Ropes line the sidewalks of Punta Arenas, Chile, a precautionary measure to help citizens walk down the streets without being swept away by forbidding winds. The small city, set on the edge of the frigid Strait of Magellan near the southern tip of South America, can be a chilly and unwelcoming setting even in the middle of summer. The long, dark winters would be unthinkable without beer.
Fortunately for residents, the city brews its own. "I hope you enjoy the southernmost brewery in the world," a guide named James said as he led a group of tourists around the headquarters of Cervecería Austral, which dates back to 1896, making it the oldest brewery in Chile. The facility was instantly recognizable by the multi-story and somewhat rundown can of Austral Lager towering over the grounds, which is actually a silo that holds about 250 tons of barley before it is converted into a more drinkable form.
The brewery was founded by a German man named José Fisher, who recognized a lucrative opportunity when he saw one, serving thirsty European immigrants who flocked to Patagonia in the late 1800s to join the growing gold mining, seal hunting, and sheep rearing industries. His product, originally named Patagona, was an instant hit.
Part of the beer's appeal, besides the fact that it was beer, was surely the exceptional quality of water; at first, a train brought ice in directly from the nearby mountain glaciers. Currently, the brewery uses filtered city water from Punta Arenas—a much less exciting story, although the source is ultimately the same.
Another piece of lore the brewery boasts about is its history of trading beer to the indigenous people in exchange for animal skins. Perhaps relatedly, a local museum display eloquently described the near-total extermination of Patagonia's natives by noting the deed was accomplished first with rifles, then syphilis, and finally alcohol to finish the job.
In any event, given its popularity with immigrants and indigenous drinkers alike, the company grew over the years, and Austral lagers are now available all over Chile, far and away the most common beer found in the southern part of the country. In total, the brewery produces about six million liters of beer per year, which sounds like a lot but is actually only 1 percent of production in Chile. While the nation is more famous for its wine industry, residents put away a decent quantity of beer as well, at a rate of 40 liters per year per person.
I wondered about how accurate their claim was to still be the southernmost brewery in the world, given the brewpubs elsewhere in Punta Arenas that are technically further south than Austral, and more in the Argentinian town of Ushuaia on the other side of the border. "Those are just microbreweries," James clarified. "We're the southernmost large brewery."
The tour started somewhat disconcertingly, past a warehouse filled with stacks and stacks of Coors and Heineken. The brewery, James hastily explained, was also a distributor. Further along, there were remnants of the plant's long history, like a bottle capping machine from 1914 that visitors can try out for themselves, and an old copper boiler that was in use from 1927 up until 2010. The new model is stainless steel—copper is too expensive these days, even though the metal is actually mined in Chile.
The brewing process is a familiar one: First, the barley malt is macerated for eight hours to reduce it to sugars, or wort. "It's similar to sweet tea," James said. "When it's cold, it's like apple juice." Next, the resulting liquid is mixed with hops and boiled, then moved to the whirlpool where the yellow foamy liquid swirls around and around and around, like a toilet that never drains.
The wort is then mixed with yeast and moved to one of 11 fermentation tanks, where it takes about a week to turn into sweet, sweet alcohol. This proto-beer is moved to a stabilization tank, where it sits for about a month. Then it gets filtered, carbonated, and pasteurized before the canning process, which is the second-most fun part of most brewery tours. Cans come down the conveyor belt one by one, filled by a machine that can handle 3,000 in four to five hours, with foam rising over the rim of the can until the top is put on by a whimsical spinny device. The cans are washed, dried and date-stamped, and finally are ready for consumption.
The whole process takes 45 to 50 days, depending on the type of beer. "And we drink it in five minutes," James said as he led the group into the tasting room. "Welcome to heaven." The room was outfitted with signs and paraphernalia befitting 120 years of history. The tour guide handed out some toasted barley, which tasted like cereal and hops, looked and smelled like rabbit pellets, but had a nice molasses and citronella flavor. Before we were permitted to drink, though, we had to watch an exceptionally cheesy promotional video, which featured adorable animated penguins popping their heads out of the water to give kisses to a beer bottle.
Finally, we got to sample the finished product, poured out quite generously for three o'clock in the afternoon. First up was the original lager, which is serviceable if not noteworthy, and its close cousin, the imperial, which is a bit crisper. The company also offers a pale ale called Patagona, a dark ale called Yagán, and their newest concoction, a dark imperial called Dunkel.
The most interesting beer was an ale made from and named after the berry, a purple fruit native to the region, giving the drink a mild fruity flavor. The most disappointing was the Torres del Paine premium brand, which is double-fermented and reminiscent of something you might drink out of a 40-ounce bottle in a brown paper bag. After downing seven glasses of beer in about 20 minutes, it was a callback to college in more ways than one.