Becoming Cuenca

There’s More Than Pilsener and Club! (And Better)

Jun 13, 2024

Craft beer in Ecuador is finally getting a toehold.

But not easily.

AB InBev, the Belgian multinational brewing company, has a stranglehold on beer sales in Ecuador with its two brewing plants and one malting house.

Its Pilsener has a history of over 110 years and is a significant part of the AB InBev portfolio in the region. Only been around since 1966, AB InBev’s Club Premium is probably the second most popular beer in Ecuador.

Though AB InBev has about a quarter of the world’s beer sales, it has seen its mass-produced beers (such as Budweiser) losing its market share to craft beers. That is because the total number of breweries in the United States has increased from 9,730 in 2022 to 9,812 in 2023.

Joanna and I are very familiar with North Carolina as we used to co-own a bottle shop that focused on craft beers. The Tar Heel State boasts the largest number of craft breweries in the South, with more than 420.

Ecuador pales in comparison.

And we are not talking about pale ales (Yes, the pun was intended).

In early-May, 13 Ecuadorian craft breweries brought their beer to Cuenca to battle the giant brewing company at Experiencia Maridaje GRC 2024. It was the fifth year for the craft beer festival that was held on the grounds of CIDAP (Centro Interamericano de Artes Populares).

“There’s not a lot of beer culture in Cuenca,” David Gonzalez told me. “We are trying to gain some spaces.”

Gonzalez is the 34-year-old brewer and co-owner of Cuenca’s Tagui Cerveza Artesanal along with his twin brother, Santiago. Their ages are typical of the Ecuadorians opening up craft breweries. When Joanna and I owned a bottle shop in North Carolina, we saw the same thing happening in the Tar Heel State.

When David told me about the lack of beer culture in Cuenca, it surprised me. Known as the “Athens of Ecuador’ for its universities, I thought the highly educated residents would be clamoring for craft beers.

Besides, Ecuador has a rich history of beer. The first brewery in South America and possibly all of the Americas was founded in Quito by the Belgian priest Fray Jodoco Ricke in 1566. It was brewed in the Convent of San Francisco, which he founded. The beer was brewed up to about 50 years ago.

In 1997, Ecuador’s first brewpub was born. Naturbier Brew Pub opened in Quito, by Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Ecuador’s microbiologist and brewmaster, Javier Carvajal.

Cuenca has a brewpub named after the Belgian priest: Jodoco Belgian Bistro. They offer a unique blend of Belgian beers and local flavors. Located at Plaza de San Sebastián, Jodoco Belgian Bistro is young by Quito standards.

Like many craft brewers in the United States, brothers David and Santiago started out on a different career path. The brewing process is intricate and complex. It is perfect for engineers to apply their expertise and knowledge.

Craft brewing demands a blend of technical know-how and creativity. David started out as an electrical engineer while Santiago was an environmental engineer. Now, they are applying their knowledge to quality beer.

“We really like beer. It started as a hobby at my mother’s home,” David told me. “Three years ago, when my sister got married, she wanted our beer for her wedding gift. There were about 60 people and they all liked it. That was the beginning of Tagui Cerveza Artesanal.”

One of the reasons for this blog post is that beer is ranked third in global beverage consumption after water and tea. It has been around a long time since around 4000 BCE, when the Sumerians enjoyed this alcoholic beverage. Unearthed ancient tablets show the original brewers were women.

Beer was a vital part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Jewish cultures. Heck… Noah’s provisions included beer on the Ark!

The Incans and the indigenous of Ecuador had beer, too. When an Incan lord had guests, he provided beer and food. To the Incas, beer symbolizes sharing. Every drink is an offering, a sharing with the gods. The gods drink first, respecting both sacred and political rank in the Inca culture.

One of the Quechua names for beer was “Akha Mama” (“Mother Beer”). Akha means maize beer in Quechua. As you can see, beer is worldwide.

“We are a global culture. What happens in Europe and the United States will eventually happen here,” David told me. “We want to bring the flavors of beers to Ecuadorians, and we have great beers that we want Ecuadorians to enjoy.”

Tagui Cerveza Artesanal currently has taps in four restaurants in Cuenca, with bottles in several others.

“They say our beer is so delicious and suave,” Katherine Tixi told me with a big, proud smile.

Like the Gonzalez brothers, Katherine is young. Katherine is just 32 years old. The young lady is the co-founder of Riobamba’s Nefer Cervecería Artesanal along with Bladimir E. Urgilés Rodríguez, who is the brewmaster.

Riobamba is the capital of Chimborazo province, 260 kilometers / 420 miles north of Cuenca.

“We are seeing a lot more Ecuadorians craft beer,” Katherine told me. “Our doppelbock beer is very popular.”

Doppelbock is rather unusual to see in Ecuador as both Pilsener and Club are considered lagers. Originally made by monks, Doppelbock is a stronger version of a German-style bock beer. One can expect at least a seven percent ABV (alcohol by volume) and more intense flavors.

Craft beers can vary in ABV, but they usually range from six percent to 10 percent. Before 2005, beer in North Carolina had a limit of six percent alcohol by volume, which meant quality beers were difficult to make.

It is why Coors beer was infamously called “Colorado Kool-Aid.” And why Joanna and I call mass-produced beers “Lawnmower Beers” (You can mow an entire lawn drinking those beers and never get drunk).

Stronger styles, such as double IPAs and imperial stouts, can reach ABVs as high as 15 percent or more. Joanna and I remember bringing back a beer to our bottle shop from a brewery in Easton, Pennsylvania that was 18 percent!

“Pagano IPA is 60 percent of our sales,” Ricardo Castañeda told me.

Like the other craft brewers mentioned above, the founder of Quito’s Pagano Beer Company is a Millennial.

“Ecuadorians love IPA,” Ricardo told me. “They don’t like it very bitter.”

The brewery’s website says their IPA has “strong citrus and tropical tones of grapefruit, melon, lime, gooseberry, passion fruit and lychee notes with a nice dry and smooth finish.”

The popular beer app, Untappd, has diehard craft beer drinkers, making them tough graders. Pagano’s IPA has a very respectful 3.74 out of five stars from people who have drunk the beer.

Their IPA has an IBU (International Bitterness Units) of 45. This may be a term you have never heard of, but it is important to brewmasters.

IBU measures the parts per million of isohumulone (chemical compounds) from hops, which gives beer its bitterness. The IBU scale starts at zero and goes all the way up to about 120. Most breweries stop at 100 because human taste buds stop there. Anything above that is a waste.

Hops have a bittering effect, meaning the more hops, the more bitter the beer is. Different varieties of hops, such as Chinook, Horizon, and Warrior, can really make a bitter IPA. A huge majority of these hops come from the Yakima Valley of Washington state.

It’s not uncommon to see a beer with what one would consider a high number of IBUs. But that beer may not taste bitter, as the sweetness of the malt and grains can balance out the bitterness in a beer.

A good example is a German pilsner, which can have a low IBU number and taste quite bitter because of its lean, crisp malt character.

Of course, water is important, too. When I lived in North Carolina, I observed breweries moving to the Asheville area not only for it being a hot spot for craft beers, but because of its clean mountain water.

The source of water for Pagano Beer Company is Chocó Andino de Pichincha. Spanning from the outer foothills to the inner reaches of the Andes mountains, this reserve is a haven for unique flora, fauna, as well as pristine water.

“IPA is our most popular beer,” Jorge Peralta told me. And yes… He is a Millennial, too.

“Ecuadorians really like it,” Jorge added. “It has an IBU of 52.

Jorge is the founder of Cuenca’s three-year-old Asiringui Cerveza Artesanal, which is located on the west side of the city.

“We love beer and instead of being just consumers we decided to become producers,” Jorge told me. “We have a 100 percent artisanal product with the best ingredients.”

While talking to Jorge, he gave me a sample of his blueberry sour beer. You read that correctly.

“We started making it in January,” Jorge told me. “We deliver it in bottles.”

People who have sour beers for the first time may have second thoughts about it. Some will like it, but others will be a bit confused by the beer’s acidity and sour taste.

Before yeast was cultivated, beer was fermented by wild yeast and was often infected by bacteria. Often naturally occurring bacteria including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, as well as Brettanomyces (literally means British fungus) yeasts, gave the 19th century beers a hint of tartness and funky flavors as well as aromas.

This meant that most beers back then were slightly sour. Some regions of Europe specialized in producing sour beers.

Gose is a good example. The German sour beer originated in Goslar. This particular sour beer is characterized by the use of coriander and salt and is made sour.

In the United States, sour beers have become a popular style, especially among the younger generations. Joanna and I have fond memories of some excellent, creative sour beers made by a Durham, North Carolina craft brewery.

Asiringui Cerveza Artesanal has one of the few sour beers in Ecuador. Jodoco has a delicious sour beer they have produced for several years.

“There are other cities like Guayaquil, Quito, and Ambato to find beers of this type,” Jorge added. “Craft breweries such as the Santa Rosada from Santa Rosa Brewing has a Berliner Weisse with cherry and hibiscus and there is a sixth sense sour beer in Samborondón Guayas.”

“Canelazo is our No. 1 beer,” said Dario Orellana. “It is a traditional drink in Ecuador, so Ecuadorians love our Canelazo beer.”

Although its origin is a mystery, one thing is certain: Canelazo is a traditional drink of the Sierra of Ecuador. The original Canelazo recipe was made by boiling water with cinnamon and sugar or panela (unrefined whole cane sugar). It is mixed with sugar cane alcohol called punta or aguardiente.

The young Dario (Yes, he is a Millennial, too) founded Tres Grados Sur Cervecería Artesanal almost four years ago in the city of Loja. That is about four hours of winding roads, south of Cuenca.

Tres Grados Sur Cervecería Artesanal produces traditional beers, including honey ale. The honey is from Loja province. When Ecuadorians have his beers for the first time, the reactions are positive.

“People love it when they taste our beers,” said Dario. “Craft beers are definitely becoming more popular.”

Not all craft breweries in Ecuador are owned by Ecuadorians. Nor are they young.

A native of San Diego, Curtis Hofmann founded Sol del Venado, about 4½ hours south of Cuenca, in Vilcabamba. With locals reporting ages to frequently exceed 100 years, even climbing as high as 134 years of age, Vilcabamba has become known as “The Valley of Longevity.”

​Known as the “Capital of Craft,” San Diego County is home to over 150 craft breweries. It is the birthplace of some of the most respected breweries.

That certainly got Curtis going.

“In 2012, I brought a container from San Diego with my household goods and commercial brewing equipment,” Curtis told me. “Pure water from the mountains and from our property are an important part of our beers.”

Sol del Venado’s IPA is the most popular among expats. For Ecuadorians, yellow and red lagers are the most popular. “They are beginning to like IPA,” Curtis told me.

The Vilcabamba brewery sells directly to the consumer. One does not have to drive to “The Valley of Longevity” to get their beers.

For $30, Sol del Venado will ship a dozen of their craft beers at an affordable price directly to your home in Ecuador. The dozen can be a mix-and-match of their six styles of beers. That includes “Cometa Especial,” which is basically the beer of the month.

“We named it after the comet as it is always moving and changing,” Curtis told me.

In the past, that special comet beer was a dark beer layered in freshly roasted cacao nibs that were sourced from chocolatier Del Páramo in Vilcabamba. They described the aroma of the beer as “Chocolate;” the flavor as “Flavor of God;” and the taste as “Chocolate.” Sol del Venado says it was great with dessert “or alone as dessert.”

The current one is a delicious IPA that is not overpowering with the pine taste. It is is dry-hopped with cannabis flowers. “Quite relaxing and conducive to sleep,” Curtis told me.

An unexpected product got Sol del Venado through the Covid pandemic. And it has remained popular since then: natural tonic water.

The bitter flavor of tonic water comes from an alkaloid called quinine, which is extracted from the bark of the Cinchona, a large shrub or small tree. Cinchona’s remarkable curative properties were discovered as a fever remedy by the Spanish in South America in the early 17th century.

Ecuadorian craft brewers are aiming to make their beers the No. 1 choice for Ecuadorians, especially Cuencanos and expats.

“Craft beer is growing in Quito. The market is there,” Ricardo told me. “Here in Cuenca, it is just starting; it will explode soon.”

Joanna and I look forward to that.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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And please! Have several reliable sources of information before making any decision about moving to Cuenca.

Reliable information must come from dependable sources. According to the University of Georgia Libraries, a reliable source will provide a “thorough, well-reasoned theory, argument, etc. based on strong evidence.”

I consider myself a trusted source with my “strong evidence,” but you definitely need more than me for your big resettlement.

Just a note before wrapping up the love of quality beer. Joanna and I will be in the United States for a month to visit family on both coasts. Nothing will be posted during that time.

Upon our return, I shall crank up the ol’ blog machine and post more about this great city at three degrees south.

If you ever have any ideas or questions for a blog, please send me a message! I created this blog to help people looking at Cuenca, to educate my friends, family, and myself about life here. Your devotion to “Becoming Cuenca” keeps me going. Thank you.

Salud, mi amigo.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.