Hey there, folks! I’m back from a brief hiatus to bring you more perspectives on beer! For the past two weeks, my wife and I traveled across Peru- spending lots of time in the Andes Mountains, hiking to Machu Picchu, and sampling the local cuisine. But, of course, whenever/wherever I travel, I always want to check out the local beer scene to see what is being produced and what the locals like to drink. So I want to share with you all that I experienced in Peru, provide some brief insights into the beers that I drank, and give you all my overall impression of the craft beer scene in Peru.
The first city that I visited was Arequipa- Peru’s second largest city located in the mountains in the southern part of the country. The city was very picturesque, sitting in the shadow of a few snowcapped volcanos, and is the jumping-off point to a few landmarks including Colca Canyon. That said, the city felt much less like a tourist trap compared to Cusco- the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu. This fact is reflected in Arequipa’s craft beer scene- the breweries in the city are few in number and the craft beer bars are small yet charming. The first bar that I visited was Chelawasi Public House- a craft beer bar owned by a brewery of the same name that also serves other local beers alongside their own. Like I said, the space was small, but the walls were decorated with the bumper stickers of numerous American craft breweries (west coast breweries in particular). Their beers (particularly their hoppy beers) seemed to possess that same American West Coast influence as having a noticeable amount of caramel character to them while having a particularly dry finish. The bartenders were very friendly and were willing to nerd out on beer with anybody interested in doing so.
One thing that really impressed me, and is something that I think I’ve taken for granted because of where I live, is the Peruvian beer scene’s inclusion and embracing of local ingredients. I’ll discuss specific beers throughout this piece, but some notable ingredients that I found in the local beers included chocolate, coffee, papaya, mango, several varieties of chili peppers, and several varieties of corn.
It was at our second craft beer stop where this embrace for locally sourced ingredients in beer became apparent to me. In a loft above a court yard overlooking a chocolatier (aimed at tourists) we found the Arequipa Beer Club. I think the best way I can describe the atmosphere is if you combined a café, a bar, and chocolatier- somehow the concept fits! I started by enjoying a collaboration Papaya Kölsch from Cumbres and Melkim. In terms of overall fruit character, papayas tend to be pretty restrained- so a Kölsch was actually the perfect beer style to insert that flavor profile. Neither the beer nor the fruit stole the spotlight from the other, which made for a very pleasant and easy drinking beer. Next, finding myself at a place that specialized in chocolate, I thought it would be only appropriate that I try an “Experimental Brown Ale” that included mango and cacao. The beer prominently featured notes of coffee and chocolate while leaving out any harsh roast character of a porter or stout, and had some interesting notes of orange citrus in the background. It was quite pleasant and paired well with a sea salt chocolate chip cookie.
The beer bars that we visited in our next two cities were much more reminiscent of the ones I would find at home: bigger, busier, and more modern, often times with local musicians playing off to the side. The next city we visited was Cusco: the jumping off point for Machu Picchu and by far the biggest tourist trap in the country. After elbowing our way through hordes of solicitors offering us walking tours, knockoff alpaca clothes, and massages, we found our way to Cerveceria Nuevo Mundo. Similar to Chelawasi Public House, the bar is affiliated with a brewery in Lima, but they also served other quality Peruvian brands alongside their own. I feel that this fact emphasizes a point that Morgan from Buttonwoods Brewery told me: that a high tide raises all boats. Nuevo Mundo, Chelawasi, and Barbarian (see below in Lima) could all just as easily have kept their tap lists exclusive to their own brands, but instead they choose to support their friends in the industry by showcasing their beers alongside their own. That, in my opinion, epitomizes the craft beer movement, and I think we are starting to drift away from that in the United States.
The beer list at Nuevo Mundo was pretty impressive, primarily featuring local Peruvian brands. I will say that it was actually really refreshing to look at a draft list, and see that less than 50% of their selections were IPAs. Out of all of the beers that I had at Nuevo Mundo, the beer that I was most impressed with was their Panam’ Belgian Pale Ale. Truthfully, there were no frills about this beer- nothing crazy or fancy done to it. This Belgian Pale was probably one of the best that I’ve ever had of the style (and I’m a big fan of the style). My tasting notes of this beer included hints of cracked black pepper, banana, and graham cracker. Clocking in at 6.1%, the beer was very refreshing and very easy to drink. Another beer (that ended up being one of my last before the hike to Machu Picchu) that stood out to me was Pantera Stout by Machay Cerveza Artesenal (from Arequipa). According to the bartender, it was apparently ranked the best stout in South America (I didn’t ask him his source). Again, there was nothing crazy done to this beer, and truthfully it drank more like an imperial schwarzbier (nothing wrong with that).
Fast forward now to about 5 days later: I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and I’m both physically and mentally exhausted from waking up at 3am for a sprint hike to see the sunrise over the ruins before the tourists crowded it. We had the poor luck of it being foggy that morning…still the ruins were amazing, as was the hike. But now, I needed a drink.
Going into this trip, I had been endlessly curious about trying Chicha: essentially corn beer. I don’t know if this practice is still employed (I doubt it at the commercial scale), but traditionally the Chicha maker would convert the starches in the corn to sugar by using the enzymes found in the human mouth to convert the starches: essentially they chewed and spit out the corn into the mash. Before you go vomiting on your keyboard, just know that I’m sure they boiled the wort like a brewer traditionally did (this drinker is certainly hoping they did…). Anyway, Chicha de Jora is certainly a different beer than I’ve ever had. The drink had a milkshake-like consistency to it, and tasted very sweet and corny with a light sourness in the finish. Furthermore, the drink is served at room temperature- not cold like the Rockies (or Andes as would be the case). On a hot day after a 4 day hike, I think I would have preferred something colder and less sweet, but I can cross this one off my bucket list at least.
The last city on our trip to Peru was the capital city of Lima. We only had about 2 ½ days to spend in the city, so our bar hopping was more limited. The first bar that we went to was Cerveceria Barbarian. The spot had a similar feel to Nuevo Mundo in Cusco- a busy and modern bar that certainly appeals to the city-dwelling tourist (me). Perhaps the most eye grabbing sight in the bar was the great wall of bottles in the back of the bar. I saw a lot of foreign bottles on said wall, including KBS, Pliny the Elder, and Cantillon: Classic Gueuze. Clearly this was a bar after my heart. One of the most notable beers that I had at Barbarian was their Mañanero Café Pale Ale: a coffee infused pale ale. The beer impressed me because it was appropriately bitter with neither the hops nor the coffee overwhelming the other. Furthermore, the coffee flavor seemed to coexist well with the hop flavor, which can be a tricky thing to do in that style of beer.
I would be lying if I said that there were no negative experiences during my beer travels. I had a handful of beers from some seemingly well known regional brands that, to put it bluntly, tasted like a bad batch of homebrew riddled with off flavors (most notably acetaldehyde and diacetyl). That said, it’s important to keep in mind that the Peruvian craft beer culture is still maturing- I would guess that the craft beer scene is maybe 20 years behind that of the United States. They are well on their way to having a culture filled with some quality craft beers, and many of their big producers already produce quality that rivals many American producers. Over time, the lesser-quality beers will become less numerous due to brewers getting better at their craft, as well as the beer consumer becoming more educated. In other words: either the brewers will improve or the market will weed out the bad ones. As a point, I’m not going to mention the names of the beers or brewers who produced the lower quality beers because it won’t accomplish anything- those problems will fix themselves as the Peruvian craft beer culture matures. Overall, I would say I had a positive beer exploration experience during my travels in Peru. I saw a lot of positive things in their craft beer culture (which is why I wrote this piece). Many of the breweries are being inspired by and taking their cues from some of the best American breweries- making for some very tasty beer. Furthermore upon landing in Arequipa, I learned that the country was about two weeks away from having their first national craft beer festival (my luck be damned, I would have maybe convinced my wife to wait a week to travel had I known ahead of time). If you are traveling to Peru, check out the local craft beer scene- there’s a lot of good happening there. Wherever you travel, I encourage you all to taste what the locals are drinking- it really opens your eyes to a new culture. ¡Salud!