The Farmhouse's Ale
Memories of Argentina will forever drown me in the Impressional blur visioned through the bottom of a tumbler looking up at the dim bar light; then, with that image in mind, out the door into a warm evening or an incredibly frigid night, wearing a thick wool jacket, the rush of comfort and deep meaning overwhelm in inexplicable ebullience. Argentina is a feeling for me. A good one. And I carry it as the Ford Ranger that carried us into the country: along winding roads; up steep switchbacks appearing to end catastrophically; climbing through quiet no man’s land under moonlight reflecting on ancient glaciers. I looked back at Chile to say farewell. The landscape slowly turned from mountains to hills to rolling plains and finally to the piedmont, at the foot of the giants, where one looks west and sees the sun setting behind the elevated horizon hours before it would on the other side. The arid landscape was noticeable even in the middle of the night, and I alternated between staring out the window and reading a book until finally I fell asleep. I woke up to a change in the consistent flow of driving. A stuttering pattern indicated we were entering a town and approaching our destination: Nikko's house and our bed for the next three nights.
I should add, we found this place through Couch Surfing, which made the border crossing a little sporty. Our explanation to the border agent illustrates the boldness of the maneuver:
Border Agent (to Niko): "How do you know these Gringos?"
Nikko: "We met in person for the first time a few hours ago and met originally on this web site where strangers open their homes free of charge to other strangers. The Gringos happened to be in Santiago and I happened to be in Valparaiso for New Years. They messaged me on Couch Surfer - the aforementioned, ridiculous website - and I told them they should just cram into my Ford Ranger and stay with me afterwards. Now we're here."
Border Agent: (One eyebrow raise to incredible heights) "Ok..."
Nikko: "Here are the messages." (Shows border agent the messages on the Couch Surfing website).
Border Agent: "Looks good. Enjoy Argentina."
Nikko's place was in a town named Tunuyan about forty miles south of Mendoza. His house, recently built by his father, contained two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a small living room/kitchen/atrium/extra bedroom area. The actual spare room was ours: a single mattress on the ground...oh yes, the adventure continues. Every Couch Surf is a different experience; this was no exception. We took out our sleeping bag liners and prepared the room for sleeping. I spread a sleeping bag and thick wool blanket I found in the room as a makeshift mattress and gave Sara the actual mattress. The room was toasty from a series of summer days nearing 100 degrees, but the night was cool and with the window open and our door open it eventually cooled off. Our fatigue made the temperature irrelevant that night. Things were going to be okay - although, Sara's reaction was similar to someone opening a terrible Christmas gift (jello mold comes to mind), and I thought she was going to cry for a moment -and I reassured her that if things turned out poorly we could always figure out another option; however, we survived and thrived and made a few friends along the way.
The following day I quickly realized Nikko not only provided accommodations but also concierge services, transportation, and friends - many friends. In the morning, we visited a cafe and met a friend of his from high school and her boyfriend; inside we met the owner; walking down the street he shook hands with most everyone on the sidewalk. Driving into the gas station he commented with a chuckle, "I think I know everyone working here right now." I asked when he was running for mayor. At lunch we met a few more friends (one named Carlos) who invited us to a small craft brewery in the countryside (as consequence, Nikko also provided material for our blog). At this point, I half expected Nikko to talk an ATM into free cash. While that never happened, the day continued in sundry fashion, and the pace accelerated in Nikko's truck racing towards the Andes past towering Italian Cypress, Malbec vines, and olive trees.
Towards a hike in the mountains we zagged the switchbacks in the road. Parking next to a stream, we followed the crystalline tributary up a deep slot canyon, towards a glacial waterfall cascading out of a crack in the mountain a few hundred feet above. Mist effervescently retreating from the stream of water pillowed near the canyon's edge, and the late afternoon sun cut through the blanket in a prism of light. The frigid water showered upon Nikko and me at the river's edge while Sara searched for a patch of sun. I could feel the cold getting to my bones and sped down the trail to create some warmth in the absence of sunlight deep in the canyon. Billowing dust and heat at Nikko's car drew sharp contrast to the shaded oasis above; we added to that upon our departure in route to the brewery: the final scheduled activity for the day.
We found ourselves bouncing down a narrow dirt road with fruit trees and grape vines rising left and right. Reaching a T in the road, Nikko had to call for directions. He turned left and went the final way down a driveway with peach and apple trees on the left and a quaint house on the right. Behind the house was a pole barn. To the left of that was an outdoor bar and left of that, between the bar and the orchard, was a circular table and kegs with cushions on top serving as the seats. This was not even close to what I was expecting. Carlos and his girlfriend were already there waiting for us. Alejandro, the owner of the farm and the owner/brewmaster of Himmel Brewing, carried pints of beer. His wife brought out several plates of charcuterie, cheese, vegetables and fruits for us to enjoy with our beers. The sun was setting as the evening progressed; slowly the sky began to open and stars appeared in the cool, clear, high desert night. The moon, full and bright, shone orange as the harvest moon. It was a night that never seemed to darken. I pointed out Orion, and Carlos showed me how to find the celestial south using the Southern Cross, drawing the compass rose in the sky with his right hand.
While we were enjoying the evening light show above us, Alejandro poured us some beers. I started with the IPA brewed with American hops. The nose was all citrus and the flavor incredibly clean with a balance of toasted bread and slight pine. The creamy head floated atop for the duration of the pint, and I finished up the bubbles with a slurp at the end. Alejandro elaborated on the difficulty of finding quality hops in Argentina. Getting hops seemed to be a universal struggle for brewers throughout South America: cost, transportation, and a general disregard among distributors for their fragility. Brewers down in South America have no idea of the quality we are used to in the United States, yet some are making up for it with disciplined process and the best malts they can find. Did I mention they're all using dry yeast down here? Crazy. Next up was the Russian Imperial Stout. After a few high gravity IPAs the Stout seemed a little too smooth. I'm not entirely sure of the ABV but I'd guess in the 9% range. Dark roasted coffee and chocolate rose with the carbonation in the glass and into my nose. The liquid was chewy, sweet, nutty, and finished with a roasted bitterness and slight black licorice farewell flavor. It was a special beer and the kind that complements a late night of friendly conversation with new acquaintances. And it makes the friend making that much easier - especially when it's all in Spanish.
After the beers we went into the brewhouse. Expecting a nano-brew system of 50 liters or so (about half a barrel) I was very surprised to see something at least five barrels in volume. Four conical fermenters lined the edge of the room and rose ten feet into the air. This was more than a hobby. It may have started there, but Alejandro had gone from amateur, to fanatic, to professional out at his farm. Rocking a neon shirt, his eyes lit up even brighter as he led us into the dark and towards some unmarked blue jugs sitting unsealed out behind his brewhouse. He reached in and grabbed out some kind of dark fruit and popped it into his mouth. "Kriek," he said, smile growing under the light of his headlamp and reflection on his glasses. We all ate the boozy fruit like children on Halloween. How in the hell did we get here?
Riding between the fields in a Ford Ranger the next day I couldn't help but smile in satisfied contemplation. The tall trees provided shade for the cool irrigated fields that smell like summer storms, which drop the temperature to make it feel like spring or fall or that season that doesn't exist but we all imagine it and feel it for one day a year and then long for it the rest of our lives. The Andes rise to the west. The trees along the side of the road blur the picture further on that plays like a flipping deck of pictured cards illustrating the perfect day. The man cuts into the ground with his wooden hoe. The woman bakes a warm pie. The horse is strong and beautiful. Glaciers melt into a river bringing life into the country. The children are strong and healthy. Up to this point in South America my cup filled part-way, but with the Argentinian people - their food, their wine, their beer, the Fernet and Coke, the southern stars that shine in reflection to my home - it overflows in rushes only found in the white caps of wild waters. Salud, to the breathe we sigh at the end, still intact; where the warmth of wine (and beer occasionally) rises with the set of the sun. I can say with certainty, Argentina is just as you imagine.
Since Himmel was such a surprise to us, we did not have the lighting, or our camera to take photos. Alejandro provided us the pictures below of the property and events this summer