Oregon doesn't like to brag. I learned that growing up in Corvallis when Tom McCall was our Governor. Back then the unofficial slogan was "Please visit Oregon. Then leave."
Oregon knows it's awesome and doesn't need to boast (unlike another state I've lived in - Texas, where it's borderline treasonous NOT to insert the words "the Great State of" before intoning it's hallowed name). So let me do a little bragging about our Great State.
Oregon makes great hops and great beer. That's a fact. And we have great water. Everybody knows this. But now, to that list of Oregon superlatives, let's add "Great College Football Team."
On New Years Day, my girlfriend and I watched Oregon crush Florida State. We watched the game, in Spanish, in Bariloche, Argentina, at the home of Klaus, a multi-lingual and brilliant motorcycle guide we met while kicking about Patagonia. We ate platefuls of grilled beef and washed it down with locally brewed pilseners and it was just great to see the Ducks roll.
This kid grew up a Beaver, but I was enormously proud to see the Ducks kick ass. There was a time back in the early 1970's when serious people seriously considered dropping the Oregon schools from the "Pac-8" conference because, as it went, we were a small state with sub-marginal breeding stock and we'd never be able to compete at the national level.
Oregon 59, Florida State 20. Take that naysayers! It was a great day for the State of Oregon. And what's great for Oregon is great for craft beer, aroma hops and about a thousand progressive causes that make my friends Down South cringe.
But wait, there's more. The Beavers stepped up big time, as well. The next day, Michelle and I drove down to El Bolson. It's a small "hippy" town smack dab on the 42nd Parallel, nestled between snow-capped mountains in a fertile valley along the Rio Azul (picture opal colored glacier water). We'd heard El Bolson was where Argentina grew the bulk of the country's hops.
We easily found the hopyards. They're owned by Lupulos De La Patagonia. The conditions were perfect for hop happiness: long hot days, cool nights, alluvial soil and plenty of TLC, administered in big doses by Marcus, the farmer we had the pleasure of meeting. We asked Marcus for permission to bless his budding flowers, because ... you know... it seemed like the right thing to do. Marcus, with a chuckle, consented. "These crazy gringos!"
Now here's the "Oregon Proud" moment. We estimated the hopyard at about 50 acres. Of those, Lupulos grew only two varieties, which they had been planting for the last 30-40 years. The lucky lupulos? Tah Dah! Nugget and Cascade -- yes, two hops born and bred by our friend Dr. Alfred Haunold, at Oregon State, with the help of the USDA, about 4 decades ago.
Way to go Oregon State! Two great hops, one for bittering, the other for flavoring, created in The Great State of Oregon, now thriving in the heart of Patagonia's hop country. And, just like Bend a few years ago, the town of El Bolson is at the cusp of a craft revolution.
With a population of around 20,000, El Bolson supports six craft breweries ("Cervezerias Artesanal""): Pilker, Ruta 40, Piltri, Araucana, AWKA and Parapoto. Oddly enough, this list doesn't include the major "small guy" brand, El Bolson, which apparently uses the town's "hip" name but doesn't brew it's beer there.
Do the math. That's about one "Cervezeria Artesnal" for every 3,000 inhabitants, which seems to be about the same outrageously beercentric ratio we have in our little mountain berg of Bend.
About the beer. We didn't get to taste all of the brands and we came across only a few IPAs. I'm not being mean or nationalistic here but, overall, I'd say El Bolson is a few years, maybe decades, behind the Big O. I'm sure they practice good industry standards, but it's hard to wow the palate with only a few hops. It turns out that in Patagonia the only hops that are commercially available are... Nugget and Cascade.
A local bartender educated us about the slow trajectory of craft brewing in Patagonia. His grandfather began hop farming in El Bolson in the early 1970s. At that time, nearly 100% of the hops were owne by and grown for Quilmes, the dominant brewery in Argentina. Back then, as well as now, all the hops grown in El Bolson are trucked some 870 miles to the country's only hop pellet mill in Buenos Aires.
And who owns that mill? Quilmes, of course. Quilmes appears to have achieved the monopolist's dream: complete vertical integration. Not surprisingly, InBev (which owns Bud), gobbled up Quilmes in 2004. In short, Quilmes is, was and for a long time likely will be totally Monolithic. They won't take kindly to small artesnal cervezerias, and the ones who manage to thrive will likely be take-over targets.
That said, we wish our artesanal breweries in Patagonia good luck (suerta!) But, alas, theirs is a long and dusty road, full of potholes and river rock, with well organized banditos on every ridge. To break the iron grip of In Bev/Quilmes, the locals will need to do what we began doing in the early 1980s: work with veteran farmers to grow more aroma varieties (we grow more than 40 varieties in the US), design and build their own aroma-oriented pellet mill, commission talented breeders to invent new varieties and, in the interim, contract to buy great hops from the US, New Zealand and Europe.
El Bolson, Patagonia, Argentina
January 5, 2015