From Valparaiso, we headed south along the Pacific coast, stopping in Isla Negra where we had lunch at the oceanfront restaurant next to Pablo Neruda’s house (not the Valparaiso “house in the air” mentioned earlier). From here it was lots of driving before getting to the next major beer town of Valdivia way down south. We made an overnight pitstop in Temuco where we attempted to stay at the historic Hotel Continental, where Pablo Neruda is said to have favored room number nine, while Gabriela Mistral (the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature) preferred room ten. Unfortunately the place was shuddered, so we settled for a mediano (medium-sized mug) of Kunstman Bock, a fastfood sandwich, and a decent but unnoteworthy business hotel.
Pushing on toward Valdivia we entered Patagonia, heavily forested, criss-crossed by rivers, and speckled with lakes. The area around Valdivia was settled by German colonists beginning just after independence in 1818. Of course, wherever Germans immigrate, breweries must quickly follow. So Valdivia became the first European-style brewing center of Chile.
Compañía Cervecerías Unidas (CCU) began consolidating breweries in the early 1900s and today is the country’s national beer monopoly. CCU is a strategic partner with Anheuser-Busch and also has an ownership stake in Kunstmann Brewery, the largest craft (or artesanal as they say here) brewery, and Austral, another well-known craft brewery here.
Speaking of Kunstmann, we bagan our Validivian brewtour by meeting Armin Kunstmann himself, the founder and co-owner of the company. We heard various assertions about the ownership split between Armin and CCU, some giving Kunstmann 51% and others claiming CCU has the majority stake. Regardless of how this divides, Don Armin was a gracious host and certainly acted as if the company was entirely his own in every practical sense. He was terse when the subject of CCU came up. “The partnership with CCU,” he stated, “is to get distribution.” He neither praised, defended, nor criticized CCU, but rather avoided the topic, suggesting in my mind that he may feel it is a necessary evil, a sort of pact with the devil that allows Kunstmann beers to thrive.
Several of the other craft brewers here have shared their suspicions that Kunstmann beers must also be brewed at one of the more central CCU plants because their distribution is just too large to all be coming from the original plant, but when I asked Armin about this he was succint and direct: “No. We brew all the beer here. And we are doubling the size of the brewery so we can continue to grow and still do all the brewing here.”
The CCU partnership hinges on one basic reality of the Chilean beer marketplace. CCU controls the market, in part, through the use of exclusivity contracts. Carry CCU beers and they’ll gladly provide signage, chairs, and other sundries, but you must agree to carry only their beers. Obviously this makes it difficult for the many new small brewers trying to enter the market. Another global powerhouse though, namely InBev, is starting to make inroads in Chile since they have the money and wherewithal to compete against CCU with similarly heavy-handed strategies.
Armin himself is clearly dedicated to good beer and to preserving the history of brewing in Valdivia. He bagan homebrewing after discovering a homebrewing store and a copy of Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing during a business trip to Milwaukee’s Red Star baking yeast company. That was twenty years ago and he’s been brewing ever since. Papazian apparently came to the brewery earlier this year, and also visited a few of the other Chilean craft brewers I’ve met along the way.
The Kunstmann brewery is fronted by a German-style restaurant complete with an outdoor biergarten (enclosed by a tent in the winter) run by Armin’s wife Patricia. The building also houses what is perhaps the most complete museum of Chilean brewing history. The town of Valdivia also has an antrhopological museum that is, appropriately, situated in the Andwandter mansion – former home of the town’s most celebrated brewer! Next to the museum is the site of the original Andwandter brewery, sadly destroyed by an earthquake in 1960.
Armin and his brewery administrator Mauricio Delannoy Iversen generously invited us to dinner in their restaurant, but we had already scheduled to meet with one of the proprietors of Valbier so instead we just did a beer tasting and accepted their invitation to come back the next day for lunch. The beers on offer included: unfiltered versions of their lager and Torobayo pale ale (other brewers had rightly advised us to try these brewery-only beers); a bock, one of their staples available on draft in pubs around the country; a new version of the Torobayo brewed with elm honey, a specialty honey apparently only available in this region; and a new amped-up Gran Torobayo, with 7.5% ABV. We also tasted a three-scoop parfait glass of the house ice cream made with one scoop each of Torobayo, Torobayo with raspberry, and Torobayo with honey.
Running a little late, we hustled across town to Fuente Valdivia (Valdivia Fountain), a small pub restaurant on the main drag featuring all artisanal foods and beers, operated by two of the four owners of Valbier. Francisco, the brewer and only full time worker at the brewery, was ill in bed so his partner Maricio Silva joined us for a couple glasses of Valbier red ale. Wow! The floral hop aroma on this struck me right away, a marked departure from the rest of the beers I’ve tasted in Chile – this one has some hops in it! At the moment this is the only style they are brewing but it is available in supermarkets.
The food at Fuente was a highlight for both Seung and me. We had been awaiting the right moment for a proper completos – a Chilean specialty that is basically a hot with all the fixins, including loads of fresh avocado spread. We tried one in Vina del Mar and it was horrendous, an uncooked hot dog on a nasty hard white roll, slathered with appallingly artificial mayonnaise and nary a nip of avocado to be found. This one was a completely different story. It was hard to tell due to translation difficulties, but what we understood was that everthing was “artesanal” – from the dog to the mustard. This, our first true completos, did not disappoint.
Even more noteworthy, however, was the next snack: carne crudos, i.e. steak tartar. I’ve never tried this, mostly because the very idea of it makes me feel quesey. According to Mauricio, this is the typical homestyle meal for Valdivianos. So, slightly buzzed and enjoying the company, the moment for consuming raw meat had finally arrived. Mauricio says the trick is to squirt fresh lemon over it and wait exactly three minutes for it to marinade. I topped mine off with some homemade caliente sauce and had a taste . . . and another taste. Hmm, not bad. So good, in fact, that I ate the whole plateful and didn’t get sick! If I wasn’t a badly-lapsed-but-still-philosophically-vegetarian this could become a habit. With the generous hospitality we’ve found typical of Chile’s artisinal brewers, the whole affair was on the house. But Mauricio has a day job (he asked me not to say where) so we called it a night at around 11pm, feeling happily buzzed on one of the best beers I’ve found in Chile so far, and with my tummy full of two “food-firsts.”
Back to Kunstmann for lunch with the other Mauricio (who used to work with the above Mauricio at “the company not to be named). What a meal: more carne crudos (with more homemade sauces), fresh biscuits with local honey, grilled local trout covered with raisins, mashed potatoes with peppers, and a slice of Bock cream cake to finish it off.
During our rambling, two-hour lunch we learned that the brewery has a new waste water treatment plant out back, so after eating we headed out back for a tour. It’s a dual system handling human waste and brewery waste seperately. Both are treated with living microbes before being redistributed into the ground. This is a variation on the type of “living machines” pioneered by John and Nancy Jack Todd, whose ecological water treatment systems are in place in several breweries in the U.S. Very cool.
Mauricio informed us that J. Bello, another craft brewer, is just down the road from Kunstmann. We’d heard about this beer but didn’t know where it was located, and unfortunately we had to miss it since we had another meeting scheduled with Eduardo Aquilar at Calle Calle brewery located on the other side of town on a marsh feeding the Calle Calle river.
Calle Calle boasts the most diverse range of beers I managed to find in Chile.
Chileans, in my limited experience thusfar, project an aura of serenity. They never seem to be in a hurry, but they are not averse to hard work, as if they are aware of the useful of clocks but not beholden to them. Eduardo R. Aquilar Carrasco, though exhibiting the same attitude towards time, is a whirlwind of activity. He claims his brewery is “just for fun.” Yet he employs five people and produces five regular beers, plus seasonals and experimental batches – comprising a more diverse set of offerings than any other Chilean brewer as far as I can tell: Cutipay ale made with elm honey, Naguilan porter made with real chocolate, Tornogaleones wheat beer, Llancahue lager, and Cau Cau pale ale. Among the seasonal selections is a cranberry ale, and he also bottles and markets a straight cranberry juice “for it’s health properties.”
Besides the brewery, Eduardo runs a large machine shop across the street where a handful of staff fix “everything.” Everything was one of his favorite words. The brewery and tasting room/bar are filled with odd trappings, such as lamps made from trees and windows made from ship portholes. Each time we asked about an item, he would smile broadly, point to himself, and say “everything” – as in “I made everything here with my own hands.”
And he really means it. The entire bar/tasting room was refashioned by him from a used truck trailer! It sits on the edge of a marsh onto which the back of the place opens up with an indoor/outdoor picnic area filled with handcrafted wooden tables and chairs, a floor window for observing the fish below, and a brick oven where Eduardo bakes bread. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, he makes three styles of beer-infused ice cream too. His “real job,” as it turns out, is building ships! That’s him in the photo holding one of his mugs – sporting his hand-etched logo of course.
Okay, we visited a few more places but this whole post has been rushed as it is and I’m ready for a beer (I am on vacation after all) so I’ll save the remaining breweries for part four in the series.