The Beer Lover’s Guide to Colombia
While I’m enduring a lengthy period of what I like to call “labor market friction,” Mrs. ElGordo and I decided to take an extended trip abroad. Finances somewhat limited our range of choices, and after a bit of deliberation we decided upon the up-and-coming tourist destination of Colombia. For those who think that Colombia is still the most dangerous place in the world, let me assure you that the days of Pablo Escobar’s machine gun-wielding henchmen and bombs set by paramilitary groups in town squares are largely over. The drug violence has mostly migrated north to Central America, and there is an extended truce between the government and the leftist revolutionaries. These two developments have made much of the country a safe and welcoming place for travel. Hell, you can even tour one of Pablo’s old estate compounds and visit the hippopotamus that used to be his pet. Seriously.
Colombia is home to fantastic natural beauty, a vast array of birds and other wildlife, and incredibly friendly people. It is still largely a developing nation, however, and that means that there are challenges to everyday life that can be difficult to get used to for people from wealthier countries. Slow bus rides, substandard plumbing, and a lack of street sweeping are some of the minor inconveniences. Also, as can be experienced elsewhere in Latin America, pretty much one of the last things to emerge as a country matures is a fancy food and drink culture, and Colombia is no exception. There are excellent upscale restaurants in the higher-end neighborhoods of Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena, but the vast majority of the country still focuses on traditional country cuisine (beans, rice, barbecued meats) and cheap fast foods. Beer is no different–there are several brands of basic industrial lager, a few imports, and a couple of domestic craft brands that are available in the large cities, but impossible to find further out.
Our trip began with a lengthy, three-leg flight from Portland to Bogota. We arrived late in the evening on a Saturday and by the time we cleared customs and made it to our airport-area hotel, both of us were very much ready for a beer before we hit the sack. Much to our surprise, however, we were told that the beer for sale in the lobby was off-limits, as there was a nationwide ban on alcohol sales ahead of Sunday’s presidential election that ran from 6pm Saturday to 6am Monday. While I suppose it may be good public policy to ensure that people make it to the polls, it was incredibly frustrating for us Americans (especially since we weren’t exactly eligible voters). Nonetheless, we found a loophole around this rule the following evening after we checked into our downtown hostel. Like hostels around the world, this place had an honor bar, and since it was not open to the general public, we could help ourselves to as many cold bottles of Aguila as we wished. And after a 23 hour journey and a jet-lag filled day, we had fucking EARNED those beers.
Beer (and liquor, too) is pervasive in Colombia. It is never difficult to find a single cold bottle or can of one of the major brands, usually for around $1000 Colombian pesos (about $0.55 US). Bars often sell bottles for anywhere from $2000-4000 pesos, depending on the setting, and hostels and other lodging usually have a cooler with a few varieties available for a bit less. Street drinking is also legal; it’s not uncommon to see groups of young folks drinking in a park, or even on the sidewalk right outside a nightclub before heading in to the party. Rum and aguardiente—a clear local liquor with an anise flavor—seem to be the most popular alcoholic libations in the country, as they offer a bit more bang for the buck. You can buy a liter of aguardiente that clocks in at over 100 proof for $12000 pesos, or roughly six bucks.
Now to distinguish what little differences there are between the available brands of Colombian beer. Given the recent rash of global consolidation, it’s not that surprising that every leading brand is produced by Bavaria Brewery, a subsidiary of SABMiller. Aguila is dominant throughout the country, especially in the Caribbean coastal areas and the provinces from there south to Bogota. This is more of a tropical, island-style lager with a very light body and not a whole lot in the way of flavor. When cold, it’s a fine thirst-quencher, although as it warms up both some skunkiness and astringency begin to come through. Aguila Light is also available, just in case you want even less body and flavor in your beer.
Poker is a slightly maltier and fuller-bodied beer, and is popular in Bogota and the north of the country, and out east towards the nothingness of the grassy plains that stretch on to Venezuela. It offers a little more in the way of flavor compared to Aguila and has a richer, golden color to it. Pilsen is Bavaria’s big seller in Medellin and the surrounding highlands, and if you try hard enough, you can actually discern some crisp pilsner malt and the faintest touch of noble hops in what is styled to be a German-style pilsner. It’s still a very light-bodied industrial lager, but it’s a decent change of pace from Aguila. Finally, Club Colombia is Bavaria’s more “boutique” product line, and is actually available in three varieties: Dorada (golden), Roja (red), and Negra (black). The Dorada is a passable “premium”-style lager, brewed with higher-quality grain that results in fewer offensive adjunct notes, even when it warms up. The Roja is amber in color with a flavor of toasted malt and a mild hoppy bitterness that lets you know you’re at least drinking something close to a real beer. The Negra is actually more of a light brown than anything resembling black, with some notes of roasted malt and a slightly creamy body. While not on the same level as some of the Caribbean-style stouts out there, it remains a refreshing and flavorful alternative to the other Bavaria beers.
Now we come to the actual craft beers available in Colombia. These are few and far between, to say the least. There’s one craft pub chain, a few craft beer bars, and a handful of production breweries. You could draw a 200 yard radius in a few places in SE Portland and find a wider variety of brewery options. So, obviously, finding good beer was not the primary objective of our trip. We viewed it as a pleasant surprise every time we found a place where we could find something other than the standard Bavaria options.
Bogota Beer Company is the only real option for an American-style brewpub in the country. The company has over a dozen pubs in the Bogota metro area, as well as a location in an upscale area of Medellin. BBC pubs all serve only beer produced by the company’s central brewery, along with a serviceable menu of pub grub. Prices are a bit steep for Colombia in general, but not necessarily for an American budget; pints run about $10000 pesos ($5 US), and entrees are in the range of $12-18 US. The several locations we visited over the course of our trip were an appealing hybird of modern design with an English pub-style decor; they were comfortable spaces that were strangely devoid of any Latin American influence, and felt very much like they could be in any American city. We had a decent pizza for dinner once, and the only decent veggie burgers we found in the entire country. The burgers and sandwiches I saw other tables order looked pretty tasty as well.
The BBC beer lineup includes a lager, kolsch, honey ale, red ale, and porter. One or two seasonal varieties are usually available as well; we got to try a rich, roasty stout and a surprisingly good Belgian strong ale. The Montserrate Roja red ale was about the only taste of hops I had for over a month, and the porter and stout satisfied an itch for a full-bodied beer. The entire product line, while a bit basic for beer geek tastes, is clean and well-made, and the brewers have a growing collection of competition medals to show for their skill. In addition to being served at the company’s pubs, bottles of BBC beers are also available in upscale supermarkets and other bars in Bogota, Medellin, and other well-trafficked areas of the country.
A similar-sounding operation, Medellin Beer Factory, operates two locations that aren’t very far from one another in the Poblado area of Medellin. Unlike BBC, the Factory doesn’t make its own beer. Instead, it has the most comprehensive selection of draft and bottle options that we found in the entire country. The entire lineup of BBC, Apostol, and Tres Cordilleras beers were available, along with all of the domestic macros. The import list ranged from Bud and Stella to Newcastle and Chimay, as well as some of the macro flagships from other Latin countries (Presidente, Quilmes, Brahma, etc.). It was a decent enough place to hang out for a few hours, though the dirndl-clad servers and a menu focused on chicken wings gave the place the feel of a Hooters from another culture.
We had the opportunity to try the lineups of a couple of production craft breweries during our time in Colombia. The first were from German-focused Apostol, which we found—appropriately enough—in a German-owned restaurant in Cartagena (which, incidentally, served the best vegetarian paella I’ve ever had). El Bistro had the Helles, Weizen, and Marzen all available on draft. Each was fairly true to style, and likely made the substantial German tourist population of Cartagena forget about their sunburns and think of home for a little while. Apparently the brewery is open to tours, so if you find yourself in the town of Sabaneta (near Medellin), go check it out.
Tres Cordilleras is the other readily-available craft brand. There are five color-coded styles available in bottles, and possibly draft as well, though I never found any. The Mestiza American Pale Ale was our favorite, as it would probably fit right in with the offerings in a northwest brewpub. The white ale and the negra (stout) were also fairly solid. The brewery is located in Medellin and is open for tours.
Now, take all of this with a grain of salt, as any of these craft brews were few and far between, and therefore our palates were much fresher than they usually are when sampling beer. In a lineup against high-end American beers, they might not stand a chance. And, in fact, possibly the best beers we had on our trip were from some of the smallest batches and the most difficult to find.
Chicha is available in Bogota and the surrounding highlands, though you may have to look around for a bit to find it. I was able to order it in a very cool old tavern in the La Candaleria neighborhood of Bogota. It was very opaque, tart, and slightly sweet, probably due to the inclusion of some apples or other stone fruit in the fermentation. It was also really low in alcohol, I’d guess around 3% ABV. If I didn’t know better I might think I was drinking a Berliner Weiss, but this was made fully from corn, with some honey or fruit added for sweetness. I doubt chicha made in the most traditional way any more—old ladies probably have better things to do than sit around chewing and spitting out corn kernels—but it was definitely a small batch, probably brewed up in someone’s home nearby.
The following week found us in the north, along the Caribbean coast. Seeking to take a break from the heat, we took a day trip up to the tiny village of Minca in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was much cooler up in the forest at 6,000 ft elevation, and we had a wonderful time exploring waterfalls in the rainforest, followed by a coffee plantation and an artisan chocolate maker. Our tour guide, Jungle Joe, was also an accomplished homebrewer. Colombian law doesn’t prohibit selling your homebrew, so Joe took us to a kiosk in town that stocked some of his creations—a honey ale and a stout made with local coffee and chocolate. I have to say, the stout was one of the best homebrews I’ve had in a while, and the fact that Joe brews on pretty primitive equipment in his off-the-grid home made it even more remarkable. He says he gets some of his hops from a California native who transplanted some rhizomes to his property up in the mountains; I have a hard time believing they grow well there, but I suppose it’s possible. Still, though, that stout was a testament to the importance of quality ingredients—coffee and chocolate straight from the source livened up what was probably a fairly ho-hum base beer. It goes to prove that when you want the best stuff, you just need to go right to the source, and this was no exception.
So beer is not the biggest draw for travelers to Colombia. Coffee and chocolate are the only real culinary attractions; well, that and tropical fruit. Walk down the street and you’re never far from a vendor selling fresh fruit or juice, many of which you probably have never seen, and some of which can’t be translated into English. Our trip coincided with Portland Beer Week, and we were a bit bummed to be missing out on events like Cheers to Belgian Beers and the Portland Fruit Beer Fest. But then again, while I’m sure all of the fruit beers were tasty, hardly any were made using the fruits on the list below:
It’s not like Colombian brewers are going to start making challenging fruit beers any time soon, so I’m going to put the challenge out there to some of our local brewers: find a source for lulo, uchuva, or feijoa, and craft a true one-of-a-kind beer for next year’s PFBF. That’s perhaps the biggest beer takeaway from my trip—be thankful for what you’ve got at home, whether it’s great food, great beer, or simply a safe and secure life. Also, get out and explore the world and experience the local culture, even if it means drinking swilly beer for a while. Trust me, you can always come back home to your comforts, and you’ll probably appreciate them more when you do.