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What It’s Like to Brew Beer at 11,000 Feet

Cerveza Zenith brewery in the Peruvian Andes battles an altitude of 11,150 feet above sea level to produce its pale ales and porters. “Altitude is obviously an issue. No one is 100 percent sure on the rules,” says owner Zac Lanham.
Photo by the author.

You know what the cool kids are doing in Peru these days? They're brewing.

While Peruvian chefs and cuisine continue to enjoy international limelight, the buzz on the streets of Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco is all about craft beer.

For a long time though, Peruvians had only a few options when it came to beer. The most common varieties were three refreshing but insipid lagers: Pilsen Callao, Cristal, and Cusqueña. There's chicha, of course—the traditional corn beer of the Andes—but you need about five pints to feel dunk and then a stomach pump to feel better. (Sorry, chicha).


Thankfully, the last few years have seen a rising number of craft breweries open across the country, offering IPAs, porters, and authentic red ales to drinkers brought up on the monopolised offerings of Backus and Johnston, Peru's largest brewery and producer of aforementioned insipid lagers.

READ MORE: The Art of Cheesemaking in Peru

Today, locals and tourists head to Lima for a pint in the taprooms of Nuevo Mundo or the Barranco Beer Company. They sit in Brew Pub Wicks and talk hops with the pub's English owner. They go to Chelawasi ("House of Beer") in Arequipa, Peru's second most populous city and find expats and Arequipeños drinking bottles of craft beer. They head to Huaraz and visit the Sierra Andina brewery in the shadow of the Cordillera Blanca mountains.

And, of course, we can't forget Cusco: gateway to Machu Picchu, former capital of the Incan Empire, and Peru's tourist magnet. It's also home to one of the breweries leading the country's craft beer charge: Cerveza Zenith.


Cerveza Zenith brewery in Cusco, Peru. Photo by the author. Zenith owners Zac Lanham and Milka Sotomayor. Photo by Jordan Putt.

Zenith brewery is a short ride from Cusco's historic center. When I arrive, onwer Zac Lanham greets me. Originally from Australia, his background is in IT and he has held roles in Peru's tourism industry. Somewhere along the line, he ended up running a brewery in Cusco.

Lanham and his Peruvian wife/business partner Milka Sotomayor look at home in Zenith's small tasting room, filled with brew kettles and testing equipment. He slides an old compilation CD into the stereo—something we all agree you don't see too often these days—and brings over a jug of beer filled with his latest batch of porter. He pours out a glass for each of us.


In its infancy, Zenith supplied kegs to Norton Rat's Tavern, one of Cusco's most popular bars. Norton's, as locals know it, is a spacious American-style bar located right on the corner of Cusco's historic Plaza de Armas, frequented by a mix of backpackers, expats, and locals. If you're going to push craft beer in Peru, there are few better places to do it.

It was a small but strong start and now Zenith is sold bottled or on tap in bars in Cusco, Lima, Arequipa, and Puerto Maldonado. What started as a 40-litre nanobrewery in 2012 grew to a 500-litre microbrewery, producing about 2,000 litres a month by the end of December 2013. Today, the capacity is up to 9,000 litres at full production.

The figures make it all sound straightforward but getting Zenith to its current point wasn't easy and even now, the brewery is often producing half of its 9,000-litre monthly capacity despite increased demand.

"Customs and having to import everything is a bitch," says Lanham. "Altitude is obviously an issue. And the fact that it's such a new industry, no one is 100 percent sure on the rules."

Hops are one of the main imports. And if you're asking why they can't grow hops in Peru (it does, after all, have a wealth of microclimates) it's all about the sun. To grow properly, hops need long daylight hours. That makes latitudes between 35 and 55 degrees ideal in either hemisphere if you want long summer days. But the northernmost tip of Peru almost touches the equator, while the southern extent stretches to about 18 degrees south—well out of the sweet spot.


Then there's the altitude. Cusco sits at an altitude of about 11,150 feet or 3,400 metres above sea level (for comparison, Leadville, Colorado—the highest city in the USA—is at 10,152 feet). Up there, boiling water becomes a bit of a science lesson: increase the elevation and you decrease the boiling point of water. The water actually reaches its boiling point faster because it's lower but then less heat is transferred through the water, so cooking takes more time.

In the brewing process, this means you have to boil the hops for longer, using more energy and therefore, at greater expense.

Lower boiling temperatures can also lead to hop under-utilisation, which can screw with the bitterness of the beer, throwing the International Bitterness Units slightly out of whack.


A barman pulls a pint of Zenith at Norton Rat's Tavern, Cusco. Photo by Jordan Putt.

The altitude doesn't stop messing with stuff there.

"We carbonate to a standard level that's fine for Cusco or other similar altitudes," Lanham explains. "But in Lima, the beer can lack pop, fizz. So with a keg, it gets connected to CO2 as part of the serving process: this helps regulate the carbonation level. But you can't do that with bottles: it's set when the cap goes on."

In theory, Zenith would have to carbonate batches differently for different altitudes to ensure the perfect fizz and pop in both the Andes and down at sea-level Lima.

Despite such challenges, the brewery manages to produce a range of highly drinkable craft beers. These include regulars like the pale ale and porter, as well as occasional guest the rye IPA and a Christmas special with clove and cinnamon.


Of Zenith's regular brews, the porter is the most representative of Peru, thanks to the inclusion of the Andean grain quinoa.

"Quinoa adds some flavor but it's subtle, you really need to know your quinoa to pick it up," says Lanham. "We use it to add body, as it's high in protein—think oatmeal stout."

READ MORE: Peru Has Always Been a Food Destination

The subtle but distinct taste of the quinoa is definitely there in the Porter, along with some complimentary coffee notes and a slight nuttiness. The overall lightness of the 6.5 percent tipple also makes it very drinkable. Unlike heavier dark ales, it would be easy to drink this one all the way through to mañana.

Lanham is also developing drinks using Peruvian ingredients, including beers flavoured with local fruits and a cider with camu camu, a small cherry-like fruit with an extravagant vitamin C content.

"Craft beer in Peru is so new that it's still developing its own style," he adds. "It's very heavily influenced by the hop-crazy trends from the US but there are various breweries producing Belgian-style ales as well. These influences are more the personal tastes of individual brewers so it will be interesting to see what the market votes for."