The Flavors of Colombian Beer: Learned in the Bars of Bogota and Medellin...


Jan 27, 2009


The Bottom Line Bad news: Basic, thin, watery pale lagers are found everywhere in Colombia. Good news: You don't need to drink them because there are GOOD beers in Colombia!!

I love a good cocktail or glass of wine just as much as the next lover of the good life, but beer has always been, and always will be, my adult beverage of choice. Beer is my life. I drink it with meals. Drink it when out with friends. Drink it for breakfast when I'm on vacation. Everywhere I go, anywhere in the world, I like to try the local beers and see how they stack up against the brewskis in the rest of the world. That's not always real easy in Latin American countries, but I do find the occasional gems, and I'm VERY happy to report that drinking beer in Colombia is much better than drinking beer in many other parts of Latin America.

Colombia is often regarded as a 1-horse race when it comes to the beer market, but that doesn't mean you can't find a few young ponies of great ambition and genes...


Colombia's Major Brewery...
100 years ago there were several breweries in Colombia, but just like in much of the world, the industry shook out to a very small number of very large corporate brewing concerns. The quality plummeted as the quantity pumped out of mega-factories shot through the roof.
In Colombia, the one and only survivor by the early 2000s was Cerveceria Bavaria, which was, in turn, gobbled up by the South African bland beer producer, SABMiller (the world's largest mega industrial brewer). The company operates nine breweries (each with annual production capacities of up to 6.5 million hectoliters) throughout Colombia. All are extremely modern state-of-the art facilities --- even ones like their large, traditional brewery in Barranquilla, which is now a good 80 years old. The company has kept pace with modernization and industrial management techniques and has made extensive and constant investments in American and European industrial equipment and processes, as exemplified by their cutting edge Valle brewery, which is just now coming on line in southwest Colombia.

Cerveceria Bavaria controls at least 90% of Colombia's beer market, and almost all of these brands can be found anywhere in Colombia. Their brands include:

* Club Colombia: This is a basic American-style lager, but the best in Bavaria's lineup. It reminds me a bit of the way Yuengling Premium is made in the United States, with a firmer malt body that expresses itself with soft sweetness and a roundness that's too often missing from badly brewed industrial mega brands. The beer is also made without adjuncts in the base, and though the quality of the ingredients is higher than those of the brewery's other products, it still suffers from the "needs more stuff" syndrome that plagues every industrial brewery of the world. The beer is made with a base of 100% pale malted barley and they use European Saaz hops to give it at least a hint of pilsner-esque aroma. A generally refreshing and clean basic lager beer. 3 stars.

* Aquila: This is a basic American-style industrial lager, but one that's an evident step up from Pilsen due to its somewhat more assertive hop bitterness which asserts itself in the aroma through a light grassy aroma. It actually reminds me a bit of the Dos Equis lager (green bottles) that's popular in Mexico. Although I see more people in northwestern Colombia reaching for Pilsen, Aquila is said to actually have higher sales in other regions of the country. It's a lightly refreshing, inoffensive, mainstream beer. 2-1/2 stars.

* Pilsen: The most popular beer in Colombia, evidently, since everywhere I go I see lots of people slugging down vast quanitites of Pilsen. It's an inoffensive, garden variety American industrial lager that has no real distinguishing feature. This is basically the Budweiser of Colombia. It's clean with a slight corn twang in the base and a balance that tips toward hops bitterness. Very pale color, maybe just below 2 on the SRM color scale. 2 stars (barely).

* Redds: Oh. My. God! This stuff is THIN and disgustingly horrid. Their commercials spin it to young women, esepecially the 18-year old crowd, most of whom seem to find it just as disgustingly dull as I do. Like mega-industrial breweries in the U.S., their marketing department lies like lying dogs: they actually have the chutzpah to put a slogan on the packages that says "El Sabor que Despierta tus Sentidos" ("the flavor that awakens your senses")...but there's no real flavor at all to it, and the only sense it awakens in me is a gag reflex! Horrid, watery swill to be avoided. 0 stars.

* Poker: This is your basic, everyday, dull industrial lager beer. Think Busch, Schlitz, etc. It's got a bit of sweetness and just the lightest kiss of indistinguishable hops bitterness. It's extremely light in body with only 4.0% alcohol by volume, and I'd be surprised if the calories weren't also a good 20% lower than a normal gravity beer. It doesn't seem particularly popular, and with its bland, witless character, I can understand why. 1/2 star.

* Peroni: The dull pop lager of Italy is produced under contract in Colombia by Cerveceria Bavaria. It is as unspectacularly inoffensively offensive as it is everywhere else in the world. People drink it not because they like it, but to make a statement that they can spend too much money on beers that give no real flavor value. Not a good beer. 1 star.

* Aquila Light: Thin, watery, lifeless swill that's as bad as the sewer water produced by U.S. mega industrial brewers under their "light" brands. Less calories, no flavor, what's to like?? 0 stars.

* Costeña: This is an anemically pale, sickly looking watery beer with no aroma and a foul slightly rancid flavor. It has no body to speak of and is a beer fit only for mangy street dogs. Horrid stuff. 0 stars.


Craft Brewing in Colombia...
I am one EXTREMELY happy beer drinker in Colombia. Drinking with the world's hottest looking women is admittedly part of the charm, but I could be happy even with just the good looking pints of freshly poured craft beer in either Bogota or Medellin (the only two major cities I visited this trip). In Bogota, the name to know is "Bogota Beer Company". In Medellin, the name to know is "3 Cordilleras". Both are tasty in their own ways...

Bogota Beer Company has been around for several years and is popular throughout the Bogota area. The company reminds me of places like Gordon Biersch in California, with their formula of trendy pubs with good quality house beers, plus a microbrewery producing bottled renditions for the retail trade. Same basic deal in Bogota. In fact, just like you find stacks of 50 pound sacks of Briess malts stacked up in U.S. craft breweries, you find the same here. Equipment and ingredients all come from the U.S., Canada, or Europe, the brewmaster is Swiss and German-trained, and the beers are very clean, very flavorful, and very well made. (More info is on their web site: www.bogotabeercompany.com).

Each Bogota Beer Company location (and there are at least a half dozen of them around the city) is unique, and I wish I'd had more time in the capital to visit all of them. The Andina location where I did my sampling was a thoroughly delightful brewpub with a traditional European pub feel, with rich brick walls, hardwood floors, brass fittings and a staff that were enthusiastically friendly and enthusiastic about their beer. They have a couple guest taps with European imports on tap, but of course, the beer to drink in ANY brewpub in the world is the house beer.

They had four house brews on tap while I was there, and four pints is just about my evening session limit these days, so we got along quite well, BBC and I. Beers I sampled include:

* Chapinero Porter: Hey! This is one FINE porter! It reminds me of the soft bodied but fully involved roastiness that you find in really great porters (like Edmund Fitzgerald from Great Lakes). It's light enough at 5.0% abv to be poundable for an evening, but so richly roasty in flavor that it keeps your interest, and the chewy nuttiness testifies to the complexity and balance of caramel or toasted malts in the grain bill. It's got a luxuriantly smooth body that can stand up proudly in the company of any of the world's well-crafted porters. 4-1/2 stars.

* Usaquen Stout: Yum, Yum, Yum! I love a big, bold stout, and what I like about this one is its VERY roasty character. It's not a big stout though, and it won't hurt your head in the morning. In fact, Bogota Beer Company does not really do any strong beers....they emphasize getting the fundamentals right and doing good, solid versions of classic styles. Usaquen Stout is a seasonal, and though they're doing it this year with coffee (popular among U.S. craft brewers in recent years, though it has true local significance here in the homeland of Juan Valdez, where a large percentage of the world's best coffees are grown). I'm told that they've done other variations on the stout, including a creamy milk stout, which could be a great treat for drinkers who love a luxuriantly svelte body on their stouts). 4-1/2 stars.

* Monserrate Roja: I'm never quite sure what to expect from a "red ale" these days. Often, I like them with a nutty malt emphasis, but Bogota Beer Company's version heads more towards a California interpretation like Red Seal, with a more assertive hop profile and quite a strong nose of Cascade grapefruit to assault me on an initial sniff. I like. I like. Bogota considers this beer to be their flagship brew. 4 stars.

* Candelaria Clasica: Well, every craft brewery has to have one, I suppose. I'm referring to a light-bodied, non-aggressive training wheels beer for the craft brewery novice who just wants "plain old beer". Candelaria Clasica is "plain old beer". It's a golden ale, which basically means its a decently brewed light bodied pale beer that differentiates from basic pale lagers only in its use of clean ale yeasts that ferment warmer than lager yeasts. The body is notably sweet with an obvious all-malt firmness, but other than that, there's little here to keep the attention of a true connoisseur. 3-1/2 stars.

....

A short one-hour flight from Bogota to Colombia's 2nd largest city, Medellin, yields up some more new craft beers (not to mention one of the most fun beer tasting evenings I've experienced in years).
The name to know in Medellin is 3 Cordilleras. It's a young brewery with passionate youthful energy and a mission to educate the paisas about fine beers ("paisas" are what people in the northwestern department of Antioquia call themselves---kind of like "hoosiers" in Indiana). Unlike Bogota Beer Company, 3 Cordilleras is a straight-ahead microbrewery. They don't operate a chain of pubs, but instead brew and bottle their beers as well as distributing kegged beer to many of Medellin's trendiest bars and restaurants. Which is how I came to know them....

My first night in Medellin, I had dinner at the Hatoviejo on Las Palmas and was surprised to find a row of 3 Cordilleras taps at the bar. I stole the table tent so I could look up their web site later, and lo and behold, that led to info about their Thursday night brewery tours and tastings.

The brewery itself looks like any very well funded new microbrewery in the United States, with rows of gleaming 15-barrel and 30-barrel stainless steel cylindrocnical fermenters and a faint lingering odor of chlorine and iodine in the air. It's in the very safe, very modern Poblado section of Medellin, though in a part that's mostly low-slung warehouses and commercial properties. (Info about the brewery and their beers is on the web at: www.3cordilleras.com). The people there are super friendly and passionate, and their story sounds a lot like those told during your basic U.S. microbrewery tours: Paul Sadosky, a Siebel brewing science graduate from Chicago who also holds a PhD in food science is the master brewer in the brewhouse, though he's got some real talent and passion backing him up: another of the driving forces behind the brewery is Juanchi, who caught the craft beer bug while studying in Seattle. He went on to brew professionally for Sweetwater in Atlanta before heading home to Colombia to form 3 Cordilleras. This is a place with the talent and facilities to brew great beers and make a real name for themselves. But enough widi-wide, let's talk about the Thursday night beer tours and the brewskis themselves.

The brewery charges 15,000 pesos for the tour, which kicks off at 5:30 Thursday evening. I've bumped into a few micros that charge nominal fees for the tours (often due to local beverage laws), and it's usually no big deal. That's definitely the case here tat 3 Cordillers since 15K COP works out to about US$7 today---and since that includes 5 beers over the course of about 3 hours, it's basically the best beer bargain in Medellin!

3 Cordilleras does a basic 3-beer regular lineup. None of the beers push the envelope --- they're fairly conservative styles that can develop a broad popular base. None will blow the minds of any knowledgable connoisseur, but each will impress with its honest interpretations of classic style elements, and its focus on getting the flavor elements and balance right. These are well-brewed beers that will make amigos from local beer drinkers with no tradition of assertive beer flavors.

* Mulata: This is the best of the bunch and the brewers refer to it as their "red ale". It's funny how the guys in Bogota went with more of a hoppy emphasis on the red while the guys in Medellin went for more of the malt emphasis, which is what I remember most about the earlier California-brewed red ales from a decade or so ago (like the lusciously soft original Red Tail Ale from Mendocino). The flavor has a characteristic toastiness from caramel or crystal malts, which also balance it clearly towards sweetness instead of hop bitterness. The hops on this one are quite subdued though you get a bit of earthiness mingling into the generally fruity aroma. 4 stars.

* Mestiza: Hops lovers should gravitate towards this beer, since it's the most deliciously bitter of the lot. It's a very nice rendition of the American pale ale style with an assertive citric grapefruit hops blast up front, though much softer and gentler than you'd find in truly great APAs like Sierra Nevada. That's to be expected, I suppose, since a brewery in this type of market would almost certainly alienate a lot of people if they pushed huge flavor and aroma profiles before the market had a chance to mature to that level. Connoisseurs are cultivated over time, not hatched in an instant. There's a slight haze to the beer, attesting to the brewer's preference for sensory purity from natural process over filtration for the sake of mere aesthetics. 4 stars.

* Blanca: I suppose it WOULD be too much to expect of a young latin American craft brewery to try a real German-style hefeweizen, but the 3 Cordilleras Blanca goes for the next rung down, which would be the American wheat ale. The guy doing the tour tried to convince the crowd that they could pick up a bit of banana aroma in the beer, but of course, you and I know perfectly well that there will never be any such thing in a wheat beer that's fermented with California ale yeast --- which is the one and only strain used at 3 Cordilleras. The scent is just like any of several dozen basic American wheat ales....like the wheat ale that Pyramid was doing up until a few months ago when they decided to put training wheels on it in the form of over filtration. I'm not here to talk about Pyramid's shortcomings though, I'm here to talk about 3 Cordilleras Blanca. It's basically a light-bodied, very crisp, refreshing wheat ale. It's got obvious protein haze in it, a whitish pale yellow color, and a very tight, creamy, thick white foam head. It smells of lemon more than anything else, and it's flavor too carries some of the usual citric sharpness that you find in most wheat ales. It's light bodied....unquestionably less than a 12 Plato beer, though I don't believe the tour dude actually SAID what the gravity was. Though unimaginitive, this is a solidly made basic American wheat ale. 3-1/2 stars.


The Market for Imported Beers...
Unlike many latin countries, you can actually FIND imported beer if you look far enough. Of course some import brands (like Peroni) are brewed in Colombia, not transported from Europe, and some (like Heineken) are brewed in neighboring countries and though labeled "imported" don't really come from the brand's native country.
Strolling around the shopping centers and bar districts, you can find some occasional unexpected gems (like Leffe and Duvel) along with junk beers not worth importing (like Budweiser). Supermarkets (like Carullas and Pomonas) carry a handful of imports, though there are wine and beer gourmet specialty shops with better selections. In Medellin, I found one of these in the streets of Poblado not far from Parque Lleras and another in the Premium Plaza mall, and I found a good selection of English and Scottish ales at a pub called Pub Escocia only a block off Parque Lleras. In Bogota, I recommend that beer lovers stop at a place called the Monkey Pub, which is a modern-style English pub. It's a peculierly good place where you can kick back with a pint of Newcastle, a thick hand-rolled Cuban cigar, and a plate of bangers and mash.


Bottom Line...
Colombia will never appear on any beer lover's itinerary of "must drink there" travel destinations, though there is enough good beer around to prove that it's also no wasteland of potability (as many parts of Latin America are). You can find good beers in many parts of Colombia, including locally made craft beers as well as acceptable quality imported brands. If push comes to shove and you simply MUST drink the local mega-industrial beers, at least have the dignity to remember that Club Colombia is the hands-down best quality major brand in the country. The mass market brands are generally dismal, but with chilly Club Colombia available everywhere, there should be no need to ever drop below a minimal 3-star quality level.
Oh, and by the way....a six-pack in a store generally runs around 8,000 COP, which is right around US$4 these days.
Salud!!


Closely Related Reading...
If you're headed to Latin America, here are a few of my other reviews of drinking beer in the region:
* Beer in Brazil
* Beer in Ecuador
Beer in Panama (Part I)
* Beer in Panama (Part II)
* Beer in Costa Rica
* Beer in Nicaragua
* Beer in Mexico
* Beer in Peru

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