Inside the Bottle
XH dusts off a 2016 interview with A & J, makers of now-defunct craft brew Xelita
Ever wonder what it’s like to make beer in Guatemala? This interview from August of 2016 sheds some light on the ups and downs of run- ning a secret brewing operation in Guatemala.
How did you get into craft brewing?
A: Boys love beer is the polite way to put it. I got into beer a bit when I came to Guatemala. Then I really got into, like, the next level when I moved to Oregon. Really broadened my beer horizons. Friends with a bunch of people who either brewed beer, worked at breweries, or knew a bunch of things about how to brew beer. I brewed a bit back in Australia with my housemates. One of my housemates was connected to a local brewery. We got some free ingredients and cooked up some beer. We were doing that from a liquid malt, the cheap and nasty way.
Came back at the start of 2016, and there was a brewery that’s bigger than us now, run by two guys, an American guy and a Guatemalan guy. Because of all the hassles with going legal, they were brewing beer here for about six years. They sold part of their stuff to our former partner. Started cooking with him, at a certain point he asked me to be his partner.
J: I stopped by a few times when you were first starting. Just to get the basics down. I also like drinking beer, and I’d been curious about how to make it. The opportunity hadn’t really presented itself. But it was on my list of things to learn. A invited me around to just check it out at first. See the process, learn the basics. That was in Febru- ary. I think it was in May that they were looking for another partner. A asked me, sounded awesome, so I helped out not as a partner for a while. Learning the ropes and seeing if there was something I wanted to invest in. Eventually, I was like “yeah,” we were kind of in agreement that this would work out
More than anything, just doing it, and talking about it all day long, is how I’ve learned it. And I feel like I understand how to make beer at this point. Now the fun part is like getting it exactly how you want it. Which we’re pretty close.
Describe Xelita for me.
J: The beer we’re brewing now is an IPA. We’ve been playing around with the recipe a little bit. It’s pretty bitter. And it used to have a very floral character. It still kind of does, but it’s pretty well balanced by the bitterness. It’s pretty strong. It’s usually between 6.5 and 7 percent alcohol. It’s pretty well balanced. It will have this sweetness at times. Right now that comes from the bitterness.
Where do you get your ingredients and equipment?
A: We had a bunch of grains that were originally from Germany. We had many sacks of those. Pale ale malt grains. Came in one shipment five years ago, maybe less. Huge container ship full of grains. So we’ve got this sack of grains, it’s getting smaller and smaller, and at the end of that we have to work out what our plan is. But until then, we’re good on grains at least.
Hops come from the states with friends in their bags. Yeast as well. It’s tough. We have to talk to lots of friends and make sure there’s constantly stuff coming in. We can get stuff imported through mailing courier services, because the Guatemalan mail system is so shit. It’s better to pay someone per pound. And then there are local suppliers, which probably cost three times as much. But their target market is super rich people in the capital who want to brew beer and don’t care what it costs.
The deal we have with bars is that we provide the C02 tank. You can buy them in Mexico, but you have to find how to get them in and find a C02 supply. Then you get a regulator which regulates gas pressure. We have to get those from the states. Then you have to get these little connectors. And the kegs which just by chance our partner bought from the guy who sells hot dogs several years ago. This stuff is really hard to come by here. We’re missing a couple parts, so we had them made and soldered the other day.
How does Gallo feel about craft brewing?
A: Gallo has had a monopoly in Guatemala for several decades, and has built the bureaucratic system to protect that monopoly. They put in la ley de cerveca, which is a law that outlines specific requirement for producing and fabricating beer. It also outlines fines, including a Q50,000 fine which is for producing alcoholic beverages in a place that doesn’t have a licencia de fabrica for alcoholic beverages. They put up this very high barrier, if you don’t have it they can fine you Q50,000 and put you in jail as well, which is a ridiculous punishment that’s not in line with the severity. You can manufacture yogurt and sell it, or caldo de frutas and sell it, and poison a bunch of people, and you might or not get penalized.
In February, we went to the first craft brew festival in Guatemala. That was a really big moment for craft brewing in Guatemala. Eight different cevecerias, one was legal and one is almost legal. A who’s who in the zoo of craft brewing in Guatemala. Less than a week after that there were a couple of raids by the SAT and Ministerio de Salud on two bars in Antigua that sell craft brew. They were fined and temporarily closed until they paid the fine. Gallo was basically saying don’t get too big for your boots to the craft brewing industry. Until 2012, Gallo had a pretty strict monopoly on everything in Guatemala. Brahva came in 2012, and that changed things a lot.
Tell me more about Brahva.
A: Bravha is owned by AmBev, which is owned by ImBev. They’re big boys. Because of their size, they can move into national beer markets with oligopolies or monopolies in Latin America and undercut the local price for long enough that they then start to erode the national sentiment around the national beer. People a couple years ago were like, “Fuck Brahva, I drink Cabro because I’m from Quetzaltenango. I drink Gallo cause I’m Guatemalan.” Now it’s a lot more open.
The good effect for the craft brew market is, since 2012, Gallo’s been a lot more worried about Brahva than stamping out craft beer. At certain bars that sell Gallo, if their purchases go down and they notice that, they turn up and start investigating. But Brahva came in 2012 and all of a sudden you could blame Brahva for that.
How expensive is it to go legal?
A: Very. Stainless steel is really expensive here. Your factory has to have rounded corners, floor can’t be a tile floor, it has to be a floor that doesn’t absorb humidity. It might be cheaper to set up a brewery in the states than here. You have to pay rent during [the process] and it has to be a free standing bodega, warehouse, or industrial property. We decided that basically that’s too much for us. So, at the moment, we’re going to stay bajo el aqua, keep cooking, and run the risk of fines because we want to recoup our investment so far. And decide what we’re going to do after that.
Xelita is no longer in production, although you can still see posters and paraphenalia in some local bars. We at the magazine miss it terribly.