Craft Beer in Uruguay

Ian Caig is a long-time CAMRA member and a founding member of SOBA, serving on our committee for a number of years, including filling the role of National Secretary. He recently moved back to South America and has joined Somos Cerveceros, an Argentine home brew/craft brewer organization and will be joining Loggia Gambrinus! Here Ian fills us in on the craft beer scene in Uruguay.

Whilst Uruguay can never be said to be a country with a strong or rich beer culture, as in many parts of South America, a reasonable amount (65m litres per annum in a population of 3.2 million) of industrial beer is consumed. Where Uruguay seems to be suffering, even more than in the surrounding countries, is in how AnhauserBusch InBev have taken over all the major breweries, creating a monopoly situation, which the government is neither inclined to recognise or control, from a consumer perspective.

Despite the overwhelming presence of these industrial brands – Pilsen, Patricia and Nortena account for 90% of the market alone, while the offshore brands Stella Artois, Budweiser, Brahma etc take up much of the remaining 10% – the company still tries to prohibit the entry of craft beer into ‘their’ bars, and even encourages bar owners to stop selling craft beer, by the supply of free bar equipment etc, as an enticement to do so.

Despite this difficult environment, a small number of craft brewers are doing their best to introduce their countrymen to a concept that many parts of the world now accepts as fairly common place: flavorsome craft beer.  Three of the craft brewers (Mastra, Davok and Cruz del Sur) are located in the capital, Montevideo, whilst Cabesas is in a province called Tacuarembó, in the interior, and Dap at Paysandú, near the border with Argentina. There are rumours of breweries being set up in the World Heritage town of Colonia and in Salto.

Mastra was the first brewery to make a serious attempt to break the foreign stranglehold, setting out in 2007, with the intention of capturing 2% of the national market within a 5 year period. Mastra tends to focus on three beers – strong Scotch, golden extra special and American stout – which can be found on tap in bars such as Shannon, in Montevideo’s Old City, but is more usually found by chance in restaurants  in a bottled format and, possibly, labeled for that restaurant. The beers have live yeast in the bottle for their secondary fermentation. Whilst the other brewers seem to be willing to pool resources and ideas, Mastra prefers to beat their own path.

By a stroke of good fortune the husband of a Canadian friend is also the owner and brewer at Cruz del Sur – Luiz Fonseca. Luiz is also President of one of the craft beer organizations here, Loggia Gambrinus. The really, really fortunate part came when I discovered that the apartment I’d rented was only 120 metres from Luiz’s brewery and  later on, when he decided to hold ‘Open Bar’ at the brewery on a bi-monthly basis, I could attend those evenings too! Under Uruguayan law, a bar is not permitted to operate within two blocks of a school so the Open Bar events are ‘private’.

Luiz Fonseca, brewer at Cruz del Sur. Photo: Ian Caig

The Cruz del Sur brewery first became a reality in early 2010, when Luiz found an old butcher’s shop,with large chiller room, and converted it into his brewery. The first of the test brews, on his 50 litre kit, were made in May 2010, with the first sales being made in October. It took until May this year for Luiz to persuade the owners of Shannon to stock his beers and this outlet now accounts for the sale of roughly two-thirds of the brewery’s production, the rest being sold privately. Luiz has just been asked to supply a second bar, Burlesque (situated close to the World Trade Centre in Buceo), where sales are higher, and which will require a 100% increase in production of his beers. Cruz del Sur produce a Wheat, Pale Ale, IPA, Oatmeal Stout and the occasional one-off brew, the latest of which was a very pleasant Strawberry beer.

Toward the end of September, I had the opportunity to visit the Davok brewery, with members of Loggia Gambrinus, one Saturday evening. Prior to my visit I’d only ever come across their Oatmeal Stout, English Pale Ale and Irish Red, so it was a surprise to walk into the brewery and find the eight different styles. Apart from the beers already mentioned, there was an APA, Dunkel, Barley Wine, two IPAs and a gluten-free beer. Davok has been the most celebrated craft brewery in Uruguay, winning a gold medal for their IPA at the Great South Beer Cup, held in Buenos Aires earlier this year, a silver medal for their Barley Wine and bronze for their English Pale Ale. They were also awarded two silver medals in the Copa Cervezas de America competition in Santiago, Chile, for their APA and IPA. Both competitions were judged by an international panel, to BCJP standards.

The brewery became a reality when home brewer Alejandro Baldenegro’s girlfriend (now wife) Mariana López started a process engineering course that required a substantial amount of research into the brewing process. Obviously Alejandro was happy to scale up the size of his to kit so that Mariana had some realistic data to work with…and the rest is history.

The initial brews were sold for tastings at Shannon toward the end of 2007, with the beers becoming a permanent feature there in early 2009. Burlesque became an outlet later that year. Another outlet is the Parador La Huella, at Balneario José Ignacio, one of the top restaurants in the country. The Davok brewery is currently being expanded and a bottling line will be incorporated.

The beers I tasted while at the brewery were the Irish Red (a rather tame, 4.7% ABV, easy drinking beer), APA (whilst there was little aroma, the taste was another matter, being quite citrusy – also a 4.7% ABV beer) and two IPAs. The IPAs were effectively the same beer with the exception of the hop variety used – the Citra-hopped beer had a passion fruit flavor with some peppery hints. By the time I got round to trying the Amarillo-hopped IPA my taste buds were pretty shot, so I don’t have any worthwhile tasting notes for that one, although I did go back for a number of top ups. Frankly these last three beers are the best I have tasted in South America and would stand up well in international competition…hence the medals.

Neither of the breweries visited have any signage outside, so the first time you tend to approach with some trepidation, as they do not look as though there will be a brewery inside. As the brewers are part-time, prior contact should be made before thinking of visiting.

The two bars mentioned in the article also stock a reasonable range of imported beers from Europe. Craft beer currently sells for about Ur$95/pint (approx US$5) in the bars.

So if anyone from over there finds their way over here, don’t give up hope of finding some decent beer, it’s just a little thin on the ground!

Ian Caig

1 Comments

  1. Hi!
    Came across your craft beer in Uraguay article while researching for a college business project in which my group has to come up with a business plan for a new brewery to be opened in Uruguay. As a huge craft beer fan and homebrewer myself, I found your visit to be quite intriguing…who would have thought of good craft beer in South America?! Your write gives a lot of good numbers as far market share and the like. Thanks for the info/entertainment.
    Cheers!

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