Mainlining Hops in Medellín
Sometimes worlds in motion on separate elliptical paths converge at a random point in space. Chance, fate, coincidence; I don't know: with infinite locations on each path what's the likelihood of these interactions? If you choose two random people at a random time in a random place it's pretty low. That's probably why the concept of fate and destiny even exist: because to our very limited scope of the universe everything seems impossible without some kind of intent. And I have no idea myself. Don't we desperately search for intersecting paths among our own infinite points which intersect with the paths we encounter in other people? Do we do it to fill the silence between words spoken or to find commune in an increasingly connected but vapid world? Is it something else? I can say very little with certainty outside of my own experience. I know that in December in a neighborhood outside of Medellin, Colombia called Envigado (Pablo Escobar’s old neighborhood, and, allegedly, the safest neighborhood in Medellin due to the Narco population living there now and paying a premium to keep it that way) Sara and I met an incredible brewer named Carlos who knew the area I grew up in and more about the breweries there than I did. In fact, one of his best beers was inspired by Creature Comfort - one of the best craft breweries in Georgia and about 45 minutes from where I spent the first 18 years of my life. Here, I'll predict, I'm reaching for commune; not out of desperation, but rather a curious quench.
In the pattern of inconspicuous advertisement as experienced at Cerveceria Gigante in Bogota, Sierra Blanca, Carlos’s brewery, was unmarked other than a tiny sticker on the door. We skeptically knocked on the door, expecting no answer. Surprisingly the door opened and a friendly guy answered wearing a trucker cap with the name of a craft brewery from Jackson, Mississippi on it. He started in Spanish - to be expected and hoped for - but finished with some incredible English which was such a relief. Carlos spilt his time between brewing and work as a translator. Needless to say, his mastery of English was exceptional and made the whole experience much easier. Walking into the living room we saw his brewhouse - currently at 1 BBL. "I'm trying to keep things small and grow organically. I've had friends try to speed up the growth process and the products always suffers." I couldn't agree with him more. So many investors and entrepreneurs get wrapped around growth growth growth and by the time they're big the product sucks and now you have a lot of something that no one wants to buy. I think that's especially true in craft beer. The only thing keeping crappy beer on the shelves now a days are typically distributors and politics. The supply chain isn't optimized for getting quality products to customers, it's about something else - old laws, religion, power. I remember talking to my friend Will's mom about how they purchased beer in Germany when she was growing up and here was her response: "We just put the empty bottles at the door and they replaced them with bottles full of beer." Wow. I'm not in Germany right now, so I'll save that conversation for this summer when we visit.
In a dark, side room two 1BBL fermenters from Ss Brewtech were fermenting two different IPAs. The kitchen served as a lab for the brewery. A glass windowed refrigerator in the kitchen held some final product and an open doorway led to a patio floored in brick and walled off in a mosaic of more brick and brightly painted stucco. We walked around inside the apartment with Carlos, sampling beer from the fermentor. Three years ago he picked up the Deluxe Starter Kit from Northern Brewer and along with five friends in Medellin started a small home-brew group, entered a home-brew contest, and won “best IPA” which a nightclub owner tried and loved. He started to believe that he might have a future in the brewing business and continued home brewing. When his relationship with his girlfriend ended a year later he took Siebel’s Concise Course on Brewing Technology online and started investing more time and money into brewing. Experimenting is the name of the game. Carlos jumped in, made waves, drank up, and shares with everyone.
His current space is leased for a year. He drove out to Envigado looking for a quieter corner of town, saw the inside of the apartment, signed a year lease, and is now getting comfortable with his equipment; simultaneously with his "self education and recipe development" he’s produced the most diverse and impressive line-up of IPAs I’ve seen in Latin America so far - and basically doing it under the radar. His “experimentation” is what most craft breweries strive for in a perfected final product. On our walk out towards the patio for some sampling he remembered his most recent test: a Belgian IPA. “I’m not too sure of this one. It’s the first batch, and I think I fermented it a little too cold for a Belgian yeast. But I think it has a lot of potential.” He poured a heavy sample and I took a whiff. Grapefruit on the nose, citrus and herbal on the palate with a Belgian estery finish. There was a little astringency at the end - probably from the fermentation temperature - but I think “I’m not too sure about this one” was a little critical. It was like complaining about the first iPhone's battery life to a normal plebeian with a Motorola Razor back in 2007. The beer was money, and it was just the first attempt.
On the patio, Carlos brought out two bottles and an extra plastic chair. The table was actually made out of Colombia Club plastic crates that used to hold bottles of the country’s biggest domestic beer brand in delivery trucks. He placed the beers on a piece of wood set on the crates and the chairs in a semi circle for sampling and conversation. The beers were both Red Rye IPAs (one with a slight variation) and are inspired by Creature Comfort’s Reclaimed Rye; however, Carlos added that hoppy touch with the nuance of an artist and proficiency of a scientist. Creamy melon on the nose, dark toasted bread followed by sweet carmel on the tongue, and a sharp, spicy finish characteristic of rye beers. At 7.2% the beer carried some weight. The second was a variation on the first: he added charred wood chips soaked in dark rum (along with the rum) to the secondary fermentation. He actually reserved the chips for another brew - wish I could be around for the release! With the rising foam on the head, satisfying bubblegum and bourbon aromas entered my nose, illustrating Carlos’s subtle balance between the omnipotent ingredients of rum, wood, and hops. The aroma laid the track for the flavor to follow: vanilla, brown sugar, and oak with a subtle melon undertone excited my tastebuds and in the memory of my mind replaced the tulip glass of beer with a snifter of Knob Creek bourbon. I’m sitting by the fire in a cabin in Vermont with snow rising over the windows after a long distressing drive on icy roads. I'm with friends during the holidays and somehow there's beautiful snow and I'm still warm - like taking a shower simultaneously with hot and cold water. What a sense of accomplishment and warmth and friendship in a glass. That’s the kind of pixie dust Carlos was brewing: dipping into the collective human sub-conscience, arousing these kinds of feelings. Somehow with all that cozy warmth, the beer finished refreshingly clean and bitter to round out my sweet memory and brought me back to the Colombian morning, sitting under a corrugated plastic roof on the patio with light passing through cracks and shadows of bugs inching across solely in contrast. Assuming it was the same beer as before with rum added, I can only guess at the alcohol content and would rather not. Sara and I were drunk at this point and wouldn’t remember if he told us. I made a mental note to stop scheduling these get-togethers before lunch. We managed to stand up, agree to meet up that evening to visit a couple more breweries in town with Carlos, and walk out the door into midday with glassy eyes, rosy cheeks, and unnecessarily wide smiles.
That evening the crusade continued with Carlos. We met up with him at Cerveceria Libre. The place brimmed and the playlist running through "Easy Wind" responded in like fashion: "Gotta find a woman be good to me, won't hide my liquor try to serve me tea." Ain't no tea here. We passed through an open sliding door made of four sliding wooden sections and painted brown. The white walls, broken into panels by wooden beams running vertically to wooden rafters and ceiling projected a Bavarian ambiance. Along a shelf at the intersection of the roof and walls, beer bottles from around the world queued-up to display Andres’ (the owner) passion for beer. This was the first brewpub in Medellin and they currently produced on a 3 BBL brewhouse in the back of the building. Even more impressive was the selection on tap: 21 taps, all Colombian beer. If you're dry or an entire month into a New Years' Resolution I'd still check the place out for the onion-salt n'vinegar puff bar snacks. Based on the number I ate they may have been topped with cocaine, so if you gave up both beer and cocaine then there's nothing there for you. I ordered a pint of Cerveceria Libre’s Session Ale: Sorachi Session. Ironically, everything about the beer was bold. Single hopped, the beer presented the Japanese Sorachi hop with zero distraction: candied tangerine and clementine, white wine grapes, and a long herbal, bitter finish. Being a hop head I was a fan, but this was no session for the weak or faint of hearted. After my first pint Carlos showed up with one of his Red Rye IPAs and a Galaxy IPA in hand. We shared the bottles among the group that had developed around him.
Afterwards, we cruised the city in his vintage looking VW Beetle. It turns out that Volkswagen continued producing the vintage models through the 90s down in Colombia; so, while the car appeared to be 50 to 60 years old it was only about 20. The next and final brewery we visited in Medellin was Madre Monte, and Carlos insisted that we try their Double IPA. Heavy American hop aromas - citrus and pine - dominated the nose, but the flavor was beautifully balanced with a subtle caramel, finishing grassy, bitter, and clean. Additionally, they were in the process of developing a Lambic Sour American Pale Ale. The creativity and drive were certainly taking off in Medellin. On the way back to the apartment, windows open in the vintage Beetle weaving through traffic like a go-cart, Carlos shared some final thoughts on the craft beer scene in Medellin: “The industry is still in infancy. Home brewers are making a significant impact and actually operating as small businesses while maintaining the freedom and flexibility of home brewing.” People in Medellin are still learning and trying to understand what craft beer is about. It’s a new phenomenon; dedicated and creative brewers like Carlos will certainly push the industry and movement along in Colombia. When I asked him about the future he replied, “I’d like to become a cult brewery. I’d like to create some incredibly unique products that people line up outside the door for.”
I’d say people already are: we waited outside his door based on a recommendation; people at Cerveceria Libre were elbowing to the bar to sample his brew; I’m writing this right now to convince any craft beer fanatic heading in the southern cardinal direction to reroute through Medellin, get a cab to Envigado and start knocking on doors looking for Sierra Blanca. The chain of events that brought Sara and me there was complicated and now I’m in South America on a 12 hour bus ride writing this, thinking about Carlos’s Red Rye IPA, wondering how he ended up in Georgia and tried Creature Comfort’s beer. And in my head I'm trying to create an imaginary circle connecting Carlos, Colombia, Me, Georgia, and Creature Comfort. And I'm realizing that the circle is not imaginary: that's what the global craft beer culture has become. It’s interesting how time and experimentation give you perspective to see these circles and connections. The things we learn on the way to learning other things (thank Bobby Guarnella for that bit of wisdom). To see them you must get beyond the present and look back after they’ve rattled around a bit. While you’re trying to learn that next thing it’ll probably start to make more sense - or maybe the accumulation of non-sensical things starts to make more sense.