By Aaron Brussat
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In the high elevations of the Peruvian Andes, civilizations of men and women transformed the harsh mountain landscape into livable, arable terrain. By brute force and, perhaps, extraterrestrial engineering skills, the Inca constructed architectural wonders, including Machu Picchu. Lookout towers, temples and an intricate aqueduct system built into the nearly vertical mountainside reflect the importance of quality workmanship; one loose stone and the whole thing falls apart.
In the Sacred Valley, on the way to Machu Picchu from the city of Cusco, Peruvian native Juan Mayorga, along with Oregonian Joe Giammatteo and his wife Louisa de Heer, built a brewery from the ground up. Its construction was arduous, and introducing Peruvians to craft beer — especially craft beer on draft — proved to be a challenge that might rival the construction of the Inca citadel.
Founded on years of day-dreamy conversation brought to life by Mayorga’s initiative, Cerveceria del Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley Brewery) began as an empty swath of land in Pachar along the Urubamba River, which draws water from southeastern Peru and winds through the valley northward to a junction that connects with the Amazon River and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. The nearby city of Ollantaytambo is a charming, stone-walled historic site — the only city to successfully fend off Spanish conquistadors — and is the last train stop before Machu Picchu. Incan ruins abound.
De Heer and Giammatteo developed a water treatment plan to keep runoff from the brewery out of the river. Using buried cisterns, pH management and a biodigester, the brewery’s wastewater is rendered neutral.
“We checked out plans from New Belgium and worked with an environmental engineer from Cusco,” said Giammatteo, who worked at Eugene’s Oakshire Brewing before moving south. “I looked at a couple Craft Brewers Conference talks related to wastewater treatment, and spoke with Ben [Tilley] at Agrarian Ales about their system. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. But we don’t have a lot of infrastructure.”
Adobe bricks, concrete, corrugated metal, plaster, stainless steel and a bit of wood comprise the brewery building. From a “combi,” which is kind of like a van-sized taxi for long-distance destinations, one sees the brewery as a pale beige structure with the logo (which has a distinct Oregon quality) and hops painted on the side. Once inside, you feel at home.
The taproom is modestly sized, colorful and (most importantly) has beer. Customers are greeted warmly and given a little dish of “choclo,” the national bar snack of giant corn kernels, fried and salted to a starchy crisp. The beer selection is not far from home — our home. While the regional fermented beverage is “chicha,” a partially malted corn brew, there is none of that here. It can be found through mysterious doorways along the narrow cobbled streets of Ollantaytambo, signified by a stick with a red handkerchief tied on the end that means “Chicha is ready.” IPA, red, witbier, saison and other familiar delights are a sight for certain sore eyes and a delight to all tongues, and with pint in hand, a wander around the property reveals a small garden with familiar vegetables, courtesy of de Heer’s green thumb. A sizable grass lawn and picnic table may host mountain bikers, local families with lively children, folks grabbing a beer after work or tourists, and affords a view down the valley to the northwest as well as of the cliffs that rise a thousand feet directly across the road.
Life in Peru is, obviously, different from our comfortable ways. The atmosphere is raw; the sun burns pale gringo skin in minutes. The infrastructure of the larger cities is not set up to support the current population. Floods trigger water outages; political maneuvers trigger road-blocking protests. These things are part of life; craft beer is a new thing. Craft beer is becoming increasingly visible in Peru, which has nearly 20 breweries to its landmass (larger than Texas). Most of them are in coastal Lima, though a few have cropped up in Cusco and Arequipa.
Exposing an unaware populace to an artisan food product is as challenging as it sounds. The concepts of beer freshness and refrigeration, let alone serving it on draft, are nearly nonexistent. In order to open new accounts, Giammatteo had to install kegerators, draft lines and faucets before putting anything on tap. They reached out to pubs and recently opened bars.
“We said, ‘We’re going to offer a new product. It’s draft beer. It’s high quality. The beer you’re bringing in from England is oxidized and not particularly interesting.’ Most of the owners weren’t beer drinkers, so they were like ‘Eh, OK.’ Some people were hesitant about the draft but got over it. We gave our first accounts a significant amount of infrastructure; they knew it would be a good investment.”
A little more than two years in operation, Cerveceria del Valle Sagrado has earned numerous medals in national and international competitions, and has won favor with locals and tourists alike.
“Peru is unique in that food is so crucial to how the culture works,” said Giammatteo. “As a result, if a food writer gets excited about a beer, all of a sudden you have followers.” He added that they were fortunate to get attention early on. “We had a beer event in Lima. A lot of food writers were there and wrote us up, and we won best in show. From the press we got from that it was easy to get momentum going.”
Giammatteo has collaborated with other Peruvian breweries, and took quickly to using local vegetation, such as “ayrampo” (the pink, peppery seeds of a local cactus), wild cherries and locally grown peaches.
Giammatteo and de Heer returned to their home in Eugene this April, bringing along their 3-month-old son and an adopted dog named Rabbit. After three years, it was time. Giammatteo handed over the brewhouse to Ben Kent, who came from Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery to a production brewery called Sierra Andina in the central part of the country. Soon, he’ll be joined at Cerveceria del Valle Sagrado by another brewer with experience at Uinta Brewing Co. Giammatteo plans to visit occasionally to keep tabs on things and help with his envisioned “brewer exchange” program.
Getting to the brewery takes some time, some haggling with taxi drivers and several pisco sours. At 9,000 feet elevation, the buzz sets in quick and can exacerbate altitude sickness, so staying a few days to get acclimated is recommended.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.