The Bogotá Beer Company’s brewery sits 40 kilometers from Lake Guatavita, the gorgeous Andean waterhole many believe spawned the Legend of El Dorado. Countless conquistadors died trying to find gold rumored to reside in this lake, but it took just over a decade to turn gold-colored beer into a fortune.
Bogotá Beer Company breaks new beer ground
Berny Silberwasser founded the Bogotá Beer Company (BBC) in 2002. Craft beer didn’t exist in Colombia at that time, but an entrepreneurial drive and passion for beer has since forged a 27-bar empire. The world’s largest beermaker, Anheuser-Busch Inbev purchased BBC in May.
The corporation’s distribution muscle is invaluable, and expanding will be easier.
“You are going to see us improving and increasing quality more and more,” said Silberwasser. “They have so much experience with craft beers. They are Belgians and Brazilians, and in Belgium they have the best beers in the world.”
Beer has always come first for Berny. He studied business in his hometown of Cali and having always loved beer, he saw vast opportunity in a country that lacked choice.
He saw vast opportunity in a country that lacked choice
Berny had confidence in his beer, but that and English pub decor alone weren’t going to sell it to Colombians — especially when the product was black and red at a time when lager was all anyone knew.
It didn’t help that a grenade was thrown into his first bar not long after it opened. The assailant hadn’t targeted the company, but it hurt business.
“It has been a tough ride,” said Berny. “We tried to recuperate right away. We opened the next day and we got a lot of help from the community.”
Another hurdle was consistency. Berny believed craft brew drinkers in the United States were loyal and would forgive a bad batch. But Bogotá consumers expected beer to always taste the same, so even the adventurous willing to try a porter were repelled if a pour tasted odd.
So he tested extensively from the start and within two years invested in a proper laboratory. Many mid-sized U.S. breweries don’t bother with a lab, says Berny, but it was critical because people didn’t compare BBC to other craft brews. They compared it to monopolistic consistency.
“Bavaria, yeah, they make mainstream beers – but theirs are the same beer all the time,” he said. “So we needed to get to that level.”
Another way to curate beer culture was BBC’s decision to open “Bodegas.” These stripped-down bars are meant to resemble tiendas, the ubiquitous small stores where men gather to drink cheap beer, watch football, and pass time on plastic patio chairs.
“Most of the beer in Colombia is drunk in the tiendas,” said Berny. “This is the BBC answer to tiendas.”
Bodegas have become a bigger part of the company’s expansion in recent years, and future plans will focus on getting better beer to more people.
“We can open pubs, we can open bodegas, we can distribute to more places, we can do more beer styles,” he said. “All this is part of creating beer culture in Colombia.”
After all these years, that remains his focus. The company he calls “the biggest small brewery of Bogotá” just got a lot bigger. But regardless of how big the bankroll is behind BBC, Berny is still driven by what got him in this business.
“People need diversity,” said Berny. “People need other beer styles.”
3 Cordilleras puts Medellin on the map
3 Cordilleras founder Juanchi Velez’s life plans changed on a bar stool. A Medellín native, he got married and moved to the United States in 1996 to study English.
“In theory, me and my wife were coming back to Colombia in a year or two,” he said. But one sip of beer in an Atlanta pub set him on a new course.
“One day,” said Juanchi, “I was there and I had a beer that was completely different from the beers I had tried in Colombia…I was in love.”
Previously, he had only known Bavaria brands like Club Colombia and Aguila. “All those lagers, but nothing else,” said Juanchi. “There were no dark beers. No flavorful beers.”
“All those lagers, but nothing else. There were no dark beers. No flavorful beers.”
He brought his new love to school, focusing class projects on his new dream to start a craft brewery in Colombia while pursuing an MBA at Kennesaw State University. After graduation, he showed up at SweetWater Brewing Company, which is now one of the biggest craft breweries in the U.S. At the time, however, it was a seven-month-old startup with no available jobs.
Juanchi wasn’t leaving empty handed, though, so he offered to work for five months for free as long as the brewmaster taught him about beer. Five unpaid months learning the art and business of brewing turned into five years of employment.
He learned the entire business and loved the company, but he still wanted his own brewery in his own country. So he took a trip to Medellin to find investors. “Everybody said, ‘You’re crazy, stay there. Don’t be stupid. That’s the worst idea ever.’”
Berny was founding BBC around the same time, but this was unbeknownst to Juanchi. So he listened to his sensible-sounding hometown friends and stayed in Atlanta — for a while anyway. A few years later, home still beckoned and the brewery dream wouldn’t die.
Juanchi moved back for good and found 45 people willing to invest a total of more than $2 million. His brewery opened in 2008 with the name 3 Cordilleras after the three ranges of the Andes that trisect Colombia.
Eight years later, the company is thriving, but the success wasn’t immediate.
“All of our plans were expecting sales to go up quicker,” said Juanchi. “Right now, we are doing really well. However, if we look at our business plan, what we are doing today, we thought we were going to do in year four.”
Though BBC had popularized craft beer in Bogotá, there wasn’t a large market in Medellin. Price was one barrier to sales. Some liked the new styles, but they were a novelty, something few would buy for $1 when a Bavaria lager cost 33 cents.
“If you combine that with the fact that the flavor is not something they are used to,” said Juanchi, “those are the two main challenges that we really have to battle constantly.”
The last two years have been smoother. One milestone came in 2013 when the company struck a deal with El Corral, a fastfood burger chain with over 200 locations — plus several bars.
“That gave us a huge opportunity to grow, especially in Bogotá,” said Juanchi. They increased sales by 60% in 2014 and finally reached other large markets.
3 Cordilleras is now available in bars and supermarkets throughout the capital, where the company does 47% of its sales.
Along with his own brewery’s rise, Juanchi has seen the country’s taste shift. “The whole thing is changing dramatically,” he said.
“I remember seven years ago, you go to a bar and they have no idea what you’re talking about when we were trying to sell to them. Now, in Medellin, we distribute our beer to more than 800 clients.”
He knows that all the craft breweries in the country combined still make up just 1% of the market. But he finds it interesting that even Colombia’s king of beers is embracing people’s new preferences.
“You look at what’s going on with Bavaria, even though I don’t like those beers that much, at least they are making a dark beer and a red beer now,” said Juanchi. “That makes a big difference for people, culture-wise. It’s like, ‘Oh, these guys say that beer could be black? Maybe these 3 Cordilleras and BBC guys aren’t so crazy.’”
Statua Rota’s punk invasion
Alejandro could have died. If he was standing in front of the tank when it exploded, the pressure that sent the vat’s metal door flying would have killed him. Fortunately, he had finished his shift at 2 in the morning, so the 5 am blast only tore a giant hole in the wall — not Statua Rota’s head brewer.
“I was right in front of the fermenter,” said Alejandro Torres Cuervo. “It could have cut me right in half.”
Alejandro, his brother Misaac, and his other “brother” Kiro (not blood related) had only opened their first bar in Bogotá’s Chapinero neighborhood three months earlier. So while the February 2014 accident was not deadly, it was catastrophic to the business. “We lost everything,” said Misaac.
The accident was an incredible setback in a long journey that started when Alejandro went off into the jungle. His botanist girlfriend was going to study at a the biological reserve, and he went along.
He wasn’t looking for beer. He didn’t even know anything about beer. But Alejandro met a Belgian in the bush who taught him the fine arts of brewing.
His brother was far away in London getting a different beer education. Misaac was studying for an MBA and took a bar back job at a local pub. He learned how to change a tap, and then discovered wine, cocktails, and restaurant culture.
But when he lost his work visa — London was too expensive to be unemployed — it was back to Bogotá, where Alejandro wouldn’t shut up about his new beer obsession. They convinced their dad to buy them rudimentary equipment and started brewing in Alejandro’s kitchen, where they made what he calls “a lot of messy beers and beautiful mistakes.”
Misaac is less kind. “It wasn’t beer,” he said. “It still gets you drunk, but it wasn’t right. It was so, so bitter. It was extremely painful. We had to throw most of it away.”
Eventually the recipe became drinkable. They made a few barrels at a time, selling to people putting on small parties, events, or gallery openings and making just enough to buy ingredients for the next batch. But they had to get out of the kitchen and a family farmhouse not far outside Bogotá was perfect — until they blew it up.
“We all had this punk, do-it-yourself philosophy,” said Alejandro. They were having fun, but to get to a level beyond selling kegs, they had to raise capital and refine their beer. “We can be punks,” said Alejandro, “but we also have to be nerds.”
This nerd work led to their signature Mirla stout and a 150-page business plan. Combined, it was enough to get enough money to open Statua Rota. It is their baby. They see the location, with its hand-made tables, wood walls, and eclectic artwork, as more than just another bar or pub.
It is instead a tavern, they say. And while the distinction may be lost on some, it is meaningful for owners trying to offer the community a distraction-free environment — absolutely no televisions — to enjoy real conversations.
“You can down three beers to move your tongue, but you have to be you.”
“When you come to Statua Rota, you have to be clever, you have to use your brain,” said Misaac. “You can down three beers to move your tongue, but you have to be you. This is something we’ve lost in society.”
They also want to show people that beer isn’t just about getting drunk and partying. There is a place for that — Alejandro admits to drinking Aquila sometimes — but you can also have a beer while you work. You can pair beer with meals. Alejandro even wants to organize a runner’s group where you drink a beer then run for awhile and end back at the tavern.
As much as anything, they want to show people how easy it is to make beer. Making great beer and starting a business, they know firsthand, is not simple, but they encourage home-brewing.
To support the community, they keep beers made by other small brewers on tap. Locals, like those who make Tomahawk and Yggdrasil, now view Statua Rota as a welcoming spot to sell a few barrels.
For such a lifestyle-focused establishment, Statua Rota isn’t a bad business either. Alejandro says growth has been faster than expected, even with the major setback after the explosion. Sales have been good enough that they are contemplating a second location.
More than money, their concern is remaining smart about expansion. They are still self-proclaimed punks who care less for profit margins than providing a relaxed place to drink good beer.
“We just want to keep our philosophical stuff close,” said Alejandro. “Our heart is our product.”
Growth is coming, however, and the owners are equal parts nervous and excited. What was once a clubhouse to “drink on your own beer” and have a boss-free job that your friends envy is becoming a real business.
The art of beer-making and the camaraderie of the tavern are still what make them smile when they wake up in the morning, but they know things are changing in a way. “We know that if we want our business to grow up, we have to grow up,” said Misaac.
They aren’t planning to change much though. They plan to always stay true to their do-it-yourself ethos even if their loftiest aspirations do come true. “I want to open a Statua Rota in Tokyo,” said Alejandro. “One per country. You have to be realistic. But you have to dream.”