water bottle.
- Rubber stoppers: import these, or please let me know if you find a local source
- Hosing (tubos and tuberia): most ferreterias in any market or on the street that carry hosing or plumbing supplies will have something useful. Just be sure to grab the diameter that matches up with your stoppers or bottle wand, etc.
- Racking cane: I still haven’t found anything comparable to what is used for plastic racking canes here, but I’ve not looked too hard and the one I brought still works. I’d recommend importing this for now, along with the little stopper on the end that keeps it from sucking yeast in.
- Bottling wand: haven’t seen anything like that here, but I’ve not looked in places that might have it.
- Bottles: Make a friend who owns a nightclub and beg 330 mL bottles of Huari or Pico de Plata or Paceña Black off them (most everything else is screwtop). I got lucky and found a case of 24 Huari bottles once that I cleaned up and used, but this is highly unusual. Also, the ubiquitous 625 mL bottles are all recycled, so they’re a bit harder to beg off people. Or just drink lots yourself, I suppose.
- Caps (tapas): I’m working on a source of these at the moment and will update this when/if I can find one. There are a fair number of small-scale artisanal groups that bottle things like hot sauce that you can find in supermarkets that I’ll have to try and ask.
- Capper: your best bet is probably to import it.
- Keg systems: Well, I’ve not moved into kegging yet, but it seems to be a logical next step. Unfortunately, keg systems are quite rare down here in Santa Cruz, although they can be found more commonly in Sucre, Cochabamba, and La Paz.
Questions for outsourcing?
- Does anyone know if there are homebrew shops or shops that cater to the wine industry in either Santa Cruz or Tarija, the seat of the Bolivian wine industry?
Shoot me an email at brewolero [at] gmail if you’ve got any ideas.
Updated 07 July 2013