Project Description

Enroute Magazine, 12/12

Change is brewing in Santiago, where artisanal beers are giving local wines a run for their money.

It’s 11 p.m. on a Thursday, and Santiago’s bohemian set, clad in black denim, oversize knit caps and striped shirts, is piling into Cervecería Nacional. The sunken pub in hopping Barrio Yungay has me feeling dizzy before I even order a drink. Its 40-bottle beer menu and ambitious tap list, all scrawled on a huge chalkboard that hangs on an exposed brick wall, offer everything from barley wines to India pale ales. Should I go for the Mahina stout brewed on Easter Island using rainwater? Or maybe a magnum-size ale from the local Quimera brewery. Sure, I’m in Chile, but when I swivel around on my bar stool, I don’t see a single glass of cab sauv, this being the vanguard of the wine-loving country’s craft beer scene.

Chile’s brew culture bubbled up only about 15 years ago, when Armin Kunstmann, a descendant of the country’s first German settlers who arrived here in the mid-1800s, decided to revive the old brewing traditions of his forefathers. He opened Kunstmann brewery in Valdivia, some 800 kilometres south of Santiago. It’s now the most successful craft brand in the country, producing 1 million litres of beer per year, enjoyed by hop heads as far-flung as South Korea. Kunstmann’s success sparked a whole industry. In 2008, Chile had about 125 varieties of craft beer; today there are over 400.

“A few years ago, there was no artisanal beer culture here,” Loreto Cruz Miralles tells me from Cerveza Artesanal Leyenda, her microbrewery in a tiny storefront in the Ñuñoa neighbourhood. After working for 25 years as a secretary, the mother of two left her job and set about becoming a maestra cervecera, home-brewing from the back of her kitchen and testing her recipes on friends and family until Leyenda was launched in 2008.

The set-up is so small that I find Cruz and her young assistant standing taller than the huge stainless steel kettle they’re using to boil the barley in. (Most brewers have a stepladder to reach into their giant pots.) Despite winning multiple awards for her beers, Cruz, sporting her signature pair of zebra-print rubber boots, says she doesn’t want to expand production. She prefers the artisanal nature of doing everything by hand: mashing, boiling and fermenting her brew; capping and labelling each bottle herself; then putting them in a cold storage room upstairs to mature for almost a month before shipping them off to bars and hotels throughout the country.

“Drinkers here are quickly moving from commercial to craft beer,” Cruz says, showing me around her store and tasting bar, where Leyenda’s four English-style ales are offered to thirsty pilgrims. I take a few bottles of her golden ale back to my apartment. They pour like hazy sunshine, with notes of fresh bread, hay and lemon grass that highlight the sweetness of the prawns I picked up at Mercado Central.Much of Santiago’s beer scene remains under the radar, I realize, while strolling through a sprawling industrial park in search of the Rothhammer brewery. “Dónde está la cervecería?” I ask a group of mechanics in my broken Spanish. A grey-haired man shakes his head, wiping his hands on his navy coveralls. He has no idea that his shop is located next to one of the country’s best breweries, which, it turns out, is housed in a compact former garage that’s right around the corner.

Sebastián Rothhammer greets me from a stepladder perched over a giant metal pot as he checks on his rapidly boiling wort. The tall curly-haired ex-pro snowboarder brushes some dried malt from his hoodie before climbing down to shake my hand. “I started making beer that I like to drink because I couldn’t find it here in Chile,” he explains.

Teaming up with his two brothers and a friend, he founded Rothhammer in 2010. It already has the boldest beer lineup in the country, including Brutal Hops, a bitingly bitter double IPA, and Cosmos, a double barley wine that clocks in at 9 percent alcohol by volume. “We began by introducing good basic brews, like our golden ale, but with each new one we do something more complex.” He hands me a glass of his Bones of Oak stout. I bring it to my nose and get a hit of chocolate and smoke – the result of oak chips being added to the fermenter.

Even in Malloco, a village 45 minutes southwest of Santiago that’s known as Little Bavaria, the brews come with a distinct terroir. Having made the trek out on a bus, I duck into Der Münchner, a restaurant filled with stuffed stags, dirndl-clad waitresses carrying generous plates of bratwurst, and even oompahpah tunes, courtesy of a white-haired chap seated at an electric keyboard.

Sebastián Rothhammer greets me from a stepladder perched over a giant metal pot as he checks on his rapidly boiling wort. The tall curly-haired ex-pro snowboarder brushes some dried malt from his hoodie before climbing down to shake my hand. “I started making beer that I like to drink because I couldn’t find it here in Chile,” he explains.

Teaming up with his two brothers and a friend, he founded Rothhammer in 2010. It already has the boldest beer lineup in the country, including Brutal Hops, a bitingly bitter double IPA, and Cosmos, a double barley wine that clocks in at 9 percent alcohol by volume. “We began by introducing good basic brews, like our golden ale, but with each new one we do something more complex.” He hands me a glass of his Bones of Oak stout. I bring it to my nose and get a hit of chocolate and smoke – the result of oak chips being added to the fermenter.

Even in Malloco, a village 45 minutes southwest of Santiago that’s known as Little Bavaria, the brews come with a distinct terroir. Having made the trek out on a bus, I duck into Der Münchner, a restaurant filled with stuffed stags, dirndl-clad waitresses carrying generous plates of bratwurst, and even oompahpah tunes, courtesy of a white-haired chap seated at an electric keyboard.

Most diners here are shunning the classic Teutonic brew, Erdinger, in favour of a national riff on German-style suds. I order Austral’s Calafate ale, which adds the eponymous calafate (a black Patagonian berry) to a basic pale ale. Embracing new ingredients goes against strict German brewing traditions, which stipulate beer can only be made with four items (water, hops, barley and yeast). But Chile’s craft brewers are breaking the old rules, encouraging an open, experimental brewing culture in the process.

“I made a batch where something went wrong,” Kevin Szot tells me at his Szot Microbrewery, a 10-minute walk from Der Münchner. “It might have been wild bacteria from the rose garden next door that soured the beer.” But instead of chucking the brew, he took inspiration from the lambic beers of Belgium, where wild yeasts from a valley full of cherry trees naturally ferment the wort that’s kept in open vats. A sip reveals notes of brown sugar, sourdough and sour plum.

Szot, a tall California expat with round tortoiseshell glasses, prides himself on producing extreme ales, including a barley wine. The brooding red liquid he pours in my glass seems the perfect gateway brew for the oenophile nation. Its big notes of sherry, port and deep-red fruits are not unlike the local cabernets, with the hops adding a dry, bitter balance similar to tannins in wine. “Next year, I’m hoping to toast some Chilean wood,” Szot says, “to give the brew that barrel-aged character.”

Back in Santiago, I head to St. Patrick’s Day bar in trendy Barrio Brasil. Tables of rowdy students share steaming plates of chorrillana – a kind of Chilean poutine with layers of steak strips, eggs and onions over thick-cut fries – washing it down with pitchers of crisp pilsner from Kross, a respected microbrewery located an hour outside the city.

In one of the beer fridges I spot a gold-embossed box labelled “Kross Grand Cru,” a limited-edition Imperial brown ale brewed with merlot yeast and matured in French oak barrels for five months, with a bit of port dumped in for good measure. At $20 a bottle, it’s by far the most expensive beer I’ve seen in Chile, but a Grand Cru needs to be drunk. I pop the cap and take a sip back at my table. The muddy red brew has notes of blackcurrants, vanilla and toast that compete with sweeter date and raisin flavours, punched up by a sudden grapefruit finish. Sure, it’s busy, but it’s also bold and full of potential. All it needs is a little time to mature.