Gone to Patagonia
Interesting brews await in a remote part of Argentina
Where South America slims to the shape of a leg, the creases behind its knee are the valleys of the Colorado and Negro rivers. The last long stretch of Argentina forms the shin, with the Andes mountains as the bone, and Chile as the calf. For more than 1,200 miles this far southern region of those two countries is known as Patagonia. The name is believed to be a Spanish rendition of "Big Foot," from the huge warriors allegedly encountered by the 16th-century explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
English seamen said they saw giants with steaming heads and the faces of lions or dogs. Coleridge's "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," Swift's giants in "Gulliver's Travels," Shakespeare's monster Caliban, in "The Tempest," and Poe's Tsalalians are all said to have been inspired by tales from Patagonia. Darwin travelled there in search of the Origin of the Species; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sought sanctuary; so did a cocktail of nationalities, famously including the Welsh; Bruce Chatwin searched for a sloth as big as a bull; Paul Theroux wanted to ride steam trains. I went in search of beer.
From the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, I took a two-hour flight to San Carlos de Bariloche, an Andean town less than 100 miles from the border with Chile. After World War II, German atomic scientists were brought to work in this remote terrain by President Peron. Later military dictators pursued prestige projects on nuclear power, but these vanities were largely abandoned with the coming of democracy in 1983. This sequence of events was the precursor to micro-brewing.
Dodging the Hotel Presidente Peron, and certainly the Hotel Islas Malvinas, I chose the benign-sounding Hotel Edelweiss, handy for the Hosteria Suiza and the Confiteria La Alpina. The town is now an "Alpine" ski resort, though its patrons might be equally at home in Aspen, Colorado...even more reason for micro-breweries.
Julio Migoya and Nicolas Silin, the latter of Russian origin, both worked for a company designing nuclear power plants until they saw the writing on the reactor. Browsing through a do-it-yourself magazine, Nicolas read an item about home-brewing and had "a crazy idea." He discussed it with Julio at work, and a colleague from the United States told them about the pioneering book on the subject by the British writer the late Dave Line and the American magazine "Zymurgy."
In 1991, they left their jobs and obtained a licence to brew in rented premises adjoining Julio's house. They cracked their malt in a coffee-grinder, brewed in a cooking pot, clarified the beer in a swimming-pool filter, hand-bottled their product, and sold it locally, delivering by sledge in the winter. The bottles were rinsed in a domestic dishwasher.
In 1989, they began to home-brew for "saccharific friends and their families," initially making beer that was "awful - acidic and sulphuric." In 1991, they left their jobs and obtained a licence to brew in rented premises adjoining Julio's house. They cracked their malt in a coffee-grinder, brewed in a cooking pot, clarified the beer in a swimming-pool filter, hand-bottled their product, and sold it locally, delivering by sledge in the winter. The bottles were rinsed in a domestic dishwasher.
By 1993. They had their first "tied house": they were serving their beer, with sandwiches of the local smoked deer and wild boar, in an informal daytime pub in the living room of Julio's house during the tourist season. "Time" was called when his children wanted their evening meal.
In 1997, they opened a purpose-built brewpub in premises adjoining a gift shop. The enterprise is called Cerveceria ("brewery") Blest, after a local beauty spot.
The wooden building is owned by Bebe Guttierez Arana, a carpenter and furniture-builder, who also provided the chairs and tables. He is a partner in the gift-shop with Guillermo Estévez, who sells marmalades and jams made from local berries. Guillermo played scrum-half for St. Albans, which turns out to be a school in Buenos Aires.
Cerveceria Blest, set back from the road, against a mountain backdrop is six or seven miles west of the town-centre. Its sign bears the rubric, "honest beers and ales."
The interior features a collection of beermats, drinking vessels and bottles. There are paintings and stained glass windows on brewing themes by Nicolas' daughter Natalia, who is studying art in Buenos Aires. Julio's wife Alicia manages the restaurant.
In the centre of the room is a brew-kettle with a capacity of 2.8 hectolitres. This smartly-fitted stainless-steel vessel, with a copper trim, was built by the principals, with the help of skilled engineers laid-off by the atomic power company.
The beers are served unfiltered. The basic brew, with a lightly hoppy fragrance and bitterness, is flowery and refreshing. It is identified as being a "Pilsen" type. The town name, rather than its adjective, is usually employed in Argentina. A second regular brew is a Bock, at a modest gravity of 1052, with a light but smooth maltiness and good bitter-chocolate flavours. A third tap offers varying styles. At the time of my visit, a Scotch Ale was on offer: sweetish, soft, lightly fruity and nutty.
The marvel is that such interesting brews should be made in such a remote part of a country where the bland national beers play second fiddle to wine.
It seems churlish to say that the beers were slightly thin in body, or modest in their hop character. The marvel is that such interesting brews should be made in such a remote part of a country where the bland national beers play second fiddle to wine.
The partners had not even tasted a Scotch Ale when they attempted to create their own. The same was true of an earlier Stout; my "Beer Companion" was their guide to style.
The brewery has its own well, housed in a structure like a small chapel. Malt was more of a problem. The partners had to go personally to persuade the chief executive of a maltings to supply them, and are still not especially secure in this arrangement. They built their own rotating roaster (a steel drum, on rollers over gas burners) to convert pale malt to crystal, Munich and black, matching the colours from photographs in a magazine. They are now considering adding a heating element to a cement-mixer.
The hops are grown only two hours' drive away, in El Bols—n, the principal area of cultivation in Argentina. I headed in that direction with my travelling companion Brad Page, a brewer from Colorado. Wild raspberries at the roadside gave way to thorn bushes and occasionally the reptilian branches of the "Chilean" pine (Araucaria) as the route rose among greenish granite mountains, plunging precipitously to tiny settlements of corrugated-iron houses.
As the road approached El Bols—n, the mountainsides were lined with hop-poles of cypress and eucalyptus. Men with Andean-Indian faces and black gaucho hats were out with a tractor, thinning the shoots. The dozen hop gardens in the area grow about 100 hectares in total, all Cascades. The valley has its own pelletizing plant, where Brad was presented with a 20-kilo carton of hops. The label identified El Bols—n as a "non-nuclear zone," clearly a two-fingered gesture towards the atomic past of neighbouring Bariloche.
Being much more remote, El Bols—n attracted members of the self-sufficiency movement in the 1960s. (The road ends there, close to the border with Chile; there is no route through the mountains.)
Juan-Carlos Bahlaj, of Ukrainian origin, had sold windows and doors, and clothing, in Buenos Aires, but is a man who likes to wander. He has travelled by camper-van all over the Americas and Europe, and has developed a taste for Belgian and German brews.
Juan-Carlos Bahlaj, of Ukrainian origin, had sold windows and doors, and clothing, in Buenos Aires, but is a man who likes to wander. He has travelled by camper-van all over the Americas and Europe, and has developed a taste for Belgian and German brews. Juan-Carlos read the British 1976 classic "Complete Book of Self Sufficiency," by John Seymour (published by DK). Of its 256 pages, the four on home-brewing caught his eye. In 1980, he moved to Patagonia, established a camp-site in El Bols—n, and in 1984 started to brew for his guests and friends. In 1986, he took the precaution of obtaining a licence. "The more people moved here, the greater the bureaucracy," he sighs.
He has used a solar grill and a pizza oven to prepare his malts, and has over the years increased his brew-length from ten to 70 litres to 2.5 hectos, always in home-built systems. At his conservatory-like Cerveceria Artesanal El Bols—n, he serves the beer au naturel, but there are also a filtered, pasteurised versions in the bottle.
The golden lager, called Blanca, was a little too fruity for the style, but the rest of his range was delicious. His black Negra was rich, rounded and coffeeish; his equally dark Rauchbier seemed only lightly smoky at first, then erupted in fragrant dryness; his Framboise was fresh, fruity and beautifully balanced; his Cereza a tingly sour-cherry beer; his iron-like, firm, Cassis the best example I have ever tasted of that style.
When he served roasted mountain lamb with sweet potatoes, I wanted to stay forever, but we had to get back to Baroliche to catch a plane. We arrived to be told that the bird had flown. "It was rescheduled," said the man on the desk. "Why did no one tell us?" we protested. "That's Patagonia," he explained.
Published Online: MAR 10, 1999
Published in Print: JAN 7, 1999
In: Ale Street News
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