Business travels routinely take me south of the border and, as any self-respecting peregrine beer aficionado would do, I look into the local craft scene to see what’s, ahem, brewing. That’s a fairly easy proposition when heading to, say, England or the Netherlands, but has been nothing short of Sisyphean on trips to Mexico and beyond. I was teased by the likes of advertisements from Bohemia touting a chocolate stout that I was never able to find, and a small brewpub in Bogotá, Colombia that largely fell short of anything resembling an artisanal effort.
So it was surprising to find a thriving craft beer subculture in the only nominally post-Chavez Venezuela of all places, given the volatile economic milieu and rampant black-market inflation.
“There are other brakes on growth, too: price controls and government bullying have done so much damage to private [Venezuelan] businesses that it is hard to see them responding to devaluation by investing.” [Economist]
But prior to my trip I was able to find through social media quite a number of craft brewers, mostly based in Caracas and, to a lesser extent, Maracaibo and other major cities. The furthest along in the growth process, with at least some modest distribution, seemed to be the Caraqueños. Since most of my time was spent in Maracaibo, I thought this would become yet another fruitless trip. Given the vagaries of Venezuelan air travel, however, the best way for me to get out of the country ended up being an overnight stay in Caracas, a proposition that markedly improved my chances at tracking down cervezas artesanales.
In Latin America, you tend to find the same Vienna Lagers and Pilsners that you find everywhere else, like Tecate, Club Colombia, or, in Venezuela, Polar Light. And beer laws so favor major conglomerates that it’s nearly impossible for any craft breweries to gain footing. Communicating with several such cerveceros, I found that there were only a couple of bars in Caracas where I might find their offerings. The best spot seemed to be Pueblues, a blues- and jazz-centric pub serving unique pizzas and craft beer, but it’s located in the El Hatillo neighborhood, clear on the other side of Caracas from where I was staying. Two other spots were right next to each other, downtown in the Centro San Ignacio, a multi-story open air mall. I had been warned against taking unofficial and unregulated taxis, but I was on a mission, and the driver I flagged down (a young man likely just picking up some cash before going out on the town) was friendly enough, bemoaning the economic situation in Venezuela and saying the only benefits anybody gets are the gas subsidies. He explained he could fill up his car for less than the price of bottled water – which is a comment on the prices of both. I was dropped off and sat down to dinner, only to be informed that neither place had received any recent deliveries from local breweries. I supped dejectedly on some tapas from Montaitos (delicious though they were) and returned to my hotel, tweeting out another setback in my quest for Latin American craft beer. One of the breweries I had been communicating with saw my plaintive tweet, responding that he happened to be in the area of my hotel and would swing by – a suggestion I took with no little trepidation. But going downstairs, I met Alexander Jimenez from the Norte del Sur brewery, who offered me a complimentary bottle from the deliveries he had in the back of his car – a sort of “pay it forward” act of generosity the Venezuelan craft beer community calls “Birra Cooltura,” a sort of worldly Spanish play on “beer culture.” Observing the social media activity between brewers, retailers, and consumers on the #birracooltura hashtag, it seems as positive and pervasive a sentiment as the guiding principle of the futuristic world born of Bill & Ted’s Wyld Stallyns: Be excellent to each other.
It turns out Sr. Jimenez is the brewmaster at Norte del Sur, and they brew at least 9 styles regularly, averaging about 600 liters monthly (<160 gal). Facing even tougher regulations than Texas brewers faced as Open the Taps took to legislative redress, the Venezuelan brewers have formed la Asociación de Cerveceros Artesanales de Venezuela (ACAV). At the time of my trip, they counted among them 58 people with 30 registered brands, only 10 of them producing commercially, averaging between them about 120 liters monthly (<32 gal). The problem, according to Jimenez, is the many barriers to market entry for craft brewers, “for example, the production level to be considered artisanal cannot surpass 20,000 liters annually [<5,300 gal, ~168 bbl], otherwise it’s considered industrial and various prohibitive taxes and controls apply.” When you realize that, according to the Brewers Association, the limit on “craft” in the US is now 6,000,000 barrels annually, you see what an uphill climb they face in Venezuela. “So there is no business plan to support a microbrewery, nor in the law does there exist the concept of a brewpub. It is prohibited to brew and sell in the same location.” For that reason, they’re producing much less than 20,000 liters because it has to be a part-time endeavor, unable to generate operational self-sufficiency. Further, obtaining permits to sell their beer is an extremely bureaucratic process. So how, might you ask, do these brewers get their wares to retailers? “Actually, we’re producing illegally, and the locations that sell our beers risk infractions. But we also give brewing workshops so that more people can learn to brew their own beer.” They’ve received a lot of support from local businesses willing to carry their beers, and they just want to spread their birra cooltura and awareness of the craft industry – but that publicity can be a double-edged sword. I was hesitant to write about any of this, lest Norte del Sur and the other brewers risk drawing attention to themselves from the authorities. But Jimenez says, “You can write what you want, there’s no problem with explaining how we’re producing our beer – on the contrary, it will force them to take us into account. We want to be legal, and do things the right way.“
Of the several beer styles Sr. Jimenez had in the back of his truck, I chose the Carbone Coffee Stout, which is brewed in the style of what in the U.S. we might call a “Breakfast Stout,” something akin to the seasonal released by Founders Brewing every fall. It’s an Oatmeal Stout, with the oats accounting for about 5% of the malt bill according to Jimenez, that has whole beans from Venezuela’s Carbone coffee company added as an infusion to the final 10 minutes of the boil. Visible yeast sediment settles to the bottom, as Norte del Sur is effectively bottle-conditioning their beer. Oats have traditionally been added to stouts as a means of obtaining an incredibly smooth mouthfeel, yielding names like the Velvet Merlin from Firestone Walker, a beer that also incorporates coffee. When I finally rallied a few other beer nerds to give it a try, we sat down at the always accommodating D&T Drive Inn. The only criticism we had was that, generally, a brewer of coffee beer will add cold-pressed java after primary fermentation as the brew settles and builds flavor in secondary. Adding whole beans to the boil, however, seemed to overcook them a little, making the coffee flavor a little more bitter than we would have preferred, like the pot that’s been sitting around all morning at the office. On the other hand, the oatmeal certainly left a smoother body, interrupted only by the carbonation of bottle conditioning. Together with the comparatively low 6% ABV, I found it more reminiscent of a dark-roasted Dry Irish Stout than a typical Coffee or Breakfast Stout, but in the end, it came off like a promising homebrew, a complex style for a nascent brewing industry to undertake. As the Venezuelan independent brewing culture matures, the future looks bright indeed, with the likes of Norte del Sur at the forefront.
Indeed, la industria venezolana has matured already. Where once the ACAV had only 30 members, a scant few months later it counted 69 members and 42 brands – phenomenal growth for an industry with numerous cards stacked against it. They recently held their first beer garden and festival called Zulia Fest, featuring a great number of Venezuelan craft brewers, which could be easily mistaken for Portland or Asheville or any craft beer festival we might find stateside. The #birracooltura is obviously flourishing, and it’s inspiring to see such a collective, mutually encouraging group of artisans supporting each other and paying it forward such that the rising tide lifts all boats. It’s a sentiment that pervades, or should, the craft beer movement around the globe as small, artisanal brewers claw some market share for themselves. Because remember, no matter how much a US brewery like Boston Beer (Sam Adams) or New Belgium or Sierra Nevada might produce, they are still small fish in a big pond, as the entire craft segment claims only 7.8% of the total beer market by barrels according to the Brewers Association. But judging by some of the conversations and articles one reads – debates over definitions, the lionization of certain breweries and styles – the US craft beer industry and its acolytes could learn something from the Venezuelans. I hope to return the spirit of #birracooltura to Caracas one day, hopefully with a bottle of Jester King or Saint Arnold in tow.
One hears, bandied about in craft circles, “Beer people are good people.” That’s largely the case, but more importantly, in all of life’s pursuits, be excellent to each other.
(Continue a página 2 para leer en español, o haga clic bajo los perfiles de Twitter siguientes.)
Follow the Venezuelan craft beer scene via these accounts, or the #birracooltura hashtag. A list of additional ACAV members and their Twitter handles can be found here, on the CervezArte blog.
— Cerveza Artesanal VE (@ACAVzla) August 10, 2014
Este fin de semana estrenamos birra en el Hatillo, nuestra Dry Hop Pale Ale con mucho lúpulo en… http://t.co/GdJTRxsQeQ
— Old Dan´s (@OldDans) June 13, 2014
— Cerveza CACRI (@CervezaCacri) August 16, 2014
— Cerveza Pilger (@cervezapilger) June 19, 2014