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Searching for the height of blackness

In pursuit of Xingu and other beers in Brazil

The security guard nervously fingered his 357 Magnum. He had noticed that I was becoming agitated. My excitement had been aroused my discovery of the Black Princess. This is a beer - bearing the legends Escura ("dark") and Alta Fermentaćao. In Portuguese-speaking Brazil, the latter means, as you probably have guessed, top-fermented (in the manner of a true ale or stout).

A top-fermented beer is the greatest of rarities in Magnum-toting Rio de Janeiro. (Jackson's rule Number 27: the more macho, muscular and tanned a society, the blander its beers. See also Australia and Deep South).

Trying to look innocent and unconcerned, I sidled past the Magnum, headed for the check-out, and made the arrangements necessary to purchase a product in bureacratic Brazil. To buy even a cup of coffee requires a considerable amount of paperwork.

To obtain a bottle of beer seems to necessitate the store's telexing the Ministry of Trade to ensure that the brewer paid import duty on the malt and hops; checking the reply in case it necessitates a small border war; holding a noisy, three-month, campaign (with fireworks, hot-air balloons and samba-dancing) to elect a new President; and checking the rate of inflation with the Brazilian Federal Reserve Bank in order to determine a price. At this stage, with the simple completion of a mere dozen forms in triplicate, the beer may be placed in the supermarket trolley.

While waiting for all of these due processes, I skipped through my entire library of the collected works of Dave Barry.

I do not know why, but a little voice inside my white suit told me to open the beer in the bathroom. As I loosened the crown-cork, there was a hissing sound, followed by a minor explosion.

I then rushed back to my hotel to sample the beer. I do not know why, but a little voice inside my white suit told me to open the beer in the bathroom. As I loosened the crown-cork, there was a hissing sound, followed by a minor explosion. The cerveja escura gushed like an oil strike, tarring the ceiling until the bathroom blackened into a rain-forest. Thank heavens I had taken the precaution of wearing a pith helmet.

In the absence of a mongoose, I used a bath-towel to beat the liquid down the plug-hole. What little finally cowered in the bottle, I sampled, drippingly. It tasted surprisingly thin and rather sour. I then mopped-down the ceiling and walls with the remaining towels, which I soaked overnight in an effort to remove the unpleasant-looking brown stains.

I telephoned the brewery Princeza ("founded in1882") to tell them they had infection problems, but could get no answer. A friend told me they had gone out of business, though in South America one can never be sure.

I had been keen to drink something other than the standard golden lagers of the country, preferably a beer I had not tasted before. I already knew Caracu, which tastes like a very sweet dark lager though its label makes a hushed reference to its being a stout. Perhaps I should have tried it with the addition to two whisked eggs, in the manner of a Brazilian truck-driver's breakfast.

Instead, leaving an inflation-proof tip for the chambermaid from Ipanema, I fled about 300 miles inland. People had told me that the best-served beer in Brazil was in the city of Ribeirao Prźto. With the Brazilian swallowed "r" and the "ao" combination pronounced somewhere between "aw" and "on", Ribeirao sounds to a gringo more like "Heeberon". The second word, Prźto, with a short "e" is often dropped. The name means "Black Stream," and refers to a small river on which the city stands, in the crater of a volcano. Ribeirao is the commercial centre for a large agricultural area.

As the coastal range gave way to coffee plantations, orange orchards and sugar cane (some of which would be distilled into Brazil's distinct spirit cachaća), each town was punctuated with small shops or bars advertising the country's two huge national brewers, Brahma and Antarctica.

Why does the first have a name that sounds East Indian? Apparently because the Hindus believe that the waters of India's Brahmaputra river wash away one's sins. "So does this beer" is the implication. "We like myths and legends," a Brazilian explained to me. "Look at the costumes and routines of our samba dancers. As in most countries, the more remote an allusion, the more exotic and exciting it seems." I had no sins to wash away; I was travelling with brewery consultant David Arbuckle, whose first studies were at Bible College in Washington state.

In a land where the weather can be very hot, Antarctica is a potent name for a cooling beer. The company struts home its point by using a penguin as its symbol.

Brahma's rival Antarctica, remote in the opposite direction, has a more obvious explanation. In a land where the weather can be very hot, Antarctica is a potent name for a cooling beer. The company struts home its point by using a penguin as its symbol. Although it is a national company, producing beer in several cities, its history is strongly associated with its brewery in Ribeirao. Antarctica's supply of unpasteurised (but filtered) beer to the city's independently-owned "Penguin" tavern has made that a famous "brewery tap."

I am not sure whether to regard the Pinguim (its name in Portuguese) as one tavern or two. It occupies two separate premises, divided by a street, at the corner of the main square, the Praća 15 De Novembro. This named after the day when the republic was proclaimed, in 1889. For 60-odd years before that, Brazil had its own monarchy, having become independent from Portugal in 1822. Children's bands were marching round the square to celebrate Independence Day while I sampled the beer at Pinguim.

The older of Pinguim's two premises dates from 1936, and the tavern has occupied that building since 1941. Confusingly, it has a modern, featureless (1960s?) exterior. The newer building, dating from 1938, with elaborate stonework on its carved, domed, facade, has been occupied by Pinguim since 1977. Inside, each is the kind of tavern that rates as an "institution" in many great cities: think of Berghoff, in Chicago, a grander combination of P.J.Clarke's and McSorley's, in New York, or Brasserie Lipp, in Paris (perhaps especially the latter).

Bentwood chairs, tiled floors, globe lamps ... sequences of polished waiters launched silently every second from a barrel-like, copper-clad beer dispenser, its cooling coils topped with a mountain of ice, at the bar counter, their trays laden with foaming glasses. With the poise indeed of ice-dancers, these handsomely elegant veterans glide by, in starched white shirts, black tunics and trousers, their bowties and armbands and decorative sashes in matching yellow. Their female colleagues, all young and pretty (coincidence, no doubt), wear skirts decorated with a barley motif.

The beers, tapped in a three-stage pour, emerges with four fingers of creamy head. There are two, pale and dark lagers, the Clara, very fresh, light, clean and sweetish; the Niger, soft, toffeeish, licorice-tinged and quite hefty. I greatly enjoyed the place, but wanted yet more from my beer. I had a hearty lunch of cassoulet, and continued my journey.

At the other end of town, the grandly-named Marcelo Carneiro da Rocha has opened a true brewpub. Marcelo, from an orange-growing family, has a background in academic and literary publishing, and is a great beer-lover. His light, airy, pavilion-like, brewpub, has wicker chairs, French wndows and a verandah. It is called Colorado, hinting at its American style while also sounding Latin (though Spanish, not Portuguese). It is by a main road in a residential neighborhood (2579 Avenida Independźncia), and offers local produce with big, flavorful, beers.

Colorado's brews include a dry, crisp, Kölsch; a malt-accented Pilsner, with a very good, balancing, hoppy, dryness; a malty, toasty Amber Ale, again with some leafy hop; a rounded India Pale Ale at a hefty 8.5 per cent alcohol by volume, with a bitter, rooty, fruity, hop; and a syrupy, cocoa-ish, Stout. I loved the I.P.A., and enjoyed the Stout, but my thirst for blackness was still not completely quenched. I had a beautifully-presented steak with rice cooked in cachaća, and hit the blacktop.

Marcelo and brewing consultant Carlos Hauser (formerly of Antarctica) have a friend called Cesario de Mello Franco. He is a lawyer, novelist, film-maker and beer-lover, who has spent some time in the United States. While there, Cesario met beer-importer Anne Latchis, who is married to bar-keeper and beer-historian Alan Eames. Stories written by Eames on the anthropology of brewing inspired a co-operation that led ten years ago to the creation of a black lager called Xingu.

This is named after a Brazilian tribe and a river that is a tributary of the Amazon, in the northern state of Pará. The beer Xingu has never been produced in that region.

This is named after a Brazilian tribe and a river that is a tributary of the Amazon, in the northern state of Pará. The beer Xingu has never been produced in that region. It has for the past few years been made under contract by a brewery called Sul Americano, in the Brazilian town of Toledo, in the south-western state of Paraná. This is one of about a dozen small regional independents in Brazil. It began brewing only in recent years, having originally made only soft drinks.

For the previous few years, the beer was produced at another small regional brewery in the southeast, at Caćador, in the state of Santa Caterina. Xingu was the last gasp for this very old brewery, which had been run since 1936 by an Italian immigrant. It was so old that it fired its boiler with wood. The brewery, known as Caćador, had improvised its own equipment to kiln its crystal and roasted malts, perhaps thus adding to the beer's distinctively spicy, licorice-root, flavours. These may also have been heightened by the use of brown, caramelised sugar. When Caćador produced the first sample batch, the brewer thought that it was too burned in flavour, but importer Latchis, wife liked it (I agree with her).

A small investment in Sul Americano and a larger stake in Caćador, were provided by another lawyer, Carlos Filho. He and his brothers Joao and Arlinde, now have a brewpub in Sao Paulo. This city, as big as New York, London or Tokyo (and in some ways resembling the last, though at a samba rhythm), has several brewpubs. The Filho brothers' establishment has the generic-sounding name Brewpub. It is at 3/249 Rua da Consolaćao, a street of apartments and small restaurants in the Jardins district (take the subway to Consolaca).

Brewpub, in a former cabinet-maker's shop, features live music in a variety of styles. It has murals of brewing scenes, and sacks of malt decorate the canopy over the bar. Arlinde offered me a draught version of Xingu, brewed on the premises. This had a huge, almost gelatinous head; a solid ebony colour; and a rich, licorice-toffee, flavor.

It was delicious...and it did not explode.

Published Online: MAR 10, 1999
Published in Print: JAN 1, 1999
In: All About Beer

Brew Travel

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