Two Medellin breweries are fighting back against a monopolized and homogenized beer market by appealing to a higher taste.
Microbreweries Apostol and 3 Cordilleras are developing a niche for themselves by crafting unique beers, made locally in small batches and attracting, if not creating, a new kind of Colombian beer connoisseur.
The vast majority of Colombian beers adhere to a very simple and similar recipe to produce the light lager typical of the popular Colombian brands such as Pilsen, Aguila, Club Colombia, Poker and Costeña.
All of these brands — which make up 99% of the Colombian beer market — are owned by Colombian beer giant Bavaria S.A., a subsidiary of SABMiller, a global brewing and bottling company headquartered in London. The remaining 1% is comprised primarily of imports, with an estimated .02% being produced by local microbreweries.
Apostol, formerly known as San Tomas, which produces European-style beers, and 3 Cordilleras, which makes beers in the U.S. style, are the only two microbreweries in Medellin offering Colombians a different kind of beer-drinking experience.
3 Cordilleras is the manifestation of the longtime dream of owner and founder Juanchi Velez. The Medellin native spent over five years in the U.S. learning the art of crafting fine beer, before returning to his homeland to share his new-found passion with Colombians.
“I wanted to bring beer culture to a country, and a city, that I love,” Velez said from the 3 Cordilleras facilities.
3 Cordilleras brews in the traditional U.S. style, importing the hops, malt and yeast from the United States to produce its three signature beers.
Named after races which can be found among Colombia’s diverse people, the “Blanca” is a refreshing wheat ale, the “Mestiza” is an American pale ale and the “Mulatta” is a hoppy amber ale.
In addition to its three signature beers, 3 Cordilleras has just begun creating seasonal ales, the first of which, a dark stout with chocolate and coffee flavors called “Negra,” was launched in February.
3 Cordilleras counts 400 points of sale in Medellin alone including bars, restaurants, grocery stores and small shops, with recent expansion to the cities of Bogota, Cali and Manizales. Velez sees the company expanding even more and has projections to grow 60% in 2011.
With such growth, however, the brewmaster also expressed fears of getting too big, which could draw the attention of beer giant SABMiller.
“It’s a delicate thing,” Velez said of being the underdog in a beer industry dominated by a foreign multinational company adding that “you cannot be too relaxed. You have to pay attention.”
Juan Camilo Salazar, the brewmaster of Apostol, echoed this sentiment.
“We are not in direct competition with this corporation, our consumers are very different. Still though, they have the monopoly and they intend to control it,” Salazar said.
While there are government regulations in place to prevent companies from controlling distributors, these regulations are apparently easily overstepped, Salazar explained.
“Nothing is put in writing, but many restaurants and liquor stores are given gifts and rewards for only stocking certain beer, and not allowing others,” he said.
Apostol and 3 Cordilleras avoid direct competition with SABMiller because their product is completely different from the beer being produced by the major Colombian brewers.
Apostol’s brewmaster was inspired by the level of dedication and attention to quality in traditional European brewing. Salazar endeavored to bring these staple tastes to Colombia and eventually, after years of challenges, his dream became a reality in 2008.
The very name and logo of Apostol beer is a homage to the traditional Trappist beers, which were brewed by monks under extremely strict conditions in Cisterician monasteries.
When asked why he had gone to such lengths to honor traditional techniques and standards, going well beyond the call of market demands, Salazar paused, then said with a smile, “because we are purists.”
Made exclusively from ingredients sourced directly from premium European suppliers (including the yeast which was flown in from a small monastery in Belgium, stored in liquid nitrogen), Apostol produces four unique European-style beers.
By drinking Apostol or 3 Cordilleras, beer-lovers are supporting local brewers instead of a foreign multinational company.
“Our batches are very small, our beers are target oriented,” Velez said.
He believes his target market are people with a “good cultural level” and who have a non-traditional mindset in all things, including beer.
The microbrew movement in Medellin is more than just a taste for a hoppier malt beverage than typically offered in Colombia, but an echo of a cultural movement occurring across the country.
Michael Vasilev contributed to this article.p