Argentina is well known for its wine and presents you a bounty of choices. Yet the range of beers commonly available is strikingly narrow.
In recent years, however, microbrewers have been popping up, and Argentines are taking more of an interest in expanding their beer palate beyond just the ubiquitous Quilmes. James Foster of Boudicca Beer, originally from the UK, is one of those at the forefront of the scene. In addition to selling and brewing beer here in Buenos Aires, he offers a course that teaches people to brew beer at home and to appreciate it more when drinking it.
Brewing a beer with your name on it (photo: Alison Depsky)
“I always tell my students: It’s not that hard to make beer. People have been doing it for 8,000 years and have been getting drunk, and they’ve been happy.”
The course consists of four weekly classes, held in the evenings, one full day of brewing, and a final class where the group gets together with other ex-students to taste the beer they have made. During the classes, James discusses the methods of beer making, the different ingredients and varieties, and demonstrates everything through tasting, usually four different types each class.
“You can’t have beer tasting without understanding the process, and you can’t make beer without understanding what the final styles should be like,” he explains.
The classes – deliberately kept at six to ten people at most so as to stay manageable and ensure all students can participate – are held at Casa Matienzo in Colegiales, normally an art teaching space, where pottery and sculptures line the walls.
The final class is a full day affair, where the students spend a Saturday putting what they have learned into practice. The process is long but leisurely: there are specific timing points that have to be adhered to strictly, with lots of waiting in between.
Students scribble away at notebooks filled with maths equations. “They are calculating how many hops to add to determine the bitterness of the beer,” James explains. Outside, a giant vat filled a brown liquid slowly swirling and bubbling is propped up with a flame burning steadily beneath it.
They start with the grains. In the UK or the US, James explains, it can be easier to start out because you can buy kits; here you have to make it from scratch. To convert the starches in the grains into sugars they have to add water at specific temperatures and with exact timing. They use a copper ring with notches to syphon out the sugar water, called wort. Once they get all the liquid into the saucepan, they put their calculations to work, adding different hops throughout the day at specific times, depending on the recipe.
Eventually they have to cool down the concoction by passing cold water through copper tubing in the pot. The tubing rigged to connect to the tap slips off, and they have to forge a new link using two spoons and a lighter. “There’s always some problem,” James jokes. “That’s part of the lesson. You have to be ready to improvise.”
James leads the brewing process (photo: Alison Depsky)
Some students attend the classes without any plans to actually brew themselves and come just to learn about beer. However, most actually go on to make beer themselves in their house for friends and family, while some even going on to sell it. James says two former students have since started their own brands: Cerveza Arteza, and Saihueque Cerveza Artesanal, and are selling their beer in Buenos Aires.
Martín García, 24, says he took the class out of curiosity. “I like to drink beer and I felt like I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing, and so I figured I would like to not just drink it and find out if I’m missing something. As it happens, I was missing a lot.” He points to his friend, 27-year-old Germán Maye: “and I just dragged him along. And he’s glad I did.”
“I was the same,” says 24-year-old student Francisco Muñoz, “I went from [knowing] zero to something I can use.”
James has been brewing beer himself since he “was too young;” he made his first still with the help of his mother at age 13, “not to drink the alcohol, but as a sort of experiment.” He became interested in the process through his uncles who brewed ‘country wine’ in England. “They always had these demijohns, bubbling in a corner, which to me as a child was fascinating.”
But beer brewing was just a hobby, something he did in the background, until about three years ago, a couple years after he moved here with his Argentine wife – who had grown up in Italy – and three kids.
“I taught English in Italy in six years, I decided I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life, so I decided I wanted to become a chef, something I’ve always had in the back of my mind.
“So we had this crazy idea to move to Argentina, and I was going to slowly transition into being a chef.” He started to work as an English teacher here but with the cost of supporting his family the culinary classes proved too expensive.
He had no plans to start a beer business in Argentina. “We don’t plan anything,” he says. But one day after making beer it hit him that maybe he could do this as a business. Some friends were interested in learning and as he was already a teacher, starting the classes “wasn’t that big of a step.”
“It’s an exciting time in to be here for beer,” James insists. “Craft beer is just getting popular here. In the UK and US there was sort of a craft beer boom that started 20 years ago.”
Getting the formula right (photo: Alison Depsky)
For the final practical class, James lets the student vote on which beer they want to make. His last class voted for ‘Belgian Dubbel,’ a brew originally made by monks in Belgian monasteries. “I warned them this beer is harder than most to brew, I’m not sure if I can get all the ingredients,” he says, “but they wanted to try anyway.” In the end he had to make hard candy in preparation for the class, an ingredient the brew requires.
The final step is adding the yeast, which James often does at home and then lets it ferment, mature and re-ferment, a process that takes three to four weeks. The students meet again for the best ‘class,’ where they try the beer. Students from previous courses attend as well, bringing their own beer that they have since made at home, and now a small community is forming through the classes. “It’s a good way for people to get together, share problems they’ve been having, and successes.”
James’ enthusiasm for the craft is contagious. He describes, “there’s a point that’s magic, when you finish with all this mess and you put the containers away, and you leave it with this airlock, and it just goes, blip blip, and after that you just let the yeast do its magic, and it turns this,” pointing at the vat “into this amazing alcoholic beverage.”
The next brewing course will be held in November. For more information, contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Boudicca Beer’s Facebook page.