Illegal Beer Is Brewing a Massive Following in Venezuela

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Illegal Beer Is Brewing a Massive Following in Venezuela

Small-batch artisanal Venezuelan craft breweries are on the rise and trying to meet demand for their illegal beers. Prohibition-era laws and black-market economics, be damned.
November 11, 2014, 6:00pm

High up in the hills on the west side of Caracas, Rodrigo Flores brews illegal beer in what's left of his dead grandfather's abandoned medical clinic. He uses two rooms to house his brewing machine, and stores the liquid for the fermentation process in some old plastic olive barrels. The floor below this operation is a labyrinth of gutted-out surgical rooms, broken windows, and resident bats.

"Welcome to my brewery," he says, "We have to be quiet, because my grandmother and uncle live here too."

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Flores' secret brewery is one of dozens that have sprung up in Venezuela over the past five years. Despite the fact that Venezuelans drink more beer per capita than any other nation in Latin America, it's almost entirely one type of beer, Pilsen, made by one company, Empresas Polar, which dominates 75 percent of the market.

bat-brewery

A view of Caracas from Rodrigo Flores' abandoned-medical clinic brewery.

Despite the fact that—according to Venezuela's liquor law—selling their homebrews is illegal, many brewers have loads of business from liquor stores and restaurants. Though ingredients like hops and barley can't be found in Venezuela and the dollars they need to import their parts and products are difficult to find, they say it's worth the effort and the risk.

hops-hands

Above, hops and barley

Daniel Lopez, another Caracas brewer says, "This is Venezuela. If the police come for us, it will just be a matter of paying them off."

A five-minute drive further up into the hills from Flores' place, Lopez makes red ale, IPA, stout, and hefeweizen in his parents' house. His IPA is a dry-hopped replica of Boulder Beer's Hazed & Confused, and tastes floral, herby, and spot-on.

"Almost all of us are in houses, apartments, or rented offices doing this, living from this," Lopez says.

They all love it more than being engineers or biologists, or working in IT or as dentists. Every brewer I talk with has either quit their other job or has plans to quit their job and transition into making greater quantities of beer. The problem, then, becomes defying the law and getting their hands on enough ingredients.

bottle-ingredients

Daniel Lopez uses solid cones of unrefined cane sugar called papelón (also known as panela) to sweeten his beer.

Because there isn't large-scale hop, barley, or malt production in Venezuela, the brewers import everything but the water and the bottles. Cheaper ones will avoid importing barley by buying it on the black market, where they assume it's been collected from boats bringing in Polar's barley and resold. For bottles, they scour Caracas—particularly for wine bottles to recycle—or buy them in bulk together.

"We're more of a brotherhood of beer-makers than a competitive market," Flores says.

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Because dollars are among a host of things (like toilet paper and shampoo) that Venezuela is chronically short on, they have to get scrappy about buying dollars on the black market to pay for their imported goods.

brewer-one

Daniel Lopez drinks a beer at his parents' house, where he runs his brewery Old Dan's out of two spare rooms.

Alexander Jiménez, who runs the brewery Norte Del Sur (North of the South) buys as many dollars as he can from the government, paying 6.3 Bolivares Fuertes (BsF) per dollar before turning to the black market, where he can pay anywhere from ten to fifteen times more.

"This is what we deal with," he says. "We're the only country in the world that has three prices for the dollar."

Each brewer in Caracas rarely makes more than 50 gallons of beer per week due to scarcity of ingredients as well as a need to maintain a low profile.

Claudio Leoni, a brewer who sells under his brand Pisse De Gottes (Piss of the Gods) and his chef friend will occasionally hold private parties and beer tastings, including one for the president of El Salvador. In his gated house high above Caracas, Leoni evokes Prohibition-era characters to describe the local scene. "We're just doing it all illegally, like Al Capone," he says.

Venezuela's liquor law was established in the 1970s, and parts of it read like Prohibition laws from the US, like the section that says any beer that is more than 7-percent alcohol by volume is considered liquor. According to the law, brewers are not allowed to brew and sell in the same space, and are required to use closed-system brewing machines which would automate the process with too-expensive equipment and spell the end of Flores' olive barrels. Furthermore, a law on what constitutes "artisanal products" in Venezuela, like a microbrew, stipulates that ingredients need to be procured domestically— an impossible task, of course, when it comes to beer.

Green-Bottles

All of this is theoretically enforced by Venezuela's revenue service SENIAT, but—as of yet—none of the brewers in Caracas have had run-ins with them.

"I think they probably like the beer," Jiménez says. The tapas restaurant across the street from the Caracas SENIAT office sells a lot of Norte Del Sur.

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Lopez says, "They know we're doing this, it just doesn't bother them yet."

But just a few months ago, in July, a brewery in the western Venezuela city of Maracaibo was shut down by SENIAT. Cerveza Nativa (Native Beer) was fined for selling homemade beer and running a brewery without a liquor license, and they have since suspended their operation.

"Other breweries probably haven't been fined for a number of reasons," Fernando Finol, one of the founders of Cerveza Nativa says. "Maybe the SENIAT inspectors in those areas don't issue fines because they like the beer that [the brewers] are making, or maybe because they simply don't want to do their jobs."

Since the Cerveza Nativa incident, the Caracas brewers have avoided talking with domestic media, though most of them still operate Twitter and Facebook accounts where they network with local restaurants and liquor stores.

The microbrewers stand out for their efforts at domestic entrepreneurship while many young Venezuelans are leaving the country to start up elsewhere. They have mixed feelings about the future of their brewing and what they're up against.

"When all of your friends have left, you wonder if the conditions are worth it, to stay," Flores says.

Lopez, on the other hand, feels an obligation to stay. "I don't want to leave Venezuela while everyone else is running away," he says.

Brewer-in-Venezuela

Claudio Leoni has hosted some big beer tastings at his house/brewery high above Caracas, including one for the President of El Salvador.

Jiménez says he'll continue to grow Norte Del Sur in anticipation of a day when he can run a larger brewery that turns out hundreds of gallons of beer per week. For now, he rents a two-bedroom apartment to brew his beer and house all of the supplies.

At the Hieylic liquor store in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, the microbrews are stored in a refrigerator in the stockroom for most of the week. According to an employee who did not want to be named, on Friday afternoons they put the beers out to sell.

"Every Saturday, there are people here with arms full of artisanal beer," he says.

People who, like me, would probably attest that beer this good shouldn't be illegal.