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Chile’s new craft

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In a country known for wine, a beer scene grows.

By Nicholas Gill

A few years ago, a friend in Santiago told me he was thinking of investing in a beer company. “In Chile?” I asked. A winery, sure. But a brewery?

While the craft beer movement elsewhere in South America is limited to a few breweries, Chile is another story. The 3,000-mile-long nation has anywhere between 120 and 150 active microbreweries ranging from backyard brewers in rural Patagonia to sophisticated productions outside the Santiago metropolitan area.

To begin a Chilean craft beer tour, Santiago’s Cervecería Nacional, a brick-walled beer bar in the bohemian Barrio Yungay, is the obvious starting point. Drop it in Brooklyn or Portland, and one wouldn’t know the difference. There’s a house barleywine and a house porter fermented in French oak, though the primary reason for coming is the selection of 70 or so Chilean craft beers. Many of the beers hail from the more German-influenced south of the country, especially around Valdivia, known for its soft river waters that make for decent brews. While there are many blonds and lagers, there are also beers like Newen’s Pehuén Ale from Villarica brewed with the Araucaria tree’s fruit, el piñon, which is gathered by hand by Pehuenche families in the Andes. Even more exotic are the two beers from the small Easter Island brewery Cervecería Rapa Nui partially owned by Mike Rapu, once the world underwater breathing champion. Its stout and a pale ale are brewed with rainwater on the island, a Chilean territory 2,000 miles from the mainland. The bar also serves beef tongue sandwiches with stout mayo and tablas (charcuterie plates).

Beers from Santiago, the most award-winning, are no less intriguing. Chilean drinkers have yet to accept overly hoppy beers, though a few brewers appear to be total hopheads. There’s Brutal Hops, a double IPA from Rothhammer brewery, owned by former pro snowboarder Sebastián Rothhammer, who also puts out an oak stout and a double barleywine. Microcerveceria Capital also brews a hopped-up pale ale that was named the best in the country by the Guía de las Cervezas de Chile in 2009.

The next afternoon, I caught a bus to the small town of Talagante to the Szot brewery for one of its Saturday tastings. It’s owned by Kevin Szot, a onetime banker in his early fifties and a California native who, along with his Chilean wife, dropped his life savings into a secondhand Belgian-built brewing plant in 2006 that he installed in a rural Santiago suburb. He doesn’t filter or pasteurize, or even add Irish moss after the boil; every beer is naturally fermented, meets requirements for British real ale, and complies with the original German purity law.

When Szot launched, laws pertaining to craft beer were lagging. He tried to brew a beer with quinoa, but the local agriculture authority said it wasn’t a permitted grain. “I argued that it is not even a grain, but a seed, and if that was the case, they should also eliminate wheat beers since that ‘grain’ is also not on their list,” he says. “Another brewer further south has been brewing a beer with quinoa, apparently with no problems yet.”

My favorite is his Wild Lager, a steam beer that got contaminated in 2008, probably from wild bacteria from the rose garden next door. The bottles sat in a corner of the brewery until the 2010 earthquake knocked some over, and they cracked a few open.

“Gone was the initial flavor, replaced by a fruity quince and apple taste, with a slight sour touch,” says Szot. “We have now done two more productions on purpose, one of which is now in bottles aging for 2014, the other is in a maturation tank where we have added French toasted oak, probably for a 2015 release.“

Mass-produced lager Cristal has long been the country’s top-selling beer, though several smaller breweries have been making inroads. Kunstmann brewery, operated by descendants of some of the first Germans recruited by the Chilean government in the 1800s to settle the south of the country, has produced German-style ales and lagers since 1997; they’re now on tap in almost every bar in the country. Similarly, Austral, founded a century ago by German José Fischer in Punta Arenas at the tip of Patagonia, caught the attention of beer geeks by adding the beloved calafate (a Patagonian berry) to a pale ale. Both breweries have been snatched up by corporate beer giant Cervecera CCU, which owns Cristal, but others are lining up to take their place.

Before heading toward the coast, I stopped by Cerveza Artesanal Leyenda, in the industrial neighborhood of Ñuñoa.

“I was a secretary for 25 years, but I was bored,” says owner Loreto Cruz. She launched the tiny brewery in 2008 after taking a weekend brewing course and borrowing money from family. She and an assistant have already increased capacity to meet demand for her porter, ESB and golden ale. She’s found it easy to stand out in Chile’s macho beer culture; young Santiago women in particular are drawn to her and her seven-hour homebrewing courses.

In Curacaví, in the Casablanca Valley between Santiago and Valparaiso, some of Chile’s best white wines are produced. It’s also home to Kross, which opened in 2003 and has become one of Chile’s fastest-growing breweries, particularly after the world’s largest winery, Concha y Toro, took a stake in 2011. Inside the large facility, it’s clear Kross is ambitious; the giant, sparkling new stainless steel equipment puts some of Chile’s top wineries to shame.

As Kross expands, its German head brewer (and one of Chile’s only professionally trained brewmasters) Asbjorn Gerlach is becoming increasingly experimental. His Kross 5, an oak-aged American strong ale, and Lupulus, a hoppy ESB, are among the country’s most decorated beers. They’re finding success on an international scale at the now annual Copa Cervezas de América, which Chilean brewers are dominating, and the Australian International Beer Awards. Then there’s his Grand Cru, an imperial brown ale brewed with merlot yeast and aged five months in French oak barrels. Its color is closer to burgundy and its flavor akin to a sweet port, but citrus notes keep it balanced.

There are standouts along the coast, like Valparaiso’s Cervecera del Puerto, whose blond ale I sipped with a plate of chorrillana (fries slathered in beef and onions) at the J Cruz Casino Social, the back-alley bar where it originated, and the promising porter and Scottish ale from Kobold in nearby Mantagua. Later, I sat at a café terrace staring at the twinkling lights of Valparaiso draped across the steep hillsides. A waiter recommends a glass of Carménère. For a moment I don’t know where I am. I had completely forgotten that Chile made wine.