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Sizing Up South American Beer

beer can collage

From October 2001 to March 2002 my wife and I conducted a circuit of all countries in South America. As part of our activities we sampled beers in all 13 countries. The following is not a critique of the beers themselves but a commentary on beer brands, availability and drinking in general. With few exceptions the beer is light lager suited to a hot climate. Unless specifically mentioned the reader can assume that is what is being described.

Our first stop was Caracas, Venezuela the temperature and humidity were both in the 90's, so the ice cold "Polar" with the picture of the big white bear on the label was really appreciated. Polar is the main brand and is normally served in 355 ml cans. "Regional" is brewed in Maracaibo and also comes in cans and has a light version also. Outside the big cities the cans shrink to 250 ml. The 220 ml bottle of Polar we were served in a restaurant would be the smallest of the trip.

Columbia yielded a larger variety of beer "Aquila" and "Poker" came in 300 cm3 bottles. What does cm3 do to my beer? It certainly doesn't make it any bigger. And "Columbia Club" in 250 cm3 combined with slow service was a real challenge to our thirst. Maybe the fact that "Costena" came in 350 cm3 made it taste better; we had a few extras. Basically Columbia was not a big beer drinking country and bars were hard to find. Restaurants were not really thrilled to just serve drinks.

But Ecuador provided lots of different beers in lots of sizes. "Pilsner" in 578 ml bottles seemed really big after "Columbia" and "Nevada" in a 1000 ml jug was a really big beer. Of course just when you get used to good sizes "Biela" and "Dorada" shrink to 300 ml. Biela did provide the best advertising -- a picture of a lovely young lady in a very small bikini with the caption "Just take off the top." The thrill of Ecuador's victory over Bolivia in the world cup qualifier would have made any beer taste good; a lot of Dorada disappeared during the street party during and after the match.

Moving on to Peru the sizes changed again "Pilsen" and "Cristal" came in 620 ml bottles. After years of seeing cans of "Brahma Chopp" from Brazil it was a shock to learn that chopp (pronounced shop) means draft beer. A bar with a chopp sign serves draft beer, most serve only bottles. Our guidebook said chopp was cheaper, but not in our experience. Finding "Cristal" and "Pilsen Trujillo" in 1.1 liter bottles made our limit of four bottles a day a lot easier to endure. That was the biggest size we encountered. Switching regions saw the big bottles disappear to be replaced by 620 ml bottles of "Cosquena" and "Arequipena" the "ena" at the end means that the beer comes from that town. Our next discovery was one we could have skipped. Our waitress served us two beers, two glasses and a large plastic tub. We weren't sure what the tub was for, so as is our custom we watched the locals. Much to our disgust we watched a guy take a sip of beer, hold it in his mouth, and then spit it in to the tub. When the tub was full the waitress removed it and gave him and empty. It might be a way of avoiding drunkenness but since we were walking we saw no reason not to swallow our beer. Another variety we couldn't quite swallow was "Chicha," the local corn beer which is served directly from an open stainless steel tub still fermenting away. It had a slightly sour taste and after watching people spitting their beer back into tubs you wondered about the ingredients. A toothless old lady, who was downing large amounts, got a big kick out of watching our expressions as we took small sips and returned the glass. Different areas have different forms of chicha. Some is sweet and given to children, but it all has a dubious history. Speaking of sweet "Arequipena Dark Malta" is exactly that and at 5.6 percent alcohol is really potent. By the way, the word for cold in most Spanish speaking countries is "fria." When we were asked if we wanted our beer (cerveza) "helada" we misunderstood and thought they said "lata," which is the word for can. So we said "no, una botella grande" a big bottle. We would then receive a bottle of warm beer. Finally we figured it out and got a very cold bottle of beer. Helada is very close to helado, which is ice cream. Helada beer is kept in the ice cream freezer. On one occasion it was actually congealdo, frozen solid.

Bolivia is dominated by the "Pilsener" label, which is brewed by Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional. In the La Paz area it's called "La Paz", in the south "Tropical" and in the mountains "Huari" and "Ducal." It all comes in 620 cc bottles. Once again we assumed that meant ml. But if some math major knows any difference feel free to explain it. "Taquina" was the exception coming in 1 liter bottles. It was pretty pricey so we stuck with the 620's. "Brahma Chopp" from Brazil was also available in cans, and cheaper than the local brands. "El Inca Malta" sounded pretty good. It wasn't. It was very sweet and only 3.5 percent. Our waiter had a sly smile on his face when we ordered a "Pacena" to mix with the very dark beer. Speaking of waiters, due to the high altitude in most of Bolivia the beer is very fizzy. The waiters take great pride in opening the bottles with a flourish and causing a loud popping noise like champagne. It also made it difficult to get a full beer in your glass. Our favorite bar was "The Deposito Bar." A deposito is like a warehouse and that's what this place was with cases of beer stacked everywhere. The waitress simply pulled a room temperature bottle out of a case and served it to you, placing an empty back where she just took the full one. Kind of basic, but very cheap. You could even have a South American shandy: orange "Fanta" and beer (ugh).

Northern Chile's main beer is "Cristal," not related to the one in Peru. It is the most popular "schop" (draft) beer and is served in schoperias, which are very common -- one on every block. "Cristal," "Becker's," "Paulander," "Royal Guard" and "Baltica Dry" come in 660 cc and 1000 cc bottles. We did notice a lot of motorcycles so maybe that's why they use C.C. We did find a schoperia that did 2 liter pitchers as well as 330 cc bottles. It was in Antofagasta that we found a beer we really liked, "Escudo." It's maltier and a little darker than the rest and is available in all sizes including cans. For those that aren't aware Escudo is the name of the currency in Portugal, but as far as I know there is no connection.

Further south we encountered beers from different breweries. "Kunstmann" makes a pale ale which was a disappointment being rather flat. "Morenita Special de Sur" and "Malta" from the same brewery were O.K. In Patagonia you find beers from the world's southern most brewery, "Austral," which is located in Punta Arenas. Besides their namesake brand they make "Polar Imperial." It comes only in 330 cc bottles and is not related to "Polar" in Venezuela. This Polar has more right to the label being a lot closer to the South Pole. "Maracaibo Dark", which was really good, has the same name as a huge lake in Venezuela, so maybe they traded. We had only a single 1 liter bottle and would have liked more.

We did have a bit of a tussle at a supermarket where we bought several bottles of beer to last us over the Christmas weekend. There was a very large deposit, like 50 cents each, but we weren't concerned since we planned to get our money back. We even saved the receipt knowing that markets in that part of the world don't like to pay refunds on bottles bought elsewhere. On our last morning in a picturesque town we turned up at the exchange booth with four dollars worth of bottles and asked for our money. The young man behind the counter looked bewildered and said we couldn't have our money, only a token equal to that many bottles and we couldn't use the token to buy anything else. Undeterred we went to the managers office where we faced more refusals and were then either ignored or stared at by clerks and assistants, who obviously found us annoying. Finally they surrendered and found the jeffe (boss) who spoke English. He patiently explained that it was not their policy to return our money, we could buy more beverages but the bottles were ours. The fact that we were leaving the town never to return was our problem. He had never dealt with two people as cheap as us before. I very calmly explained (this would surprise people who know me) that I had purchased the bottles in his store and wished to return them because I was dissatisfied with them and wanted my money back. This argument won the case, he had better things to do, but this wasn't the end. He took us to the head cashier and told her to refund our money, she was very upset and was reluctant to comply. But finally, after using a computer terminal and printing out a multi-part form, she led us to a cashier who with a look of amazement surrendered the money. This store is in a resort area and a majority of its customers are tourists they must make a good profit on bottle sales. We never had that problem again.

"Quilmes" is the major beer of Argentina. They sponsor not only the national football (soccer) team, but several other clubs. When you see the fans crowded into the bars watching the games you know it's a good investment. I think they make this up by putting only 970 cm3 of beer in each bottle. Of course "Schnieder," "Palermo," "Iguana" and "Isenbech" do the same thing. I don't know what their excuse is. The restaurants get even smaller by serving 650 cm3 bottles. At least the "Brahma" and "Quilmes Bock," as well as the "Schneider Negra," are good hearty beers -- but I would still like the 30 cm3 of beer they shorted me.

It's questionable whether it was a good or bad thing that our driver passed by the "El Bolson" camping ground/brewery without stopping -- we might still be there. We hoped to make up for that when we found the "Whirra Brew Pub" in El Calafate. However, after paying the outrageous price of $4.50 U.S. for a 12 oz "Dark Beer," not only was the name uninspired, but we were served a highly carbonated beverage that was half beer and half foam. When we asked to have our glasses topped off, the barman reluctantly added about half of what was owed. Needless to say we didn't have another.

Across The River Plate from Buenos Aires is Uruguay, which must be home to an indecisive bottle maker, he won't give you a full liter, but how much to short you is the question. "Doble Uruguya" came in 960 ml bottles while "Nortena" chose 970ml, "Edimburgo" 955s and "Patricia" 950. Someone screwed up and put "Pilsen" in 960 ml bottles. It must keep the folks at the bottle bank jumping.

If Brazil is not somewhere near the top of the list of beer drinking countries, it must be an over sight. We actually lost track of the number of brands that we saw. The supermarket shelves are crammed with 355 ml cans including; "Brahma," "Antarctica," "Skol," "Kaiser," "Colonia," "Bavaria," "Shincariol," "Bohemia," "Guitt's," "Santa Cerva" and "Cerpa," plus some I know we missed. Bars and restaurants serve 600 ml bottles with Styrofoam or plastic bottle shaped coolers. With the daytime temperatures in the 90's it's a definite help. We were in Brasil during the pre-Lenten carnival. There were beer vendors everywhere. All one needs is a huge Styrofoam box, some ice and lots of beer. It appears no license is necessary. Competition was fierce so the prices were great. We could buy as many as three cans for a dollar. All of the vendors were doing a brisk business selling cans of soft drinks and bottles of water as well. You might think the streets would be filled with litter. Maybe plastic water bottles but no cans. Brazil has a recycling buy back program paying 30 cents per kilo of aluminum cans. This may not sound like much but in Brazil there are hundreds of people young and old patrolling the streets looking for cans. Few cans hit the street for long before someone scoops them up. Often a person will be waiting for you to finish your drink. We observed some prankster kids tying a beer can to a piece of transparent fishing line, placing it in the street then quickly pulling it away when some unsuspecting person stooped to pick it up. I've seen this done with a dollar bill but an empty can shows you how different our societies are.

Amazon brewery Our final beers in Brazil were enjoyed at one of the best microbrewery locations in the world. The "Amazon Brewpub" in Belem overlooks the mouth of the world's longest river.(No prizes for guessing its name.) The three beers "Forest," "Black" and "River" were all excellent malty brews. The scenery including the tropical downpour, which necessitated another round, was exceptional. The place mats were a picture of the brew works and the little score pad containing silhouettes of beer glasses, which the waiter crossed off to keep track of our drinks, was unique. Each table's pad contains 60 images suggesting the brewery has high hopes of doing lots of business. Rest assured we fell far short of filling our pad. But all of the above left with us.

Paraguay was a short stop; we just visited a duty free port across the international bridge from Brazil. Most of the beer on sale was duty free from Brazil. It was cheaper than the only Paraguayan beer we found and we had to buy a 12 pack of 355 ml "Dorada" cans in order to get a can for our one-can-from-every-country-we-visit collection. It turned out to be the last can we would get on this trip.

The next three countries not only didn't have cans but the selection was very limited. Guyane is not an independent country but a department of France. No beer is made there, very little of anything is. Everything we saw was imported. The available beer was all European and like everything else very expensive, most prominent were "Stella Artois," "Heineken" and "Hoegaarden." We did meet the head brewer from Stella on Devil's Island. No matter what you think of his beer it seems pretty drastic to send him to this infamous penal colony. If you wonder why Guyane is a department of France the reason is simple. Because of its proximity to the equator all the Arian Missiles are launched from there.

Suriname does have it's own beer "Parbo" named for the capital Paramaribo. It was only available in bottles but thankfully we could buy liters as well as the 287 ml mini-bottles served in bars.

Guyana continued the shrinking process. The only brewer "Banks" bottles their lager in 280 ml painted label bottles and it's milk stout in the same size with paper labels that are firmly attached. With no cans available I was forced to buy bottles and soak the labels off in order to preserve my collection. The local custom of placing a straw in the bottle served to a woman did not sit well with my wife.

Our side trip to the Caribbean was a continuation of midget beers and little choice. Barbados had another "Banks Brewery," but to prove it was different it put its lager and light beers in 275 ml bottles. They also bottle "Guinness" in this small form. "Piton" is available in clear bottles of the same size, the most appealing thing about it is that it's brewed at "The Mystic Mountain Brewery" in St. Lucia.

"Hairoun" is the original name of St. Vincent and also the name of the local beer. It means "Land of the Blessed". I don't know about blessed but at 280 ml the only thing good is that they are larger than the 250 ml bottles of "EKU" made at the same brewery.

"Carib" is made on both Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago. At least on T&T you can buy it along with "Stag" in 330 ml cans, which seemed giant-sized after the 275 ml versions on Grenada. We saw advertising for "Samba" all over Tobago, but were never able to find any because the bars were always sold out. And when we finally saw a bottle on the back shelf at the airport bar in Trinidad, The bar was closed. A less than satisfactory ending to our 17 country journey.

                                   beer cans

Above are the cans we collected from each country. Note: The cans from Barbados, Guyana, Grenada and St. Vincent are paper labels (bottle labels taped on other cans). The Guyane can is from France, since Guyane is a department of France. I would like a beer can or beer bottle label from the following countries, if you happen to be there: Belize, Switzerland, Romania, Jordan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Malawi, Bahrain, The Bahamas, Jersey (Channel Islands), Guernsey. Please contact me if you can send me one. Many thanks!

Al Strano ©2004