The southernmost country of Latin America hides many secrets. Although Argentina is typically known as the land of tango, beef, and malbec, few know about the polka, wurst, and beer-making tradition that dominates a tiny enclave called Villa General Belgrano.
This town of only 6,000 inhabitants attracts 30,000 eager merrymakers every year for Argentina's very own Oktoberfest, which boasts its own distinct German flavor.
Villa General Belgrano, despite its name honoring a figure of Argentine history, is one of a few historically German-speaking villages that dot Argentina. Immigrants came from Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, finding an idyllic home-like appeal in the lush, green forests blanketing the land and the small yet imposing mountains overlooking the valley, where the village is nestled along the banks of a crystalline river.
World War II changed the dynamics of the entire globe, including this village. In the 1940s, General Juan Domingo Perón—of Evita lore—rose to power, bringing with him fascist-friendly ideas. Although outwardly Argentina condemned Germany alongside the international community for the atrocities committed during WWII, a secret apparatus had been set in motion to help Nazi criminals escape prosecution by allowing them to hide in Argentina.
Once in the country, they naturally migrated to the preexisting German-speaking communities—and a good lot of them congregated around Villa General Belgrano. That includes the crewmen of U-530, the mysterious submarine that surrendered in 1945 off the coast of Argentina and which, rumor has it, transported Hitler himself to the Nazi heaven this South American country had become.
The village has managed to maintain the quainter sides of its heritage along the years, such as its beer-making tradition and shops hawking artisanal chocolates, charcuterie, and all sorts of pickled goods—while they make an effort to shed the vestiges of a decidedly shady past via a healthy dose of rebranding.
German is no longer the main language spoken in the area; Spanish has taken precedence. Oktoberfest is the official name of the 11-day festival, but the emcees conducting the festivities on the main stage refer to it as "a celebration of Central European heritage for the whole family" or a "multicultural pride festivity."
It has certainly accomplished that. It's not uncommon to see festivalgoers pass by you in Tirolean garb, with a mate in hand—a welcome respite from the neverending flow of beer. There is no better example of the latter than the traditional espiche, or opening of the kegs. A barrel of beer is taken on stage and shaken from one side to the other as the emcees get the crowds riled up. Attendees draw near the stage, mugs in hand, as the espicheros—guests of honor—are handed a stake and a mallet to crack open the barrel until it spews the golden brew. A jet of beer gushes out and drenches the crowd, who excitedly celebrate the espiche by toasting their neighbors with their now partially filled mugs.
The village is doing its best to move toward the future, but other traditions have not changed with time. A quick look around at the Bicentennial Museum told me that their yearly selection of a "Beer Queen" is a tradition they have upheld since the very first Oktoberfest celebration 52 years ago. This year's winner was Lucia Veronica Aliaga, only 18 years old—barely legal in terms of drinking age for Argentina. Her duties included overseeing every espiche, partaking in the daily Oktoberfest parade, walking down the main street in full regalia while accompanied by her consorts, and apparently, waving an empty beer mug around during every onstage appearance.
When the Beer Queen-elect was not hogging stage time, myriad musicians and dance troupes were responsible for entertaining the tipsy, beer-drenched masses. Brass-heavy polka music was certainly the dominant theme over the opening weekend, but the best surprise was certainly Willy Weimer's Polkarock Orchestra. The musical stylings of the lederhosen-clad all-male band got everybody dancing with their catchy tunes, yodeling, and bilingual lyrics in German and Spanish. The dancing portion of the program is when the so-called "multicultural heritage" that festival organizers aimed to celebrate really shone through: from Irish dancers and Italian tarantela performers, to Polish mazurka acts and Spanish flamenco dancers—all representing their varied European ancestry, something Argentinians are particularly proud of—while a predominantly Tirolean-dressed crowd cheered them on.
Yet multiculturalism has its limits, and those were drawn at food and drink. Wursts dominated the food stands, and sauerkraut—locally referred to as chucrut—was the obligatory topping. Actually, all sauerkraut assayed by this fearless writer-and-photographer team revealed one strange fact: little balls of whole black pepper hid in all the local chucrut. Brochettes overflowing with meat, vegetables, and fruit lined many of these stands. A classic combination was pork, plum, peach, and onion, as well as red and green pepper. Sausages wrapped in bacon were a deliciously sacrilegious sight to behold. Once outside of the aptly named Beer Park where the main festivities took place, the quaint alpine-looking village of Villa General Belgrano still offered plenty of both beer gardens and dining options.
Kassler and goulash are king here. Venison and pork definitely take the lead in this pocket-sized town within a country ruled by beef. Our waiter at a local brewery and restaurant, Viejo Munich, celebrated our lunch selection of wurst with a side of sauerkraut and venison goulash, then asked us where we're from. Once America was on the table, he informed us that he was almost born in New Jersey. Our interest was piqued and we asked him to elaborate. "My parents got married and moved to New Jersey. There, they had a couple who were their friends, who where already American citizens. They had decided that both couples would divorce, and the Americans would each marry one of my parents, grant them citizenship, divorce, then the right couples would remarry. But as soon as they were about to do it, my mom realized she was three months pregnant with me, and they had to back out and come back here." Basically, he cock-blocked his parents' American dream.
The town was ripe with interesting characters. As a serious journalist, I couldn't leave without trying as many beers as I could muster and interviewing the brewmeisters hiding behind them. The fearless duo took on the challenge and paid a visit to almost every stand, and here are our favorites:
Cassaro Chopp was up first in our tour of duty and the only brewery that had absolutely no trace of German brewing heritage. Adolfo Cassaro was the face behind the brand, handing us a mug and getting us to taste every variety. Although he acknowledged having absolutely no brewing family secrets passed down through generations, Adolfo did mention that the Cassaros have been working in the industry for the last 30 years: first selling beer taps, and ten years later, they started manufacturing their own beers. It was certainly a surefire success: Today, Cassaro Chopp is the largest artisanal brewery, having managed to increase volume but maintain quality. They produce an estimated 1 million liters of beer per year and work with around 150 distributors who hawk their many varieties: strong red ale, pilsen premium, stout ale, red lager, golden ale, and our favorite, green lager—a fruity, refreshing brew infused with orange peel.
Interlaken was up next, with Marcelo Oviedo giving us a warm welcome while he introduced his six brews, among which we enjoyed the IPA, the cream stout, and the wheat beer. Marcelo's family has also been in the business for a long time—more precisely, about half a century. They started manufacturing ceramic beer mugs, and made the move to brewing beer in 2007. They started the operation with a small batch of just 3,000 liters per year. Today, that number is at 70,000. He asked us not to judge him for his Tirolean attire. "I'm a hard rock fan at heart," he said. It was obvious that he has a kind heart. Within his stand, he made some space for his good friend Roman Gross and his brewery, Berlin.
Compared to the outspoken Marcelo, Roman was a more reserved brewemeister, but not short on stories. A storm hit the area last summer and completely flooded his brewery. All his machinery was ruined, and he's still recovering from the financial loss—a hard hit for a microbrewery that was barely born four years ago. "I'm just selling locally for now," he explained, compared to other counterparts who are at least selling province-wide if not throughout the entire country. Although soft-spoken, he seemed almost cheerful, as if a flood had never drowned his business. If anything, he looked toward the future with promise. "I have the intention to expand in the future," Roman offered. "For now, I brew Irish red as well as Scottish and brow ale. I make special-edition batches of stout, amber ale, and oatmeal stout in numbered bottles."
I tried pressing about his German heritage, and he told me his grandmother had been German on his dad's side, while his other grandparents were Italian: "My great-grandfather looked just like Al Capone, so much that he almost got shot in Chicago in a case of mistaken identity." Sprechen sie Deutsche? I asked. "We maintained German traditions here, but we lost the language," he explained. There aren't many Germans left in the town; all that's left are their descendants. "Except for some very old former Admiral Graf Spee crewmen," from another Nazi ship that made it to Montevideo. "Maybe," he clarified, "I'm not sure if they've all died already. I think there might be one still alive."
Germania, our next brewery, stuck to the basics and did it well: They only offered pale ale, a red ale, and a stout on draft. Guillermo Suarez, who was manning the stand, told us that next year they were hoping to introduce a honey beer. The brains behind the operation, however, is Carlos Seifert, who traveled to Germany and learned the craft from his German uncle, who owns a brewery in the old country. They specialize in abbey-style, unfiltered beers. "Just let the beer sit for a few seconds," Carlos urged. "Let it settle, and you'll notice how the yeast will decant. It's that natural," he told me.
Otro Mundo means "Another World" in Spanish, and the experience lived up to the name. We neared the stand, attracted by the photo op of Gonzalo Navarro's adorable son Juan being held by his dad while his older sister prepared a mate. Gonzalo quickly fell into professional mode as he continued to play with Juan, informing me that the Otro Mundo brewery is actually based in Salta, in the northernmost region of Argentina, and that this is the beer-maker's first time at Oktoberfest. There, up north, he said, is where the purest water can be found. Regarding central European roots, he explained that "all our ancestors fled World War II, that's why we are Otro Mundo—another world. For them."
My obligatory follow-up question about the local beer-making tradition promptly got the classic reply: "Our heritage lies not so much in beer-making, but in beer-drinking." He promised me that little Juan was well on his way to living up to that heritage—already manning the booth, as photographic evidence reveals. But between jokes, he earnestly admitted that Otro Mundo was his job, and his true passion is a little microbrewery he set up along with his friend Maxi Manuelle in Cordoba city, called Red Lion. They just brew between 6,000 and 7,000 liters per year, sold only at a few bars they run themselves—their biggest clients are still family members and friends. That's love for the game.