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Beer at the end of the world

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CATEGORIES: Beer   International Feature   Travel  

You visit Bavaria to drink at the cradle of modern beer. You make a pilgrimage to Brugge to drink wild lambics. You book an Airbnb in Portland, Boulder or Philly to soak up beer culture. The farther away from these cultural epicenters you go, the less you should expect to find anything resembling a commercial brewery. At the bottom of the world, I never expected to find local beer at the bottom of my glass. But defying expectations is one of the reasons we travel, isn’t it?

Patagonia, the southernmost region of South America—Argentina and Chile specifically—is comprised of some 400,000 square miles of rugged wonderlands. Jagged Andes. Mesmerizing ice fields. Pristine lakes and wild rivers juxtaposed with windswept steppeland. Plus, adorable Magellanic penguins. Most travelers who find themselves in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city located on Argentina’s  archipelago, are here to board a cruise ship to Antarctica. Many are happy to try a Beagle Fuegian Ale or a Cape Horn Stout, but almost none venture outside the town to the breweries themselves. Both the Cervecería Beagle and Cervecería Cape Horn are owned by the Fuegian Beverage Company, which is not exactly set up for visitors. But there was no way I could find myself at “fin del mundo (end of the world)” and not say I’ve been to the world’s southernmost brewery. (I’d soon also hit the world’s most remote brewery, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

But there was no way I could find myself at “fin del mundo (end of the world)” and not say I’ve been to the world’s southernmost brewery.

I first walked into Fuegian’s light industrial storage room, which was almost empty. That’s because, surprisingly, the company’s orders outpace its production. That’s just one of the logistical jigsaw pieces that puzzles manager Gustavo Alvarez. Imagine his headache when a piece of brewing equipment, already fairly well Frankensteined, needs a new part that takes 10 days to deliver by truck from Buenos Aires because the only way down is through neighboring Chile over dicey roads and then by ferry to Tierra del Fuego. When the brewers realized they needed more primary fermentation space, they simply welded more to the tops of existing tanks, explaining why some fermenters are 1,000 liters and others are 1,500 to 3,000. Deciding when to brew a single batch of the red ale, Beagle Rojo, or a double batch of Cape Horn Pilsen is another of Alvarez’s problems.

Fuegian Beverage Co. resulted from the merger of two breweries established in Ushuaia during the late ’90s. Cape Horn began as the partnership. Beagle (named after the first ship in the early 19th century whose crew surveyed what is now fittingly called the Beagle Channel) was the creation of a pair of homebrewers. Today, Fuegian maintains both brands with eight or nine beers between them—the only near duplication is Beagle Cream Stout and Cape Horn Oatmeal Stout—to the cumulative tune of half a million liters annually. They’d sell more if only they could make it faster.


Easter Island

Equally, if not more, remote

It’s not part of Patagonia, but Easter Island lies 2,290 miles from the coast of Chile, which annexed the Polynesian island in 1888. The native name is Rapa Nui, which is also the name for its people and the language they speak.

“Pia,” meaning beer, is one of the few foreign words in Rapa Nui that comes from English instead of Spanish. (It sounds more like “beer” when they say it, or more likely, when they heard the word “beer,” it sounded like “pia.”) The tiny island in the South Pacific requires a five-and-a-half-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, making it officially the most remote commercial airport on Earth and is famous, of course, for the moai statues made of volcanic rock that appear across the island. But Easter Island businessman Mike Rapu wants it to be known for cerveza Mahina, too.

Mike (pronounced Mee-keh) owns a dive shop, cafe and a construction business. The latter is how he became a part owner in a hotel developed by Explora. The hotel is where I arranged to meet with him—the first time I’ve interviewed a brewery owner with the help of a translator. I learned that though Rapu is the father of five and wealthy enough to retire, he’s a workaholic compelled to start each workday at 6 a.m. He’s one of the few people on the island for whom “island time” holds no meaning—or at least no excuse. The hotel and its growing legion of visitors inspired him to build a brewery to service tourists. Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Rapu’s grandfather was a winemaker and distiller back in the days when alcohol was illegal on the island. When Rapu procured a five-liter homebrew kit, he didn’t do so in order to skirt the island’s prohibition, but to learn to brew with the objective of creating the first commercial brewery on the island. After all, if his ancestors could turn volcanic rock into four-ton moai statues, then he could certainly turn malt and hops into beer.

Rainwater and moonlight provide the terroir. Yes, Rapu said he collects rainwater to brew, and considering the island receives nearly 50 inches of precipitation each year, the brewery can maintain its 3,000 liters-per-month production.

Rapu was inspired to launch the first iteration of his brewery five years ago during a full moon.

As for the moonlight, the brewing company is called Cervecería Rapa Nui but the brand name is Mahina, which translates in English to moon. Rapu was inspired to launch the first iteration of his brewery five years ago during a full moon. Rapu says that he wants to build a tasting room for visitors near the brewery.

I don’t know how far it will be from his hotel but hopefully not too far since, at least during my visit, the hotel bar didn’t offer any Mahina beers. Rapu kindly brought me a sample of Mahina Pale Ale, which is more in the style of a British pale ale with its malt character than an assertive, piney American version. Rapu suggested pairing it with any of the local white fish. Since my visit, Rapu’s Mahina Stout has reached the market.

Without prompting, Rapu mentioned that he’s received interest in exporting the beer as well as contract brewing the brand in France. I think the main enjoyment one would get from this beer is experiencing pia Rapa Nui on its remote island home. And it seemed Rapu understood as much since he said he first wants to build it up on Rapa Nui. And now that I’ve been, I can promise there are far worse places on this planet to enjoy a beer.


Patagonia, Argentina

Lupulo y Malta Patagonicos

Three things about Patagonian beers piqued my curiosity. The first was that the labels—naturally in Spanish—list the ingredients, including “lupulo Patagonico.” Fuegian Beverage Co.’s Gustavo Alvarez confirmed that all their hops are, indeed, grown in the region by a company called Lúpulos Patagónicos. The Cascade hops used in the Cape Horn Pale Ale are grown in El Bolsón on the Argentine side of the Andes at the 42nd Parallel. They also grow Nugget and Bullion hops, and another varietal found at the brewery called Mapuche originated in Argentina and provides floral and citrusy flavors and aromas.

The second curious item: The malts are also from Argentina, according to Alvarez. The malta chocolate used in Beagle Negra, a cream stout that tastes more like a thin brown porter, gives this grainy 7.8% number its roasty edge. That’s when it hit me: It’s no wonder that Latin American roasted malts, like its coffees, are earthier.

The third thing I asked about was the 1,000 mL bottle. When the largest format bottle you’re apt to find in the U.S. is a 750 mL, the visual of a full liter bottle is eye-opening. It in no way means customers drink too much. Instead, Alvarez’s ethnographic explanation was that Argentinians have a drinking culture in which they pass around gourds of a drink communally and, since the most expensive aspect of a bottle of cerveza is the bottle itself, these non-germophobes pass the liter bottle around to share.



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