Craft beer revolution trickles down to South America

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

Image source, Copa Cervezas de America
Image caption,
Brazilian beer sommelier Fernanda Meybom savours a beer

Think of Latin American alcohol and you are likely to think of wine and spirits.

Mexico has its tequila, Cuba has rum, Brazilians drink caipirinhas and in Peru they make pisco. In Chile and Argentina, the tipple of choice is often a cabernet sauvignon or a malbec.

You are less likely to think of craft beer.

But slowly, surely, the beer revolution that is so well established in northern Europe and North America is starting to trickle southwards.

Across Latin America, small breweries are opening up, offering alternatives to the mass-produced brands of lagers.

These emerging microbreweries account for only a tiny fraction of overall beer sales, but that fraction is expanding quickly.

Image caption,
Craft beers can be bought in Santiago

"Sales of craft beer in Latin America are growing at between 20% and 40% a year, depending on which country you're in," says Daniel Trivelli, president of Copa Cervezas de America, one of the region's biggest craft beer contests.

"Here in Chile, sales are growing at 25% and craft beers have around 2% of the overall beer market. We have around 250 craft beer breweries here, producing around 1,500 different beers."

Traditionally, Latin Americans have tended to drink light low-alcohol lagers, in part due to the hot climate across much of the region.

But that is starting to change as people acquire a taste for stronger, more complex brews.

"In Brazil, despite its economic crisis, craft beer sales are growing at 40%," Mr Trivelli says.

"They still represent only around 0.8% of all beer sales but in a country of 220 million people who consume 69 litres of beer per capita each year that's still significant."

Image caption,
A difficult job - a judge working hard at the Copa Cerveza de America

Brazilian brewers are also starting to experiment with their country's dazzling array of tropical fruits.

"The Brazilians could take over the world in beer if they use their unique ingredients," says Kristen England, a US beer expert and a judge at the recent Copa Cervezas de America contest staged in Chile.

"The Brazilians have fruits we've never heard of in the US."

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Fernanda Meybom, a Brazilian beer sommelier, says some Brazilian brewers age their beers in barrels previously used to store cachaca, the powerful sugar-cane spirit which forms the basis of the country's national cocktail, the caipirinha.

"It gives the beer a unique taste," she says. "Of course, in Brazil we're more famous for our cachaca and caipirinha than our beer, but there's room for everyone. You can make a really good craft beer using traditional Brazilian elements."

And it is not just the Brazilians who are experimenting.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Exotic fruit can be used in the brewing process

"I was in Ecuador two months ago and I tried a beer made by a buddy," Mr England says. "His mum makes jam from passion fruit and chilli peppers and he took the idea and made it into a beer.

"It was absolutely wonderful."

The recent Copa Cervezas de America brought together craft beer producers from 16 countries across the hemisphere, including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The judges sampled over 1,000 beers, ranging from dark porters and stouts to pale ales, Irish red ales, barley wines, German lagers, fruit beers, spiced beers and pilsners.

Among the brews that won prizes were Mango Magnifico, Subcomandante, Cacau Bomb, Funky Joseph and Backwoods Bastard.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Hops grow best in climates cooler than those found in much of South America

Brazilian craft beers took 79 of the 175 medals on offer, followed by US beers, which still tend to set the standard.

"Every year I come down to South America and the beers get better and better," says Gordon Strong, president of the beer judge certification programme, an association of 10,000 judges worldwide.

"It's good for people here to compare their beers to those in the United States, where we've been doing this for longer.

"They're still maybe 20 years behind the US but they're learning fast."


The craft beer industry still faces big challenges in Latin America.

In Brazil, Ms Meybom says, brewers have to pay a plethora of taxes and are campaigning to get them simplified and reduced.

Most countries in the region struggle to grow hops due to the climate and have to import them from the US and Germany, leading to a deterioration in quality.

"In South America things tend to be slower and your fresh produce can be sitting on the dock for two weeks, three weeks, in the middle of summer," says Kristen England, the US beer expert.

Image caption,
Santiago's best-known Irish pub Flannery's produces several craft beers

But in southern Chile and Argentina, where the climate is cooler, brewers are increasingly growing their own raw materials.

"We source all our ingredients locally apart from the hops and yeast," says Kevin Szot, head of the Szot microbrewery near Santiago.

"The industry is still in its infancy here but it's better than it was 10 years ago when I started.

"Back then, no one understood why the hell I wanted to make a non-industrial beer."

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