Patagonia’s beer pilgrimage
El Bolson, in Argentina's Patagonia region. (Eric Gronning)
Northern Patagonia’s lake district draws plenty of travellers who come for breathtaking scenery and outdoor pursuits in the Andes mountains. But this hiking, fly fishing and skiing hot spot in Argentina has another key ingredient that makes for a unique visit: beer.
Argentina might be widely known for its red wine - and for good reason - but craft brewers in this region have been turning out German-style and specialty beers for years. And for those who have a palate for hops, malt and wheat, stumbling upon this pocket of beer heaven in the land of Malbecs is a welcome surprise.
In the mid- to late 19th Century, German immigrants brought a love of beer to this region. Today, the town of El Bolsón, about 80 miles south of the main tourist centre of Bariloche, may be the hops capital of the country. A man named Otto Tipp, who came to El Bolsón in 1890, started the first brewery here, it is believed, and taught area residents how to grow hops (called lúpulo in Spanish). The relaxing, lush, green valley between rugged mountains has become fertile ground for beer's main ingredient. The 1970s influx of hippies also helped usher in the town's artsy, laid-back culture where craft breweries currently thrive. There is even an annual hops festival in February celebrating the pride of El Bolsón.
To sample the wares, visit the craft market, held three days a week in the Plaza Pagano in the centre of town, where vendors sell beers, handiwork, jams and food. Or visit the town's brew pubs and restaurants.
Among the local offerings are several beers from Cerveceria El Bolsón. In addition to its standard line-up of a pilsner-style (rubia), extra dark bock (negra extra) and wheat (trigo) beers, the brewery also produces a chili pepper beer (con aji picante). The spicy cerveza brings the heat so order a cooling chaser with it. The brewery also serves up seasonal brews such as a dark and smoky winter triple bock (negra de invierno) as well as a line of gluten-free beers for those with celiac disease. You can order drafts and small samples at the brewery's spacious pub, which looks like an indoor beer garden. In the late afternoon, the windows provide a beautiful view of the valley. Watch the sunlight move up one mountain as it sets behind another while sipping a delightful lager.
El Bolsón is also known for its flavourful berries, and they are featured in many craft brews here. Cerveceria El Bolsón has fine fruit brews made with raspberry, cherry or cassis and a sparkling raspberry drink, for special occasions.
The Otto Tipp brewery, named for the beer pioneer of the region, produces a nice and cloudy wheat beer. It cheekily calls its pilsner "Gringa" and its stout "Mulata." The brewery Araucana offers a pilsner that is dry, light, slightly fruity and just a tad bitter. And there are many lesser-known brands of cervezas artesanales (craft beers) at the market or in convenience stores, which are well-stocked with local offerings. Pick up beers from Parapapoto, Los Ilegales or Piltri breweries; the last makes a very strong porter and is named after Mount Piltriquitrón, which looms over El Bolsón.
There are other microbreweries in several towns in the area, including Bariloche, which is home to the brewery Cervecería Blest. And you do not have to make the trek to this part of Argentina just for a refreshing ale - after all, it is the region's forests, lakes and mountain peaks that summon most to northern Patagonia. The satisfying local brews are a welcomed bonus.