South America’s first brewery was founded in Quito, Ecuador by a Franciscan friar accustomed to drinking beer with his meals. In the 1500s, alcohol in this part of the world came mostly in the form of fermented corn drinks, such as chicha, which can still be found in roadside restaurants and traditional homesteads. For the European priests who had come to spread the gospel, this simply would not do. Only a golden brew would suffice.
Today, foreigners are still influencing Ecuador’s beer scene, and bringing cerveza artesanal to the forefront. In Quito, American expats, who missed their hometown IPAs, opened Bandido Brewing, which is perhaps the heart of Quito’s small but boisterous cerveza artesanal, or craft beer, scene.
Coincidentally, Bandido is located in an old church on the fringes of Quito’s Old Town. While the building’s main tenant is the brewery, the pews are still there, as are golden crosses on whitewashed walls, and the building occasionally closes for private religious services.
Bandido was a pleasant surprise. My early impression of craft beer in Ecuador was that while these beers were different from Pilsener and Club—the bland, if drinkable mass-produced lagers that have dominated Ecuador for a century—they often weren’t flavorful. Back in 2011, only a few “pubs” in Quito made craft beer, but mainly German or English styles.
“I couldn’t find a single IPA in all of Ecuador until we started making one,” Nathan Keffer, co-owner of Bandido and head of development, told me. “After six months of asking our friends to bring down craft beer in their luggage, we said, ‘Why don’t we brew our own beer, and let’s see if anyone else likes it. If not, we’ll drink it ourselves,’” he said, echoing the sentiment that has launched many a craft venture.
For more variety, head to La Reserva. With two locations on Quito’s north side, La Reserva feels like a clubhouse: wooden benches, low tables, bean bag chairs, and beer. The menu boasts over 100 different kinds of beer from all around the country.
There’s the Pileus Foxy Lady IPA, which was bitter and brought to mind memories of a farm or harvest; Sinners makes a coconut-ginger IPA that tasted pleasantly of both; Shaman Ritual Oatmeal Stout was rich and dark.
Ecuador isn’t at the point where most of these beers can be found at the supermarket. Only a few brands are given space to compete with Pilsener. Instead, there are an increasing number of craft beer festivals, which showcase upstart brews and the varied brewers who have made Ecuador their home.
At one summer festival, breweries handed out full pours, bottles, and even liters of beer, the latter in plastic containers often used to carry a large wonton soup. Meanwhile, the brewers themselves spoke of their dreams for the future. Some looked forward to standardizing their processes and becoming part of the mainstream. Others had loftier goals.
“The only thing local about our beer is the labor. Our malts come from the U.S. and Europe. I want to start developing things that contribute to the internal growth of the nation,” said Laura Boada, co-founder of all-female brewery Zambo Creek, which got its start in her La Paz kitchen.
During my visit to Bandido’s church location, I wasn’t alone in my enjoyment. The tables in every room were filled with locals and extranjeros alike, eager to experience something new or revel in the familiarity of strong, hoppy beer. Servers moved with hurried ease through low-arched doorways, placing the order for their tables’ next round, as The Black Keys thumped overhead.
As time passed, the customers clanged their mugs together a little more loudly, and moved a little more quickly to lift pizza off the table and into their mouths. Eventually the three-hour happy hour ended, and the draft beers were no longer $3 for a pint but a fairly reasonable, by U.S. standards, $4.50. By then, the night was on wheels, and the crush of people didn’t stop until closing—a good sign for the future of the growing craft beer scene.
Curious to learn more about craft beer’s impact around the world? Follow The Growler as we globe-trot in search of craft beer in 7 Continents of Beer.