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Progress and a New Order: Taking Cues from the US, Brazilian Brewers Forge Ahead

Feature by | Mar 2015 | Issue #98

Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch speaks to a crowd in Curitiba, Brazil, in 2012.

There is an undeniable American influence over what’s being brewed in Brazil. South America’s most populous country has never had as many American-style IPAs or other hoppy beers as it does now. Although there are no official numbers (the new Brazilian Craft Beer Association is still in its infancy), it’s easy enough to estimate based on a bit of history.

The late 1990s and early 2000s effectively mark the start of craft brewing here. At the time, most of the country’s production was influenced by German brewing traditions. Premium lagers, Weissbiers and Dunkels dominated. The only widely available IPA was Cervejaria Colorado’s Indica, a 7 percent ABV beer brewed with Cascade hops, English malts and, more recently, the addition of Brazilian rapadura sugar.

By the mid 2000s, some Belgian-inspired recipes began to appear. In 2009, importers brought the first craft beers from the US and American brewers and beer specialists started to visit Brazil, leading to collaborative recipes and an exchange of knowledge. Carlos Lima, a Brazilian beer entrepreneur, was one of the organizers who used the crowdfunding site Social Beers to bring Sixpoint’s Shane Welch to Brazil in the spring of 2014 to brew an American-style Imperial IPA called Sexta-Feira (Friday). The list of brewing luminaries from the US doesn’t end there, though. In recent years, Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery, Greg Koch from Stone Brewing, Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal and Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing have all spent time in Brazil.

“Just search for what happened in USA in 2013 and 2014… it will be the same in 2015 for Brazil,” says Lima when asked about his predictions for the year ahead. The statement, given its directness, might shock some Brazilian brewers. Others would consider the scenario he describes a dream come true. Either way, it reveals a sense of optimism about the challenges ahead more than a simple desire to emulate trends in another country.

For the last five years, in spite of high taxes and long shipping times, American beers have found their way into the hands of curious Brazilian drinkers and motivated Brazilian brewers. While Lima hopes his country will evolve naturally, and establish a national festival and competition like the Great American Beer Festival, he’s also concerned that Brazilians are “purely looking to what [Americans] are doing and replicating here, not being really creative.” Now though, a growing number of Brazilian brewers are beginning to wonder if they can take their own products beyond imitation by adding regional ingredients with distinctive aromas and flavors. It’s a promising start.

Gilberto Tarantino, a sales representative and brand manager for Rogue, Anderson Valley and Jolly Pumpkin, started importing from American craft breweries in 2009, soon after a Brewers Association group visited São Paulo. “I told them of the idea to import the beer, but they said it would not be possible, as Brazilians might not like bitter beer,” he recalls. “Even though that same year I started [making] contacts with producers. Anderson Valley, Rogue and Flying Dog were the first ones to be interested. But they considered the bureaucracy posed by Brazilian law very complicated—and they still do.”

At present, a few bigger American brewing companies like Sierra Nevada started arriving in Brazil, but other sought-after brands such as Stone, Firestone Walker and Dogfish Head still fall into the category of wishful thinking. In the case of Sierra Nevada, establishing an import relationship was preceded by months of negotiation, two test shipments for the Mondial de la Bière festival in Rio de Janeiro, and the visit of Ken Grossman’s older brother Steve to São Paulo. “Today, the offer of hoppy beers in Brazil is big and the consumers love the bitterness and creativity of the American school,” says Tarantino.

“Are Brazilian craft brewers influenced by US ones? Of course!” exclaims Pete Slosberg, creator of Pete’s Wicked Ale and a frequent visitor to Brazil over the last few years. “What country isn’t these days? The US keeps pushing the envelope.”

It was also in 2009 that author, brewer and Siebel Institute professor Randy Mosher went to Brazil for the first time. “There was a group of craft breweries with very orthodox Germanic traditions and low-hop recipes that were intended for a very timid audience,” he remembers. “There were also a few new-style craft brewers and many homebrewers, quite a few of [whom] had big dreams of going commercial.”

As Mosher observed, the first signs of America’s influence on Brazilian brewing appeared in the last five years, as more and more IPAs entered the market. Some of them unabashedly advertise their inspiration, like Cervejaria Invicta’s 1000 IBU Imperial IPA (which shares a name with a DIPA from Mikkeller), Cervejaria Seasons’ Holy Cow West Coast Style IPA (made in collaboration with Green Flash) F#%*ing American Beer from GaudenBier; or Die Fizzy Yellow, from Cervejaria Way, named after the fizzy yellow lagers targeted in a speech by Greg Koch during his visit to Brazil.

At last year’s Brazilian Beer Festival in Blumenau, not only the country’s largest event, but also a lab for new releases and experimental batches, three other noteworthy trends took shape. First was the appearance of low-alcohol session beers. Second, a few breweries brought barrel-aged versions of their year-round releases. And finally, Brazil’s first sour beers appeared, which are expected to grow in popularity in the months ahead. If this latest development already has the attention of savvy beer fans—outshining their interest in traditional styles—then it stands to reason that more products applying local ingenuity are on the horizon.

“Most other countries copy,” says Slosberg. “The real question is what countries are trying to put their own spin on it.” In his opinion, Brazil falls into this category. He cites companies like Colorado, Way and Amazon Beer, which combine native fruits such as the cherry-like acerola and the tropical soursop or graviola with both traditional and sour styles. They’re also barrel aging with local wood like the indigenous Amburana.

Mosher agrees with Slosberg’s assessment. “When the craft beer movement started in North America, we looked to Europe and found a meaningful beer culture, lots of variety and many fascinating ideas,” he says. “For Brazil it is the same, but there is also the new craft brew scene in the US, which can bring some sense of how large [Brazil’s] could become.” Brooklyn’s Oliver is even more bullish. “Brazilian beer culture will show more originality than many others,” he says, “and will do it more quickly.”

Brooklyn’s Garrett Oliver, center, at Cervejaria Wäls.

Brooklyn’s Garrett Oliver, center, at Cervejaria Wäls.

During a 2012 visit to São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, Oliver brewed a Saison with Cervejaria Wäls that incorporated yeast from Brooklyn and several hundred liters of garapa, or fresh sugar cane juice. They dubbed it Saison de Caipira. Koch helped Cervejaria Bodebrown develop an IPA with cacao nibs called Cacau, Brynildson played a role in defining Colorado’s recipe for Vixnu Imperial IPA with rapadura, and Strumke worked with no less than four Brazilian breweries to make a starfruit Saison, a jelly palm fruit Saison, a cashew fruit and mango Saison fermented with Brettanomyces, and a rye ale aged in Amburana barrels.

There are, however, obstacles to maintaining this American influence on the Brazilian beer scene. Chief among them is a steady supply of fresh hops; without any commercial cultivation of its own, the country is entirely dependent on imported varieties. “Many Brazilian brewers want to make American-inspired recipes, but not everyone is worried about hop freshness,” says Tarantino. “Releasing an IPA for itself is not a sales assurance anymore.”

This year the main concern among brewers is taxes—a recent federal change has increased the amounts charged by the government. “The beer scene is making much progress from the variety of beer perspective, but it appears not so much on regulations and taxes,” Slosberg notes. “Distribution is still limited and there is a lot of old and oxidized beer out there.”

Against this complex backdrop, Mosher believes that the best Brazilian brewers can do is to aim for a blend of influences, local and foreign. “Make beers that make sense internationally, but come from the deep heart of what it means to be Brazilian,” he says. “In art school, you sometimes learn by copying the Old Masters, but the idea is that eventually you will learn to make your own unique expression.”

In a year that has started under the shadow of economic uncertainty for craft producers, creativity in the brewhouse paired with a desire to energize and expand the consumer base will be crucial for Brazil’s budding beer culture. Even as they watch what goes into American beer bottles and cans, Brazilian brewers must also pay attention to what moves the culture itself. “Craft brewing will succeed because of the strength of its community,” says Mosher. “And Brazil is in a great position because people seem to have a very easy time coming together.”