Not (Just) for Tourists: Patagonia’s Beer Boom

Beer Without Borders by | Mar 2017 | Issue #122
Brothers Guido, Bruno, and Franco Ferrari, founders of Bariloche brewpub Cerveza Berlina. | Photo courtesy of Cerveza Berlina

Bariloche doesn’t feel like Argentina. Surrounded by mountains and hugging the shore of the imposing Nahuel Huapi, a 23-mile-long glacial lake, the picturesque Patagonian city famed for its Swiss and German influence is full of half-timbered buildings, chocolate makers, and fondue restaurants.

More than 900 miles southwest of Argentina’s frenetic capital Buenos Aires, there’s another reason San Carlos de Bariloche feels different than the rest of the country: beer.

In Malbec-mad Argentina, robust red wine has pride of place. Argentine beer offerings have historically been limited, with the company that owns Quilmes, the ubiquitous but uninspiring national lager, commanding 71 percent of the market. But while red wine may still be king, beer is no longer the court jester.

Craft brewing sales grew 50 percent in 2015 and in pockets across the country close to 400 microbreweries are quenching Argentina’s newfound thirst for artisan brews.

Bariloche is one such hotspot. It has at least a dozen brewpubs—serving a population of roughly 150,000—that cater to thirsty tourists and locals embracing a new taste.

Martin Boan, a beer sommelier from the Centro de Cata de Cerveza (Beer Tasting Center), says there has been a recent boom in craft brewing. “The change in the consumption of beer in Argentina has been noticeable for 10 years,” he says. “First it was gradual and in the last five years it has been exponential.”

According to Boan, Bariloche’s location gives it a natural edge in beer production. “Bariloche has very pure water sources and is next to the largest hop-producing area in the country (El Bolsón), which are two great advantages for brewing,” he says.

German immigrant Otto Tipp is credited with introducing hops to the region in 1900, adding to a cultural legacy in Bariloche that includes Bavarian architecture and food (as well as Nazis—some of whom found refuge in the city after World War II). But while some brewers have looked to Europe for inspiration, a focus on local ingredients makes much of the beer here distinctly Argentine.

Bruno Ferrari, brewmaster at Cerveza Berlina, discovered his passion after trying a friend’s homebrew. “I understood that beer was made by man and not by machine,” he says. “And that it was as possible as making bread in my own home. From there I never stopped.”

Ferrari studied brewing at Berlin’s VLB-Technische Universität before returning to Bariloche to set up a brewpub with brothers Guido and Franco. Their business utilizes “the purest water on the planet” to create beers like a Strong Golden Ale made with juniper, a Nitro Foreign Stout, and a Pumpkin Ale in a nod to his daughter’s favorite food. With a lakefront beach on one side and a vast carpet of forest stretching up a mountain slope on the other, Berlina’s brewpub is one of the more spectacular spots to stop for a drink.

In general, Bariloche’s brewpubs are set up for a climate that lures Argentine high school graduates and hikers in the summer, skiers in the winter, and backpackers en route to the Patagonian wilderness year-round.

Wesley Brewery, a short walk uphill from the Civic Center, has an open fireplace for the colder months and picnic tables with views of the lake for when the sun shines strongly enough to sit outside. The brewery produces about 1,056 gallons (4,000 liters) a week and its five regular beers include an intense Double IPA that somehow becomes more drinkable with each sip.

Like Berlina, it’s a family operation, run by brewer Santiago Wesley, his father, and two brothers. The business is named for Santiago’s grandfather Eduardo Wesley who came to Bariloche in the 1950s and began brewing at home.

“When we started brewing eight years ago we used all his old equipment,” Santiago says. “Now we are growing about 50 percent every year. Our main customers are local people. We brew first for locals … tourists are important, but locals drink beer all year round.”

Both demographics can be found at Cerveza Manush, a popular two-story gastropub housed in one of Bariloche’s oldest buildings. And with up to 16 beers on tap, from an Irish Cream Ale to a Pale Ale with local Mapuche hops, visitors will need to be more specific than “Dos cervezas por favor.”

When it opened in 1989, Blest was not only the first brewpub in town, it was also the first in the country. So as a pioneer, it has witnessed a sea change in drinker attitudes. “At first it was really difficult because beer meant Quilmes, people didn’t know there were different styles and colors,” says manager Leonardo Brizuela. “[Then] people began to taste different kinds of beer, and understand that lager is not the only beer you can drink. We had to teach the customers they don’t just buy ‘a beer,’ they must choose it.”

Martin Boan acknowledges that neighboring Brazil, which has also embraced the craft brewing movement, has won more international awards and offers the most variety on the continent, but points out that its population of more than 210 million is four times that of Argentina. Besides, he says, Argentine cerveceros don’t mind a challenge, and the first is in their own backyard.

“I think Argentine beer can become as popular as wine,” Boan insists. “The Argentine is a great consumer of wines by tradition, but today, if you look at the range of beers on the market, [we are] also [becoming great consumers] of beer.”