From imposing mountains over skyscrapers, breezy days in a colourful ramshackle port town, to the rings of Saturn in one of the clearest night skies in the world, Matthew Ogg finds Chile has its fair share of backdrops to knock back a brew.
Santiago often sells itself on the fact you can ski and surf on the same day, but most Chileans would never actually do this. Better to sleep in instead, choose one adventurous option or just contemplate the Andes over a hot glass of cafe cortado, which is a macchiato but not quite.
Locals will encourage you to escape the ‘fast pace’ of the city but in reality it’s very relaxed with stimulating streetscapes of vendors, buskers, home-cooked or ‘comida casera’ restaurants, markets, colonial buildings, museums, parks and over passionate couples.
The country may have its roots in rich red wine, but vino consumption is on the decline along with mass-produced local beers. On the other hand craft beer or ‘cerveza artesanal’ is climbing steadily, and one reason might be that many winemakers are switching from grapes to barley, hops and yeast.
Ruben Donoso is one of them. He still works on a vineyard but his passion is his craft beer bar Cerveceria Nacional in the historic area of Barrio Yungay. He also brews his own concoctions under the name Cerveza Yungay, and his French oak-fermented porter is certainly a highlight.
“The main idea was to associate the concept of beer with the culture, to do with knowledge and enjoying it with food, so we wanted to set it up in a place that was distinctly Chilean,” he says. “The barrio is well known for the cueca
dance, it’s calm, it’s a little bit isolated in Santiago and it’s a beautiful house - we didn’t want to be in the typical bar areas so that in the end people come here especially to visit us.”
He says Chile’s beer history has a strong German influence – one of the best mass produced beers is Kunstmann from the country’s southern lakes district – but on the craft front Chile is following the English style while also searching for its own identity.“We are interested in the English school as it’s full bodied but not too complex, not too bitter. They have a good balance with the different flavours, and remember we are a country of wines so we like beers with fruity aromas – amber ale is a bit like that.”
His eclectic bar fridge reads almost like a map of travel destinations; Edelstoff berry golden ale from Maipo, Newen’s ‘Pehuen Ale’ from Temuco fermented with Araucanian pine nuts, Easter Island beer Mahina which is brewed purely with rain water, along with a steady list of standard ales, stouts, lagers, wheat beers and pilsners.
Once this list gets the travel bug going, any visitor in Chile can’t go past the enchanting hilly port town of Valparaiso, while the beer lover should probably stop by Kross Brewery on the way. Taking the Curacavi exit off route 68 and driving past fields of blueberries, walnuts, almonds and prickly pears, you arrive at the quaint operation founded by German immigrant Asbjorn Gerlach in 2003.
Gerlach came to Chile out of a mix of romance and the desire to break free of Germany’s strict brewing laws, having been sued by the big companies in his homeland for making its first hemp beer ‘Turn’. While Chile’s legal system has been lax in combating anti-competitive behaviour in the beer industry, at least Gerlach has the liberty to find new brewing frontiers.
His beer is arguably spearheading the craft movement in Chile, with a mix of English and central European beers, to the point where wine company Concha y Toro bought a 40% stake. The deal has helped Gerlach with distribution but he still maintains his independence in the brewing process, refuses to use artificial carbonates, and has a capacity
to put out 140,000 litres per month.
“We only use natural ingredients, we don’t pasteurize, we don’t use corn or rice, it’s all 100% barley malt beers, we don’t speed up the process, and we give the beer the time it needs to mature,” he says. “We adopt the good techniques from the industry but not the bad habits of using chemicals and all that stuff.”
The brewery’s golden ale, scotch ale and stout took silver awards at the Australian International Beer Awards in 2009, while Gerlach’s noteworthy experiments have included a Belgian style abby ale fermented with coriander seeds and an imperial blueberry porter.
Gerlach hopes Chile is able to develop its own beer identity along with its own hops and malt varieties, while applauding Patagonia-based Austral for its Calafate Ale, named after the antioxidant-rich native berry; you may get a beer gut if you have too much but at least you’re fighting those free radicals in the blood stream.
Next stop Valparaiso, Chile’s ‘Gem of the Pacific’, with its spontaneous windy streets and architecture that can be majestic but also like a comfortably messy bedroom, built into a series of rugged hills curling around a port of container ships, navy vessels and mountains on the horizon.
Valparaiso easily slots into the label ‘Bohemian’ but pulls it off in a completely Locals dance cueca in the town of Pisco Elqui unfabricated way, making it very easy to pass the time wandering its alleys, hopping on steep retro furniculars, visiting galleries, observing its strange intricate graffiti and partaking in the cuisine. For gourmet food at a good price ‘Corazon contento’ on Cerro Bellavista is a nook-and-cranny joint with great mote (cooked wheat) risotto with seaweed staple ‘cochayuyo’, and ribs or seafood.
Another culinary must in Chile is the empanada, which is a local meat pie wrap that can be found all over the country, but in ‘Valpo’ and all along the coast they are made with fillings like crab, prawns or scallops. For accompaniment the Valparaiso beer is Cerveza del Puerto, known for its ‘Barba Negra’ or black beard ale.
To get a feel for Valpo’s artistic culture the house of eccentric poet Pablo Neruda could be an embodiment of the port town, with a story behind every feature from the Nobel prizewinner whose feats outside literature included a role as ambassador in several South East Asian countries, managing safe passage for Spanish civil war refugees and a notorious run-in with Fidel Castro.
Neruda was partial to wine but the country’s iconic alcoholic drink is pisco, a type of aguardiente in the brandy family. While Peruvians would dispute the claim, the drink hails from the Elqui Valley in northern Chile, where another craft beer has been taking off at an international level.
Former Santiago winemaker Cristobal Holmgren moved to the Elqui Valley 2.5 years ago to start Cerveza Guayacan, with a golden ale that recently took a bronze medal at this year’s Australian Beer Awards. At 29, Hollgren has established a brewery that is producing 400 litres a day and he plans to expand signifcantly in 2012.
Elqui is more known for its fields of grapes, contrasting colours of arid mountains and clear night skies, but is not synonymous with beer. For Holmgren this was an opportunity, combined with an underground water supply that is ideal for fermentation.
“I use the water right from the tap, because in many breweries maybe the correct thing to do is make the pH right with salts and everything, but I’m trying to express what the water here is exactly like, and I’m fi nding that gives a different character,” he says. “We have a carbonate level that’s mid-to-high, and that helps to counter the acidity of dark malts, so you get very smooth black beers.”
He named the beer after its namesake bay to the west of the valley to have a more Chilean feel, with a label that incorporates drawings inspired by the indigenous Diaguitas people. At the moment he only makes pale ales, golden
ales and stouts, but is considering making wheat beers soon.
The region offers an insight into countryside Chilean life, along with horse riding, trekking and pisco tours. But any trip to Elqui would not be complete without a close-up view of the stars and planets. The region has a wealth of different options, but the Pangue Observatory at an altitude of around 1.5km above sea level has a small group of astronomers who give personalised tours, with high-powered telescopes that let you see sights including the rings of Saturn, star clusters, dead stars, and a blue speck of Neptune.
If the moon isn’t strong you can see nebulas, while if it’s full you can get a very good view of lunar craters and valleys of dried lava. It’s a scene that’s on its own trajectory towards space tourism, but in the meantime Chile has a lot going on here on earth. And even if your travel partners are not as passionate about beer as you, the country has all bases covered.CERVECERIA NACIONAL
Compañía de Jesús 2858, Barrio Yungay, Santiago (closest metro station Quinta Normal).
Ph: (00569) 91846752/ (00562) 6814713
KROSS BREWERIES (CERVECERIAKROSS)
Camino El Toro, 6.5km from Curacaví
Ph: ( 00569) 92435586
Calle Principal 33, Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui
Ph: (00569) 92395981