Drinking Beer at the End of the World: Part 2 of Tim Webb’s Odyssey to an Unknown Beer Land

Feature by | May 2010 | Issue #40

I have a faintly convincing personal theory that Argentina’s beer revolution has gone virtually unnoticed because the locals want it kept quiet. This is a nation of expats who have fallen upon a fabulous place for a permanent vacation and do not intend to spoil it by attracting too many visitors. You may think this is nonsense, but the Argentine has form.

Most Argentinean families can trace their roots back to Spain, Italy, Germany and the Old World, so wine, as well as beer, is in an inherited must-do. Stories that it was the success of Chilean wine that prompted Argentina to have a go at making some are hogwash. Many of the 800 or so wineries around the city of Mendoza have produced great wines for over a century, but their owners saw no purpose in sending these abroad to squander on foreigners.

It was the currency collapse of 1989 that forced government and businesses to find premium goods to export, which opened their secret treasure trove to the outside world.

For beer, the same crash sparked new ideas about how to make a living. Big lager brands may be shiny and reliable, but they are not exactly fun, so dreamers, misfits and visionaries stepped up to start making beers for the more discerning drinker. Twenty years later, Argentina’s craft beers are its best-kept secret.

I heard about this quiet revolution a couple of years ago, but finding good quality information was difficult. Local websites are out of date or patchy, the usual international sites were wafer thin and even the ever-reliable beerme.com seemed unusually hit-and-miss.

On our Vietnam trip in 2007, I was left to discover what I could without guidance, assuring my better half that beer finding was not a priority on our annual vacation—though her streak of beer aficionado protects me from total intolerance.

Argentina is easier terrain for the beer explorer, but it is not a country that lends itself to a neat pass-through. For starters, it is massive—only seven nations are larger—though its population barely tops 40 million and one-third of those huddle in greater Buenos Aires. Then there is the ever-changing scene. In most countries, the motto for new breweries is “First survive, everything else is luxury.” Not so in Argentina, where the attrition rate for new brewery companies is almost as high as the prodigious rate of new ventures. Failure, it appears, is definitely an option.

Searching for beer ends up being like trying to find wild fruits in a vast, unexplored rain forest. You have to keep your eyes peeled. Yet for all its frontier feel, this is a beer culture with rules. From the smallest to the largest, the product range of any brewery must include a Blonde called “Rubia,” a dark beer called “Negra” and a Pale Ale called “Roja”—say “rocker.”

This color code seems obligatory, though the styles allowed in each category are limitless and character can range from boring-as-Bud to as daring as a ski jumper on acid. The Negra might be a medium-sweet Brown Ale, a strong, acridly dry Stout, a sound imitation of a London-style Porter or even something intentionally aged with a vinous edge. Roja can encompass a distinctly American-hopped IPA, some type of Franco-Celtic Red Ale, a recognizably regional sub-type of British Bitter or an exaggerated Münchener lager. The brewery’s Rubia is likely to be its top seller but could be a passably Bohemian Pilsner, a wannabe Kölsch, a spicy Belgian or, if you are lucky, one from the home-grown style, dubbed “Pampas blond” by one brewer. This last is light in color and gravity but succeeds in blending the bitter with the sweet by adding hops with a citrus tang.

We spotted a few wheat beers—light and dark, spiced and not—an Imperial Stout or two, Barleywines, honey beers and Tripels too. There are around 100 new breweries—maybe more—producing 400 craft beers at minimum. We got to taste around 40, so barely touched the surface. Although a few brands, like the long-established Otro Mundo and brassy newcomer Antares, have wide distribution, most are found only in their area of origin.

Ours was not a scheduled beer trip, thank goodness. Glad-handing brewers and having to endure bath-sized volumes of marketing seepage as a substitute for free thought upsets my karma. This was two tired professionals on their annual break trying to balance wildlife spotting, glacier-snapping, fine dining and reading a novel a day. We took our beery pleasures as we found them, in Buenos Aires for the sheer scale of it, in Mendoza as a break from wine, in the lake district for the mountainous backdrop, in El Calafate for the spectacular glaciation and cool locals, and in Tierra del Fuego to say that we had drunk beer made at “the end of the world.”

We enjoyed the Cerveceria Beagle’s three Fuegian ales on draft and in bottle in Ushuaia, while looking out over the Beagle Channel. This sheltered port is home to the world’s most southerly brewery and the base for cruise boats that head to the Antarctic. In the art deco street cafés of Mendoza, we tried anything we could find called “Jerome”—the most adventurous beer range we found. In Buenos Aires, we visited the American-style Buller brewpub, next to the Recoleta Cemetery in Recoleta.

Few of the beers we sampled were flawed, most were good and some were exceptional, the most surprising being those made at the back of the La Matera restaurant, on Avenida Libertador in El Calafate.

All three Sholken beers were good, but the Rubia spoke of beer-making genius. Into a basic Blonde, brewer Federico Marpegán had piled floral and citrus hop presence, assertive bitterness, a full-grain body way beyond its strength and that je ne sais quoi that is the mark of a brewing legend. I had to see the workplace of this giant among men!

Well. He grinds the malt in a piece of plastic tubing, using a house drill with a special attachment. He brews in a large saucepan. He ferments the sieved wort in upturned water fountain bottles. He cannot brew when the chef is preparing vegetables. “I get away with it because I make sure everything is sterile and I use whole hops from El Bolsón,” he explained as I rapidly revised my orgasmic first impressions. But there, in a way, is the point.

Argentine craft brewers do not make a living by showing off at beer festivals or whooping up website contributors. For them, “the market” is regular bars and bistros that keep two or three better brews to be drunk on the terraces by young and old, male and female, city folk and gauchos, few of whom have heard the term “craft beer.”

If luck and perfect makeshift technique remain with him, the chances are that Federico’s Sholken beers will make a name in the town. If he sells enough to local stores and restaurants, he will move to the industrial estate and buy some all-steel kit like his teacher uses in his brewhouse, at the other end of the internet, 1,200 miles away.

The job of an Argentinean craft brewer is to make great beer for ordinary people. And that, I suspect, will guarantee their survival. They do not depend on foreign admirers, which is why we are made welcome. 

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