09 September 2011

The big guns

To this northern European it's a very alien drinking culture they have in Argentina. It would almost be fair to say that they don't really have one. Beer tends to be treated almost the way we treat wine: shared comunally with meals. The human need for mild psychoactive stimulation appears to be taken care of by the ever-present mate -- a ubiquitous cross between tea-drinking and pipe-smoking. In several places, a request just for beer was met with well-OK-then suspicious looks, though doubtless I could have got my mate thermos filled with hot water as a basic courtesy. On one occasion I ordered a beer while perusing the menu in a restaurant and since my wife didn't, the 33cl bottle arrived to the table with two glasses. These bizarre backward foreigners with their weird notions of beer being something to be served in large bottles and enjoyed with food. What do they know, eh?

One upshot of such practice is that big bottles are the norm for most beers, certainly the stuff the mainstream breweries produce. For some unfathomable reason 970ml is the standard measure (and cm3 is the standard unit). There's a definite thrill of the exotic when glancing through the window of a classy restaurant to see a family at table with giant mutant bottle of Stella Artois in a silver ice bucket on the side.

None of that for me though. On a cool sunny day in downtown Puerte Iguazu, however, I did partake in a big bottle of Iguana. I love the branding on this, though the beer is a very simple and thin quenching hot-country lager, designed for taking edges off thirsts and nothing else. The other biggie I met, again in Iguazu where choice was severely limited, was Palermo Ice. Quite smooth and sweet, this, in almost a Munich Helles style.

Only two servings of Quilmes Cristal passed my lips on the trip, one being in a pub which I'd been told had a great beer selection, and indeed featured well over a dozen taps, but for some reason (recent change of ownership?) was serving only Stella and Quilmes and I was too tired and thirsty to back out. It was horrible. The other was in the Iguazu Falls park itself, after a long morning of trailing about in hot sunshine we sat down for an empanada and an ice-cold Quilmes straight from the can. It was nectar. I didn't enjoy the stout or bock from the same brewery when last we met, but my curiosity was piqued by Quilmes Red Lager. It's a red-brown beer with some nice roasted flavours at first, but it gets too sickly too quickly and I resorted to draining the remains straight from the bottle, confident I wasn't missing much by way of sensory experience.

Imperial Lager I met on the terrace of an upmarket bar in the rejuvenated dockland district of Puente Madero. It looks the part, or maybe that's just because it was a nice day. A bit stronger than the usual at 5.5% ABV, it's another sweet one, expressing hints of banana ester that get louder as it sits around. But that's about it: definitely not as especial as the label would have you believe.

I'm not sure where on the macro-independent-craft spectrum the beer from Otro Mundo sits, but I'm sticking the one I had in here: Otro Mundo Golden Ale: a bold move to sell it in a half-litre bottle, I'm sure. It's very pale and quite hazy with some fun fruit tartness: a bit of apple and some light lemons. First impression is of a light and zesty ale for witbier lovers, though wait a while and there's some toffee to be found in here as well. Passable, I thought.

The brass-neck award for audacious marketing bullshit goes to Schneider, one of the major lager brands and one which makes big claims about its German heritage and standards. Featuring the signature of old Herr Schneider himself, it's brewed "according to German tradition". I caught up with it on the ferry crossing to Uruguay, where the label's fine print confessed to "cereales" of the non-malt variety, as well as stabilisers and anti-oxidants. In short it's a hideous adjunct lager: dry, dull and unpleasant. I don't think I've ever seen a beer put this much distance between what it is and what it claims to be.

And then, just like that, we were in Uruguay.


  1. This reminds us of our trips to Spain, where 90 per cent of the beer can be divided into two categories: foul and OK, if cold. Doesn't stop us looking, though.

  2. I had some Mate before I realise. I did not think that's what it was called though, I'm sure I was given a different name by the Argentine couple who gave it to me. I quite enjoyed it and they were delighted that I was willing to try it instead of regular tea.

  3. It's often called "yerba mate". I tried some that came in a teabag and it tasted exactly like green tea, but apparently that's different from the looseleaf one everyone drinks on the streets.