Independent Craft Beer in Bogota

22 May

Independent craft beer in Bogota is not easy to come by, but if you look hard enough it is around. As is the case in most developing and third world countries, light lagers dominate the beer landscape in Colombia. Unsurprisingly, all of the most popular beers in the country are owned by an AB InBev company, Cervecería Bavaria. Club Colombia, Aguila, and Poker is what you’ll find being drank everywhere from bodegas to high end restaurants. I had all of these and their light, red, and negra variants. The only one remotely interesting was the Club Colombia Negra which was a run of the mill light bodied schwarzbier. This was often your best option at many bars and restaurants. Even the most popular “craft” beer in Bogota, Bogota Beer Company (BBC), was acquired by AB InBev in 2015. As I found out, BBC pubs are littered all across Bogota. There are nearly 20 locations in the city, and within a 1 mile walk of my hotel in the Usaquen district there were at least 5 locations. BBC was my first exposure to the non-light lagers of Colombia, but I also quickly found out that they were owned by ABI. Since I’d like to focus on the independent craft beer of Colombia, that’s all that I will say about BBC.

The second most popular “craft” beer found in Bogota is likewise not really craft. It took me some digging to find this out. At a grocery store in search for beer to stock my hotel mini fridge, I saw some non-light lagers that piqued my interest.

3 Cordilleras had a couple different types of bottles available, and I snatched up one of each. Of the three, the Mestiza Pale Ale was the best, but it does not hold up to American standards for pale ales. While certainly better than a light lager, there was not much complexity or hop character to make the beer worthwhile. As I discovered through talking to a bartender at Tap House (of which I’ll talk more about later), 3 Cordilleras is owned by Heineken in some complex acquisition of an acquisition deal. That would certainly explain why I found their bottles at a grocery store and why they were one of the most commonly found “craft” beers in Bogota. Once again, that’s all I’ll say about this brewery.

Now onto some true independently owned craft beer. After navigating my way through the shady undercurrent of corporate beer, I finally found some legit craft close to my hotel. Chelarte was a cozy and well decorated spot in a trendy area of town near Parque 93. When I walked in, I was delighted to see a tap list containing something other than light lagers.

Having not had an IPA since leaving Houston, I dove head first into the hop pool. It would turn out that I had chosen the best beer offered by Chelarte and my second favorite of the entire Colombia trip. Shakti was representative of an East Coast IPA with pleasant notes of citrus and grapefruit. The hop character was big in the nose and throughout the flavor. I also got a little bit of piney flavor on the finish. This was one of few beers I had that lived up to American craft standards. During my Bogota stay I made it to Chelarte three times and tried all of their beers. Beyond the IPA, nothing was very memorable.

The second place that I experienced craft beer in Bogota was at Beer Experience Lab. The brewery / bar was a tiny spot located in the northern section of Usaquen. They brewed some beer on location but primarily used another brewery. The decoration was sparse but welcoming, and the looming presence of many kegs strewn about the room assured you that this place was all about the beer.

I started off with an Orange Tornado fruit beer. I couldn’t quite put my finger on this brew. It had a tartness which was pleasant but not quite sure it was intended. Either way it went well with a light fruitiness whose origin I could not quite determine. Judging by the name, it was probably orange or one of its citrus cousins. I followed that up with the red ale Rojante. This beer really threw me for a loop, and I’ll admit that I need to try it again to properly judge it. As with all the beers I tried here, there was a slight probably unintended funk going on. I’m not sure if it was dirty lines or infection, but somehow it seemed to go well with the red ale. Since I had been starved for good beer, we might need to chalk this one up to an overeager palette applying some lax standards. The last beer I tried was the Gran Imperial, supposedly a Double IPA. The funk here was unwelcome and definitely took away from the overall product. Somehow a fruit beer and red ale proved more enjoyable than a DIPA for me. Not sure I’ll ever be able to say that again. I would try the Gran Imperial once again on another visit to Beer Experience Lab, and I walked away with the same impression. While enjoying my beer at the bar, I had a broken Spanglish conversation with the very friendly bartender. She informed me that they would be releasing a special bottle of barrel aged Biere de Garde the following day and that I should come back. I happily obliged and was able to walk away with one of the bottles. I brought it back to Houston with me but have yet to give it a try. Hopefully it’s good!

While researching craft beer in Bogota, I came across bogotacraftbeer.com. The website promised a beer tour of Bogota that showed you the burgeoning scene of independent craft beer. This sounded like just what I was looking for, so I signed up for a Friday evening tour. I arrived at the meeting spot, Papaya Gourmet, and was greeted by Tommy, one of the Australian founders of the tour. We chatted about craft beer in Bogota, and he provided me with “my worst beer of the night”, the Colombian staple Poker light lager. Other people on the tour began trickling into the cafe, and spirits were high. Tommy told me that they received a good mixture of tourists and Colombians on their tours, but this group was all English speaking tourists from Australia, England, and America. When everyone had arrived, we piled into a van and headed towards our first destination.

After fighting our way through the insane Bogota traffic, we arrived at Dos Carreras. The space was very spacious and open. We were led through a tasting of three house beers: Euja IPA, Xibeca Bitter, and their Brown Ale. The IPA stuck out as the best of the group, and I chose to receive a full pint of this. I also sampled a very good Red IPA from Tierra Alta. The bar had a nice selection of Colombian craft beer, and I would say that it was my second favorite beer bar I found in Bogota.

Our next stop was the first actual brewery we would visit, Madriguera Brewing Company. I was skeptical of the random building Tommy was leading us into, but after making our way upstairs I would discover a tiny hidden away second floor brewery. There is no tasting room for the brewery, but we were provided with a private tour of the space they had created. Since the equipment was literally tucked into a small upstairs room, all of it had to be assembled on site. There would be no transporting this brewing equipment to another location without breaking it down piece by piece. One of the founders told us about the history behind the brewery and then gave us a tour of their equipment. We got to sample three of their beers: an India Session Ale, IPL, and Sidra cider. None of them were particularly impressive, and I would actually choose the cider as my favorite.

The next brewery we visited definitely upped the Bogota brewery game. Cerveceria Gigante was started by the American Will Catlett who had brewed in San Francisco before moving to Colombia. Gigante was a nanobrewery in every sense of the term: Will brewed on a homebrew setup in the bottom floor of the facility, and he was only making around 25 barrels per month.

Nanobrewery setup

Upstairs from the brewing space was an inviting tap room that had all three of Gigante’s beers along with some guest taps. There was also a food menu offering a mix of Colombian and American fare. Like the previous spots, we started off with tasters of their beers. The first beer I tried set the bar for Colombian craft beer. The Citra Pale Ale was a heavy hitter. From the nose to the palate, there was an undeniable citrus forward hop presence. The taste was very dank without being overly bitter. This single hopped delight would easily be a flagship pale ale at most American breweries, and it was an absolute treat to have it in Bogota. I followed this up with the Sequoia Roja IPA which was a solid example of the red IPA style. Their final beer was the Cloudkicker Porter, a very solid roasty representation of the classic style. I had to have another Citra Pale Ale before I left, and I enjoyed every ounce of it. If I lived in Bogota, this would for sure be my go to beer. At 5%, I would describe it as sessionable yet still having plenty of substance. After chatting with Will for a little bit, it was time to head to our last stop of the night.

El Mono Bandido was located not too far away in the trendy Chapinero district. It was the most lively of the places we had visited and served as a great spot to end our tour. We were given a complimentary pour of the house brewed Witbier. It was pretty standard for a wheat beer, and I could see it being a nice refreshing brew when the weather gets warm. I finished my evening on the strongest beer I had in Bogota, an 8% strong ale from Manigua. It served as a good night cap, and I was ready for a Cabify ride back to my hotel after saying goodbye to the new friends I had met.

Imparted with more local craft knowledge from the very helpful Tommy, I had a few more spots I wanted to check out during my last week in town. The first of these was the simply named DRAFT. It was one of those spots where you are given an electronic card that allows you to pour your own beer. I’ve been to a couple of these in the States and had mixed feelings. While it does allow you to sample a lot of beers and choose the size of those samples, I’ve found them to be overpriced. One place I went to in Denver charged over $1/oz for beer that was not particularly special. Seeing as DRAFT was in Colombia and prices in general are very reasonable, I did not run into this pricing issue. While this type of bar is a cool concept, I found DRAFT’s beer selection to be underwhelming. They had 3 different Club Colombia varieties, a BBC beer, and then their “craft” choices: 3 beers from 3 Cordilleras which I have already referenced as not being true craft beer. Despite my independent craft beer snobbery, I did enjoy the Negra, a light bodied sweet stout. Craving some American food, I also ordered a burger which was pretty good. DRAFT was a cool experience, but it is not a place to which I would return.

Luckily I had saved the best beer bar for last. My only regret is not discovering this spot sooner in my 3 week trip. Tap House was located near Parque 93 in a very cool food court style building. There are multiple vendors in container ship structures all housed under one roof, and Tap House is located on the second floor. I went on a Monday and Tuesday night and only saw two other patrons during the several hours I spent there. All the bartenders spoke English which allowed me the opportunity to pick their minds about craft beer in Bogota. I met Luis the first night and Richard the second. Both of them, as with all the bartenders at Tap House, also worked at one of Tierra Alta or Tomahawk, the house breweries served at the bar. Richard was the head brewer at Tomahawk, and it was very elucidating to hear him talk about the craft beer scene in Bogota. Tap House had been open for less than a month when I visited, but they boasted a very impressive draft list.

13 draft beers from 8 different Bogota breweries flowed from their taps, and I had the opportunity to give most of them a try. The Gigante Citra Pale Ale stood the test of Bogota craft beer and remained my favorite beer of the trip, but it gladly had some stiff competition. The American IPA from Tomahawk was rife with the C hops: Centennial, Columbus, Cascade, and Chinook. A Habanero Blonde Ale from 3Carites was the most interesting brew of the bunch. It was awesome to find a bar serving only Colombian independently owned craft beer existing in Bogota. If I lived there, I would be at this place almost every day.

If you find yourself visiting Bogota, I highly recommend that you check out some of these spots and support the local businesses. I came away from my trip with a newfound appreciation for the hard work and dedication that people put into independent craft beer. In a country where 99% of beer sales is light lagers from one brewery, I met some pioneers trying to make a difference and introduce people to independently owned cervezas artesanales. ¡Salud!

 

Britt Antley

Britt is a native Texan, lived in Houston for 12 years, and loves his current life in the Big Easy (although his liver is having second thoughts). His liver is also not nearly as proud of his 10,000+ Untappd uniques as he is. Stupid liver. He loves flavorful complex beers from juicy IPAs to fruited sours to barrel aged stouts, and he has vowed to some day be buried with a 4-pack of Yellow Rose.