20 or 30 Brazilian Beers----But Only ONE is My Favorite!

Sep 16, 2004

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The Bottom Line When in Brazil drink Bohemia. You'll thank me for that tidbit of good advice...

I've spent the last three wonderful weeks bumming around in Brazil, and as gloriously beautiful as this whole country is, I'm actually just about ready to head home. The whole place stuns my senses with beauty and grace and sensuality, but there is definitely one good reason to head back to the good ole U.S. of A., and that is the beer.

Now don't get me wrong, there most certainly IS beer in Brazil....less now than when I first arrived, but they'll probably make some more before you get down there. The problem is that after the first 3 or 4 hundred beers, it all starts tasting like just one more Skol. I suppose that's okay if you have the tastebuds of a dead log (and a lot of Americans evidently do, judging from Budweiser's sales statistics).

The first thing I'm gonna do when I get home is head to my garage, pop open that beer fridge, and grab me the first bottle of Bigfoot Ale that I can lay hands on. After all this liquid research of the last few weeks, I need a big ale!

But for now, let me just shed a little light on the beer drinking world of Brazil, and then I'll get down to brass tacks and tell you about the few bright spots that are out there just waiting for the right beer drinker to come along....

Draft versus Bottle...
A beer drinker really only needs to understand two words of Portugese to travel well in Brazil: chopp and cerveja. Understand those two words and you can tell a waiter "Beer me, Dude!" anywhere in the country.

If you look up "beer" in a Portugese-English dictionary, it will probably tell you "cerveja". Technically, that's correct. Cerveja is beer. But in Brazil, people use the word "cerveja" to refer only to bottled or canned beer. Draft beer, which is far more popular than bottled beer in most places, is called chopp (pronounced SHOW-pee). You might see it spelled chope...same thing, same pronunciation, and just as effective in getting an ice cold mug of draft beer set down before you.

Almost every place in the country serves chopp --- including some places you might not expect, like at least half of those little beach-side cabanas strung along the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. Draft beer at a beachside snack bar? I'll drink to that!

When it comes to bottled beer, you'll get a longneck mostly in better restaurants, and you'll get a 12-ounce can (actually 350ml) mostly in places like poolside or beachside bars. (Though of course you can buy 'em in supermarkets and corner stores too). In most restaurants and bars in Brazil, the most popular way to serve cerveja is in a big 1-litre bottle called a garrafa.

How to Drink Like a Brazilian...
Going out drinking with a group of Brazilians is a hoot...especially if you're buying. Proper etiquette demands ordering communal garrafas to be shared among all at the table. The waiter will bring out small glasses for everyone (a little bigger than a juice glass, but not by much). The garrafa will be chilled ice cold (bem gelada) and served in an insulated plastic jacket. The crux of drinking etiquette is to remember that, while any garrafa on the table is community property, before you fill your glass, you always make sure that the person who is buying gets his glass topped off first --- then its okay to drink the rest of his beer.

Brazilian Beers...
Brazil does not have the big range of craft beers and import brands that so spoil American beer drinkers, but you can find a good selection of interesting beers if you keep your eyes open. My advice though is stick to Brazilian brands --- I did not see a single good imported beer in Brazil (though you can buy a Heineken or a Bud for about 50 percent more than the going price of a comparable quality domestic brew). Why you'd ever want to, I don't know, but you can.

Here are some of the bottled beers that I saw, along with a few short comments on my overall impression of the beer:

* Antarctica: light American-style industrial lager, unspectacular, 5.0% abv.
* Antarctica Extra: reminds me of Miller's Icehouse. I gagged.
* Antarctica Extra Cristal: looked anemic and sickly pale in the bottle, so I skipped it...
* Antarctica Malzbier: watered down molasses in a bottle, cloying, sweet and very unbalanced, not enjoyable
* Baden Baden: didn't try it
* Bavaria Pilsen: light American-style industrial lager, unspectacular
* Bavaria Premium: wonder what's "premium" about it...uninteresting too-light beer, reminds me of MGD. Not worth a second look.
* Bohemia Pilsen: Excellent example of a continental-style pilsner (compare to German pilsners like Bitburger or Dutch pilsners like Grolsch). Firm body with a definite noble hop aroma and flavor. A pleasant surprise for anyone who enjoys good quality pale lagers. 5.0% abv.
* Bohemia Escura: Best dark beer in Brazil. A very smooth, eminently drinkable dark lager with a firm malt signature and a near-perfect balance. Compare this to something like Germany's Kostritzer Schwarzbier. 5.0% abv.
* Bohemia Weiss: Nice! A true Bavarian style wheat beer that compares favorably to beers like Franziskaner or Schneider Weisse. Nose accentuates phenols over esters. Noticeable citric wheat signature. Cloudiness testifies to unfiltered purity. 5.6% abv.
* Brahma: light American-style industrial lager, unspectacular
* Brahma Light: no time to waste on light beers...didn't try it
* Brahma Extra: Extra boring maybe, that's about it.
* Brahma Malzbier: reminds me a bit of Mann's Brown Ale --- a rare southern English brown. But Brahma Malzbier is fortified with sugars and has more of a molasses edge to it, along the lines of Heineken Oud Broun. It's almost cloyingly sweet and not what I consider a particularly pleasant beer to drink. 3.7% abv
* Caracu: calls itself a "stout", but very sweet with a definite sugary edge to it and no real roast character, unfiltered with a very full body, 5.3% abv
* Cintra: light American-style industrial lager, unspectacular
* Conti: didn't try it
* Kaiser Pilsen: light American-syle industrial lager, unspectacular, reminds me of Schaefer (the one beer to have when you're having more than one --- of course I had more than one...)
* Kaiser Bock: low density for a bock, but surprisingly smooth with a good complex all-malt flavor (label claims no unmalted cereals nor sugars --- a rarity in Brazil)
* Kaiser Gold: a bigger version of Kaiser Pilsen with a deeper golden color, a little more drier on the palate with more hops, and more alcohol to boot (5.4% abv)
* Kaiser Summer Draft: a smaller version of Kaiser Pilsen with less color and less hops, seemed unbalanced to me (too much sweetness), 4.5% abv
* Kronenbier: didn't try it (a waiter in Curitiba told me it was low/no alcohol --- not sure if that's true, but I wasn't about to find out the hard way)
* Lokal: didn't try it, saw it in Rio only after I'd already cut myself off for the night (gotta have self-restraint in a place where beer is readily available everywhere 24/7 --- God, I love Brazil!)
* Santa Cerva: bland, lighter-than-usual American-style industrial lager, reminds me of Corona and Sol, 4.0% abv, glad I don't have to drink this swill every day
* Nova Schin: light American-style industrial lager, unspectacular, supposedly the oldest brand name in Brazil, but not always easy to find in the south
* Skol: light American-style industrial lager, unspectacular, 4.7% abv.
* Skol Beats: yuck-o! tastes exactly like Bud Ice --- truly horrendous stuff, 5.2% abv, tried it in Sao Paulo where it seems to be very popular, though Lord only knows why...
* Xingu: been years since I've tried this in the big bottles sold in the U.S., but this is a pretty decent dark beer, along the lines of a tropical style stout with its substantial sweet flavor. Widely available in cans/bottles, but don't think there's a chopp.

Here are some of the draft beers (chopp) that I saw:

* Antarctica Chopp: clone chopp, see above
* Antarctica Chopp Escuro: didn't try it
* Brahma Chopp : clone chopp, see above
* Brahma Chopp Escuro: see above (more cloying than usual), worst chopp escuro in Brazil
* Brahma Chopp Express: didn't try it
* Cintra Chopp: clone chopp, see above
* Kaiser Chopp : clone chopp, see above
* Kaiser Chopp Escuro: clone chopp, see above
* Skol Chopp: clone chopp, see above
* Skol Chopp Escuro: clone chopp, see above
* Tulipa Chopp: see above, slightly drier and better balanced than average, best light chopp I had in Brazil, had it in Rio at Sindicato do Chopp and again at Garota de Ipanema
* Tulipa Chopp Escuro: best chopp escuro I had in Brazil, got it at Sindicato do Chopp in Rio --- drier than other chopps with far better balance, one of the few dark chopps that I could actually drink all day

Regional Preferences
You find the big boys everywhere in Brazil, but there are still some markets where the big boys dominate less so than others, and there are some small brands that are available only regionally --- much like in the U.S. where brands like Yuengling don't stray too far from Pennsylvania while folks who drink Point can tell you that, "If you're out of Point, you're out of town."

Same thing in Brazil. Of course Brahma dominates the overall market, but in many parts of the southern state of Parana, it seemed to me that I was seeing a lot more Kaiser than I was Brahma, and almost no Antarctica in some places. On the other hand, Parana is about the only part of Brazil where you can buy Cerpa.

Playin' with the Big Boys...
The number one selling beer in Brazil is Brahma. It's the Brazilian equivalent of Budweiser --- it's sold everywhere in the country, it dominates sales, and is brewed by the biggest brewer in the country (AmBev). AmBev also brews the number 2 and number 3 selling brands, Antarctica, and Skol, respectively. Their propaganda is on the web at (whoop, whoop, whoop, BeerLover alert!): www.brahma.com.br

Brazil is a huge market, and even though Brazilians drink only half what Americans do on a per capita basis (the average Brazilian drank a mere 47 litres of beer in 2003), it is more than enough to let Brahma sit comfortably as a peer among the world's most popular beer brands. Of the ten biggest selling beer brands worldwide, three are Brazilian, and Brahma is the third biggest selling brand in the world (behind Budweiser (#1), and Asahi (#2)).

Today's beer industry is one dominated by huge corporations that produce generally mediocre products. We Americans used to be smug about having the hammerlock on the world's worst quality beer, but with all the good craft breweries these days, combined with the global trend towards blandardization, you can find truly horrid beers everywhere. Brazil is no exception. The biggest selling beers are generally the worst quality beers in the market. But I'll get into that more a little later...

For the bean counters, AmBev is tied in with Interbrew. If you consider Interbrew and AmBev together, they are a bigger corporation than either Anheuser-Busch or SAB-Miller. Kaiser is somehow linked with Molson. It's an ugly monopolistic world out there...

Styles Part 1: Brazilian Pale Lagers (Pilsners and Brancos)...
The vast ocean of Brazilian beer is pale, light-bodied American-style industrial lager, loosely based on the classic pilsner style. The beer is usually identified as "Pilsen" if it is a bottled or canned version, and as simply "chopp" if on draft (occasionally, as "chopp claro" or "chopp branco").

Think typical American swill brands, and you're on the right track. This is Coors, Corona, Miller, Milwaukee's Best, Budweiser, Sol, Schlitz or whatever else your swill du jour happens to be. Marketers tell you it's "refreshing". Your tongue tells you "who cares?"

Most of the beers sold in Brazil are like this. It's enough to give credibility to the folks who tell you that there is nothing worth drinking in Brazil. If all there were was Brahma, Kaiser, Skol, and Antarctica, I'd have to agree. These beers usually range from around 4.5 to 5.4 percent alcohol.

Like their bretheren in the U.S., they are brewed using a substantial quantity of cheap, unmalted cereal grains in the grist (usually corn, sometimes rice). Brazil has better product labeling laws than the U.S. and the actual ingredients used in a beer in Brazil must actually be listed (including stabilizers, preservatives, colorings and common ingredients like adjunct grains --- identified on the label as "cereais nao maltadas" and raw sugars --- identified on the label as "carboidratos"). For the record, the good stuff that really belongs in there is malt ("malte torrado"), hops ("lupulo"), and yeast ("levadura"). (Why yes, I do still think Germany's Reinheitsgebot makes sense, thank you for asking.)

Most significant in Brazilian brewing practice is the very routine use of huge dollops of cane sugar, corn syrups, and any other kind of industrial grade fermentable that they can get their hands on. As a result, many of the beers in Brazil bear an unmistakable funky sugary flavor and often a harsh, almost unpalatably sticky molasses taste. Brazilian industrial brewers fully deserve their international reputation for shoddy craftsmanship. If you think a Bud Ice tastes like recycled toilet water, wait til you taste the equivalent "beer" brewed in Brazil!

Almost all Brazilian pilsners are solid 1-star beers, occasionally bumping close to the 2-star level. Only one Brazilian-brewed pale lager (Bohemia Pilsner) is actually good.

By the numbers, these will be 12 Plato beers at 5 percent alcohol with hopping levels around 15 BU. They all have colors close to the 2 SRM level, with a couple of the "golden" ones coming closer to 4-5 SRM.

Almost all Brazilian pale lagers are unbalanced, with excessive sweetness, a harsh unnatural cane flavor, and an aroma that's overly sugary with an occasional dash of light green apple acetaldehyde to further exacerbate the unappetizing scent.

On draft, the basic chopp is the same beer (though many Brazilians don't seem to know it, for some reason --- some actually claim that chopp is brewed differently from cerveja --- mind boggling, the ignorance of some drinkers, truly mind boggling).

Anyway, pale lager on tap is chopp. All brands are identical in all aspects. They all taste like a slightly off Coors draft in the U.S. They are uniformly described as "refreshing" by imaginitive marketers. Expect an anemicly pale (1-2 SRM) beer with 4.7 percent alcohol by volume, a slight corn sweetness and no discernible hops character. That's chopp!

Styles Part 2: Brazilian Dark Lagers (Escuros)...
Brazilian pale lagers aren't worth the time of day, but the dark lagers, well, that's worth chatting about a little bit because I don't think most of the world's beer cognoscienti have ever really thought much about them.

Stylistically, Brazilian dark lagers do not fit well within any of the basic framework styles that groups like the BJCP use. They have also never, to my knowledge, been discussed much in any of the English language beer literature. Even writers like the incomparable Michael Jackson have usually dismissed them with little more than a nod of acknowledgement towards Xingu or a dismissive "oh, they're like the foreign stouts of the tropics", as if that says all a person might want to know.

In my opinion, Brazilian dark lagers are an ignored style that is unique in and of itself. These are not "brown ales". They are nothing like "bock". They are nothing like "Munich darks" or even American-style dark lagers.

They are dark. They are lagers. But what really makes them unique and different from similar styles brewed elsewhere is the sugar. Cane or corn sugar, and in significant enough doses to really stand up and be noticed. These beers often wave a banner of identity in the form of an unmistakably big molasses or burnt sugar flavor. They have low to no hops character and are rarely balanced.

They should not be considered as just "foreign stouts" because they aren't ales and they have no roast character. Even the brands that claim to be stouts often are not. Caracu says its an Irish stout. It's not --- well, no more so than is a tall Bud Light. Caracu isn't dry --- it's wildly sweet. Caracu doesn't have a lightness of being --- it's almost cloying. Caracu doesn't have a hint of roast to it --- its more like biting into a fresh cane.

In my opinion, there is no stout in Brazil --- just beers that I think are more accurately called "Brazilian darks". Even Xingu is more in this vein than it is stout-like. Xingu is drier on the balance than almost any of the other dark beers sold in Brazil, but even Xingu is hardly what could be considered a "dry" beer, nor could it be considered "roasty". Well, not unless you have one very vivid imagination...

Unlike pale draft beers, there sometimes are discernible differences between brands when it comes to dark drafts (chopp escuro). The difference is usually in the intensity of molasses and how the beer lies along the balance continuum. One of the most widely sold dark drafts is Brahma Chopp Escuro. It's also one of the least appetizing, in my opinion, because it is too cloyingly sweet with a sticky molasses consistency that puts me off right away. I can't drink more than one or two Brahma Chopp Escuros without switching to something (anything!) that's lighter on the palate. Other chopp escuros sometimes hit me the same way. The only exception I found was a Tulipa Chopp Escuro, which was quite soft and closer to what I consider a balanced beer, with less cane to it and more hops (an ingredient that Brazilians don't seem to care for too much).

Similar to the dark beers is a style called maltzbier, that you'll sometimes find. These are like the dark lagers, but usually lower in alcohol (often around 3 percent abv) with even more sugar than the escuros. I find them disgusting in flavor, though those two or three Dutch beer drinkers who still buy crud like Heineken Oud Broun will probably find them utterly delightful. There is no accounting for the perversions of taste...

Of all the dark beers in Brazil, there is one that stands out as head and shoulders above all others: Bohemia Escuro. This beer is light-years ahead of the rest of the Brazilian brewing industry in terms of sheer quality. I think it is the only Brazilian dark beer that a European connoisseur would consider palatable.

Bohemia Escuro is a wonderful beer by any standards. It's rich dark ebony color shines and reflects light in a million myriad ways, like light flashing from the sharp facets of a newly polished ruby. It's body is as soft and smooth as a carioca soaking up the sunshine on the beaches of Rio. It is a sophisticated beer for educated palates. The label says it is a schwarzbier, and when I think of how it compares to a beer like Kostritzer, I have to admit, that it is a very accurate descriptor. Bohemia's rendition is perhaps a shade lighter in color and a shade sweeter, but the flavor is unmistakably one of fresh Munich malts with a bit of a toasty roasty edge to it.

Styles Part 3: Everything Else...
Brazilian drinkers and brewers don't have a lot of imagination when it comes to beer. It's basically a "light" or "dark" corner of the beer drinking world.

The only exception that I recall is a beer called Bohemia Weisse.

I was skeptical when I opened the Bohemia Weisse. German style wheat in the jungles of Brazil? Not bloody likely! My nose and tongue say otherwise...

Bohemia Weisse IS a true Bavarian style wheat beer. It is light in color, slightly phenolic in the nose with a bit of clove spice to it, and with the characteristic lemon-esque tang that cries out, "wheat, wheat, wheat!" The beer was perfectly balanced, with a slight dryness to it, and it is the only beer I saw in Brazil that didn't look like it was filtered down to the 0.000000000001 micron level.

My Favorite Brazilian Beers...
The bottom line on drinking in Brazil is that there are ton of different brands on the market, most of them just different lipstick on the same ugly pig.

Xingu is better than most, but there is really only one brand that I think deserves any respect on a global level, and that is Bohemia. There are three different beers that bear the Bohemia label, and all three are good, solid beers that stand head and shoulders above the crowd. You may have to look for the Bohemia Weisse and Bohemia Escuro, since 90 percent of the country's bars seem to carry only the Bohemia Pilsen, but the beers are worth seeking out --- especially since nothing else really is.

My favorite Brazilian beer? Bohemia Weisse. My most memorable Bohemia Weisse? Sitting on the deck at Porto Canoa, right at the top of Iguacu Falls. Billion dollar views, $1 Bohemia Weisses. Life just does not get any better...

Until next time, see you in the pub. If the pub is in Brazil, count on me to be quaffing the Bohemia...

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