Our image of Brazil is exotic, tropical, and utterly wild, but there is a good deal more to this huge and varied country. There is jungle, but there is lots of rich agricultural land. It snows in the South. The world’s second largest Oktoberfest is held in Blumenau. Despite abundant poverty, there is a large and growing middle class, and amidst the exotic vegetation, much of Brazil looks very familiar to us: jobs, traffic, shopping, neighborhoods, and Internet cafés.
It’s no surprise that macrobrew, mostly from one giant company, dominates the beer landscape with its rather bland and lip-numbingly cold offerings.
But what about the beer? Well, this is the country that brought us the world’s largest brewing company, as Brahma and Antarctica merged to form AmBev, which acquired InterBrew to become InBev, which then swallowed up Anheuser-Busch to become AB InBev. Burp.
So it’s no surprise that macrobrew, mostly from this one giant company, dominates the beer landscape with its rather bland and lip-numbingly cold offerings. But with the flood of information from the Internet, the resources to travel abroad and the trickle of quality imports reaching the specialty bars and stores, Brazilian drinkers are starting to realize that they’re missing out on something very enjoyable.
Changing of the Guard
In a story that is repeated all over the developing world, the country is shaking off decades of totalitarian rule and financial meltdowns. With the World Cup and Olympics coming, Brazil is feeling especially frisky at the moment. There is a very optimistic mood about the place, and people at all levels are working very hard to make things better any way they can. That includes beer.
Craft brewing began here in the mid 1990s, but this first wave was rather timid, mostly quite Teutonic; often with actual Germans doing the brewing. The typical first-wave Brazilian craft beer is a 5 percent all-malt pils with a light body and a very moderate 12 to 18 IBUs, with the occasional wheat or dark beer in the mix—tasty enough, but just a baby step towards what we would call real craft beer.
Things are changing; brewers in Brazil are making some exciting beers, and everything is falling in place for a real revolution to develop. Some scenes, like in Colorado, have been around since the beginning, but have been ramping up their creativity in the last few years. A second wave arrived about five years ago with a big vision of what beer can be. Exotic ingredients like jaboticaba fruit and umburana wood are finding their way into test batches. Beer appreciation groups, including several specifically for women, and homebrew clubs are popping up everywhere. New laws make it a little easier to open brewpubs, and now many determined young homebrewers are readying their business plans for a new crop of breweries as exciting as any on the planet.
Located in Belo Horizonte, the capitol of the state Minas Gerais, Cervejaria Krug is typical in many respects. Theo and Hervig Gangl own the brewery—part of a family that has been brewing in Austria since the early 1700s and were the creators of the international powerhouse brand Warsteiner, the Brazilian Gangls are in the ornamental stone business now. The brewery is just a side project, but a successful one, doing about 140,000 hectoliters (100,000 U.S. barrels) a month in 2009, up 100 percent from the year before.
Krug brews several Reinheitsgebot beers here: a typical Brazilian craft-brewed pils with barely detectable bitterness; curiously tame considering the vivid countryside, food, women, and music. They brew a pretty nice hefeweizen, pasteurized as is typical in this tropical climate, but it does contain yeast. They brew a dunkel, oddly called “Amber,” but with a lovely chocolate nose, and just a bit of sweetness—it’s actually pretty refreshing.
There are some good places to drink beer these days as well. In Belo Horizonte, Frei Tuck (Friar Tuck, Robin Hood’s monkish drinking pal) is home to Brazil’s Slow Bier movement. Haus Munchen is a warm and comfortable place that has been on the scene for years, but has recently been shifting its focus from imports to Brazilian craft beers.
The most respected beer bar in Brazil is Frangó, in São Paulo. It’s an inviting place that rambles down a hillside in a comfy residential neighborhood. Frangó is run by Valdecyr Piccolo and his two sons, Cássio and Norberto. Cássio is the driving force behind the great beer, and has traveled widely in Europe and U.S., bringing beer culture back to São Paulo with him. It’s as good as a beer bar gets. Inside, the place glows warmly, a Brazilian version of a Dutch “brauncafe.” Shelves with bottles and glassware are everywhere; the remaining wall space is plastered with breweriana. It’s a well-traveled pub, cozy and bustling and smelling like good beer and food. Frangó is famous for a fried stuffed dumpling called a coxina. It’s a shell of elastic manioc dough encasing a small pile of finely chopped, spit-roasted chicken, and a dollop of Brazilian cream cheese, deep-fried to golden crispness. It is a bar snack supreme, barely oily and full of great chicken and cheese flavor, and fabulous with beer, of course.
Thanks to the beer culture spread by the Piccolo’s and others, some more adventurous beers are being brewed these days, although they still represent a microscopic slice of the market.
One long-time player in the market, Cervejaria Colorado, introduced a characterful line of bottled products in 2007 that includes a honey wheat, an IPA brewed with a partially refined cane sugar called rapadura, and a lush porter that incorporates some high-quality Brazilian “blue” coffee. The Indica India Pale Ale is relatively light-bodied with an assertive nose of fresh hops, rare in Brazil, with nutty overtones and a complex caramelized sugar finish. The coffee porter, Demoiselle, is super smooth and creamy, pure mocha, with dry and elegant espresso notes on the finish.
Marcelo Carneira da Rocha is the driving force behind Colorado, located in Riberão Preto, a small city in the heart of sugar cane country a few hours drive north of São Paolo. They have been brewing since 1995. A sophisticated businessman with a contagious enthusiasm for beer and the culture surrounding it, da Rocha is one of the leading voices for good beer in Brazil.
In addition to inspiration from Europe and North America, da Rocha seeks to incorporate Brazilian flavors. He is producing a special “Vintage” barley wine using a type of black rapadura sugar, and has recently purchased aging tanks made of umburana wood from a local cachaça distillery in which to age some strong beers, possibly spiked with the richly flavored jacotiba fruit. With the bounty of fascinating flavors that can be found in Brazil, the possibilities for this approach are nearly limitless.
One of da Rocha’s co-conspirators in good beer evangelism is Marco Falcone of Falke Bier, in Minas Gerais, just outside Belo Horizonte. He’s a former hydroelectric engineer who took early retirement in 2004 to pursue his passions and now operates a spotless, small brewery on the same lushly tropical property as his home. It’s a family affair; both his son and his father help in the brewery. Falcone has the world’s smallest plot of barley—about a meter square—and at 30 feet tall, probably the largest hop plant as well. The stem is woody and as thick as my arm. Sadly, in these latitudes, this lonely hop plant bears no fruit.
He’s full of good humor, but Falcone is serious about beer, well versed in its history, culture and gastronomy. He kilns his own malt in a coffee roaster to get the flavors he wants for his darker beers, and he plays classical music and jazz for yeast in the tanks. In the basalt-lined cellar he had constructed beneath the brewery, bottles of his Monasterum Tripel mature to the strains of Gregorian chants. One of a handful (well, just two fingers at this writing) of brewers in Brazil to make a Belgian-style tripel, he also brews an IPA, equally rare there. The rest of the line consists of a schwarzbier called Ouro Preto, literally “black gold,” the name of Brazil’s most famous gold rush town. Falke Bier also makes a toasty Red Baron märzen and the obligatory pils, which pours frothy and cool, with a gentle but crisp hop aroma and soft bitterness more on the order of a Munich helles.
Falcone entertains guests in a purpose-built room that is enclosed by glass on three sides, which makes for a very pleasant afternoon of tasting. Beers are produced along with the famous Minieros cheeses, and it’s clear he understands the ins and outs of pairing—which the Brazilians call “harmonization”;—a nice word, I think. When it’s time for the tripel, a sabre is produced, and with a brisk whack, the top of the champagne bottle flies off. “I learned this in France, in Champagne,” he says.
While Falcone’s son isn’t old enough to do more than brewery chores, the younger generation is getting involved elsewhere, and some of them are very fired up about beer. In Belo Horizonte’s Cervejaria Wäls, a brewery is squeezed into the family’s fruit juice factory. The boys, José and Thiago, have been around the business all their lives, but the sudden departure of the founding brewer have drawn them into the business, and they are finding it to be a compelling one. Wäls brews an honest pilsner, 45 IBU and dry-hopped on top of that, reeking of Saaz. It’s obscenely hoppy by Brazilian standards. For now it’s a seasonal, but they hope to make it a full-time beer.
Wäls has just introduced a light beer, surprisingly the first in Brazil, not more than shade lighter than the usual pilsner here, with a dry palate and a crisp finish. But this beer has hops—plenty in the nose and a little tickle on the tongue. Tame as it seems to us in hop-addled North America, this is subversive, a kind of comment by the brewery that says “our light beer has more flavor than your regular beer.” Good positioning for the coming revolution, I think.
I want to produce a witbier,” says José, “one that says ‘I am Belgian.’” The dubbel shows plenty of of malty aromas, with complexity from the raisins they add along with the black Carafa malt. “It’s not a big brewery, but it’s all made with heart,” says José. Thiago produces a bottle of their cork-finished Tripel. The nose is complex spicy-fruity, from dried bitter orange peel and coriander and hops, too: Galena, Styrian and Saaz. There is a firm bitterness, a bit of which tastes like it comes from the dried orange peel. White cane sugar is used in both the abbey beers. Sales of the tripel are growing rapidly. “Women love this beer,” José adds.
Back in São Paulo, or actually in the far-distant suburb of Votorantim, best known for an immense cement factory, another young brewer has some big ideas. Cervejaria Bamberg is a seriously industrial-looking operation filled with eye-blindingly shiny stainless steel equipment. It’s the pride and joy of Alexandre Bazzos, president and brewmaster. A former food technology engineer, he started the brewery in 2005 with his brothers and some partners. He had spent some time in England and “was excited to find 35 different beers in the grocery stores there. I came back to Brazil, and at that time we had seven beers, all pilsners.” Like so many in the states with the same story, he decided to do something about it.
He fell into the name by luck. “We were looking for a German name that would be easy to pronounce in Portuguese,” he says, “and Bamberg was near the top of the list.” When he did the research, he realized what he had stumbled into it. Since then he’s traveled to Bamberg, in Bavaria, and tries to live up to the city’s reputation. For him, Cervejaria Bamberg is all about German tradition, but he is a genuine craft brewer as well, excited by flavors and ideas, and determined to make beers with real personality, not just the cookie-cutter yawners many of the Reinheitsgebot-obsessed breweries squirt out. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, and makes for interesting artistic challenges.
The brewery mainly focuses on authentic, but characterful versions of Bavarian classics: pilsner, weiss, schwarz, and alt, all very finely made. On top of that is an amber-colored bock, which lagers for two months at 32°F until it’s satiny smooth. Most radical is a rauchbier, a smoked beer famous in his namesake city, but rare elsewhere. It’s a good one, too, with a bacony taste of beechwood-smoked German malt—nothing timid about this place.
He’s open to new ideas, too. In the cooler sit two wooden brandy barrels maturing the first barrel-aged barley wines in Brazil. A preview taste reveals a huge fruity/caramelly nose, kind of like dried apricots. There are some nice oaky flavors, with more to come, I am sure.
Grupo Schincariol has been making beverages in São Paulo state since 1939, mostly sodas and fruit juices. In 1989, the company decided to create a value-priced beer, something that had not been seen in Brazil’s monopolistic beer market. This became a huge success, and by 2005, the company was looking at other opportunities. As a result, they acquired several of the more successful small craft breweries, including Baden-Baden, Eisenbahn, and Devassa. Because of their parent company’s distribution power, these are some of the more widely distributed Brazilian craft beers, although a short supply has often limited them to specific geographic regions.
The word “devassa” loosely translates as “slut,” and their beers seem to be aimed at the entry-level craft beer drinker with a blonde, a dark and two other light-on-the-palate beers. Baden-Baden produces a typical range of Brazilian craft beers, mostly with German accents. Eisenbahn is similar, but with a slightly more adventurous product lineup that includes a weizenbock, a rauchbier, and a high-end Champagne-like beer called Lust that is one of the few Brazilian craft beers currently imported into the U.S.
We are just now seeing the tip of the coming iceberg. A new generation of motivated homebrewers, many with business plans, fully fleshed out brand identities and family money of lined up, are ready to get started with their commercial ventures. They will not be making boring pilsners.
Homebrewer João Becker is typical. An earnest young man with a piercing gaze and a quiet smile, his family is in the wood products business and part of the current plans to build a new factory includes a small brewery on the property. His homebrew brand RugBrew, is a play on his love for the sport of rugby. One of his showcase beers will be a ginger-flavored ale with the piquant spiciness of ginger without the earthiness that sometimes intrudes. Other beers include a wit and a honey-wheat ale. He is interested in the possibilities for Brazilian woods for beer aging and will begin experimenting with them. I am sure he will meet with great success.
Another homebrewer, Sergio Fraga, is close to launching his beer. His Fraga weiss is spicy and dry, with a decent backbone of hops; more than is typical for German or other Brazilian examples. Armando Fontes has a beautifully packaged barley wine called Vila. And behind all this nascent commercial activity is a well-organized bunch of homebrewers, enthusiasts, podcasters, writers and all the other players needed to bring Brazil’s scene into the 21st century. It’s going to be a very tasty scene.