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Valdívia: Chile’s brewing scene

Francisco Pardo

Francisco Pardo

It only takes a few days exploring the humid streets of this city in southern Chile, participating in multiple tasting sessions, to understand why Valdívia is known as “the country’s beer brewing capital”

 

It’s raining outside, like (almost) every day in Valdívia. Through the window at the classic chocolate shop Entre Lagos – in the sweet company of a küchen (a German cake) –, it’s easy to guess who is a tourist and who is local. The former wrinkle their faces and act as if they’re taking an unexpected shower with water coming from the sky. The latter walk gracefully, accustomed to the rain that falls every day. In this college town located 90 minutes by plane from Santiago – which carries the name of the man who conquered Chile –, water is not just a matter of identity but also an essential element for the quality of the beer produced here.

 

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It stops raining, allowing me to cross the bridge over the Calle-Calle River to Isla Teja, to explore part of the city’s past. The old brewery Anwandter, built in 1851, a year after celebrated German chemist Karl Anwandter arrived in the region with his family and other immigrants, is located there. Legend has it that the pharmacist decided to produce the beverage to please his wife, who was missing German beer. He started out small, but eventually supplied several establishments around the country. In 1912, a fire destroyed a considerable portion of the installations. Two years later, a new structure made of concrete and steel, with large brick cellars, was inaugurated – these days, the building is home to the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) de la Universidad Austral de Chile.

 

To quench your thirst

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Walking makes you thirsty. That’s why I enter the flaming bar Bundor. Here, mythology is present in the décor. For this reason, a Nymph, a Troll and an Elf – or an Ambar Ale, a Stout (black) and a Blonde Ale – join me at the bar. After trying them all, I immerse myself in a surprising beer-brewing world that gives me an idea of the level of specialization of the city’s producers and consumers.

 

Around the corner stands the bar El Growler, a favorite among college students and tourists. They have over 12 types of local artisanal beer, each with their respective information on alcohol content and IBU (International Bitter Unit), as well as calorie count, density and type of malt used in the process. It’s fun to see visitors asking to try all of them, as if they were in an ice cream shop. Following the world trend that’s leaning towards the India Pale Ale style – more bitter, with hop flavor and aroma –, I order one from the bar’s small brewery, run by master brewer Joel Driver and by Valeria Preller. The verdict? Dangerously delicious.

 

The “terroir”

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The sun appears between the clouds and everything seems to have an extra glow (or maybe it’s the effect of the beer at El Growler?): the boats that offer trips on the Calle-Calle River, the extremely beautiful Botanical Garden and the sea lions that sunbathe while tourists take pictures. I head towards the brewery Kunstmann, which opened in 1991, following in Anwandter’s footsteps, and placed Valdívia on the world’s beer brewing map again.

 

One good thing about Kunstmann, in addition to the different types of beer you can try, is that, on the tours they offer, you can learn about their production process: from the water they use (with low calcium content) to the components (malted barley, hop and yeast), including such data as the production volume. While Kunstmann produces 264,170 gallons [1 million l] per month, CCU – Compañía Cervezas Unidas, the largest brewery in Chile – manufactures 15,322,000 gallons [58 million l]. Still far from the 5,283,440 gallons [20 million l] produced by the Mexican company Corona each day.

 

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I think about this information at another bohemian icon in Valdívia, the bar La Última Frontera, which serves enormous sandwiches. There, you learn that local artisanal beers are the most popular options among residents: Chucao, Valtare, Duende and, especially, Cuello Negro and its varieties Golden Ale and Stout.

 

Cristián Olivares is the creator of the Cuello Negro. His small factory, which produces 10,570 gallons [40,000 l] of beer per month, is located a few miles from the city, in the middle of a green landscape. The passion with which he talks about his beer and how hard it was to produce it (with water collected from a creek in the region) sums up the power of this phenomenon in Valdívia. “I always say: what comes first, the business or the beer? When you put the business first, it doesn’t work. But things are different when you concentrate on the product and its quality. Beer is the core focus.”