10am, Thursday, severely caffeinated
For those of us who’ve called Buenos Aires home for more than two years and have a taste for the hoppy stuff, we’ve finally made it out of the trenches. Good riddance to the days of lining up early outside Antares for a decent happy hour, or trekking it to Barrio Chino to buy a (crazy expensive) bottle for home, or filling up on the good stuff on a trip to the States like we’re about to enter a beerless hibernation. No longer will we settle for the watery national king of beers, and I scoff with pride at the fools who do. Praise!
Cerveza artesanal is everywhere and a new brewery or craft beer pub seems to pop up every week. And they aren’t even limited to Palermo (although this article is). To learn more about the arrival of the global craft beer explosion to Argentina, I sat down with four bar owners, brewers and beer sommeliers.
Favorite beer: Chevery IPA
The first stop on this one man bar crawl is at the pub we’ve all been waiting for. On Tap opened in August 2015; it’s a small bar with enough room for maybe 20 people to sit. Guests don’t seem to mind though. On a busy night, people crowd inside the bar and pour out onto the sidewalk. And it’s with good reason. This is really the only bar of its kind in Buenos Aires. 20 beer taps line the wall with cerveza from about a dozen different national brewers, all of which have been painstakingly curated by Terren and his team.
“We don’t look at this as simply a bar. This is a philosophy,” Marcelo begins, pointing out their motto – Support Local Breweries – which is painted over the bar. “We think that Buenos Aires needs a place like this. Not just a place that sells beer, but a place that helps people make good beer, and helps the people who want to drink good beer.”
Marcelo was born for this kind of work. Although he hails from a family of wine drinkers (wine producers to be precise), he never quite developed a taste for the tinto. He always preferred beer but it was during six years of spending half the year in Lake Tahoe that he really fell in love with it. Each year he returned to Buenos Aires, disappointed that it’d be six long months before he could have another pint of craft beer.
“I had a hard time even imagining bringing craft beer to Buenos Aires. Brewers in the States have much more potential for growth. They can take out credit and have access to hundreds of different hops. Here you have to borrow money from family or put up savings and the 8 Argentine grown hops all have the same floral or fruity flavors. It’s just harder to grow. On top of that, Argentina has always been dominated by commercial beer and breaking into that industry seemed absolutely impossible.”
That was until 2012, when Marcelo and his brother (the other half of Broeders) stumbled across a guy selling his own beer at the Underground Market.
“That completely blew my mind. The beer itself wasn’t really unique, but just seeing this guy was all I needed. Just knowing it was possible for anybody to make beer. Around that time, that’s when Antares really began to expand also. Them building up from a small brewery in Mar Del Plata to the largest craft beer chain in the country was more evidence of how much this [beer culture] could grow.”
Marcelo completely immersed himself in brewing. He took a course in beer making before converting a small room on his mother’s terrace into a brewing room. The beer was good enough to start selling at NOLA, which at the time was still a closed door restaurant being hosted downstairs. He joined a sommelier program at the Cata de Cervezas and learned the science. Talking to him this afternoon is like tapping into a beer encyclopedia. His knowledge isn’t limited to other brewers in the country, but what kind of hops you need for each beer and how to correctly detect if a beer has the right color, smell, taste and carbonation to accurately call itself a particular style.
Just a few years after discovering the potential to brew, Marcelo is already one of the local scenes largest proponents. His partners and colleagues act as consultants to new brewers, using their expertise as producers and sommeliers to help brewers bring their product to its greatest potential. More than a love for beer, Marcelo demonstrates a real feeling of responsibility.
“What we’re seeing in Argentina with beer isn’t a trend. This is a movement that has come to stay. I’m never jealous if a brewer makes better beer than me, this really is about supporting the local scene.”
Seba, owner of Bodega Cervecera
Favorite beer: Güira Bomber IPA
Seba begins by noting that he’s “a lover, not a brewer”, and that the current incarnation of Bodega Cervecera is the culmination of nearly two decades of discovering his beer palate. It all began in 1998 during a buddy road trip to Bariloche. He admittedly was already a lover, but it was then and there that he discovered a world of beer that existed beyond the locally worshipped Quilmes. He spent the following years as a passionate imbiber of an evolving beer community before opening a beer shop in 2011.
The shop was a small space in Palermo that specialized in national beer and other gourmet products from around the country, particularly Patagonia. The store attracted like minded beer lovers, and one problem became quickly apparent. People didn’t want to just stop in and buy a bottle; they wanted a bar they could hang out at. So by the end of 2012, he remodeled a tiny corner bar on the corner of Thames and Russell to meet the demand of his growing and faithful clientele.
“I guess I just wanted a bar that I would want to hang out at. I choose the beer [on tap] based on the tastes that I like, from producers that I have gotten to know over the years and remained faithful to.”
As we sit chatting, customers come in and out and greet Seba by name. He points out a regular sitting alone outside with a book, “People have been contaminated by beer. They are beginning to look at beer the same way we look at café [culture]. People are starting to appreciate beer the same way we appreciate a good glass of wine.”
It makes sense that people would latch on to a growing beer craze so strongly considering that two of the nation’s most popular drinking rituals – mate and fernet – revolve around a bitter flavor palate. “Probably around 70% of what we sell is IPA,” Seba tells me, noting that people are steering away from simple light beers to more robust flavors.
When I ask Seba if he’s worried that craft beer is a bubble that might eventually burst, he concludes, “No, I don’t think there is a limit. The demand is so much greater than what’s being produced. I hope someday [the culture] will reach a place like what you see in the states with entire aisles of craft beer in the supermarkets. We’ve still got a long way to go though.”
Jose, owner of Grunge Brewing Company
Favorite beer: a good Sazon or Sour, Antares La Playera
Lucas, owner of Grunge Brewing Company and BlueDog
Favorite beer: Breoghan San Telmo Fire, La Cruz IPA
Most people don’t know about BlueDog yet. With a December opening, it’s probably the newest brewery on the block. But cousins Jose and Lucas are far from newcomers. So respected are they that every single person I spoke to about this article told me that I had to talk to the guys from Grunge Brewing Company. They took that compliment with somewhat bashful smiles as we hung out in this Palermo bar munching on nachos and kicking back my last pint of the evening – an IPA by Bariloche brewers La Cruz.
The duo began Grunge in 2012. Lucas had already been brewing with Buller and Stone since 2009; he began hanging out more with Jose and the two decided to give brewing their own stuff a try. Grunge was named as an homage to their 90s youth and the “rebel that works seriously.” Lucas would work at the breweries during the day, and produce his own beer with Jose at night. Within a year they were working with Pony Line at the Four Seasons, “that was the stepping stone,” and shortly after they took home the Gold Medal at the South Beer Cup for their Stout. They’ve since taken home more prizes for their English IPA and collaboration with Spanish brewer La Soccarada.
“People who’ve known us since the beginning are really surprised by all of this. We started out producing a few hundred liters out of our house, and now we are producing about 13,000 liters a month in our own factory.” Lucas’ own explanation is interrupted by a friend popping in to congratulate him on the success of the bar.
Despite such a new opening, Lucas explains that he is already noticing a few regulars. “It’s the customer that is driving this craft beer explosion, not the producer. This is a world trend, Buenos Aires is just a little bit behind.”
Jose chimes in, “I think that beer was always associated as something to drink with a pizza, or maybe something to drink a lot of on a hot day. Now people are beginning to realize that beer is more than that. That you can pair it with a lot of different foods, or just enjoy it alone for what it is. In Buenos Aires, the quality of a lot of beers got really good really fast and that’s because money is tight and it’s expensive to go out, and people are becoming more decisive about what they want to eat and drink.”
That philosophy shows through in their own beer. According to them they don’t sell ‘blondes, reds and darks’, they sell beers with individual personalities. Jose sums it up quite nicely, “People have realized that they want good beer.”
Cheers to that.