Bogota Brews: Parte Dos
Stepping out of an Uber after riding through the business district, suits, dresses, and the glisten of shoe polish rushed by in the growing streetlight and waning sun. The streets took on their nightly fluorescent glow I longed for in my wilder times; but now, I miss the warm, orange rays at the beginning and end of the day. We followed a pedestrian path to the south, perpendicular to the road we were riding on searching for a a sign with the name Chelarte. A modern glass and steel skyscraper rose to the left; in front, chic Edison Bulbs hung in a long drooping arch over a brick path lined with rot iron benches, low brick walls, and deciduous trees rising into a green canopy protecting the walkers beneath from the light drizzle beginning with the night. Continuing our investigation through the gentrified sector before us, a neon sign glowed to the right spelling out our destination in pink letters. We stood outside to take a few pictures in the remaining natural light. A covered patio with metal chairs and wooden tables occupied the front of the space beneath the neon sign. Old glass filled the windows of the patio blurring the entire scene within. Our meeting tonight was set for 6 PM with Camilo, the owner and head brewer. We walked through the door into the warm, softly lit patio and out of the chilling rain.
Encountering the host or hostess at the the front of any restaurant in a foreign country is always a leap of faith and testament to your courage and humility. Fortunately (or unfortunately because there would be a crowd instead of an individual to witness our language barrier) three employees stood at the door, and after some confused menu descriptions and blank stares they figured out that we had a meeting with the owner and weren't really comprehending most of what they said. They pointed down the length of the window at the front of the restaurant towards a circular hightop with a man sitting in front of a computer. A half-eaten basket of fries, bottle of water, and half a beer with foam rings delineating the progress through the pint glass spread across the the table in a crescent around his workspace. As we approached the man looked up, smiled and extended introductions to both Sara and me: "Hi, I'm Camilo."
His demeanor contrasted with the rough, grizzly, overalled, muck-booted brewers of the Pacific Northwest. He was wearing jeans and a T-Shirt, was extremely polite, and immediately offered us a flight of beers. We sat down at the table and started to take in our surroundings. The taproom was warm and comfortably lit, differing significantly from the cold, stark, and harsh ambiance of the average brewery in the United States. A neon light hung above the bar with pink letters spelling "Chelarte" recalling memories of the movie "Cocktail." Liquor bottles and wine lined the shelves behind the bar and reflected in the mirror: Chelarte offered a diverse menu of libations. From the bar, on the left there were booths, in the middle tables, and to the right along the window hightops. Opposing the bar on the opposite wall, a tropically colored mural painted from floor to ceiling depicted five women in sunny day beach attire and reminded me of a Pan Am advertisement from the 1960s. The female characters personified Camillo's beers.
Five years ago Camilo opened the doors to his brewpub. At that time, his customers knew beer only by its color: blanco, roja, and negra. As a result, people didn't understand how a beer could cost more than a dollar and why flavor, ingredients, and process mattered. It was just a colored liquid with alcohol that provided a quick buzz. "Calling something by its name gives it a personality. Beers have names; they are the styles." There is almost no word in any language sweeter to a person than their own name. It provides someone with the context to identify themselves in relation to others and the universe. It confirms existence. Camilo continued, "We give our beer a woman's name and image and it reminds our customer that the drink is more than just a color. They have style. They have history. They are a story." Camilo's nudging of the Colombian craft beer market to further appreciate the complexity of beer impressed me. Sometimes you just need a different lens to see something clearly. Sometimes you just need a woman.
In an effort to avoid drifting off topic and into why there are bumble bees in no flush toilets I will recover focus with a brief fact: we drank some beer. Through a dedicated - and some would say unbelievable - brew schedule, Camilo carries over five of his own beers on tap, rotates seasonal beers, creates special releases, develops beers for other restaurants in Bogota, and distributes beer to several cities in Bogota on a half barrel system (more to follow on the production). When the flights of beer arrived to our table they were presented in an ordered designed to "walk" customers new to craft beer through the journey - or at the very least, the first step. The Summer Ale, named Pamela, was first in line. "This beer is flirty, approachable, and gets people interested in craft beer," Camilo said. The branding carried over into the descriptions and were spot on. With baked bread notes on the nose, ginger and coriander on the palate, and a refreshing herbal bitterness at the end, Pamela perfectly broke the craft beer ice for dubious domestic beer drinkers. Stepping up the bitterness and intensity with an IPA, Naari brought citrus and piny resin on the nose and palate, finishing with a clean grassy bitterness. Getting a bit darker with a browns ale named Carmela, Camilo presented an incredibly balanced and malty ale: cinnamon on the nose; allspice, biscuit, and Christmas cookies in the flavor; and a herbal bitterness balanced with a carmel sweetness at the end. After the flight, out came a surprise: an unfiltered New England IPA. Named "Why Can't We Be Friends," the NEIPA was a collaboration with Cerveceria Gigante and Tomahawk (both in Bogota), and the name served as humorous "call-out" to the fact that some breweries in Bogota believe they are above working together. Fruit Punch and tangerine distributed across my tastebuds, carried by the viscous, juicy, unfiltered beer. A slightly grassy bitterness rounded out the fruit for a smooth finish. Time passed, and, catalyzed by Camilo's exceptional craft beer, slipped by without notice: looking down at my watch for the first time during the night I realized three hours had passed! We decided to take a break from imbibing and get some sleep before visiting his brewhouse the following morning.
The next morning we ventured north just out of town to the Chelarte brewerhouse. Due to regulations in Bogota, breweries can't be in the same structure as their brewpub. This is one of the many surprising and extreme measures brewery owners have to deal with. As I mentioned earlier, the brewing equipment was small in scale. Consequently, Camilo and his employees brewed five times every day! We walked into the brewery, which was in a two story apartment, and into the brewhouse on the first floor. A large, "piece-mealed" refrigeration unit encompassed the first room (assembled from scratch by Camilo and his business partner). Everyone walked around with face masks and scrubs. The HALF-BARREL!!! brewhouse was taking a brief break from its continuous transferring of heat and liquids. In the back room Camilo had built a cellar for controlling the temperature of fermentation which occurred in plastic jugs. Bottles specified by date and style lined a wall of the cellar and served as his quality control system: a portion of all the beer he has made and that is in distribution or flowing from the taps in his bar sits bottled in the cellar. He reserves two bottles of every brew. The first he samples a few months after brewing, and the second he reserves in case their is a customer complaint. The second bottle provides him with a control to compare with the "bad" beer. More often than not Camilo and his team aren't at fault: "One time a bar owner complained about the quality of my beer. We tried the control bottle and found no problems. I asked him where he stored the beer, and he pointed to a spot next to the oven."
We went upstairs to his office with a wide window stretching the length of the room. The green mountains surrounding Bogota composed the view. We all sat down and shared another beer - morning beer, the best kind. Camilo chatted about the changing water composition due to climate changes, how he transitioned from a chemical engineer at a petroleum company to brewery entrepreneur, where he hopes to expand in the future. Outside, radiant beams of sunlight broke up the vegetation when the clouds parted and passed through the glass, brightening the room and causing my eyes to squint. Camilo shared the concept for the upcoming release of a beer incorporating an ingredient from every region of Colombia. Commitment to the history and essence of beer along with meticulous process and high quality ingredients defines an exceptional brewer. Camilo exhibited all these characteristics in word and action.
Beer is a scientific and artistic combination of grains, hops, water, yeast, and occassionally some other ingredients. There's nothing very complicated about that. The process yields a delicious (sometimes) beverage, and that beverage is consumed by humans. The last part of that equation is complicated. Humanity's relationship with beer is old and deep and felt, reminding us of our past and tying us to this Earth as we desperately try to get away. Drinking local beer is about honoring that tradition which has always defined communities and cultures. There's nothing wrong with cracking open a Miller High Life (usually done in sets of six tall boys), but it's important to occasionally drink the good stuff: so you don't forget the history and lives dedicated to the craft; so it doesn't become another simple, tasteless thing in life from which we get no real value other than a headache; so it remains an example of human achievement and resilience that we can raise full glasses to, in the pub, bar, or house at the end of the day, celebrating a successful twenty-four hours and looking forward to twenty-four more.