Beer Culture in Colombia
When I left the United States to be an English Teaching Fellow in Colombia, friends and family inevitably asked two things: "Isn't it dangerous?" and "What food or drink are you going to miss most?" I'd done my research and had a friend who had participated in the program, so I knew that the dangers were no different than those in any lower income country or quite frankly U.S. city.
However, with food or drink I had to think. While I'm not a picky eater, one thing did come to mind: beer. I was worried about five months of drinking nothing but watered down light beer. Does that make me a snob? Probably, but what might come as a bit more of a surprise: I was wrong.
Santa Marta, Colombia
When I came to Colombia, knowing that I would be in Santa Marta, a city on the Caribbean coast, I figured beer consumption would be similar to the Coronas and Sols in Cancun or Presidentes in Punta Cana. I enjoy all of those of beers, but five months without variety seemed like a valid choice for "food or drink I'll miss most."
So before I left, I did my best to drink any and every type of beer I could get my hands on in Washington, D.C. From porters to saisons, I was trying to create enough flavor memories to last the duration of my trip. Although fairly satisfied with my efforts, I remained doubtful that the flavors of these beers would actually stick with me for my full time abroad.
When I finally left for Colombia, my first stop on the trip was in Bogota for a two week orientation. As we pulled up to our hotel on the first morning, I looked across the street and saw a sign in big gold letters; "Beer" was all that it said. Of course I had to try it, and the brewpub lived up to the simplicity of its name with a complexity of flavors. Beer was truly a high class establishment, offering detailed descriptions of each choice and highlighting the place in Europe where each style of beer originated.
Bogota Beer Company
The next day someone told us about something called Bogota Beer Company (BBC), a brewery that I'd come to learn defined Colombian craft beer with a presence throughout the country. Again, the beer was excellent, adding a nice Colombian flavor to its brews with things like passion fruit and cocoa, in addition to less common tastes in Colombia like a Pumpkin Ale called Triqui Triqui.
Almost more surprising was the incredible variety among national beers. Aguila and Poker are two light beer staples with a nice, easy-to-drink flavor. Meanwhile, Club Colombia offers five different beers, with the most common being negra, roja, and dorada. These beers also seem to bring out regional pride, as Aguila is more common on the coast, whereas Poker is the beer of choice in the interior.
Through those first two weeks in Bogota, things were looking up. And then it came time to depart to my host city, Santa Marta. Similar to my preparations prior to leaving the United States, I readied myself for the departure with a trip to BBC for a Chapinero, the brewery's flagship porter. I again assumed that this was going to be the last good beer I tasted for four and a half months, and I savored every last drop.
Back in Santa Marta, Colombia
Then I arrived at my hostel in Santa Marta, and the first thing I noticed was not the gorgeous photos of Tayrona, Minca, and Palomino, popular destinations that surround the city. No, I noticed a small, simple sign that read something along the lines of, "We Serve Sierra Nevada." I was confused. Sierra Nevada? As in the large craft brewery in California? I looked at the poster and found that the branding seemed much different.
"Sierra Nevada?" I questioned the hostel's bartender pointing at the sign, "What's that?"
"It's a local brewery. We have the Happy Toucan and Happy Jaguar here," she told me, giving a thumbs up to show her approval of both options. Like the American beer, Sierra Nevada was named after the mountains that surround its location.
I tried the Happy Toucan, an Irish red ale, and similar to the beers in Bogota, it didn't disappoint. Later when I looked at the bar menu, I noticed that not only did they have beers from this Santa Marta microbrew, they also offered four different types of BBC. The hostel was slowly putting the beer snob in me at ease.
And then two weeks later, I visited Medellin and found its local brewery Tres Cordilleros available throughout the city. My girlfriend was quite pleased with their rosÃ©-style beer. Two weeks later I went to Cartagena, and right in the center of the Centro Historico sat a bar called "We Love Beer" serving a wide variety of Colombian, European, and American craft beers.
Point taken, Colombia. I was wrong.
Discovering the Cultural Intricacies of Beer
Needless to say, after four months in the country when a Belgian backpacker told me that, "All Colombian beer is piss," I was prepared with a response. "Well," I offered, "There's actually a few decent options. Bogota Beer Company is huge throughout the country, Los Cordilleros from Medellin has some great taste, and even Sierra Nevada right here in Santa Marta offers quality beers."
He looked at his Poker, took a sip and said, "Hmmm, yeah I guess even this isn't too bad."
With that interaction, I came to realize the challenges of having preconceived ideas of a place based on my tendency to lump it together with my perceptions of similar places. I might have tired of drinking Presidentes while on a resort in Punta Cana, but that has nothing to do with what would be available to me in Colombia. First off, when I drank beer in Punta Cana I was confined to a resort, so I really never learned what beers the Dominican Republic had to offer, and second the Dominican Republic is a drastically different country than Colombia. Both countries speak Spanish as the primary language and have great beaches along the Caribbean Sea, but there's so much more to both places.
Beyond my false categorization of Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, my interaction with the Belgian demonstrated how much can be lost in travel if we don't have an open-mind. I know that sounds lame and clichÃ©, but it really is so true. My backpacker friend was going to go through his whole time in Colombia without looking for different beers, because that wasn't what he expected to find before he got to the country.
Shouldn't we make an effort to learn about the more surprising cultural intricacies when we travel? In other words, isn't there some value in taking on a hipster mindset when traveling? We should look for those amazing things that a culture has to offer that the rest of the world "probably hasn't heard of." The next time you travel, go find your version of Colombian beer.
When I got home from Colombia, I ate American cheeseburgers, tacos, authentic Italian food, and so many vegetables, but the second my dad asked me what kind of beer I wanted, I realized that I was craving an Aguila.
Written by: Benton Graham
Benton is a freelance writer with an affinity for all things travel, beer, and Minnesota sports. He is spending the year working in his favorite part of the world, Latin America, split between Santa Marta, Colombia and Puerto Morelos, Mexico. You can follow his adventures at bttogdotblog.wordpress.com
All photos by: Benton Graham