Last night in Lima: How my pursuit of craft beer in Peru made the world a smaller place

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The Growler Editor in Chief Joseph Alton, right, traveled to Peru in 2013 with his friend Chris Jackson, middle, where they met Diego Rodriguez, left, from Cervecería Barbarian

Everything that happened that night after the “Barbarian Challenge” was a bit of a blur.

I remember exchanging hugs and contact information with our new friends, the walk-run back to the hostel, semi-frantically stuffing clothes into my backpack, and a prolonged, Art of The Deal-esque negotiation with the cab driver over how many soles a trip to the airport should cost (we’d been burned enough times by now to know a fair rate).

Chris and I were the last two people to board the flight that night—just about a minute or so before the doors closed for departure. We had been hiking and biking and bussing and eating and drinking our way around Peru for a month, and we were finally ready to go home.

As I settled in for the 12-hour, three-flight journey back to Minnesota, I was too tired to realize that our last eight hours in the country had made me an unofficial craft beer ambassador to Peru.

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Cabo Blanco, Piura, Peru // Photo by Joseph Alton

Truthfully, the whole trip had been planned in a similarly libated state a few months prior.

When I started planning a trip in August, South America was at the top of my short list. It was cheaper than Belgium, easier to get to than Southeast Asia, and more exotic than New Zealand. I had been planning to take a long trip that year when my workload lightened in February, but come October, I still hadn’t pulled the trigger.

Chris Jackson, a good friend and former co-worker, invited me to his house one night that autumn for a gathering of some chef and brewer friends. It was that evening, over Chris’ homemade anticuchos and a few fingers of Oban 14, that a destination was set and airline tickets were purchased. We would be spending our February in Peru.

Chris was, and still is, an aspiring chef. At the time, he was leaving his job managing the kitchen at Brasa Rotisserie in St. Paul to pursue his dream of someday opening his own restaurant. He was serious about learning both the cultures and the methods of food from a global perspective. With his passion for food and an up-for-anything attitude, Chris would turn out to be a Bourdain-like traveling companion.

Throughout our four weeks crisscrossing the vast geography of Peru, we ate well. Really well. Whether it was from a destination fine-dining restaurant in Lima, a street cart in Cusco, a diner in Mancora, or a trailside hut along the Inca Trail, almost every meal we ate was memorable. But whereas every day was filled with new and interesting food, every day we also drank the same boring beer.

Until we discovered Barbarian.

Finally found a Peruvian beer with some character; @BarbarianPeru

A photo posted by Joseph Alton (@jaydeeeh) on

Before arriving in Peru, I had begun an exchange of e-mails and Twitter messages with Diego Rodriguez, one of the owners of Cervecería Barbarian. We made plans to spend an hour or so of our last day in Peru meeting with Diego at the brewery to chat about his experience opening Lima’s first craft brewery and the state of craft beer in Peru.

We had spent a good deal of time exploring Lima, but La Molina district was entirely unfamiliar to us. We took a bus to the industrial neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Peru’s largest city and started to look for the address we had been given. (Reliance on Google Maps isn’t quite as foolproof when traveling in a foreign country.) I still remember the bewildered looks on the faces of locals when we asked where we might find the neighborhood “cervecería artisanal.” Eventually we found a payphone and called Diego. His precise directions (in impeccable English) led us to the entrance of…a storage locker. We had arrived at Cervecería Barbarian.

Despite its unassuming location, the tiny cervecería immediately felt familiar. It reminded me of hole-in-the-wall breweries I had visited in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. The hand-fabricated tanks reminded me of the ones Kevin Welch assembled for the first batches at Boom Island Brewery in Minneapolis. The picture on the wall of the owners, in their mid-twenties, brewing pilot batches in their garage, was an obvious parallel to a young Fulton Brewing Company. And the smell. It was the first time I had smelled the sweet smell of hops in almost five weeks—except for the couple times we’d found Barbarian’s beer on tap in Lima.

Now home to almost 60 breweries, Peru’s craft beer existence was in its utter infancy in 2013. The country seemed primed for craft beer—especially in Lima, where diversity and individual essence are celebrated in the arts, the food, and the people. The whole of Peru is inhabited by food-focused cultures. The cuisine of Peru celebrates a wide spectrum of styles and flavors. Why shouldn’t the beer?

With a solid business plan, strong branding, and a serious passion for making great craft beer, it was clear after chatting with Diego for an hour that he and his business partners were onto something. Like so many brewers I have met across the United States, he was eager tell us the whole of Barbarian’s story.

Next page: The story of Lima’s first craft brewery

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