Ecuador Taps Into Cerveza Artesanal

Beer Without Borders by | Jul 2014 | Issue #90

David Jervis of Monkey’s Brew

For a country roughly the size of Nevada, Ecuador’s biodiversity is astounding. Before the sun sets on the small South American republic, its rays will have touched Amazonian jungles, Andean glaciers, Pacific coast beaches and the world-famous Galapagos Islands. A similar degree of diversity is also present in the nation’s culinary traditions, with one very notable exception: beer.

For the last 50 years, Ecuador’s beer market has been so dominated by Pilsener and Club Premium, two brands owned by SABMiller, that ordering a beer is often reduced to an “either or” question: which Pale Lager to drink today?

“That’s why I started brewing beer. I was completely tired of the beers here,” says David Jervis, founder and brewer of Monkey’s Brew, one of a handful of new breweries that have sprung up recently. In the capital of Quito alone, more than a dozen breweries now exist in a city that just a few years ago had but one lonely brewpub. After decades of mass-marketed beers dressed up in colorful labels, a young craft movement has transformed a desert into an oasis of flavor.

Not unlike the United States, craft breweries in Ecuador can’t keep up with consumer demand and are expanding as quickly as their bank accounts will allow. Only two years old, Andes Brewing Company epitomizes this growth with its expansion from a 1/2-barrel to a 3-barrel system, making it a mid-sized craft brewer for Quito. Their remodeled brewery, in an industrial neighborhood in the northern part of the city, will also eventually include an automated bottling line.

“The last two years have been a really big movement for craft beer in Quito,” says Julian Espinosa, the founder and owner of Andes. Since he opened his brewery in 2012, Espinosa has consistently sold out of all five of his regularly available beer styles: a Red Ale, an IPA, a Blonde, a Stout and a seasonal Double Red Ale. Espinosa and his two full-time employees hand bottle and self-distribute about 70 gallons of beer a week; he hopes to multiply that number by five when his automated bottling machine and new mash tuns are up and running.

Andes Brewing was recently recognized by the Ecuadorian government with a social responsibility and business innovation award, a somewhat ironic accolade considering Espinosa’s brewery, like most craft breweries in Quito, operates on the margins of some of the country’s permitting procedures.

“No one has the right permits, especially not a year ago,” says Nathan Keffer of Bandido Brewing, a nanobrewery opened by three Americans in the back of a part-time chapel. “None of us are functioning illegally, but we are functioning in a gray area. Everyone brewing in Ecuador has permits but the permits are not yet specific to the production of beer like they are in the US. We all still have to go through health inspection, fire inspection and environmental impact inspections,” he says.

Determined to succeed, Keffer and Espinosa founded a craft beer guild with several other small breweries to try to petition Ecuador’s bureaucrats for change, but decades of cheap lager dominance have left lawmakers wary of unpasteurized and unfiltered beer.

“Craft beer in Ecuador is new, and the political and legal environment here is similar to what it was for craft beer in the US during the early ’80s,” says Keffer. We are working to define, correct and create laws in order to establish ourselves as an emerging industry which functions legally under the law and is protected as such.”

Most bars and restaurants overlook documentation problems, but Andrian Romero, who owns Sinners Brewery with his brother-in-law Paul Bohorquez, said he was turned away from one local restaurant. New beer styles must obtain governmental approval before they can legally be introduced to the market, so rather than risk their own livelihoods, some bar and restaurant owners simply refuse to sell craft beer.

When it comes to navigating this type of bureaucracy, breweries like Sinners have the least budgetary leeway, even though they’re making some of the city’s most interesting products. With beers like a ginger-coconut IPA, a coffee-cinnamon Black IPA, and a curiously named Ukrainian Imperial Stout, Romero and Bohorquez skirt the edges of traditional styles with beers that surprise the taste buds of Ecuadorian (and visiting American) drinkers.

“We encourage people to try new things, to break the rules,” Romero says. “We have no boundaries, no limits,” adds Bohorquez.

At the moment, almost all of Quito’s craft beer, or cerveza artesanal, comes from small operations, like Sinners, Bandido and Andes, often made in the brewer’s garage, where creative recipes are designed with a local perspective. Jervis at Monkey’s Brew makes his Bloody Bastard Red Ale, or roja, with pure sugarcane molasses grown in the Ecuadorian jungle, giving the beer a deeper and more nuanced sweetness than a more traditional Amber Ale made with malted barley alone.

“The taste of it straight is awful, but for the beer, it works really well,” Jervis explains.

Bandido Brewing brews something they call Ecuadorian Pale Ale—a beer enhanced by the addition of guayusa, an Amazonian tea leaf prized for its subdued degree of bitterness, high levels of antioxidants and caffeine content.

“Ecuadorians get a kick out of this one,” says Bandido co-founder Dan Meloy. They say, ‘You can brew beer with that, what?!’”

Other adjuncts like coffee and chocolate are also common in Ecuador’s cervezas artesanales, but no one is malting barley or growing hops, so brewers must pay a hefty 36-percent tariff on vital imported ingredients from Europe or the US. That, of course, makes craft beer far more expensive than SABMiller’s products. A 750 mL bottle of Pilsener or Pilsener Light will run about $2 at a bar, while a local craft beer half that size can easily cost more than $5. (In 2001, the US dollar became Ecuador’s currency.)

Yet in spite of marginal governmental support and high prices that might deter potential customers, the craft beer movement is still growing in Quito—and throughout Ecuador.

“We are trying to push forward,” Jervis says, pouring a fresh pint of Marilyn IPA in his garage brewery. “It’s not because of the business or the money. It’s to try and make something good.”

For the country’s beer drinkers, an increasingly diverse brewing landscape will certainly seem like a good thing.