Twenty years ago, Latin America wouldn’t have appeared on even the most optimistic beer traveler’s destination list. In fact, to head south from Boston or Chicago or Portland, Oregon, in the 1990s was to embark upon a slow journey toward beer mediocrity, beginning with the less exciting of the “fly over” states, followed by the even more mundane American South, then Mexico and the Caribbean—at the time respectively redeemable for only a handful of dark lagers and even fewer strong stouts—and, finally, South America, land of pale, bland lagers as far as the eye could see, of course served as cold as possible.
Thankfully, things are a whole lot different these days. Brazil has been upping its beer game for the better part of 15 years, Argentina has approached craft beer with the same sort of artisanal creativity it has the modern wine market, and even certain Central and northern South American nations have embraced the ethos of flavorful ale and lager.
Which brings us to Chile, that long slip of a country that hugs the coastline for over half the length of western South America.
When Tim Webb and I were putting together the first edition of “The World Atlas of Beer,” it was my task to sort through the Americas, which we divided into Canada, the United States and the Caribbean on one side, and Latin America on the other. In the latter section, I was able to determine with relative ease that Brazil was the leader, Argentina placed second in terms of the advancement of craft brewing, and Chile came in third.
It was in this context that I recently decided to pay a visit to Santiago as I prepped for the second edition of the “World Atlas,” which will appear this coming fall. Boarding the plane, I knew that Mexico, which I had visited six weeks prior, had progressed rapidly and impressively since our first edition had been published in 2012, almost certainly having overtaken Chile and perhaps even Argentina in craft beer status. And I knew of many, if not most, of the big names on the Chilean craft beer scene, breweries like Kross, Tübinger, Szot, and Autor.
About Santiago itself I knew very little, but I did have an ace up my sleeve in the person of Fran Gabarro, a beer-savvy Canadian expat who had generously offered to show me around.
I made my base in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Barrio Lastarria: settled in the 1500s, a hang-out for Bohemians and intellectuals in the early 1900s, and today home to a mix of artistic types, chic artisans, and, of greatest interest to me, a dense concentration of bars, cafes, and restaurants. It didn’t take long before I was heading out to see what they offered.
Perhaps it is because of the almost tangibly hip and artsy vibe of Lastarria, or maybe it’s due to the fact that what craft breweries there are in Chile tend to be concentrated around the capital, but I had little trouble finding local beer in the bars of my new neighborhood. Even in a little sanguchería, or sandwich shop, like José Ramón, where Fran and I grabbed a quick lunch one afternoon, pride is taken in carrying a selection of regional craft brews on tap.
Of course, Santiago also has its share of beer bars and brewpubs, just none located in the tiny triangle that borders Lastarria. The Barbudo Beer Garden, for example, is a taxi ride away in the Villa Seca neighborhood, but well worth the trip for its 15 taps of mostly local beer—a high number for Santiago!—ready to be enjoyed at either a large garden out back or smaller terrace up front, plus a cozy upstairs for when the weather is less cooperative. Slightly closer in the opposite direction is Loom Brewing, a slightly-larger-than-nano brewpub that also functions as a Chile-focused beer bar, with their own brews normally occupying only two or three of the seven taps.
Far and away my personal favorite, though, is Mossto Brew Food, a bar and restaurant where most everything on the menu contains a beery element of some sort—and intelligently so, rather than in an “add beer for the hell of it” fashion. Although the beer selection is fairly modest, with six taps and mostly imported bottles, it’s the sort of place where, when you read owners’ claim that their team is working to grow Chilean beer culture, you’re inclined to believe them.
It needs be added, however, that they do have their work cut out for them. Although Chilean craft beer has most definitely made an impact in Santiago, my tasting experiences suggest that the industry still has a fair way to go in terms of ingredient and quality control. Too often beers were marred by the obvious flavors of stale hops—caused, brewers told me, by the long and unrefrigerated trip the hops make down the Pacific coast—and the under-conditioning of both lagers and ales, not to mention instances of diacetyl, which were almost as commonplace.
That said, the enthusiasm of the Chilean public for craft beer is not to be faulted, leading me to believe that these are but obstacles yet to be overcome. And having tasted the beers of the more mature breweries like Tübinger and Kross, and spoken to the principles behind such up-and-coming operations as Jester and Emperador, I was left with little doubt that Chilean brewers are up to the task.