Stranger Things in Buenos Aires
I watched the lightning strike outside and a streetlight turn on through a candle in the foreground. The thunder rumbled, the sky lit up, and the clouds opened, releasing the rain in sheets. Remaining dry in our new AirBNB in Buenos Aires, the window played all this like a television. Buenos Aires is the most cosmopolitan city in South America. What I found amazing was the juxtaposition of European ambiance with a bold Argentinian twist. Timeless Renaissance and Classical European buildings house large Argentinian grills cooking Choripan in a cloud of smoke; taxi drivers maintain conversation with each other through the open windows of their cabs while roaring down wide French boulevards at dangerous speeds; unmeasured South American chaos wears away at the sharp European edge. It’s a coin at the heart with lots of European polish on one side; but the other, more interesting, ragged, and unique, still falls face up half the time.
The next day we planned a visit to a new craft brewery in town called Strange Brewing. My first thought on the name was Cream's Disaraeli Gears, but after seeing the logo I wasn’t so sure. It appeared to be a raccoon entering a dog from behind. Pretty unique - disturbing at first - but after a while I found myself wanting a shirt or hat or sticker. The union of a raccoon and a dog certainly seemed to qualify as a Strange Brew. The beers on tap were enough to pull me there, out of bed with a strong hangover and across town through humid, busy streets: New England Double IPA, West Coast Amber IPA, Berliner Weiss with Passionfruit, Saison, Helles. Quite an impressive spread of beer styles. Washing yesterday from my eyes and massaging it from my temples, we hit the road and made a few stops along the way.
The first was a huge cemetery in the Barrio Norte neighborhood, named Cementario de la Recoleta. The cemetery consisted of giant, ornate above ground tombs, typically encasing wealthy, aristocratic families or very important Argentines. We arrived late in the afternoon; the sunlight acutely struck the stone mausoleums and shattered late day light throughout the park. The sheer number of mausoleums was greater than anywhere I had ever been. Walking through the cemetery felt like stepping upon narrow medieval streets lined with dark hamlets within a walled city. Some of the larger constructions with spires and balustrades could more fittingly be considered castles themselves. Egbert Viele's in the West Point cemetery comes to mind (combine all the strange Egyptian symbolism on the back of the one dollar bill, encase it all in marble, and put a dead guy in it). A wide pedestrian boulevard lined with comfortable benches bisected the park and shaded by large trees from the hot Southern Hemispherical summer sun, tempted a visitor with an afternoon nap - perhaps in the same way Irving's Hudson lulled Rip van Winkle into extended hibernation. I found it ironic that the cemetery felt so inviting. With the 6 o'clock hour a bell rang, and guards began to methodically patrol the winding lanes and hidden corners of the mausoleum maze, flushing out the tourists and more deviant visitors. Outside we sat underneath the shade of the high white marble wall in the cover of giant Ficus Elastica (rubber trees) searching a route to Strange Brewing.
Standing in front of an inconspicuous facade with large doors open we saw that bizarre but memorable strange brew between a raccoon and dog branding a sign above the door. Inside, Ramiro, one of the owners, spotted us immediately and waved us over. I could tell that he was young, but hearing that all the business partners were 26 shocked me a little. After some conversation I quickly saw that they surpassed those years. Ramiro and one of the other partners, Thor (the brewer), met at Stanford while they were both studying to become writers - Ramiro, literature and Thor, journalism. At that time, they started to drink craft beer and, as thrifty college students, searched for a cheaper way to drink good beer. Eventually they started brewing it themselves, hosting weekly BBQs, and releasing a new beer at every event. They never brewed the same beer twice (something they practice now in their brewpub); by the end of their time at Stanford, they had thrown 100 or so of these parties, and consequently, released 100 or so beers. After college, they decided to hit the road on an extended road trip from Stanford: through Mexico, Central America, and then over to Buenos Aires, Ramiro's hometown, to conclude the trip. Their third partner, Havard (equivalent to Howard, and we called him Howie) was a friend of Thor's in Norway (Thor and Howie are Norwegian). At the time he was an engineer in Norway and, after a trip to Panama in 2016, quit his job, moved to Buenos Aires, and started brewing with the guys.
When building the brewpub, they did everything themselves: pouring concrete, gluing hundreds of books together for the backsplash underneath the bar (and inhaling a significant amount of fumes to go along with that), installing the brewhouse after it arrived by way of precarious crane operated by a chain smoking local whose hanging cigarette shared a lot of similarities with the 10 BBL brewhouse dangling from his crane: "The fate of our brewery was hanging by his crane," Ramiro stated with a grin. Looking around, it's hard to believe that all this was accomplished in 10 months by some 26 year olds. They jumped whole-heartedly into the entrepreneurial waters, and have been successful because they are being true to themselves: Ramiro has an incredible personality, managing people and the organization well; Thor brews incredible beer and has a thirst for more knowledge; Havard is an engineer and can learn new things even in a language he doesn’t completely understand; they’re all cooks and consequently understand the elements and principles of making things come together to create a desirable product for the customer. Throwing back a few pints of the beer in their taproom, I can say with confidence that they are making a desirable product.
Having read about their New England Hazy Double IPA I asked Ramiro for a sample - and he poured me a whole pint. The Sunny D colored liquid glowed like a bar of gold in the incandescent light. Three feet away, I could detect the melon and tropical fruit notes and as I moved my nose closer, the aroma overtook my sinuses and by the time my lips reached the glass it was so intense that I had the feeling of already taking a drink. The viscous liquid coated the inside of my cheeks and my tongue in a series of flavor and internal aroma. Starting with a slight resin, the beer shifted gently to melon and tropical fruit flavors and ended with a juicy, mellow bitterness that left me craving another sip and flavor ride. The West Coast Amber IPA was next on the line. Dark like a Marzen in color and toasted nuts on the nose, I noticed my mouth watering. Melon and caramel twisted together and developed two balancing paths of sweetness, finishing with a crisp, blighting bitterness that didn't lay waste to my taste buds. The Berliner Weiss with Passionfruit - a style I'm starting to see all over the place - lived up to the name in aroma. The flavor exhibited a restrained tart flavor and reminded me most of white wine grapes. The finish was clean and slightly mineral. I thought back to the bottomless white wine a few weeks earlier in Mendoza, in the sun under the vines: watching the workers fight the geese back into the pond in a comical waltz. The last one I tasted was a Saison - a very balanced and clean saison. The aroma carried sourdough bread and spiced orange peel. The flavor reminded me of the spicy creaminess of a Saison DuPont and the finish was grassy, tangy, and clean. Adding to their sundry selection, they recently collaborated with the Saison and Farmhouse Ale Appreciation Organization (yes, that's a real thing) and contributed some South American ingredients to a global collaboration brew.
As usual throwing back a few high gravity beers gets the conversation rolling along. When asked about the relationship between breweries in Buenos Aires Ramiro replied that things weren't collaborative, and that at Strange Brewing they took a different approach: "We're in the business of everyone making good beer. When a person new to craft beer goes to a brewery and tries a poorly brewed beer they then apply that experience to all craft beer." At Strange Brewing they post all their recipes online. They have nothing to hide, and at this point in Buenos Aires' Craft Beer Movement, the more good craft beer out there the better. "People in this country like bitter things," Havard added, "So it's only a matter of time before the movement gains enough momentum."
The guys are incredibly happy with the progress of the business so far. Most nights the crowd fills the inside of the building and flows out into the street. I can imagine that it's difficult for them to look too far into the future at this point, but my first impression - of their business and them as people - suggests that they ought to look as far as possible. They're already getting into barrel-aging, looking at canning and distribution, and crafting some ideas for sour beers. As cooks, they find inspiration from the flavors they work with and search for new ways to surprise the Craft Beer Community. With only 26 years of life and six months of business under their belts I'd say their success is a strange brew itself and I look forward to tasting whatever they cook up next.