A $1,600 Beer (Or- a beer worth a trip) Brazil
I have a personal judging scale for beer. It goes like this: I sniff it, I take a sip. I decide whether I will finish the sample. And then I consider- would I drink a whole glass? If it’s a real competition I think- would I pay for it? Seek it out again? (As in, drive across state lines.) And finally- would I get on a plane for it? (Note that nowhere in that beer judging description was there a “check social media or beer forums to validate or second-guess my taste” step.) Which I suppose is a funny thing to point out in a blog about beer. So warning- consider the source! Because I am going to tell you about a buy-the-plane-ticket beer I found in Brazil.
I went to Brazil for a cartography conference. The International Conference on the History of Cartography, which takes place every other year in a different location. It was my first time in Brazil so I tried to learn some Portuguese but as usual figured out just enough to ask questions yet not enough to understand the answers. I read a bit about craft beer starting to take off in Brazil- but the breweries are all in places far away from the Belo Horizonte-based conference. I resigned myself to a week of non-beer imbibing.
Brazil is known for this- cachaca. Like rum, but distilled differently. Not my thing but gladly accepted as a gift. Context makes it delicious.
A few days before I left for the conference I read somewhere – and I wish I could remember where- about a brewery called Evora. I decided to visit. Which turned out to involve significant obstacles. A 30 minute taxi ride away from my hotel to a residential neighborhood where no cabs would be around to get me back; the guy behind the desk at my hotel told me quite forcefully not to go; no wifi or cell service to call a cab or Uber (even if I could speak the language) once I was there. So as I turned in for the night I made other plans to explore the hip Savassi neighborhood.
But I woke up the next day determined – after all, would I ever be here again? Since when am I an intimidated traveler? How could I travel all the way to Brazil and not visit a single brewery? No- I would go! After practicing how to insist on my plan to the hotel’s naysayer of the previous evening, he was not even at the desk that morning. I easily convinced his more accommodating replacement to ask one of the cab drivers parked out front to drop me off and pick me up three hours later from one address. (I did not meet a single English-speaking cab driver in Brazil, by the way. But if you’ve been to China, you know what to do.) This took a bit of back and forth- it was arranged. I grabbed a beer present, and off we went!
Evora is in a house on a hill in a residential neighborhood with a locked gate at street-level. The building numbers are not in order, so even the local savvy cab driver had to ask for directions. He let me out of the car facing a locked gate with no one else around. And drove away.
[Older readers- picture the scene in Madeline Khan’s debut movie “What’s Up Doc” where she is left at an intentionally wrong address- thinking she is at a secret party. And the taxi speeds away…] If you have not seen this movie- do. Your life is not complete.
As I watched my driver turn the corner out of site at the end of the street, I still had not found a way to open the gate. I said “hello?” as loud as one does among a bunch of homes on a quiet street- nothing. As a mild pre-panic warmth went through me and I imagined standing in that same spot for three hours hoping the cab would really come back, my eye caught a small blue bell and I pressed it. A head popped up at the top of the hill, and a buzzer released the painted metal mesh door. I was in!
Just as I swelled with relief that I was in, I saw a fast furry flash coming towards me from the left- a massive dog! Before I could freak out he was greeting me in that way that dogs do with humans they intuitively trust.
Who needs language? I was at ease from that moment on. All doubt, all fear left me. There is something of home in this place.
I went around back to the tiered informal patio to find people preparing to hang a pop-up art show. They were the only others outside. It was a brilliant blue sunny day. I sat on one of the half kegs that serve as chairs, pulled out my sketch book, and pointed to a beer on the menu – the house lager. I figured in a country known for serving lagers it was a good choice to start with even if I am biased against them- having grown up in the states where they’ve been ruined. Lagers are hard to do well. Nowhere to hide. It was a bit of a test- and I was pleasantly surprised. Crisp and quaffable with no off flavors. Subtle floral aftertaste. Reminded me of the pilsners of southern Germany with a bit of Czech Saaz lingering. Nice!
It was good enough for me to ask questions – which made the server quite enthusiastic. In between his broken English and my non-existent Portuguese I learned that some test batches of beer are made there, but most of the beer is brewed at a different production facility. That day they had a few on tap- including a Tripel he was keen for me to try (I usually do not care for them- too sweet for me).
These were solid, well made beers. But nothing to get on a plane for. I was enjoying that perfect early buzz- taking in the sunshine and the azul sky, watching the art show as it was mounted along the outdoor walls- maybe I was glowing. My glass was empty and the server pointed to another beer on the menu. I like to follow server recommendations and accepted before I read the description: a Rauch IPA. What? Gross! The very idea was almost a buzz-kill. Plus it was a bottled beer- ?. He poured it for me.
Beer drinkers- remember with me. Think back to that first sip of a truly special beer. When your head tries to catch up with your mouth; when your mind is racing and your lips are smiling and all previous experiences are eclipsed. It’s a lot like falling in love. Well except for the mouth part. And you think- did that really just happen? You look around to see if the rest of the world is hip to what’s going on. You want to tell someone, but are conscious of that being silly. You stammer. Your eyes well. And you drink some more. Oh. Yes.
I did not see it coming. This part is a blur- I’m pretty sure I said something inappropriately gushy because the server went to get the brewer (who I did not realize was there) I launched into further gushiness. We talked for a while. He let me write on the chalk board when he saw my sketch book.
Between my literal beer buzz and the high of unexpected pleasure I was flying. I talked to all the people hanging the show, met the artist, and bought one of his paintings. I took pictures of everything and drew a few myself. The brewer recommended a local dish called Tropeiro, an absorbing combination of beans, cornmeal, a fried egg, and pork cracklings- and I devoured it, wiping the last drops off my elated face as I was told that the taxi had returned for me.
The first thing I asked the driver was if we could do the trip again in a few days.
Which we did.
Evora’s posted hours are more like office hours than brewery hours. Which should have been a clue. My first visit was on a Friday afternoon- lots of people around. I didn’t realize it at the time- but the owners were just being nice to me showing up in the middle of the day while they were working. My second visit- to pick up my artwork and more beer- was in the middle of the week and the place was quiet. No regrets! I drank more amazing beer, got more bottles to take home, and picked up my art. And- got a local’s welcome? Local cheese was involved. And a special last beer.
Which is to say this beer – the Rauch IPA- must be drunk in context. It is extraordinary on its own- a gold medal in any competition. (Heads up, 2018 World Beer Cup!) But to get the full experience you can’t just have it anywhere- you must come here – to Brazil. There is something extra – some mysterious enhancement to the flavor when you drink it with a rescued and grateful dog, an expressive young artist, a sincere and passionate brewer, a sky this blue, a new lover… it’s a sensory overload rush in every sip. And there you have it. A beer worth getting on a plane for.
Below are the details of this and other places to find beer in Belo Horizonte. If you go, they’re all good- but only one is worth the price of the plane ticket from Boston.
Evora (Their website is annoyingly only on F book, which I will not promote)
R. Carlos Frederico Campos, 170 – Ouro Preto
Belo Horizonte – MG, 31310-400, Brazil
They suggested I go to this place, which had okay beer. http://www.cervejariasatira.com.br
This place was in walking distance of the conference and had perfectly good beer.
And finally, the best bar to gather – where professional map geeks from Amsterdam, England, Colombia, New Zealand, China, Sweden, and more- drank ALL the beer each and every night that week, is a place that is everyone’s fantasy: A book store that is also a bar. Cafe con letras.
(No photos because of course everything that happened there stays in our heads, not on our phones. I hope.)