In a humble Argentine valley, a small band of bohemian brewers are quietly changing the national face of beer.
By Nate Storey
Deep inside Argentina’s Patagonia—a windswept region of frosted peaks, massive glaciers, and crystalline rivers—undulating meadows of hops unfold around a glorified hippie commune in a valley sheltered by the hulking Mount Piltriquitrón. El Bolsón is an artisan outpost at the end of the Earth, where flower-power porteños went to find “free love” in the early 1970s. Its hippie roots are still evident at the weekly crafts markets, where long-haired townies hawk jams, produce, chocolates, fruits, trinkets and beer. Copious amounts of beer. Lagers. Ales. Raspberry-flavored brews. Chili-pepper pints.
El Bolsón is where Argentina’s beer story begins, like Mendoza—its grape-shrouded counterpart to the north—is for wine. Argentina is a vino country. There’s no disputing that. Flagons of Malbec grace every dinner table and accompany any asado. But Patagonia has a rich beer tradition as well. Its roots trace back to the late 19th century, when a German named Otto Tipp popped over the border from Chile and taught locals how to cultivate hops.
But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that anyone with a garage began churning out liters of beer by the caskload. The El Bolsón Regional Fair was conceived and quickly became a platform for neophyte beer makers to showcase their freshly brewed batches. Over the ensuing years, a few emerged as town staples, and to this day pour frothy mugs for natives and adventurists passing through this small town on the Pampas. The annual hops festival in February is a celebration of this legacy, drawing peripatetic beer mavens from across the globe.
As beer goes, industry giants like Quilmes dominate the marketplace. Over the last decade, however, the winds of change have begun wafting microbrew into the country’s taps. Cervezas artesanales from diminutive breweries now stake shelf space at gastropubs in the Capital Federal. The conversation is changing. Quilmes’ rollout of new varieties like a stout, bock and red lager over the past few years is evidence enough that the brew behemoth doesn’t view the craft revolution as a fleeting trend. Argentines are displaying a more persnickety palate with their brewskis, and why not? A deluge of options is pouring onto the scene. What’s happening in the valleys of El Bolsón has been decades in the making, and its namesake brewery is leading the charge.
The eponymous El Bolsón brewery is the largest purveyor of these craft suds, a hop shop that has emerged as the region’s most ubiquitous, reaching taps from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires to Tucumán. But while Cerveza El Bolsón may have the vastest reach, each and every one of the town’s 30-plus breweries has a compelling story to tell.
It’s difficult to walk two blocks in El Bolsón without stumbling across a brewing operation, makeshift or otherwise. There are a few bulwarks, though, that solidify the town’s bona fides.
It’s only appropriate that the pioneer responsible for endowing Argentina with an alternative to the grape be honored with his own beverage. The mom-and-pop brewpub Otto Tipp does precisely that, paying homage to Mr. Tipp with six beers at its black-and-red chalet and pairing the draughts with fresh river trout dished out at the adjacent restaurant. Two blocks from the town center, passionate and humble Adolfo Acosta produces Araucana’s collection, like the revered cloudy blond ale, in a remodeled auto repair shop. Acosta has the athletic build of a hiker, short hair and a neatly kept graying beard. His brewery nonchalantly positioned off the shoulder of a dusty gravel road, Acosta’s ascendance from homebrewer to regional supplier has been nine years in the making; a testament to the creative spirit that channels through El Bolsón’s veins.
On the town’s southern outskirts, an amber wooden sign wedged between two narrow tree trunks points thirsty visitors in seek of a tipple down a road to nowhere. Cerveza Vikinga is run out of a tiny garage amid a cluster of pines. The husband-and-wife team behind the effort has been peddling their pale ale and stout at farmers markets since 2005. The pony-tailed Gerardo has been honing his skills for 10 years out in the woods with his bohemian wife and their dog. They can be found doling out cold ones to hikers traversing the surrounding mountain trails or sightseers making a pitstop on their way to Parque Nacional Lago Puelo.
The region is a cradle for these charming, hodgepodge breweries. But only Cerveza El Bolsón can claim to have made the leap from small-town markets to big-city bars. The brand is the product of one man’s hobby, started for friends and fun in the early ’80s. Juan Carlos Bahlaj is a Ukrainian-born nomad whose campervan tour took him all over Europe and the Americas. A pudgy man with a scruffy Che Guevara beard, his globetrotting eventually landed him in El Bolsón after a stint in Buenos Aires as a window-and-door salesman. His salt-of-the-earth persona effortlessly meshed with his new surroundings and he soon took up the town trade. He didn’t know at the time that his affinity for beer-making would later birth Argentina’s first craft brewery in 1986. His family-owned operation grew into a national brewery by 1992 and, with his son Guillermo Bahlaj, a chemical engineer, running management, is thriving more than ever today. From his command post in the thin-aired Andes, Bahlaj creates 18 flavors sourced from local fruits (raspberries, cherries), vegetables (chili peppers), and even chocolate—all brewed with the immaculate water from surrounding rivers and lakes. He also dabbles in saving the world—as he sees it—by producing three gluten-free beers for people with Celiac disease. His cases and kegs ship to every corner of the country. Businessmen sip them after work at beer halls in the capital. Farmers tip them back on their stoops in the northern jungles. Even Mendoza’s vintners pivot from their sumptuous reds when they need relief in the thick of the South American summer. Cerveza El Bolsón might not be a Quilmes-killer per se, but in concert with other budding microbreweries across the country, it’s giving Argentines a precious gift: options.
On the northern edge of his hometown next to a rustic campsite, Bahlaj leads daily tours into his malting station, where guests can taste his collection directly from the maturation tanks. Revelers fill the indoor beer garden in the evenings as the sun creeps up the jagged mountains outside the large windows, chomping on picadas and sausages bathed with housemade beer mustard. Times are good. Bahlaj claims he can’t make enough beer to keep up with demand.
Cerveza El Bolsón’s story mirrors Argentina’s continuing beer evolution. Thanks to a bundle of ragtag brewers, an artsy mountain town abundant with hops meadows, and pioneers like Bahlaj, the progressive march forward seems keen to continue. •