Bolivian Beer: Embracing Tradition and Building a New Culture
Bolivia tends to be a country of the understated and reserved. It rarely commands the attention of its more “developed” peers and is constantly relegated to the status of a hidden gem perpetually waiting to be discovered. As the rumblings of a new beer era resound from its neighbors, Bolivia is quietly consolidating a solidly crafted beer foundation as it reclaims the traditions and ingredients that it offers to the world. Here now, a look at the central South American country and its local beer scene.
In the Andes, La Paz’s Saya Beer, the oldest ale brewery in Bolivia, was born in 1997 out of a hostel and a mountain biking outfitter, who will guide you down the “Death Road” into fertile coffee and coca-growing valleys. After a 10,000-foot descent through multiple biomes, knocking back a few of Saya’s flagship Dorado kölsch on the hostel’s rooftop bar fulfills many a craving. In a country with a local adjunct lager brewed in each of its nine departments, Dorado is an accessible ale for Bolivians to ease into. With a billowy head over a distinctly white beer, it looks different, and while it indulges no extremities, it is a point of entry toward Saya’s hoppier Ambar, roasty Negra dunkel bock, IPA and seasonals.
When Ted Handelé arrived in the capitol city of Sucre in 2001, he soon missed the Belgian styles available back home in Holland. “I only saw one solution: make the beer I wanted,” says Handelé. Ted’s Cerveceria now produces the Chala witbier, Ambar pale ale, and Ñusta honey golden strong in a 100-liter brewing system. It’s the only brewery in Bolivia focusing exclusively on Belgian styles, Handelé notes. “The biggest consumers continue to be foreigners … but Bolivians now are more open, because they’ve seen other beers, first children whose parents had traveled abroad and later the Bolivians that visit the bars where they sell craft beer.”
Moving down into the valley regions, Cochabamba’s year-round spring weather makes it the preferred locale for many expatriates. Rodrigo Cadiz, a Chilean coming from viticulture, started the Cerveza Artesanal Stier microbrewery here in 2010. He was joined by a German and Frenchman—all following Cochabambina wives. Their most popular offerings are a honey beer and stout. Alongside European hops and yeast, Cadiz points out, “The malt and water are Bolivian, as well as the honey, strawberries, quinoa, wheat, etc. We’re not trying to imitate … whatever place, but embrace our own identity.”
Building local identity means compromise when the prevailing beer tastes of the Global North are not shared by Bolivians. Cadiz explains, “We’ve tried to bring down the IPA’s bitterness a bit. … We think of this as a first step, with the idea of pushing up the bitterness over time.” Stier provides ample novelty to the Bolivian palate with offerings including weizen, strong ale and strawberry and quinoa beers, but a long-view approach is key to cultivating the otherwise unknown “ale” category.
What is a known category in Bolivia, however, is chicha. Famous for incorporating chewed maize, the majority of Bolivian chicha verdadera (“true chicha”) is actually brewed with home-malted maize. As a communal drink, chicha production is an elaborate affair that can take two weeks from malting to drinking. This is true “farmhouse” beer, made by families in spontaneously fermented batches of about 400 liters, enough to quench a village readying its potato fields or to throw a three-day wedding. In the lowland tropical regions that make up over half of Bolivia, chicha also encompasses nonfermented grain drinks made from wheat, sesame, peanuts or toasted barley.
Bolivia’s most intriguing traditional beer is Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional’s Bi-cervecina El Inca. This dark brown beer is malty sweet and at only 3%, it is most commonly consumed in breakfast smoothies with raw egg. Syrupy and pruney, it bridges energy drinks and beer.
As the Bolivian gastronomy movement gains momentum, brewers have been re-discovering the roles that traditional ingredients can play in beer. Multiple breweries offer quinoa beers, Blumental Bier adds an amaranth red ale, and Lipeña exclusively brews a quinoa-only session beer. Cerveceria Vicos takes it all a step further, incorporating ingredients like coca leaf and airampo cactus seed. The learning curve is still steep, however, and many of these still have the quality of one-off experiments that are designed for tourists to drink once as a novelty.
Following the winding roads down the Andean valleys, the crisp air thickens, announcing the tropical lowlands. Here climate exerts its own demands on beer, and nationally produced lagers are labeled as “tropicalized” at the lower altitudes and carbonated to higher degree to respond to the higher barometric pressure.
Maxi Ohan recently arrived in Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz, from Cerveza Artesanal Antares, Argentina’s largest craft brewery. Argentina’s economy is in shambles, but Ohan has grasped Bolivian growth head-on, renovating a colonial mansion in the old city center, and Ohan’s Brown Fox Bar opened in early 2015 with 10 taps and a plan to incorporate a small brewery in the future.
Perhaps the most intriguing forthcoming brewery, however, is Santa Cruz’s wheat-focused Weizen. Owner Pablo Pareja recalls the first the first truly intriguing beer he tried while attending Bentley University in Boston: “It was a Hoegaarden, and I’d never had anything like it—I just wished it were more citrusy!” A friend provided John Palmer’s How to Brew, and the story from there rings familiar. “Eventually I was making a bunch of Home Depot runs, and any project I had to do for school I related to beer somehow. I interned at Harpoon; I was a waiter at Boston Brew Co. It engulfed me and I was completely enamored.”
Pareja has the average Bolivian drinker in his sight. “Cloudy beer isn’t something people will understand here without a fair amount of explanation and a very open mind. You have to start with beers that are relatable … clear, golden, crisp and not too bitter.” Weizen’s approach is deceptively simple: Start with three beers brewed with a Bavarian yeast, named to shape expectations: La Rubia (“blonde”) kristalweizen, La Blanca (“white”) hefeweizen, and La Morena (“brown”), dark and honey-infused. Pilot batches of all three can be found at Brown Fox.
“Pushing beyond pale lagers here in Bolivia will require forging a new idea, building up a new kind of culture,” says Pareja. Bolivia’s future is bright and on the cusp of something, because a new idea has indeed arrived.
Kyle Navis lived in Bolivia from 2011 to 2015, figuring out how to keep on homebrewing in a country with no homebrew shops and writing about the small breweries popping up all over the country. He is now a graduate student of international affairs at University of California San Diego and blogs at Embracing Limitations.