An interview with Antigua-based beer importer Billy
What follows is an interview with the man behind the importation of Brooklyn, Rogue, and Abita, the three main American craft brews in Guatemala. His name is Billy. Here is his story.
How did you get to Guatemala?
My sister was teaching school in the late nineties in Guatemala City and she was living in Antigua. When I graduated from college I came to visit her. And I stayed. Which is what happens. So here I am.
How did you start importing beer?
As everyone knows, the beer scene here was controlled by Gallo for a hundred and fifty years or whatever it was. There was a lot of fear about bringing in anything else. Or try- ing to do anything with the craft beer scene here. What changed things was that when AmBev came in with Brahva in 2003. Gallo’s focus—instead of worrying about little guys bringing in craft beer, Gallo and AmBev focused on each other. They’re in a price war and it’s a pretty classic takeover situation. That kind of distracted them. Then you get a little bit of craft beer action.
My business partner Steve, we decided to start bringing in craft beer in 2012. Due to a personal connection that we had with Brooklyn Brewery, we started with them. Just them for the first three years. It was kind of like blazing a new trail here. Obviously some tourists understood what we were trying to sell but in the Guatemala market it was pretty new. 2015 — Principe Gris opened the first craft brewery. Now there are five or six operating. We’re building one ourselves; we’ll start selling beer in the next few months.
Each brewery that we deal with has a personal connection. Brooklyn we originally connect- ed with through a friend of my wife. There’s a Guatemalan that grew up with the owners of Abita in Louisiana. He put us in contact. I’m partners in a hotel here called Earth Lodge. There was a guy staying at Earth Lodge who was working at Rogue. That’s how that came about. That’s kind of how the beer business is. It’s all about networking and friendships.
What do you hope to accomplish?
Mainly the thing is for us to try and create a craft beer culture. There were beer drinkers here in Guatemala but they weren’t savvy about beer. We’re trying to amplify the beer culture. Expand it. Create more beer drinkers, which will be beneficial to everyone. Do a lot of trainings, menu pairings, bartending events. Stuff where people can start to see beer as something more sophisticated. It’s been fun.
What’s it like to import beer to Guatemala?
It’s a standard importation process. But any importation process into Guatemala is complicated. Every product you want to bring in, every label, has to have a different permit. That’s expensive and time consuming to acquire. In terms of the logistics of importing things, it’s a standard process but it’s a standard Guatemalan bureaucracy. Your product arrives in the port and you have to jump through all the hoops to get it through.
In the last two or three years, Shaman is an interesting brand that’s really gain- ing traction. It’s a cool company with a young group of kids that have start- ed it and they’re doing great. Pontera is also doing great. Those are the three – Principe Gris, Shaman, and Pontera. And the fourth would be Antigua Cerveca. And they’re making great beer.
Is there growing interest in craft beer?
It doesn’t get any more grassroots than what’s going on with craft beer at the moment. It’s a learning curve for everyone as we deal with the regulations. It’s a new industry and there aren’t a lot of experts. If something breaks in your brewery, you’ve got to figure out how to fix it yourself, figure out what to do. All these companies that are growing, they’re all pretty hardcore entreprenuers that are looking for a challenge and trying to create a new culture here of beer. For a 150 years, the only thing that was beer here was mass produced light lager. Changing that perception and changing people’s taste and educating people about beer and creating that culture is something that we’re all trying to do together. It’s a collaboration. Everyone’s working together, helping each other out. There’s a craft beer festival in Antigua. [Attendance was] 500 3 years ago, then 1500, then 2500. People are being very receptive to it. People are willing to try import- ed beer. People are also very excited about trying the new Guatemalan craft beers. It’s been great. There’s a ton of potential.
The key is that we have a young, vibrant craft beer culture that’s really in its infancy. We seem to have a great group of like-mind- ed entrepreneurs that are in it for the right reasons. It’s kind of more about creating a culture and educating the consumer base than anything else, which is the fun part. We get to get out there and teach people about great beer. So, it’s been great fun.