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Brazil’s beer fingerprint

Brazilian brewers turn to native plants, wood and yeast to create their beers' national identity.
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Photo by Andrew Jenner for DRAFT

Photos by Andrew Jenner for DRAFT

Anna Maria da Silva came from humble beginnings. Born in 1918 to Austrian immigrants, she spent a difficult, impoverished childhood in the backwaters of southern Brazil. At 18 and newly married and looking for a better life, she and her husband struck out for the burgeoning city of Porto Alegre. They were among the first to settle on a hillside on the outskirts of town, where long before, according to local legend, a young woman named Maria had her throat slit by an enraged lover. People called the place Maria Degolada—Headless Maria. As the decades passed, the city and the favela on the hillside, officially known as Vila Maria da Conceição, grew. Anna Maria raised three daughters there. Those daughters raised their own families there.

“It’s a very Brazilian story,” says Glauco Caon, one of Anna Maria’s grandsons. “Brazil is made of stories like [hers].”
In 2007, when Caon and his brother founded a brewery, they picked a name to honor their grandmother, still alive then and still a great fan of beer: Anner. It had been her family’s name, one Anna Maria had long treasured even though her immigrant parents gave her a much more Brazilian surname, da Silva, in an effort to integrate. Anner’s tripel earned mention in the 2013 book “Boutique Beer: 500 of the World’s Finest Craft Brews” by British beer critic Ben McFarland. Caon was further looking to his roots when he named the beer Maria Degolada. His mother, who still lives in the neighborhood, designed the label in the cordel style, a traditional Brazilian woodcut used to illustrate cheap booklets of folk stories and poetry. It shows Maria Degolada walking the street, holding her severed head aloft.

Though less than a decade old, Anner (now a brand of Caon’s current brewing company, Cervejaria AN2) is among the old guard of Brazilian microbreweries. Caon’s hometown of Porto Alegre, for example, has a microbrew district where nine breweries now operate within a few blocks. None are more than six years old. Raphael Rodrigues, a journalist who runs Brazil-focused beer blog All Beers, recalls that “news about Brazilian craft beer was pretty rare” when he founded the site in 2009. Now, hardly a day passes when some news about a new brewery or new beer doesn’t show up in his inbox.

Although the industry’s rapid growth has outpaced authoritative statistics, there are now, at best guess, around 300 craft breweries in Brazil capturing about one percent of the country’s beer market. The longer-established scene in the United States has inspired much of this growth. Specialty beer stores and bar menus are full of hoppy American styles, particularly IPAs and pale ales. English-language labels and the boisterous graphic design aesthetic widespread in the American scene are also common.

Sitting in the loft of a nondescript industrial building he’s converting into an expanded brewery, Caon declares his love for American beers. “I’m a big fan. But…” He trails off.

It’s a sunny December day, high summer some 2,000 miles south of the equator. Outside, banana trees along the street sway in the breeze. American beers are great, but Brazil is not America, and Caon, along with a number of other like-minded craft brewers, would rather innovate than imitate.

In an interview published online on paladar.estadao.com.br, he acknowledged that copying better-known foreign styles and brands was an important marketing strategy for Brazil’s nascent craft beer industry.

“But now, things are different,” Caon continued, in the same interview. “It’s strange that we don’t take advantage of the rich Brazilian culture—our reality, our history, our daily life—to create a Brazilian beer identity.”

An obvious place for Brazilian brewers to begin is with the natural abundance for which their country is famous.

“We have such richness all around us, and we tend to underestimate it,” says Tiago Genehr, who runs a nanobrewery, Cerveja Sideral, in the southern city of Novo Hamburgo.

Some of Genehr’s recent beers include a pink peppercorn wheat beer and saisons brewed with guava and tangerine. Far to the north in Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon, Amazon Beer has made a name for itself by brewing with even more exotic rainforest ingredients. Among their regular lineup is an acai stout, chosen as Brazil’s best craft beer at the 2014 Brazilian Beer Festival; a wit brewed with the tapereba fruit (also known as the hog plum); an IPA flavored with a vanillalike seed called cumaru; and a red ale with priprioca, a root with nutritional and medicinal uses.

“We can explore this much more,” says beer writer Raphael Rodrigues, who believes tropical fruits and spices could be the basis for development of a distinctive Brazilian style. “It won’t be known as a ‘bitter’ or a ‘sweet’ style, but as one that uses ingredients that aren’t the usual ones in beer.”

Brazil’s forests also represent brewing potential in the form of wood (the country itself is named for the Brazil tree, which was used to make a red dye and was the first natural resource felled by the Portuguese). Way Beer, near the city of Curitiba, has pioneered this aspect of Brazilian brewing with its Amburana Lager, aged in barrels made from Amburana wood. The process adds color, aroma and a distinctive flavor to the beer, leading many to regard it as a great example of an ale that’s purely “Brazilian.”

An evening outside Ceverja Sideral in Novo Hamburgo

An evening outside Ceverja Sideral in Novo Hamburgo

A third approach—one long pursued by American brewers—is the fusion of styles. When a young brewer from São Paulo named Bruno Moreno first heard of a black IPA, the word cafuza popped into his head. One of many terms used to describe skin color and heritage in Brazil’s extremely diverse society, cafuza refers to a person of African and indigenous descent. With that idea mind, Moreno used American hops and dark malts to brew an imperial India black ale reflecting his country’s diversity.

Cafuza started some years ago as a homebrew that Moreno distributed among friends. After it generated considerable buzz among Brazilian beer fans, Moreno gave it wider commercial release through Cervejaria Dogma, a brewery he co-founded. “Beer doesn’t just have to be about the recipe,” says Moreno. “The [Cafuza] recipe is a typical American one, but everything behind that beer is Brazilian. The name, the concept, it’s all very Brazilian.”

Given that Brazil has a population of more than 200 million and a land area larger than the contiguous U.S., it may be impossible to talk about any one Brazilian style. And not all Brazilian craft brewers who concern themselves with the matter agree on the means to their end. Caon, for example, dismisses brewing with little-known Brazilian fruits or aging in exotic woods as variations on well-established techniques from abroad.

In his mind, grounding his brewery and beers like Maria Degolada in Brazilian narratives is a small first step; not enough to constitute a stand-alone Brazilian identity. To truly make a mark on the globalbeer scene, Caon—who also has a doctorate degree in marine biology and a postdoctoral in biochemistry with beer—has turned to the laboratory.

For many years, the origin of lager yeast had long baffled scientists. Then, in 2011, a research team found the answer in an Argentinian forest. Genetic analysis of a wild yeast species found there showed that, centuries ago, it hitched a boat back to Europe, hybridized with ale yeast and allowed brewers in Bavaria to develop the first lagers about 500 years ago.

Caon was inspired. If a South American yeast had already revolutionized beer once before, what else might be lurking out there? In 2011, he began a post-doctoral research program, looking for wild Brazilian yeasts that might rewrite beer history again.

Working with samples primarily collected in the mountain forests of southern Brazil, Caon has so far tried brewing with more than a dozen species of wild yeast. Three excite him: One makes
a low-alcohol, saisonlike beer; another produces an extremely dry and astringent beer with hints of cashew fruit; and a third makes a sour beer. Two are previously known to science but haven’t been used in commercial brewing; another is an entirely new species (because the research isn’t published yet, Caon declined to identify it.)

“I’m going crazy to bring these beers to the public,” he says.

That’s on hold for now, though, thanks to Brazilian laws regulating commercial use of its biodiversity. Cain’s applications to begin brewing with the yeasts he’s found have been stuck in a bureaucratic logjam for years. While his research continues, Caon isn’t sure if or when AN2 will be able to release new, distinctively Brazilian beers with the yeasts gleaned from the woods.

Despite the bureaucracy, despite the simple economic challenges of staying afloat—particularly with Brazil mired in deep recession—the scene is buzzing now. The future is wide open. Who knows what will happen?

“We’re at the beginning of a process,” says Micael Eckert, founder of Coruja, another well-established and respected brewery in Porto Alegre. “There’s no Niemeyer of Brazilian beer.”

He’s referring to Oscar Niemeyer, a trailblazing giant of 20th-century architecture whose iconic designs include the striking government buildings in Brasília. Of course, Niemeyer himself was also once at the fledgling stage.

And so, in Brazil, a massive country with an exploding taste for craft beer, ideas are fermenting. Brewers are playing with fruits and woods you’ve never heard of. They’re mashing up styles in way that reflect society around them. They’re combing the woods for yet-unknown, microscopic fungi that might put an entirely new spin on beer as we now know it.

“We almost have a responsibility to offer something to Europe and the U.S.,” says Genehr, sitting in his quiet tasting room before a Friday evening crowd wanders in. “Maybe someday these styles will be brewed up in the Northern Hemisphere.”

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Five to know

Antônio Salimen, founder of Locals Only, a specialty beer bar in Porto Alegre, Brazil, shares tasting notes and pairings for five distinctively Brazilian beers:

Amazon Beer Stout Açaí
Brewed with the acai fruit, this 7.2% stout gives off an intense aroma of roasted coffee and dark red fruit before a dry finish. The acas discreetly accompanies the beer’s toasty flavors.
Pair with: lamb; red fruit cheesecake

Cervejaria Dogma Cafuza Imperial India Black Ale
The intermingling of black and indigenous Brazilians during the colonial era inspired the name of this beer, a perfect combination of an imperial stout and an IPA. Cafuza pairs a powerful, citrusy hop aroma with coffee and chocolate flavors, a medium body and the sweetness necessary to round out its 8.5% ABV.
Pair with: red meats like southern Brazilian 12-hour roast beef; a traditional Brazilian feijoada served with collards, fried cassava flour and oranges

Cervejaria Colorado Appia Weiss
With a golden yellow color and medium-sized head, Appia has a strong, sweet aroma of honey. This highly drinkable wheat ale is perfect for Brazil’s tropical climate.
Pair with: poultry and seafood

Way Beer Amburana Lager
Named for the wood barrels in which it is aged, Amburana Lager has an attractive dark ruby color and an intense aroma of wood, cachaca liquor, dark fruits and vanilla. Its complexity and high alcohol content make this a beer best enjoyed slowly.
Pair with: ham hocks (Einsbein) prepared in the classic German-South American style

Cerveja Coruja Strix India Pale Lager
This almond-colored beer exhibits a substantial head and has a hoppy, lightly smoky aroma. Strix IPL combines the smoothness of a Vienna lager with the personality of an IPA—a good example of a Brazilian-brewed beer with both local personality and clear North American influence.
Pair with: pork chops and smoked sausages; mature cheeses

 

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