I recently began working on a project that involves food. A lot of food. It also involves using my skills to make that food a reality, so all in all, it's pretty sweet. And this is even before taking into account that one of those foods is chocolate.
But let me not digress. At the risk of generalizing the use of the term "food", another one of those foods is beer. Beer. I may not be much of a drinker generally, but I've had my fair share. I would also say I'm pretty open to trying alcohol and have a nicely graduated scale to measure my degree of "like" for anything I try. Beer somehow never made it off the zero point on my scale. The general response to this statement is - "but have you ever tried any GOOD beer?" - and to that, my answer is YES. I've tried more than 300 beers in the last few years pushed onto me by friends and relatives, all with the emphatic statement "you will DEFINITELY like this one", and you know what? I don't. Maybe I just have bad taste but the only beers I've been able to tolerate are fruity Lambics that, at least in New York, come with an unhealthy dose of added sugar.
So imagine my reaction at being informed that I am going to Brazil to meet a master brewer and conduct field research in order to construct a brewery business plan. Brazil?! Yeah!! Making a business plan? Awesome! Meeting a master brewer and touring breweries? Very cool. Trying a few dozen beers while being watched by expectant brewers? Oh no...
If you haven’t guessed as yet, this is the story of my 3-day Brazilian beer trek and…wait for it…how I fell in love with a beer.
I flew into Belo Horizonte, the capital of and largest city in the state of Minas Gerais, a part of Brazil I had not visited before. Minas Gerais is a landlocked state and named after the extensive occurrence of mining in this part of the country. Belo Horizonte is indeed a large city and the feature that gives it its name, its beautiful horizon, is evident on every road trip - and I took a lot of them!
I met Marco Falcone, my brew master guide, that first evening. Marco is one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met and a highly respected brewer in the Brazilian craft beer community. Luckily we were able to communicate well through (mostly) English and mangled Spanish-Portuguese. He had arranged a fantastic itinerary that included visiting a range of breweries from a home brewer with self-made equipment to a large-scale, but still craft, brewery. By the end of the trip, I felt a little like Goldilocks - this one was too small, that one too large, and oh, this one is just right!
That first evening, we visited a home brewer and a small-scale professional brewery. My interrogations and copious note-taking were often interrupted by "try this beer!" and I was completely outed as a beer non-weight. The brewers remained incredibly nice and excited about my visit, which is more than I can say about myself when someone tells me they don't really like chocolate.
I realized that the world of craft beer is really similar to that of artisanal chocolate. There are the “big guys” with usually terrible products who muscle out the little guys by pure economic force. And there are the little guys, who are in this world due to their passion for the product, always fighting to create something better, and eager to educate their consumers. They also speak of flavors, essences, and notes in beer just as I do about chocolate. Strangely enough (or maybe not?), the darker beers, like the darker chocolates, are the ones with more complexity.
Marco happily downed my barely sipped beers. The next day he brought his son along as the designated driver. I think he realized that if we were to continue visiting breweries and he had to perform double drinking duty, this was necessary. There was no question of him not drinking the second round if he thought it was good beer, and I developed a very healthy respect for his capacity. Also, poor Rafael! Imagine a 21 year old driving us around from one brewery to the next and not being allowed to touch a drop! He kept a really good face on though and my offer to drive and let them both drink was laughed away.
Our second day involved visiting a mid-scale craft brewery where I learned the term “vender o peixe” or sell the fish. It is a term used by the industry that refers to selling their (beer) merchandise. More barely sipped beers manfully drunk by Marco and then we took off for Falke Bier, Marco’s own brewery.
Writing about Falke Bier would take a full blog post on its own so I won’t start here, and will instead refer the reader to this article where Charlie Papazian writes about his trip there. It was gorgeously placed in the countryside, clean, and well organized. My favorite room was an underground cellar where Marco’s Belgian-style beer, Monasterium, matures to the sound of monastic chants. If I’d ever thought a place appropriate for meditation, this was it. So I am floating along on a peaceful high (and still taking copious notes), and then…Marco pulls out Vivre Pour Vivre, his not-for-sale Belgian-style beer masterpiece.
This beer is described really well in the same article so I am not certain what else to say about it, except that I downed two full glasses of it. Enough said. Finally, here was a beer that I could drink! And it wasn’t sugared! And…it’s not for sale. Sigh. In hindsight, that is probably a good thing because the last thing I need to add to my (already heavy) chocolate bandwagon is a beer. But I will take this chance to salute Marco on it.
After three days, all of which ended in bars that support the rapidly flourishing craft beer culture in Belo Horizonte, I was convinced that everyone in the city was either a beer maker or a beer drinker…or a beer author. I do realize this is a warped view, but I stand by it – every person I met usually ran his own brewery, either at home or professionally. Those who didn’t do, drank. Those who did drank too.
There is a lot more – it turns out some part of the city makes cachaça instead of beer. We visited a lovely cachaça facility, set in a green valley and appropriately called Vale Verde, about 40km from Belo Horizonte. But I’ll stop here for now and doff my hat to beer.
Beer. I am still not really a fan but I feel like I understand you better now. I am glad you are coming into your own as a craft product, a movement I fully support in all areas of food. And I promise to keep an open mind the next time I try you, just in case I encounter a commercial Vivre Pour Vivre!
P.S. Do watch this video and look for regional craft beers wherever you travel - you won’t regret the effort once you hear the wonderful stories they have to share.