Chicha in Lima
Desert silence at the edge of light's end is both exhilarating and terrifying. Watch the sun disappear in that place and you will know the darkness of death: the black of Day One; the space beyond singularity, outside the light of known Universe; a port-a-john at a combat outpost in the middle of Afghanistan under clouded skies and a New Moon. Two days into a four day bus ride from Puerto Montt, Chile to Lima, Peru - with a cracked throat, perceivable layer of plaque build-up, axel-greasy hair, checked-bags under eyes - and these kinds of Jim Morrison, acid thoughts started to cross my mind as I stared into a grain of sand upon a rock in the Atacama out the bus window, sitting in my sweaty, damp seat and breathing in the stale breath and farts of 50 other people. Most of the time a situation isn't as bad as I picture it in my head; this bus ride fell into that other category. It was in that category of "never again." Having a full bladder while wearing a tight parachute harness in turbulence represents a similar level of agony. Desert occupied in front and on the periphery from Santiago to Lima for three straight days. Needless to say, arriving in Lima provided a literal breath of fresh air, a shower, and a much needed full night's sleep in a completely horizontal position.
With a coastline as long as the entire West Coast of the United States, deserts, the Andes Mountains, and the Amazon Rain Forest all within its border, variety in cuisine was not lacking. There are over 4,000 varieties of potatoes native to the Andes highland region of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The ocean off of Peru and running along Chile is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. Fortunately, the Peruvians know how to cook and put all their bounty on the table, consistently making them one of the best foodie destinations in the world. We arrived just before Valentine’s Day and planned to have one great dinner and as much street food as our budget and stomachs could withstand. The best place for cheap, delicious eats in every city we went to in South America (and every city I’ve been to in Asia as well) was the market.
The open air markets are not for the weak in stomach or faint of hearted; however, the produce is always the highest quality, prices are always the cheapest, and snacks abound as you wade through capitalism at its very core. There is no more pure example of supply and demand than in a market. Occasionally we would walk around and price something like avocados. After a lap we’d have a general idea of the market prices, and we’d go back to the stalls and inform each vendor of the going prices and start to find the perfect price. It’s strange, in the United States, the alleged stomping ground of capitalism, this form of price negotiation rarely exists anymore: we’ve essentially been “trained” to pay the price on the sticker. I digress. If you’re not interested in shopping for groceries at the market I can give you two other reasons to visit: street food and people watching. I recommend doing it in that order as well so you have something to put in your mouth as your jaw drops. In Lima, at their central market, options started at two U.S. Dollars for a full meal of simple food: rice, beans, meat, and a soup. All the food is perfectly spiced, and the speed at which it arrived made me wonder how some American hasn’t capitalized on these cheap, healthy plates in the form of some McFranchise. If you’re willing to shell out a little more money (say, $15 for two people) you can get a giant plate of ceviche, calamari, several varieties of potatoes, and two drinks. Typically, you’ll sit on a stool at a counter looking into the kitchen, and in Peru, they’ll probably ask you where you’re from if you’re white, and really appreciate if you struggle through a few seconds of Spanish. We ate both the humble plate and the more elaborate ceviche. Both were delicious and didn’t require any more bathroom visits than normal. The ceviche was exceptional. Considering that market is where the fishermen bring their catch, you can’t find fresher seafood; and, you cut out several middlemen, bringing down the price drastically and the probability of a terrible gastronomical experience (people who have had bad sushi will understand).
For our nice meal, we splurged a bit - under $100 for two (enough food for four with one cocktail apiece and one beer apiece. We ate at a place called Isolina: high quality food and portions that make even grandma’s eyes wide. Consistently ranked among Lima's best places to eat, the restaurant avoids many stereotypical pitfalls of fine dining: most notably, snobbery. The comfortable, vintage atmosphere combined marble with wood in a way that suggests self-aware class and talent; Isolina makes incredible food, not statements. Sara and I cleaned a bowl of ceviche and made a small dent in an entire rack of short ribs - the leftovers became lunch and dinner the following day. Surprisingly, I still remember the beans they served: creamy and perfectly seasoned, I never expected a normally bland side, often substituted for something like french fries in the US, to made a culinary impact. Burgeoning stomachs induced deep sleep and dreams of craft beer at Lima's best craft brewery, Barbarian Cerveceria.
The following morning we walked north up quiet streets, towards the heart of Miraflores and Barbarian's original brewpub. Rapidly growing (and for good reason), in six years they have opened a brewery, two pubs (with a third under construction), and currently export in the US, Europe, and throughout South America. We were scheduled to meet with Ignacio, one of the three partners running Barbarian, and the guy responsible for their marketing, public relations, and the development of long range business plans. Walking into the pub, I saw colorful street art painting the walls, long wooden tables flanked by six chairs apiece, and high, industrial ceilings exposing air ducts and pipes. Behind the bar, brick lined the wall between 25 taps and a blackboard listing, in chalk, the draft beer available from those taps; poured concrete made up the long drain beneath the taps. We told the bartender that we were looking for Ignacio, and he seemed confused and skeptical whether we knew what we were talking about - a consistent theme during our brewery visits. After five minutes of trying to count and identify all the empty bottles along the perimeter of the walls (I lost count) Ignacio walked up and introduced himself.
Barbarian represents a company determined to produce unique craft beer, develop a thriving craft beer community in a city exploding with gastronomical potential, and maintain a certain level of self-reliance. Having spent time in the United States and Europe, they knew good beer and sought it out upon returning to Lima. Like many other South American beer enthusiasts, they struggled to find it, and, logically, decided to make it. In 2011, they started kegging and bottling from a small homebrew system and quickly upgraded to a 200 Liter system (which they brewed triple batches on, just to keep up with demand!). They grew from eight to 150 customers and upgraded again; this time to a 2000 Liter system which they designed themselves. "No one builds brewhouses here in Peru," Ignacio informed us. "Plus, I like to do things on my own. I always have." Judging from their accelerating success I'd say that's been a smart business decision.
We got down to beer drinking shortly after the introductory conversation. Online, Sara read that they brewed a sour beer which was the most awarded beer in Peru. Given the sour craze swarming the United States, we started there. Named Chichatu, it was a kettle sour with a malt bill inspired by an ancient South American fermented beverage called Chicha: half corn, half barley, and a little quinoa. Unlike the ancient traditions, Barbarian utilizes commercial yeast rather than saliva for their fermentation. The beer certainly validated the hype: fruity and cidery bouquet; apple cider and tart white grapes on the palate; sourdough yeasty finish cleansed by a subtle white wine tartness at the end. The mouthfeel was dry and refreshing with a nice amount of carbonation. Their Coffee Pale Ale reminded me a bit of the White Stouts appearing on the occasional craft beer menu around the U.S and Europe. An illusion of color and flavor, the ale incorporates coffee beans from a local roastery, imparting dark aromas and flavors in the pale beer: chocolate and coffee aromas; followed by a hazelnut, Nutella flavor; and a roasty, dark toast finish. The beer is surprisingly light in body given those heavy flavors. Finishing the beers I glanced at the menu and noticed some unusual names for the beers. "All the names for the beers have double meanings, like idioms," Ignacio said. For example, the Coffee Pale named "Mananero", is slang for "morning sex", which is also appropriate given the coffee flavor, and could serve as a potential substitute for cigarettes. Ginning up images of Wu Tang's 36 Chambers, "L.I.M.A." is the name of their Pale Ale. Obviously representing the city of origin, the name is also an acronym for "Lagers industriales me aburren", which translates to "industrial lagers bore me." The attention to detail did not stop with the beer but rather permeated through every aspect of their business.
We left Barbarian very excited and a little tipsy - so much for scheduling our brewery visits later in the day; apparently we hadn't learned our lesson from Medellin. Or, more likely, the lesson turns out to be that day-drinking is more fun than not day-drinking. That evening we kept our buzz up with some Piscola (Pisco and Coca Cola) sitting in our camping chairs in a park upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A line of ocean haze separated the sunset into three parts: above, within, and below. Throughout the process, the clouds amplified the color and subdued the intensity, allowing us to look more directly as the big orange ball (B.O.B...aren't acronyms fun?) crossed a second line at the horizon. The ball appeared as a yellow pupil within an orange iris and when the eye closed the sky became pink, purple, and, at last, the dark, black-blue of night.