South America has long been famous for its wine and spirits—think pisco or cachaca—and not particularly for its craft beer. Most South American brewers would agree that they are at least a generation behind places like the United States or Europe in craft beer production and demand, but in the last decade or so this part of the world has experienced a boom in craft beer that can’t be denied. While not as widespread or varied as countries like Mexico, good South American beer in Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, or Uruguay, especially in major cities, is delicious and easily attainable.
Latin Americans have always been heavy beer drinkers but the style of choice historically was light lagers with relatively low alcohol content. In the last ten to fifteen years, the South American beer fanatics in these massively populated countries have been increasingly seeking out more complex and flavor-forward microbrews. Craft beer sales might still be less than 10% of the market in most South American countries, but that percentage is inching up every year.
There are some unique hurdles to South American craft beer production. With many countries lacking the climate for widespread hops or barley cultivation, most South American brewers have to import what they need from the United States and Europe. The importation process can cause deterioration of the product as well as increased production costs for local brewers.
Many South American countries also impose heavy taxes on craft beer that can exceed 40% of their retail price. Not helpful are large South American beer companies that still have a vice grip on the market and apply pressure to keep these policies in place to maintain their monopolies. Some of them are part of international conglomerates now, adding even more marketing dollars to their war chests.
But the advance and popularity of craft beer in South America, along with internationally recognized competitions that bring brands’ fame and strengthen networks among small and microbrewers, is growing a counterbalance for some of the difficulties they face. Here are the seven South American countries with the largest craft beer movements in the region and what you should keep an eye out for if you visit.
Brazilian craft beer is widely considered to have the largest market share of the region, with an annual growth rate of 40% according to Daniel Trivelli, president of Copa Cervezas de America. Craft beer brands from Brazil continue to win large numbers of awards in competitions like the Copa Cervezas de America. Some of the early craft beer pioneers, setting up shop in the 1990s, included Cervejaria Bork, Krug Bier, Dado Bier, Alles Bier, and Cervejaria Baden Baden (which now belongs to Heineken Brasil ).
These Brazilian brewers started out making light lagers but soon moved on to German-style beers like kolsch or weizenbier, red ales, stouts, and other styles that weren’t previously available. These days Brazilian brewmasters are experimenting with their unique flora to create craft beer that is distinctive to their part of the world.
Sao Paulo is considered the center of Brazil’s craft beer scene. There are a handful of craft breweries based here, including one of Brazil’s craft beer pioneers, Cervejaria Colorado, in Riberao Preto just outside of the city, a former center of craft beer production in Brazil.
If you want to taste as many of the best Brazilian beers as you can, visit one of Sao Paulo’s many brewpubs like Emporio Alto dos Pinheiros, Cervejaria Nacional, De Bruer, Frango, or the Brewdog bar. You might also want to plan your trip around Brazil’s annual Oktoberfest in Blemenau, Santa Catarina, which is the biggest Oktoberfest in the Americas and one of the largest in the world. It hosts close to a million visitors over 18 days.
Sao Paulo isn’t the only city in Brazil where you can drink great Brazilian craft beer. Rio de Janeiro also has a growing craft beer scene, home to Brazilian breweries Three Monkeys, 2 Cabecas, Cerveja Complexo do Alemao, 3 Cariocas, and more. Also buzzing is the town of Curitiba, home of Cervejaria Morada and Cervejaria Way.
Best Argentina Craft Beer
Argentina’s original craft brewers were based in the country’s southern lakes region in the 1980s. Highly influenced by the German immigrants of the area, “they were kind of hippies in the mountains,” says Frank Almeida, a tour operator in Buenos Aires.
“The most adventurous [breweries] you’re going to find are going to be in Buenos Aires and Mendoza ,” he says about Argentina’s current craft beer scene.
Argentina’s capital is overflowing with brewpubs and craft beer bars, and despite the long-held custom of wine drinking here, Argentine craft beer is winning over converts every day. In the same way that Brazilian Brewers are using acai and Mexican brewers hot peppers, Argentinian brewmasters have their own regionally specific experiments—aging beer in oak wine barrels, making champagne-style beer in Mendoza, even beer made with the country’s second-favorite beverage, Yerbamate.
Almeida suggests roaming around Buenos Aires’ barrio Colegiales (or taking a tour with him) as this residential neighborhood is now sporting some of Buenos Aires’ best brewpubs open to the public. His favorite watering hole is the Desarmadero bar, whose facade is just as interesting as the 40+ beers they have on tap from across the country. A few other cities outside of Buenos Aires for great Argentine craft beer include Mar de Plata, Rosario, and Cordoba.
Locals and tourists alike are looking forward to the post-pandemic return of the Extreme Beer festival started by brewer Juguetes Perdidos in 2019 but in the meantime, a few breweries to watch are Strange Brewing, Dos Dingos, Gorilla Brewery, Minga, Grunge, Buena Birra and Funes.
In 1992, Enrique Gonzalez Terffry founded La Cerveza de la Casa, a brewery in the Colombian city of Guame. You could say that this was the antecedent of today’s craft beer scene in the country, but the process has been slow and steady, and even today there are less than 100 microbrewers in all of Colombia.
“It’s really kind of exploded over the past few years, even with the pandemic,” says Tristan Quigley, a craft beer writer for Bogota Post. When he arrived in the country in 2014 there were only a handful of craft breweries and they were very hard to find. But Colombia’s craft beer scene has grown exponentially since then he says, starting with a few local craft beer events in Bogota as well as changing attitudes about beer in general society
“It was considered kind of tacky to have beer at a wedding for example,” says Quigley about his first years in Colombia. “Beer was considered a poor man’s drink or something you drink on holiday. It was hard to get people to take beer seriously.”
But not any longer. The hard work and increasing skill of Colombian brewers is paying off, he says. These days Colombia’s capital of Bogota has a solid set of local breweries experimenting with styles and ingredients that are making craft beer in Colombia front and center in the beverage world. Pola de pub is an Irish bar brewing a nitro stout with small-batch Colombian coffee. The brewers at Tomahawk Brewery are working with Colombia’s wide range of tropical fruit to make IPAs with a taste of home. Mela’s, a brewery in the north of the city, makes Lulada, a gose beer with fresh lulo fruit pulp and Himalayan salt.
Bogota isn’t the only place you can find great Colombian craft beer these days either. Medellin has a growing craft beer scene that includes Alibre Brewery and XXX. Kumbia Brewery in Santa Marta makes a Session IPA called Calypso that shouldn’t be missed. There is also Tres Quince in Barranquilla and others along Colombia’s coast.
“I’d say it’s getting better every year,” says Quigley.
Chilean Beers Worth Trying
An exception to the rule, turns out that Chile’s capital, Santiago, is not where beer fanatics head to taste Chile’s best craft beer. Instead, it’s all the way to Patagonia, which has a long history of Chilean beer making and growing hops (their climate, unlike other parts of South America, is favorable for this essential crop’s cultivation).
Current beer culture in Chile goes back to the early German immigrants of the 19th century but the Andean peoples were making beer from corn long before colonists arrived. Archeologists caused a stir in 2017 when they discovered an ancient yeast, thought to be the lost parent yeast of today’s lager in 1,000-year-old pottery they excavated in Temuco, Chile.
Chilean craft beer continues to flourish in the Chilean Lake District and in particular the city of Valdivia, known as the country’s beer capital. Three of the area’s breweries—El Growler, Cerveza Bundor, and Cuello Negro—were nine of the 41 Chilean beers awarded at the 2019 World Beer Awards. Numbers vary from source to source but it’s probably safe to say Chile has between 300 and 400 microbreweries. Names you will hear often are Kuntsmann (one of Chile’s oldest breweries), Kross, Jester, Szot, Guayacan, and Granizo.
There are two important yearly beer festivals in Chile: the Oktoberfest in Malloco and Bierfest in Valdivia. Another stop in Chile you might want to make is the port of Valparaiso where there are more than a dozen microbreweries in its historic downtown.
Craft beer in Peru is a small but growing market, with estimates between 60 and 100 local microbreweries in the country. Unfortunately, the big beer conglomerates still dominate with about 95% of the market. Taxes are high for Peruvian brewers and ingredients like hops and barley are difficult to grow, but Peru’s natural wealth of coffee, cacao, and tropical fruit are a boon to local brewmasters that want to experiment with endemic flavors.
While the largest selection of craft beer can be found in Lima, there are small breweries popping up in other parts of the country like Sierra Andina brewery in Huaraz and Sacred Valley Brewing in Cusco. Other breweries getting attention are Barbarian (one of Peru’s first craft brewers), Magdalena, Nuevo Mundo, Barranco, Zenith, Cumbres and Maddox. There’s a surprisingly good selection up north in the Amazonas region, including local fave Sierra Andina.
If you are headed to Lima, a few bars stick out for tasting the country’s craft beer selection: Cañas y Tapas, Jaya Brew, Mi Tercer Lugar, and the Barranco Beer Company. Each year in October, Lima hosts the Lima Beer Week, and while the event’s website has gone dark, their Instagram seems to still be up and running, so give them a follow for announcements on events.
South American Beer From Uruguay
Uruguay’s craft beer scene concentrates in its capital, Montevideo. While the number of Uruguayan craft brewers is still small (most cite a number under 75 for the whole country), the city has a handful of great brewpubs where you can try local craft beer: O’Neill brewery, Oso Pardo, Davok, Cerveza Mastra, and Montevideo Brew House.
Also getting some press is the family-run Bimba Brüder in Paysandu in western Uruguay. We love the circus-themed labels (pictured here) from Birra Bizarra.
Commercial Uruguayan brewer Nortena opened a plant in Paysandu in the 1950s but stopped making beer there about 20 years ago. Despite this, the area continues to grow barley and hosts Uruguay’s annual Beer Week, which while I couldn’t find a website, seems to happen each year around Easter.
The Ecuador Craft Beer Scene
Ecuador has the highest alcohol taxes in the Americas for imported products, which may actually be inadvertently helping the craft brewers here. It’s far cheaper to order a really good domestic craft beer than it is to get a glass of house wine or a basic cocktail with name-brand liquor. So it’s worth seeking out the good stuff.
The main beer here has a name as boring as its monopoly status: Pilsener. This is a country where if you order “dos cervezas,” the only choice in most bars will be “Light or regular?” (Though you may get a similar-tasted Club from the same company.) The monopoly player does offer dark and red versions, however, for a gateway into more flavorful offerings.
The easiest alternative to find is Latitude Cero, even though in most Spanish-speaking countries, “cero” in the name means “no alcohol.” That’s not the case here–they’re referring to the equator. Their 6.5% bock beer gets a lot of raves.
One of the highest-regarded options is Bandido Brewing, located in the historic center of Quito. They’ve got a full-on Mexican theme going in their labels, but the beers include a honey ginger saison, an amber ale, a stout, a cream ale, and rotating experiments. Santa Rosa Brewing of Quito also has a brewpub and has the largest selection in the country, with 12 beers on offer at any given time. They sell some of them in tall-boy cans.
Some of Ecuador’s breweries are in such odd places that you wonder how they survive. Mills Brewing, for example, makes seven different beers, but is located in a small town 3.5 hours from Cuenca. Zarza Brewing is four hours south of Cuenca, but it does have a second location in Vilcabamba. Ask around where you are because you never know!
In each of these countries, the craft beer scene is growing and evolving. The next time you head south you will likely find an even greater number of new brewers and brewpubs opened to the public. Most of the cities mentioned offered some kind of local beer tour and if you really want to dig into South American beer there are craft beer associations in each country. Happy Drinking everyone.