At the end of last year, I [Jack] made the trek down to Ecuador to visit a few friends and take in this small, beautiful country. Of course, as it's been, I can no longer travel without also exploring the beer culture of any given place. Such was the case with Ecuador, too. Besides the widely-available mass produced lager offerings, I stumbled upon a few smaller craft operations. Unfortunately, my experiences with them were not all that exciting at the time. To help sway my (and hopefully your) opinion of South American "craft," brewer T.J. Bennett of Montañita Brewing Company and I connected to discuss the subject further.
Can you give a little background about yourself – where you’re from, how you ended up in Ecuador and how you got started brewing?
I'm originally from Northern California. I graduated culinary school in 1997, then traveled for the next 12 years working in kitchens. Looking for a permanent vacation and somewhere I could wear shorts and flip-flops every day, I landed a chef job in the Caribbean islands of Panama. I consulted a restaurant there for two years; but realizing I wanted to explore a little more, I checked into South America. Ecuador was first on the list of warm water places, so then I found my way to Montañita. Now being back on the Pacific Ocean, I felt more at home – with less humidity...and tropical bugs.
After moving, I bought a small hostel and ran that along with a small beach bar and restaurant. Living in Panama and South America for 5 years only allowed me to have the variety of 2-3 basic, yellow, fizzy, 3.5%, non-hoppy, typical lagers. Tolerable, at best, if the sun is blazing and the beer happens to be freezing cold. I really missed good beer. Hoppy, flavorful, caramel-y – something that actually had body. With no other exception and no experience, I decided to turn my culinary passion into beer making. And turned my little bamboo-beach bar into a microbrewery.
How hard has it been sourcing the supplies you need for various batches? This was something I noticed while visiting Ecuador that I found intriguing. Even simply being able to source a variety of hops seemed challenging...
In the beginning it was very difficult. I had no idea where I was going to buy equipment, let alone any and all ingredients. After a few months of research (and almost importing a machine from Peru, that was way too big for my space), I met a German mechanical engineer that just so happened to be a Brewmaster, living here in Ecuador. Without him, none of this would have gone forward. He custom-made me a setup that fit into my space, helped me source ingredients, gave me a crash course in brewing – and I was off.
After a couple years, I've sourced where to get the best ingredients available. Most of my grains are imported from Belgium (non-GMO and organic) – and some come from Germany, Argentina, and Chile. There is a company in Quito that sources all ingredients, but sometimes is limited when it comes to hops. I really enjoy strong California/Oregon hops, so I usually have friends bring me a couple pounds at a time when they come down to visit.
That's a solid move, getting folks you know to bring down some better hop varieties. What variety do you go for, if you can get them?
Cascade is a must for me, but I also enjoy CTZ and Summit.
What kind of learning curve have you noticed exists for local Ecuadorians when it comes to acclimating to “craft” versus the macro lager offerings?
Most people accept it at a rapid pace. The demographic of Montañita is about 18-40 year olds, which are always looking for something new (and kind of have a passion to be somewhat 'North American' even). Some people are not even willing to try, but for the most part everyone loves it and tend to back to try more.
It's great to hear that more locals are garnering interest in craft brewing. That definitely was not something I picked up on when I was visiting. Are you noticing any Ecuadorians coming by the bar to pick your brain about the brew process or craft in general?
I get asked all the time. I also give quick tours of the machines and process. Some of them are interested in brewing themselves – or they are already brewing and come ask for me to taste their beer and evaluate.
Can you describe your brewing and bar setup? Judging by the beachside location, I can’t imagine a better place to set up shop.
The beach bar is directly in front of "The Point": a world-class, right-handed point break, which has the best waves in the country. We hold a couple surf competitions a year, including ISA World Masters, and the REEF Latin American Pro. The bar itself is constructed mostly of locally grown bamboo. It also has accents of hand-carved tiki bar stools, swinging chairs, and has a sand floor. There's an island kitchen in the middle of the bar, where we roll sushi from the local caught fish.
Behind the taproom is where I brew the beer. It's a functional space for the size of the bar. The kettle is a stainless steel, automated 50-liter, with a BCS controlling system. With that, we do a double batch a day. I had to build a fermenter and chill/aging rooms in the brewery, because the temperature is pretty warm here. But it is quite nice. Above the setup, the windows open for a constant breeze – and we are brewing 15 meters from the ocean, watching the surfers and tourists go by.
Are the majority of your patrons tourists?
We have a lot of people that visit from all over the country, from the cities to the mountains. Montañita is like Ecuador's "Hawaii" of sorts. I do get some locals too, but outside of Ecuadorians we have tourists from all over the world. Mostly from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, but it is a huge destination for surfers and partygoers from Australia, USA, Canada and Europe. Especially from the latter group. After they've traveled for a couple weeks, only drinking the 'fizzy water', they come across us with a bar that actually has craft beer. Then, they tend to stick around for a bit.
What do you think is missing in the Ecuador beer scene?
The Ecuador beer scene is growing at a rapid pace. When I first started, I only knew of two other people that had a microbrewery in the whole country. Now there are over three, maybe four, dozen – with more opening. Along with that, there're about another dozen small guys bottling, and even another couple dozen homebrewers practicing their trade. And the great thing is that 95% of them are Ecuadorians. I can see Ecuador in the next 5 years being known as great craft beer destination in South America.
Any plans to collaborate with any of these other brewers? Or is it a pretty competitive landscape to try and make a name for yourself/brewery?
I would be open to collaborate. It is a little competitive, but I like to help anyone that is starting up because I know of all the troubles I went through in the beginning. Really, I just want great craft beer everywhere we travel in the country, so if I can help with that, I will.
I was pretty harsh about my experience with beer while travelling in Ecuador. What would be your sell for the next traveler, coming from the States, when it comes to giving Ecuadorian craft a chance?
There's an amazing variety of beer now, all over the country. But I will bet that MBC might be the only place in the world where you can have your feet in the sand, drinking a great craft brew right next to the brewery, eating the freshest sushi – all while watching the best surfers and little bikinis going by. Not a bad vacation!
Briefly describe your beer lineup, and which have been most widely accepted?
I always have an Amazonian IPA on tap. It's a Northern California-style IPA infused with ishpingo, a spice from the Amazon. And always some sort of tropical hard ciders. Right now I have a Hopped-Pineapple, and a Passion Fruit Cider. I rotate the ciders every week. This last year I have been infusing spices, roasted jalapeños, and chipotles into my ciders for a little kick. The ciders are made with all the local tropical fruits. Aside from that, I rotate the other two beer taps with chocolate coffee stouts, nut browns, and wheats. As of today, there is a Vanilla Chai Nut Brown, and a Honey-Ginger Wheat.
Any American breweries or specific beers that you’d say compare to yours?
Not really. I take the concepts from some of the beers I've enjoyed over time. But I always infuse something Ecuadorian into it, to make it 100% original. I find all sorts of exotic spices, herbs, and teas from the Amazon and in the mountains that I experiment with. Most aren't anything that you could find in the States.
The experimentation with exotic Amazonian spices and fruits is a great opportunity for MBC. Brewers up here would have a field day with some of these for sure. Do the cider varieties seem to me more popular with the crowds there?
The first cider was going to be a short experiment for the girls on the beach. But after a couple months, it was almost our biggest seller (just short of the IPA). I didn't realize that so many people around the world drank cider, especially the English and Aussies. For them to come here on the beach and have a passion fruit, naranjilla, or mango cider is a treat – after only experiencing apple or pear ciders. I can't tell you how many grown men will say "I don't do that cider stuff", or "I'm just a beer guy" who end up getting hooked. Especially when I started adding roasted jalapeños and chipotles; the spice started to cut into the sweetness, and then it found a whole new balance.
I had a carrot beer from a little spot called Andean Brewing when I was there. It was a far miss for my palate. Any flops you’d experimented with that maybe didn’t go over so well?
I've actually have had no flops really. Some better that others of course, but all very drinkable. I think my 18 years working in kitchens and having high sanitation regards, along with the ability to smell and taste flavors with a chef's mindset, has help me immensely.
How has the seaside/surf culture influenced your brewing style, versus what might be getting brewed across the country near the Andes, or in Amazonia?
I don't know if the culture here has specifically affected my brewing style. I would say that my 30 years of living in California alongside a plethora of beer varieties has, over time, expanded my palate. I think that has a great effect – compared to someone brewing who's never lived in or visited a true "beer culture" country. If you only drank Budweiser your whole life, I would guess it'd be difficult to brew a great, unique ale, for example.
If you were to have any beer in the world in your pint right now, what would it be?
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I mean, that’s just a hard question. Sierra Nevada was always my go-to, but I would also say anything from Lagunitas, Dogfish Head – or a [Ballast Point] Sculpin IPA sounds really good right now.
One thing you miss most about American beer...
Beer festivals with live music.
When you’re not drinking Montanita Brewing beers, what’s in your glass?
Any plans to ever grow MBC into a small production setup, with local distribution? Do you think that would help in educating South Americans in craft, or peak their interest at least?
It is a difficult process, but a possibility. I think all of us brewers are helping each other out by educating South Americans. Thus is why new microbreweries are popping up all the time.
Well T.J., cheers on the progress & praise so far. It's exciting to get the South American craft beer perspective right from the source. It will certainly be intriguing to keep an eye on over the next few years, as people will no doubt continue to find alternatives to that 'yellow fizzy water.' Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat & please, enjoy about four or five beers for me on the beach today. I'll get some surf practice in before my next trip down there...
No problem! Let me know when you need to break away from the Windy City and are looking to have some quality brews on the beach...