Venezuela: An underground entrepreneurial beer revolution

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Originalmente publicado en: IDG Connect Por Ligimat Pérez el 18 de Marzo de 2015

Amid the worst economic crisis in half a century, Venezuelans could be at the door of a new revolution; a non-political, bibulous one that could change decades of tradition in the Caribbean country.

For almost a century Venezuelan beer was like its party politics: two options. You could drink Pilsner or Pilsner Light, just as you could choose to vote AD or COPEI. Now, more than a decade after Hugo Chavez smashed the old party duopoly, beer drinkers are on the verge of their own revolution, led by a new breed of brewers.

“The only way of breaking with this dictatorship, we realized, was by brewing our own beer,” says Guillermo García, in the craft beer documentary Cerveza Carajo. García is the brewer of Pisse des Gottes, one of a few dozen brands that during the last two years have been discreetly brewing in spare bathrooms, bedrooms or office rooms around the country.

At a time when many young Venezuelans are emigrating to start up elsewhere, these biologists, engineers, dentists, IT professionals and accountants from different cities around the country are figuring out ways to offer Venezuelan beer lovers some of the flavors they tasted abroad.

While some of them are ready to quit their nine to five jobs to make beer, in a country like Venezuela, where more than 70% of the goods are imported, the brewing business faces many obstacles.

The main ingredients for this type of beer – malted barley, hops and yeast – cannot be domestically produced, which is a legal precondition for a product to be licensed as “artisanal”. This sole fact makes craft beer in Venezuela illegal. Additionally, the law doesn’t allow brewers to brew and sell in the same space and requires the process to be completely manual.

This is why microbrewers around the country decided to form the Venezuelan Craft Brewers Association (ACAV, in Spanish). Its president, Alexander Jimenez, told IDG: “We are trying to promote a change in the legal framework that can accommodate the concept of craft beer. Right now there is a vacuum because the law was conceived for industrial beer.”

Meanwhile brewers make, distribute and sometimes personally sell their product – all the while trying to keep a low profile. They rely enormously on social media to promote and sell their beer.

The ACAV organizes beer-tasting events and promotes them via Twitter. You can find Ales, Stouts and Porters. Some popular brewers, like Cerveza Norte del Sur, have 10,000 people following its moves via Twitter.

“We are certain that most of our followers have not even tried our beer, they follow us because they are interested in trying something different,” Jimenez said. There are also recent initiatives like @CraftBeerVenezuela, an online store that sells local and imported craft beer through its Twitter and Facebook accounts; and a short documentary that features the new artisanal brewers.

As if working within a legal vacuum wasn’t risky enough, these entrepreneurs are also challenging the complicated 12-year-old Venezuelan exchange control system to import the raw materials. This means, some of them buy as many dollars as they can at the preferential rate before having to turn to the black market, where the cost of the ingredients can end up being 15 times higher.

“By competing with industrial or imported beer, our beer has to have an affordable price, therefore our profit margins are minimal,” says Harold Perez, who makes Cerveza Cacri.

Ruling since 1999, the Bolivarian Revolution has always had a complex relationship with alcohol. A teetotaler himself, the late president, Hugo Chavez, banned alcohol vendors in Caracas’ highways, and once condemned the whisky consumption among his peers. “What kind of revolution is this? The whisky revolution? The Hummer revolution? No! This is a real revolution!”

Yet with its popularity in freefall, the revolution, now led by President Nicolas Maduro, has lowered the volume of anti-drinking rhetoric. Just last Christmas whisky was among a select group of imported products highly subsidized by the state in an apparent attempt to placate – or numb – a restive population. And when taxes on alcohol went up this year from 20% to 35% and then up to 50%, beer was exempted for “being the people’s drink”.

In an economy with a minimum wage of $32 per month, price could be a game changer in the Venezuelan drinking tradition. Other liquors like whisky, a Venezuelan favorite, is significantly more expensive than beer. You can buy a 12-pack of craft beer and a 24-cage of traditional beer for the price of one bottle of scotch.

Not just convenient for the pocket, according to the brewers, beer is a perfect fit for the Caribbean weather. Alejandro Damian, who runs 360, one of the most popular bars in Caracas, seems to agree. Being a beer fan himself, he has added two to three craft beers to his menu. “People love it, we are still trying to get a permanent supply. Either the supplies are too irregular or we sell too fast.”

If the Venezuelan Craft Brewers Association manages to push a bill to change the legality of their product, there will still be obstacles to sort out, but they will be paving the road to a beer revolution

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