Beer from the Center of the Earth: Pilsener, Club, and Biela

Feb 10, 2003

The Bottom Line Ecuador's beer market is almost solely light-bodied, pale American-style lagers. Pilsener is the big seller, but Club and Biela are more interesting. Here's why...

I've heard of people traveling to France to sample the wines, to Scotland for the whiskies, or to Mexico for the tequilas, but I wonder if anyone in the history of the world has ever traveled to Ecuador specifically to sample the beers.

Let's just say that beer lovers should probably continue to stick to countries like Germany or Belgium and leave countries like Ecuador to the tree huggers. Everyone will be a little happier that way.

Ecuador is a great place, don't get me wrong, and when in Ecuador I'll do as the Ecuadorians do, which is to drink local brews in vast quantities. Anyway, after many, many bottles of cold research, I've managed to formulate some totally unbiased opinions about which Ecuadorian beers are worth drinking and which are better left behind for purely local consumption.

About Breweries in Ecuador...
Ecuador's brewing industry can be summed up pretty easily: three breweries and two major brewing companies, one substantially older and larger than the young upstart. That's the short version in a nutshell.

The "big boy" of brewing in Ecuador goes by the name Cerveceria Nacional in the coastal areas, and by the name Cerveceria Andina in the highlands. Same company, same beers, just a name change to protect the innocent. Their brands are Pilsener and Club. Although I've heard rumors that they brew a couple other brands, including one called Nevada, I could find no trace of such a beast in the bars and retail stores around Quito.

The up and coming challenger is Cerveceria Suramerica, based in the Pacific coast city of Guayaquil, and established less than 5 years ago. It's a brand spanking new plant (Krones and Steinecker) with a 480 hectolitre brew length and a total annual capacity of 600,000 hectolitres. Cerveceria Suramerica has just one brand: Biela, though again, I heard rumors that they are or will be brewing other brands, but such rumors proved impossible to substantiate by means of cold 12-ounce refreshment.

Far and away the best-selling beer in Ecuador is a very pale lager called "Pilsener". The beer is sold in 12-ounce (more or less) and 22-ounce bottles. Most restaurants and bars carry both sizes and sitting down with a large bottle of Pilsener seems to be the preferred way to drink.

The beer pours with a very, very pale yellow color and a well-formed creamy white head. It is brilliantly clear and visually identical to most mass-produced lagers from the U.S. It has a slightly sulfury corn scent with just a bit of ester. The beer has a noticeable corn edge to the flavor and it reminds me very much of the flavor and feel of Miller High Life. This is a very, very light beer at just 4.2 degrees.

The beer is unremarkable by world standards, but Americans who crave "just plain beer" will find it palatable enough. If you're planning to spend any time in Ecuador, you better get used to it, because Pilsener is everywhere!

Locals seem to like snubbing Club, but people who choose their beverages based purely on taste and quality invariably choose Club over Pilsener. Club is a better brewed beer, and it is a better tasting beer.

What's that I pick up in the aroma? Could it be the unmistakably earthy and peppery scent of honest-to-goodness noble hops? There's also a certain firmness to the body without any noticeable sulfur-related by-products (which are all too common in the Americas). Club is a beer that's actually pretty darn good. It's better than any of the United States' mainline brands, due mostly to actually having some noticeable hops in both the aroma and flavor. It is a beer that actually shows some ties to the classic pilsener beers for which Bohemia is justly famous. It's still not a big beer though (just 4.4 degrees). (By the way, there is also a Club produced in neighboring Columbia, but that is a completely different beer and no relationship to this fine brew.)

Part of me wants to love this beer because it's the underdog, but part of me hates silly marketing, and I scoff at marketing doofuses who come up with brand names like "Biela". It's like an American marketing doofus branding a new beer "Brewski" -- in fact, that is exactly what it is like, after all, "biela" is just a common slang term for beer just like we use "brewski" or a Mexican uses "chella".

Poverty of the imagination aside, I can find plenty of reasons not to like this beer. It is much lighter in body than I like, and it has a strongly ester and phenolic aroma that hits me on first sniff -- it's a smell that just plain strike me as offensive.

The flavor has a very strange sweetness to it that hits me as being like corn syrup -- I have tasted similar flavors in craft-brewed Belgian style imitations that I knew for a certainty were brewed with cane or other sugars added directly to the kettle. I doubt this brewery is actually doing anything like that. In fact, I understand that their process should produce better beer than Pilsener and Club (grain bill of 80 percent barley, 20 percent rice, all Hallertau hops, Doemens lager yeast, etc.) but the proof of any such quality is definitely lacking in the glass.

I've heard that the guys at Cerveceria Suramerica are exporting small amounts of Biela, but I've never seen it in retailers in Houston. For that I am grateful...

I have no idea where they come from -- they could be imports or contract brews from regional breweries, for all I know -- but there are some beers around that stand out from the crowd.

I'd stopped in one evening at the Reina Victoria Pub in downtown Quito and was pleasantly surprised at the warm, very British feel of the cozy, friendly pub. What really shocked me though was that there three "house" beers on tap that were decidedly non mainstream brews: a bitter, a pale ale, and a stout.

The pub's owner is a New Zealand ex-pat named Boz who told me that the beers come from a small, local microbrewery that supplies just two accounts in Quito: one of which was Reina Victoria. The tap handle said "C.W.", but that may or may not mean anything.

The beer was served a bit on the high side of what normal British cellar temperatures should be, and the beer struck me as a bit harsh with a more acidic bite than I'd like, though all three beers were fairly accurate, stylistically.

Bottom line is that Ecuador is a beautiful country to visit, but I doubth that it will ever draw visitors who come for the great beers. There are beers brewed in Ecuador, and they sell like the proverbial hotcakes, just don't get your hopes up too high...

You can't drink the water in Ecuador, but you can drink the beers. For my money though, Club is the only beer you'll catch me drinking next time in Ecuador -- it's hands down the best of the bunch.


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