By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
In a city in the Southern Hemisphere some 7,000 miles away from Portland, Argentinians are learning how to pronounce “Willamette.”
“It was a hard word for people to learn,” said Casey Rakoczy, who explained it would often come out as “Wee-sha-mett-eh.”
One of Oregon’s major waterways isn’t the only attraction locals in Argentina have gotten to know — at least by name. On the hardscrabble outskirts of Buenos Aires — miles from the cosmopolitan restaurants, high-rise apartment buildings and bustling traffic that helped the city become known as “the Paris of South America” — you’ll hear people ask for “Saturday Market,” “Forest Park” and “Mount Hood.” These are actually beers at Portlander Fermentation Lab, a brewery co-founded by Rakoczy after he upended his life in Portland three years ago to fulfill an urge he just couldn’t shake. Sure, it’s the dream of many a homebrewer to turn pro. But most try to make a go of it in their hometown — or at least in the same continent they’d been living. But Rakoczy had a bigger goal in mind. He wanted to shape the craft beer culture in another country.
“My mind was on the brewery in Argentina more than it was on work in the U.S.,” he said. “And that weight became heavier than what I was doing here [in Portland]. But I needed to, like, do it. I needed to leap and go.”
Before making that hemispheric jump, Rakoczy had been introduced to Argentina by two friends, Manu Lopez and his wife Inez, who had come to Portland for graduate school. He joined the couple on vacation a handful of times — exploring Patagonia’s vistas and glaciers on one trip; the surging Iguazu Falls on another, which Rakoczy describes as “Niagara times 10.” When back in Portland, the trio enjoyed what was then a burgeoning craft brewing scene. Rakoczy couldn’t help but compare the quality and variety with what he thought was lacking in Argentina.
“I kept seeing the beer here is not that great, but the country has a lot of natural resources,” he said.
With that in mind, Lopez and Rakoczy decided it was time to launch a brewery in Buenos Aires … well, after Lopez established one important factor.
“And he asks, ‘Can you brew?’” Rakoczy recounted. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, of course I can brew!’”
As a hobby fermenter who polished his skills with distance-learning classes in Oregon State University’s Fermentation Science program, followed by a week of hands-on instruction, Rakoczy felt confident in the skills he’d acquired to advance to the commercial level. With Lopez, he found a 200-liter system (approximately 1.7 barrels) for sale online in Argentina and they split the cost. Meanwhile, Lopez developed the distributing and pub side of the business. After becoming established, the brewery began hosting students who wanted to make their own special batches for parties. Rakoczy led them through the process — from recipe building to yeast pitching — and customers would return several weeks later for their finished keg.
“The idea of it was not necessarily just a brewery, but it was also a place where people could come and learn about how to brew,” he said. “We’ll make our money off of the beer, but we’ll also hold courses where people can come and I’d teach them and supervise.”
Aside from leaving his job as a footwear developer and a home in Portland for several years to embark on this passion project, Rakoczy said another challenge he encountered once in Buenos Aires was encouraging drinkers to order something other than Quilmes, which is the region’s version of Budweiser. And even adventurous palates didn’t have much to choose from as many smaller producers tended to stick to the same three styles.
“Everybody that was doing craft beer was doing like rubia, roja, negra, which is blond, red or black. And that was usually the only selection you had,” Rakoczy explained. “So when we started brewing, I said ‘I’m not doing any of those. We’re going to make IPA. We’re going to make amber. We’re going to make brown.’”
And that variety got him handles. Bar owners would buy Rakoczy’s beer in order to offer patrons something besides rubia, roja and negra. The names, of course, also helped his product stand out — titles familiar to anyone from the Rose City, foreign to someone who’s perhaps never even heard of Portland.
“The idea with the branding side of things was for us to deliver notoriety to what we felt was the authority in American craft brewing. And that was Portland, Oregon,” said Rakoczy, the self-described Yankee brewing in an area primarily dominated by German- and Belgian-inspired beer producers. Putting a Northwest stamp on style and atmosphere might be one way to get people on the opposite end of the globe to pay attention to a new beer mecca. And if “Burnside Amber Ale” or “Willamette River Brown” don’t spark the interest of the “portenos” (residents of Buenos Aires, a port), the hulking mural of bigfoot on the brewery’s new Palermo-area bar provides a colorful summation of the Pacific Northwest.
“Sasquatch is wearing a flannel shirt, a [beanie] hat and he’s holding a beer,” laughed Rakoczy. “It’s so hipster Portland. They couldn’t have got it more perfect.”
Rakoczy never planned to permanently relocate to Buenos Aires — at least not at this point in his life. He trained the next head brewer, a native Argentinian, before returning home last year. As the Portland partner of the business, he visits periodically and is excited by the changes he’s witnessed to the culture of craft beer. Rakoczy compared it to Portland 15 years ago. New breweries are taking root, quality beer appears on a growing number of menus and the IPA craze has just begun. Rakoczy finds fulfillment in the way he’s nudged the industry’s development, whether through training future brewers, assisting established beer makers with quality and consistency or by simply exposing a drinking population to new flavors.
“It’s kind of like I’m a beer missionary that went out and spread the good word,” Rakoczy concludes.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.