Saving Colombia – One Microbrewery at a Time

Care for a Club Colombia? Photo via Wikimedia, by Bocardodarapti.

Care for a Club Colombia? Photo via Wikimedia, by Bocardodarapti.

“El amigo que une a los amigos” – Poker
The friend that unites friends” Poker

A quick visit to any bodega in Colombia and you’ll notice something rather striking: Poker, Aguila and Club Colombia. In a country of more than 44 million, how do people survive on a selection of only three beers? It just doesn’t seem right.

Rewind to the 1970s and 80s in the USA. The last 60 years had seen a decline in the number of breweries from more than 1,600 to 101. The fallout of this is that nowadays, only five percent of all beer sold in the USA comes from independent, handcraft breweries.

So what? Who cares? Well, Colombia, for one, has just signed a Free Trade Agreement with the USA which, depending on who you speak to, is either going to bring rampant development and financial security to the economy, or provide an abundance of American-dominated supermarket shelf space for those in the import business, thus driving local Colombian industries out of the market.

Some people have suggested that Bavaria Brewing runs a 98 to 99 percent monopoly on Colombian beer. Further, they also have market leading products on shelves in Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia.

So what would be the advantage of replacing Colombian beers (all made by a single company) in Colombian bodegas with those from the USA, where three companies share 95 percent of a market consuming nearly three times as much beer?

Enter Bogota Beer Company. As the second largest brewery in Colombia, they have an annual production of 0.007% of that of Bavaria – yet in the last 10 years, have opened 13 gastro pubs throughout the Colombian capital. How do you expand so quickly when facing such a dominant monopoly? Any business person in their right mind would be very quick to cast such mavericks as highly irrational, maybe even reckless.

Southern Bogotá, from Monserrate mountain. Photo via Wikimedia, by Louise Wolff.

Southern Bogotá, from Monserrate mountain. Photo via Wikimedia, by Louise Wolff.

According to Eric, founder of the Bogota Homebrew Club and a homebrew enthusiast from California, the upper echelons of the alcoholic market are wine drinkers. He tells me that mass-produced products, which in reality vary only marginally from one another, can only get you so far in any market.

In the USA, for example, Anheuser-Busch has a 50 percent share of the domestic beer market and spends more money on advertising than any other fortune 500 company. Yet in a blind taste test, the average beer lover cannot differentiate between Budweiser and either of the two major competing beers available (You’ll have to watch the documentary Beer Wars to see the full story).

I suspect it isn’t really a question of taste – it’s as much a question of knowledge as it is about the availability of knowledge. “Don’t listen to your TV, don’t let it tell you what you like to drink,” urges one brewer in Beer Wars. Could this be a sign that there really are rumblings of change on the horizon for Colombian business, especially in the handcraft beer industry? After all, does it really make sense to accept everything you know about food from McDonald’s?

Julian Esteban Torres Lopez, a Colombian journalist, calls it “mental poverty” that has been ingrained in the Colombian psyche since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. But this clearly does not account for the drastic rise of microbreweries in Colombia and the way the upper end of the market has responded. As Colombia moves into the 21st century, more eager than ever to rid itself of the shackles of such a turbulent recent history, Colombians ought to be consoled that there is a minority group, a “lunatic fringe” that is ready and willing to steer the country in the right direction.

About The Hairy Chef

The Hairy Chef is a teacher, a baker, a swimmer a photographer, a homebrewer and a freelance travel writer from Perth, Western Australia. He fell in love with teaching after a 6 week volunteer experience in Thailand after realizing that making people smile is something everyone should believe in. Currently based in Bogota, Colombia as a Senior Teacher, he has more than 4 years experience teaching English as a foreign language to students from Mongolia to Venezuela and loves going to work every day. Well, almost every day.